One hundred years ago today Clara Immerwahr Haber, whose story inspired my novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, killed herself with her husband’s service revolver. In honor of her life, I’m reposting the essay I wrote for Omnivoracious, but with the original last two paragraphs, which were edited out, restored.
“Saving Clara” by Judith Claire Mitchell
In the wee hours of May 2, 1915, one hundred years ago this spring, a shy housewife in a suburb of Berlin stepped into her garden and, lifting her husband’s service revolver, shot herself through the heart. Discovered by her twelve-year-old son, she died several hours later, at which point her husband, a renowned chemist and a captain in the Kaiser’s army named Fritz Haber, headed off to rejoin the battlefields of WWI. The twelve-year-old was left to bury her.
This century-old suicide lies at the heart of my new novel A Reunion of Ghosts. In the novel it’s a character called Iris Alter who takes her life in the garden. But Iris is closely based on the historical figure who actually pulled the trigger: Clara Immerwahr Haber.
I call Clara Haber a historical figure even though, for the longest time, history ignored her. When I first encountered the story of her death, I could find virtually nothing about her life. She was a footnote to Fritz Haber’s story, her death assumed to be a selfless protest of his development and advocacy of the first poison gas used in warfare. I suspected there was more to her suicide than pure protest, but I found nothing to support my skepticism. As a frustrated historian had noted, “Her life and death have been pushed aside.”
In the absence of biography, I began the work of the novelist, creating a fictional character based on what little I knew of her. But then a funny thing happened. Whenever I stopped writing to do a little research, I’d discover another, then another new article about her. Others it seemed were as fascinated with Clara as I was. Gradually a multi-dimensional woman began to coalesce.
Born into a society that prohibited women from attending universities, Clara Haber had become the first woman to earn a PhD in chemistry from the University of Breslau. Raised in a culture where women wore hobble skirts and corsets, Clara favored loose-fitting reformkleide that permitted freedom of movement. Relegated to the role of housewife, Clara nonetheless collaborated on Fritz Haber’s early work, all the while caring for an ailing son. She also did every bit of housework herself, including throwing the frequent and elaborate dinner parties her husband demanded. Her feminist convictions prevented her from employing other women as servants.
Reading these articles I was also struck by an ancillary fact: virtually all that I read about her—and later a new book—had been written by women. Later men would join in, some writing plays featuring Clara, but first came the women to rescue Clara from Fritz Haber’s shadow at long last. Second-wave feminists were reaching back in time to champion a first-wave feminist who’d paved the way for them.
Spotlights expose blemishes as well as accomplishments. The notion that Clara Haber died a purely symbolic death has now been complicated by revelations of a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, depression, and, indeed, suicide. These inherited proclivities were passed to her descendants. The twelve-year-old who found his mother in the garden would kill himself in his mid-forties. One of his daughters would kill herself too.
The story of Iris Alter in A Reunion of Ghosts is not Clara Haber’s story, but it is informed by that story. In the novel three sisters who descend from a family much like the Habers find themselves shouldering a legacy of shame due to their great-grandfather’s poison gas work and a conviction that they will become part of the pattern of suicides that began with their great-grandmother’s. A Reunion of Ghosts is the sisters’ suicide note, filled with wry humor, philosophical musings, a few twists and turns, but, above all, a consideration of how family shapes us.
But while we are all members of families, we are also all individuals. The individual who was Clara Immerwahr Haber can no longer be viewed as a footnote to a man’s story. If, in the very end, she gave up on life, she spent most of her life doing quite the opposite. She fought successfully for an education. She fought, unsuccessfully, for a career. She fought for other women.
She once even chased down her own mugger. And these days, that’s the image that stays with me. Not the defeated woman dying among spring flowers, but the determined woman wearing a practical, loose-fitting dress. I imagine her taking long, unencumbered strides, catching up to him, ripping her purse from his hands.
I imagine her taking back that which was hers. I imagine her saving herself.