Bringing Lena Back to Life | Summer 2021 Issue | TU Magazine

Known as AMB to friends, he was the grandson of renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn
and grew up amidst a glittering crowd of arts luminaries like Johannes Brahms, Clara
Schumann and Ethel Smyth, a composer and suffragist with whom he shared a strong belief
in women’s rights.

During his youth, he produced drawings, poetry, theater pieces, libretti, piano transcriptions
and songs; appeared in piano duets with his cousin Nini Volz; and sang folksongs accompanied
by his aunt on piano. Along with a friend, AMB published Schmetterlinge (Butterflies), nearly 200 pages of poetry about unrequited love and musings on nature. The volume
horrified his relatives, who felt he had disrespected the Mendelssohn reputation by
not using a pen name. 

His uncle Adolph Wach, a top jurist in Germany at the turn of the century, encouraged
AMB to take up a law career. Despite wanting to follow in his famous grandfather’s
footsteps, AMB heeded his uncle’s advice: “If you become a musician, you will always
be compared with your famous grandfather and never judged on your own merits.” AMB
eventually became a law professor, first at the University of Leipzig and then at
the University of Würzburg.

After just eight semesters, Schoch earned a doctorate in 1920 with her thesis on English
war legislation and joined AMB at the University of Hamburg. Colleague Fritz Morstein
Marx later described their relationship as having an intuitive sense for one another.
Schoch was involved in nearly all AMB’s professional plans and projects, including
the Institut für Auswärtige Politik (Institute of Foreign Politics), the first institute
dedicated to international peace studies worldwide. 

Schoch’s work there was largely done in her free time since she was not an official
employee. She had her own career achievements to keep her busy. 

In 1927, Schoch was designated an official observer to the proceedings dealing with
Germany’s World War I reparations at the International Court in De Hague—where AMB
served as a judge—in what later became known as the Dawes Plan. Her four-volume, annotated
translation of the court’s decisions soon followed, a document of which she once said,
“I can only warn non-lawyers against reading [it].”

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Schoch was also a member of the editorial team of the journal Europäische Dialog, in which she published and supervised many essays, reviews and bibliographies; a
board member of the Society of Friends of the United States and editor of the Hamburg-Amerika-Post (after 1931, the Amerika-Post); and head of the new America-Bibliothek (American Library).

In 1931, Schoch founded and presided over Hamburg’s first 10 Zonta clubs—a women’s
leadership organization much like the Rotary Club. A year later, she made history
as the first German woman to complete a postdoctoral thesis and qualify to teach university-level
law, after a unanimous vote of the faculty.

White woman and man standing together in a black and white photo
Lena Schoch and Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy in the 1920s.

Despite the looming shadow of Nazi rule, his burgeoning law career and the fact his
feelings for Schoch were unrequited, AMB continued to produce poetry and love songs
that he dedicated to his protegee. Roughly one-third of his surviving, completed songs
were created—and gifted to Schoch—from 1930–34.

AMB began lecturing across the United States in 1927, and, on his last tour in 1933,
surprised his audiences by urging them not to jump to conclusions about Adolph Hitler
and the Nazis, saying Germany didn’t want another war so soon. But just months after
returning to Hamburg, he lost his position and his pension under the “Law for the
Restoration of Professional Civil Service,” which stripped anyone with Jewish ancestry
of jobs, money and status. 

That same year Schoch’s nephew and godson Lennie Cuje was born. She attended his birth
in Giessen on Jan. 1, and insisted he be baptized immediately, “‘before,’ as she said,
‘the Browns catch me,’” he remembers. The Brown Shirts was the colloquial name of
the Sturmabteilung, the National Socialist German Works’ party’s paramilitary arm
that played a large role in Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.

Cuje remembers Schoch visiting several more times, including once after the family
had moved to Frankfurt. 


“I still have a very clear memory of that visit. We arranged chairs to make a ‘steamer.’
She was the stoker, and I was the captain on our way to America.”

About 3 or 4 years old at the time, he had no idea how prescient the make-believe

A year after Cuje’s birth, AMB, his wife and their two adopted daughters emigrated
to England, where he took a senior fellowship at Oxford University’s Balliol College.

Schoch remained in contact with her mentor, even as other friends and colleagues disavowed
him to ingratiate themselves with the increasingly powerful Nazi party. She even dedicated
a series of publications to AMB in 1934, when many others were erasing Jewish colleagues
from their articles.
But Schoch quickly realized her position at the university was tenuous. She faced
a direct threat from the university administration because of her steadfast refusal
to abandon AMB even after he died of stomach cancer in 1936, devastating her.

In an undated family history, Schoch reflected, “One Friday morning in 1936, I received
a wire notifying me that Professor Mendelssohn had suddenly died in Oxford. I’m not
going to dwell on my feelings at this blow. I called the head of the faculty, told
him the fact and that I could not attend the faculty meeting the next day because
I was going to England for the funeral. 
He was practically speechless. ‘Do you think
this is wise? I’ll have to notify the university.’ Which he did and was told that
this trip might have serious consequences for me. I told him I was not interested
and asked him to cancel my lectures for the following week. 

“I rushed to England by the night boat and caught a train in time to attend the funeral
and spend a day with AMB’s family. I found out that not one of his German colleagues
nor his former university had sent even a token of sympathy.”  

Although Schoch received no direct punishment upon her return, her professional life
became increasingly isolated. 

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In the same family history, Schoch wrote, “I cut off my connection with the Institut
für Auswärtige Politik and restricted myself to teaching ‘non-political’ subjects.
My office was a small annex to the university, where I could avoid contact with the
Nazi administration. But one day we received a notice from the administration ‘permitting’
every teacher and employee to apply for membership in the party. 

“The professor who was my superior at that time called me into his office in great
agitation. He was not a Nazi but a remnant of the conservative party, and he was quite
upset. ‘My God, what shall I do? What are you doing, Dr. Schoch?’ ‘Me,’ I said, ‘I’ve
thrown the notice in my waste basket.’ ‘But what about our future? I cannot live if
I’m not permitted to teach!’ ‘Well, professor, that’s your problem.’ So he signed
on the dotted line. I, of course, did not, and strange to say, nothing happened to

Her refusal to join the party was, as she noted, “professional suicide,” and on June
28, 1937, Schoch submitted her resignation and began thinking of emigrating at the
age of 40. She sold her household goods and had her life insurance paid out, giving
the proceeds to her mother, who had lived with her since 1930, and set sail for America. 

After five years at Harvard, Schoch moved to Washington, D.C., in 1943 to work as
an expert on German law for the Office of Economic Warfare, where she contributed
to the legal preparation of the U.S. post-war occupation policy. When that office
disbanded in 1946, she began a 20-year career as an expert on international and foreign
law in the U.S. Department of Justice. Numerous large cases are associated with her
name, and in 1952, she was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar.

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