Homeless, unrecognised, yet admired

Some thought she was a lazy woman because she did not want to work in the fields. Others thought she was a progressive thinker. Augusta Bender was born in Schefflenz in the Neckar-Odenwald-Kreis district in 1846. She never received the recognition she sought during her lifetime. But since 2020, a museum in her birthplace has been telling the story of the writer, animal rights activist and women’s rights campaigner and has been raising the question what we can learn from her today.

Who was Augusta Bender? Georg Fischer does not have to think long before he answers. “You shouldn’t pin her down to one thing,” he prefaces, then gets going: a farmer’s daughter, failed actress, telegrapher, private teacher, traveller across America, author and explorer of folk songs. The pensioner with the bushy eyebrows lists all the activities Augusta pursued while he stands in front of a photo showing the young writer holding a cat in her arms and laughing. The protection of animals was as close to her heart as women’s rights. “However, she was not a revolutionary, she was a conservative woman.” In the village she was considered a “lazy woman” because she fought for education instead of working in the fields. Her works were not recognised and so she almost starved to death.

One woman, many facets. The museum explores issues that were close to Augusta Bender’s heart.

It is these contradictions that fascinate Georg about Augusta Bender. It is largely thanks to him that there is a small museum in her birthplace Oberschefflenz commemorating her today. He discovered the misunderstood writer in 1989 and gradually brought her out of obscurity. He and a few like-minded people founded the Augusta Bender literature museum club in 2017, which has 75 members in the meantime. Three years later, the museum opened in the former land registry office in the middle of the municipality of 1,500 residents near Mosbach. It is one of about 100 literary museums, archives and memorials in Baden-Württemberg. One of the few dedicated to a woman.

Georg Fischer saved the writer from being lost to posterity.

Augusta Bender’s life began a couple of streets down from here in 1846. She was born the sixth child of a peasant family. Her mother told her legends and stories, and Augusta became enthusiastic about literature at an early age. At the age of nine, she published a poem in the Odenwälder Boten Gazette and was, from then on, eager for education and for leaving the village. At 16, she ran away for the first time, tried her hand at acting in Mannheim—and failed. This wasn’t to be the only time. She lost her savings years later in the attempt to start a language school in Heidelberg. Even though she was a trained teacher and spoke four languages, she was unable to find a job in Germany. And also as a writer, she was denied the recognition she sought for the rest of her life.

Unjustly so, Georg thinks. “Augusta was a bit ahead of her time. Today one would say she was a highly gifted person.” He discovered the writer when he moved to Schefflenz at the end of the 1980s. At that time she had almost been forgotten. Originally from Franconia, Georg studied literature, among other subjects, in Munich, Karlsruhe and Berlin. He lived in Mannheim for ten years, was a house husband and a German teacher for a while, “more of a side hustle,” as he explains with a smile. “Basically, I see myself as an adult educator.” When he arrived in Oberschefflenz, he went to the community library for literature about the village. “One year later, I gave my first course on Augusta at the adult education centre in Mosbach.”

Georg Fischer wants to make Augusta Bender’s work accessible for more people again.

He quickly became fascinated by the topics she dealt with even more than by her literary skills: “She was not a revolutionary, but certainly wrote revolutionary things.” She railed against the corset and demanded that it be dropped down together with ‘all wrong ways of life and education’ as early as in the 1870s. She stipulated that everyone has the right to develop their personality. And then there is the story of the owl: As a child, Augusta watched a barn owl being nailed alive to a barn door—a common practice at the time—as a protection against misfortune and epidemics. This was a traumatic experience for her. She came to terms with them in her auto-fictional novel Der Kampf ums höhere Dasein (The struggle for higher existence):

Has the schoolmaster ever said that you must not nail owls to the barn door, (…) or torture cats, or flay horses? And if he has not (…): Why then does one (…) need to go to church?

Augusta Bender

Throughout her life, Augusta campaigned for animal protection, did not eat meat and published Die Macht des Mitleids (The power of compassion) in 1910. The novel describes the fate of a dog that was used for animal experiments. For Georg, it is her most important work: “Her philosophical side, which shines through everywhere, is particularly evident in this one.”

The club has reissued some of her books to make her work accessible to more people. This includes the novella Sorle, die Lumpenfrau (Sorle, the woman in rags), which Georg recommends as an introduction. Die Macht des Mitleids (The power of pity) would be the next one to read; and then, perhaps, Kulturbilder (Cultural images), a collection of short stories about Oberschefflenz. Excerpts from these works are exhibited in the museum, which is open every Sunday afternoon from the beginning of March to the end of November. With photos, quotations, books, other objects and a film, the museum retraces Augusta’s extraordinary path, which first led her out of her village, later to the USA and finally back to Germany.

Augusta Bender made forays into the wider world, yet constantly looked for a home.

“Our goal is not only to consider Augusta’s literary work in historical terms, but rather link it to current literary and socio-cultural issues,” Georg explains, because many of the themes of her life are still relevant: women, animal protection and the search for a home, for example. Large display cases with pictures and texts invite visitors to look for connections between her world and today’s world. Events for visitors are held regularly—such as the ‘shared readings,’ where participants first read together and then talk about what they have read. By the way, in a mirrored cabinet in the entrance area, Augusta (or rather: the club) recommends a contemporary literary work.

Augusta died impoverished in a retirement home in Mosbach in 1924. Opinions differ as to whether she was bitter or reconciled. She never married—out of conviction—although she longed for security and peace early on. With the literature museum, Georg and his allies want to help her achieve the fame she sought throughout her life, posthumously at least.



Tips for excursions and interesting stories about the Rhine-Neckar region can be found regularly in our newsletter.

And this is how it works: Enter your e-mail address in the field and click subscribe. You will then receive an automatically generated message to the e-mail address you entered, which you only need to confirm. Done!