Else Jerusalem and Vienna’s prostitutes

In 1908 Else Jerusalem wrote an exposé of prostitution in Vienna, a runaway best seller. Translated into English in 1932, it is almost nowhere to be found now.

I heard of her watching a BBC program on Vienna (‘Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities’), the only woman featured from this study of Vienna in this incredible year of 1908. A year which epitomised the key role Vienna was playing in the shaping of modernity. Freud first discovered the Oedipus Complex, Klimt had a major exhibition, the launch also of expressionist artists Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Shiele, the first example of modernist architecture by  Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg and musical modernism, the mayor Lueger’s antisemitism (“I will decide who is a Jew” he said) picked up by a young Adolf Hitler.

Only one woman.

She came near the end, with a much appreciated look beneath the glamour, the dark underside of the pomp and bright lights (darker even than the malaise and immensely high number of suicides). We get one fascinating and brief look at Else Jerusalem, and the 50,000 prostitutes of the city.

Denied a place at university as a woman, Jerusalem conducted her own research and wrote a book called the Red House on the treatment of women and prostitution during the height of imperial Vienna. A best-seller, reprinted multiple times. From a middle-class Jewish family, she wrote other books and articles but almost nothing is known about her, and there seems to have been one English translation of in 1932. The Open Library says this:

A shattering exposé of prostitution in Vienna, published in 1908, it lifted the lid on the hypocrisy of polite Society and the miserable suffering inflicted on powerless women, who frequently were subject to severe abuse, venereal disease, near slavery and a drastically reduced life-span. Factual/investigative journalism.

The Spectator of 23 September 1932 said this:

THE RED HOUSE. By Else Jerusalem. (Werner Laurie. 7s. 6d.)

Readers who can stomach the subject of this novel will find it exceedingly well done. Those who cannot (the theme is prostitution) are advised to leave it alone.

I looked for her. All I could find was this:


E. J. (geb. Kotányi), geb. am 23. November 1876 in Wien, stammt aus bürgerlich-jüdischer Familie ungarischer Herkunft. Sie genießt eine höhere Bildung und gehört zu den ersten außerordentlichen Hörerinnen der Philosophischen Fakultät der Universität Wien. Anschließend betätigt sie sich als „Vortragskünstlerin“ und Schriftstellerin. Bereits in jungen Jahren widmet sie sich dem brisanten Thema der weiblichen Sexualität („Venus am Kreuz“, „Komödie der Sinne“). Die 1902 erscheinende Broschüre „Gebt uns die Wahrheit“ beschäftigt sich mit der Vorbereitung junger Mädchen auf die Ehe, wobei E. J. vehement für sexuelle Aufklärung eintritt. 1909 erscheint ihr fast 700 Seiten starker Bestseller-Roman “Der heilige Skarabäus”. Sein Inhalt ist für eine Schriftstellerin der Jahrhundertwende skandalös und ein Tabu-Bruch: er handelt im Bordell-Milieu. 1901 heiratet sie in erster Ehe den Fabrikanten Alfred Jerusalem, mit dem sie zwei Kinder hat. Nach der Scheidung geht sie eine zweite Ehe mit Viktor Widakowich ein und geht mit ihm nach Argentinien, wo sie ethnologische Studien betreibt und vermutlich 1942 stirbt. Über ihr Leben nach der Emigration ist leider sehr wenig bekannt.

I don’t speak German. So this is a bookmark to dig deeper.

Also mentioned, and also to look into deeper, was the fascinating study by photographer Hermann Drawe and journalist Emil Kläger from 1900: ‘The Third Men / Living in the sewers’. Pictures turned into lectures showing the misery of hundreds (thousands?) of people living underground. Reminds me of the people from New York’s subways written about in Tunnel People, that I helped translate and edit, and the film Dark Days. Portraits of a bankrupt society.

© Hermann Drawe, ca. 1900, ‘The Third Men / Living in the sewers’, Vienna / Austria Vienna, around 1900

For more on women and struggle…




32 thoughts on “Else Jerusalem and Vienna’s prostitutes”

  1. Else Jerusalem was my great grandmother, and my mum and I have been trying to find out more about her since the programme went out. If you’re interested, I can give you the few articles and archive material that we have.

    After writing the book, she separated from her husband and remarried, which forced her and her new husband to emigrate to Argentina. She lived there until she died, although she travelled back to Europe quite often. On one of her boat trips back, she met Albert Einstein, and corresponded with him for several years afterwards.

    There was a film made of the book in 1929 called The Green Alley (in German, Die Rothausgasse).

    1. This is amazing! I would love love love to read more, if it isn’t too much trouble to send things, you can email me direct to figure it out at comical.y.que@gmail.com. You’ve inspired me to see what I can do to get something written properly and with research, and maybe see if there is a possibility of publishing a new translation of the book so I’ve started the wheels rolling, though it’s not quite my area! The film looks wonderful too, Gustav Fröhlich! Oskar Homolka! My partner works on film and literature and he got very enthusiastic very quickly there…

      This really has made our weekend though. Thank you for getting in touch!

      1. Hi! I am looking for EJ’s “The red house” too, but i can’t find it anywhere. I am from Romania, and i get no info about EJ here… where can i buy the book, do you have any idea? Please leave a reply if you can! Thanks!
        I like this article!

    2. Hi. I’m living in Vienna and on the look out for your great grand mothers book. She was a very brave and intelligent lady of her time.
      Let’s stay in touch

    3. Miguel dearest, my name is Elisa and I am an Italian theater director. I’m working on some new female figures in ‘900 have written, photographed, described the society of their time, starting from the invisible. I discovered the figure of your great-grandmother that I find astonishing forerunner of his time, both on the analysis sociological narrative, both to lifestyle choices. I would like to reconstruct a portrait of her to make a play. Unfortunately there is no material. That says a lot about the times we are living. I am increasingly convinced that, even more so, we must tell the story of this wonderful woman and highlight his novel. I hope you can help me. You’re my only hope (Italic emphasis!) My email is: eli_roson@yahoo.it
      I hope to receive your news soon!
      Thank you

    4. Thanks for posting Miguel The search for a copy of your grandmothers book has just begun wish me luck
      How’s your research going best of luck to you and Mum

    5. Hello Miguel – I am looking far and wide for a copy of this book in English, do you happen to have any leads as to where it can be located? Very much appreciate your time. Thank you.

    6. Miguel,
      I can translate your Grandmother Elsa Jerusalem’s book. Formally I am a Germanist, and my work has been on women wrote about sexual violence through fiction.
      It would be a tremendous honor to translate _Der heilige Skarabäus_ into contenporary American English.
      You can reach me here: stephanie.ortega7@gmail.com
      So very thankful to hear from you!

    7. Hello Miguel, this is an old post, but I though I would give it a try: I’m trying to do some more research about Else Jerusalem. Would you by any chance be interested in helping me with some suggestions?

    1. it is the right title (the German version) but the contents are wrong! Internet archive mix-up…what you can read is really the Truth’s evangel by Codelia Leonard. Nothing like as exciting.

    1. There was a translation done of it in 1929, but I have been unable to track down a copy sadly! The one in the British Library is missing…

    2. There appear to be a few copies at the academic libraries. I am going to try and borrow one. My research librarian friend says they may not readily lend them out, but it is worth a try. I hope someone makes a digital copy (PDF) assuming that it is legal to do so…. the german text is very difficult to read. http://www.worldcat.org/title/red-house/oclc/3876914

  2. I just watched ‘Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities’ on Netflix last night and have been google-ing Else Jerusalem and The Red House all morning. I came across this blog in my search. I just put out some feelers to some rare book stores. I’ll come back here and if I find anything and I will come back and check here if there is any progress in the search. I’m glad to see other people are searching for this book.

  3. Hello! I don’t know how often I tried to leave a comment during the past months… and it never worked because all my comments to whichever wordpress blog went straight to the spam folder for some weird reason (I maybe write five comments a month, at most!). Let’s hope that the problem is solved now!

    I just wished to let you know that I wrote a review of The Red House by Else Jerusalem on my book blog Edith’s Miscellany at http://edith-lagraziana.blogspot.com/2016/05/red-house-by-else-jerusalem.html. It might be helpful to convince a publisher that a new edition and English translation is already overdue. As you will see, a new German edition has just come out.

  4. You made some really awesome observations. I didn’t even think about the lack of female representation in this series. Definitely gonna rewatch for a closer look at this.

    I am also writing about this documentary series (although mine is more of a summary of each episode). I linked your post to the bullet point on Else Jerusalem because everyone should know about her groundbreaking work!

  5. E. J. (née Kotányi), b. on November 23, 1876 in Vienna, comes from bourgeois-Jewish family of Hungarian origin. She enjoys a higher education and is one of the first extraordinary listeners of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Vienna. Subsequently, she works as a “performance artist” and writer. Already at a young age she is dedicated to the controversial topic of female sexuality (“Venus on the Cross”, “Comedy of the Senses”). The 1902 publication “Give Us the Truth” deals with the preparation of young girls for marriage, where E. J. vehemently advocates sexual education. In 1909 she published the almost 700 pages strong bestselling novel “The Holy Scarab”. Its content is scandalous for a turn-of-the-century writer and a taboo break: it acts in the brothel milieu. In 1901 she married in first marriage the manufacturer Alfred Jerusalem, with whom she has two children. After the divorce, she enters into a second marriage with Viktor Widakovich and goes with him to Argentina, where she conducts ethnological studies and probably dies in 1942. Unfortunately, very little is known about her life after emigration.

    1. Thanks so much! Her family in Argentina have been in touch, if only I spoke German I would totally work on a bio 🙂

  6. I too am desperate to find a copy of this intriguing book in English but cannot find a successful lead. Anyone having any luck in finding the book?

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