Saturday 15. August 2020
#148 - April 2012


Hildegard Burjan – a European woman and politician


On 29 January 2012 in Vienna, social pioneer and politician Hildegard Burjan was beatified in a solemn yet simple ceremony. Outside Austria, the name of Hildegard Burjan is little known – but her life and work deserve to be recognised throughout Europe.


Her life’s journey

Hildegard Burjan was born in Görlitz in 1883 into a middle-class, non-practising Jewish family. Due to work commitments, the family moved to Berlin and finally to Zurich, where Hildegard studied philosophy and Germanic philology. Shortly before graduating in 1907, she married Alexander Burjan, also of Jewish descent, and moved with him to Berlin.

A severe illness in 1908-09 brought her to the brink of death. Abandoned by her doctors, she recovered at Easter 1909 in an inexplicable and wonderful way. This “work of grace”, as she herself described it, changed her life. In August 1909 she was baptised into the Catholic Church. In this respect she resembles Edith Stein, who also came from Silesia, studied philosophy, and entered the Catholic Church from a background in Judaism. Unlike Edith Stein, who chose the contemplative way of Carmel, Hildegard Burjan’s path led her into politics and “social action”.


In 1910 in Vienna, to where the Burjans had by then moved, her daughter Lisa was born. In the years that followed, Hildegard Burjan, who had already begun to engage intensively with Catholic social teaching, began to develop her “social concept”. For her it meant “living in two opposing worlds”: as a woman in a middle-class household and as an advocate for the downtrodden and disenfranchised.


Hildegard the politician

Hildegard Burjan’s commitment eventually led her into politics. In the autumn of 1918, as a representative of the Christian Socialist party she was elected to the Vienna City Council. In 1919 she was elected to the “German-Austrian Constituent Assembly”, in which she was the only female member of the group. The key messages of her political action still sound relevant today and are formulated with refreshing simplicity and directness. For example: “A deep interest in politics is part of practical Christianity.” Or, in view of the existing discrimination against women: “With the war, the old demand of 'equal pay for equal work’ has received new attention.” And, almost as a precursor to the Fair Trade movement: “Let us buy only from conscientious merchants; let us not force down the prices so much; from time to time, let us demand that manufacturers account for the origin of the goods! All too often it is the wealthy woman who forces merchants to deliver on impossible conditions, and this is always at the expense of the poor home-based workers.”

In almost two years of parliamentary activity, she was involved in the extension of maternity and infant welfare, the employment of home nurses for new mothers through the health insurance system, equality between men and women in the civil service, and the promotion and expansion of education and training for women. Through factional (and ideological) cross-collaboration with the deputies of the Social Democratic group – something unheard of in those days – she managed to introduce the “Housemaids Act”, creating the first legal basis for the working conditions and wages of domestic workers.


The “social action” pioneer

After leaving the political arena, Hildegard Burjan devoted herself entirely to the establishment of “Caritas Socialis”, a religious community of women committed to social service: “no monastery, no enclosure, but a movement, always ready for any emergency ...” This commitment manifested itself in setting up mother-and-child homes for single mothers (partly in the face of social resistance), in child welfare and caring for the homeless. Despite the emphasis on practical work, she always kept the big picture in view: “From today’s welfare we have to go back to the roots of evil.”


On 11 June 1933, shortly after the foundation stone was laid for a social centre – a most unusual event at that time – Hildegard Burjan died, just before reaching the age of fifty.

Today, “Caritas Socialis” (CS) is active in Austria, South Tyrol, Germany, Hungary and Brazil. In addition to all the fields mentioned above, CS in Austria is especially active in social welfare, in the hospice movement, and in the field of palliative care, keeping faith with one of the sayings of its founder: “God gives us the mind to recognise the needs of a time, the causes of those needs, and the means that lead to the remedy. The external circumstances He has provided are not a matter of chance ...


Michael Kuhn


Translated from the original text in German

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