Blumberg Center for
Interdisciplinary Studies in Special Education

fannie bergheim blumberg

Bust of Fannie BlumbergFannie Louise was born on February 11, 1894, the only child of Louis and Rachel Heims Burgheim. Louis Burgheim was a traveling watch salesman and jeweler and, for a while, was in business with his father, Rabbi David Burgheim, proprietor of the Indiana Optical & Jewelry Company of Indianapolis. Rabbi Burgheim, a widower, "boarded" with his son. Fannie described her grandfather as "an old man of German descent" who "was a scholar." One entire wall of his room was lined with books from the floor to the ceiling. Many of the books were printed in German, French, and Hebrew." Though "old and shabby and containing but few illustrations," they helped develop in Fannie a curiosity and love of reading that existed throughout her life. She was also fascinated by her grandfather's interest in the theater (he often invited her to accompany him), and by his friendship with their neighbor, James Whitcomb Riley.

At age 8, while attending public school, her parents permitted her to enroll at the John Herron School of Art. However, she became ill with measles, "with lengthy complications," and her parents had to forfeit the tuition already paid; they never proposed that she re-enroll. "After that I didn't think about taking up art again until I got into high school and regularly passed John Herron on my way home. I used to look rather longingly at the pictures displayed there, and sometimes imagined myself a student. But I had to prepare to make a living, so I enrolled in Blaker's Kindergarten College. It was no solace to me that the art teacher there said I ought to study art seriously; I just couldn't at that time." Fannie graduated from the 2 year kindergarten course at the Teacher's College of Indianapolis in 1914 and from the additional 1 year primary course in 1915. These programs, operated by Eliza Blaker and others, were on the site that later became Butler University.

Fannie was a kindergarten teacher in Indianapolis when she met Attorney Benjamin Blumberg of Terre Haute. They were married in August, 1916. Their first home was a rented duplex at 429 Washington Ave., Terre Haute, where their son Morris was born. Fifteen months later, his sister Rachel arrived, followed by Teressa a couple of years later, while they were living at 712 South Fifth. Morris recalls that they "moved to the farm," on the southeast corner of Fruitridge and Hulman, in about 1923, when he was 6. Gretchen was born about six years later.

In an autobiographical sketch, Fannie wrote: "I presume writing was my first hobby. I began a novel at the age of eight. . ." Her first children's story was published in Kindergarden Primary Magazine, April, 1913. She continued to write, mostly for children, during her college years and while her own children were young, culminating in 5 published books and about 25 short stories. At least 3 of her books were illustrated by Mary Grosjean, a local artist. One, Rowena Teena Tot and the Blackberries, was in its 6th printing by 1945. She also wrote a few unpublished works for adults, including 3 poems.

In August, 1936, during the month of their twentieth wedding anniversary, Fannie and Ben assumed full responsibility for two more children, boys ages 12 and 13, who spoke essentially no English. Gerhard Nelhaus and Heinz Isenberg were members of Jewish families in Germany during the Nazi regime. Jewish women's organizations in this country and in Europe, fearing for the lives of persons with Jewish backgrounds, made arrangements for some of the children to escape. For their plan to work, families in the receiving countries had to be willing to accept the children into their homes. Fortunately for Gerhard and Heinz, the Blumbergs volunteered. Heinz stayed with the Blumbergs for about 2 years, until his family was able to resettle to the United States. By that time Gerhard had learned that his father, an orthodox Rabbi, was in the Dachau concentration camp and his older brother had been "carted off to a labor gang." Ben Blumberg worked diligently, with the help of Indiana Congresswoman Virginia Jenckes, to obtain their release, and the entire family escaped to the United States in late August 1939. Gerhard, with his family's blessing, stayed on with the Blumbergs, graduated from Wiley in January 1940, and entered Harvard with a scholarship the following fall. By January 1941 he had been drafted for a two year stint in the Army. (He was not eligible for a college deferment, being considered an "enemy alien.") Gerhard became a pediatric neurologist, now lives in California, and has maintained close ties with his foster family.

Fannie Blumberg could be described as intellectually brilliant, artistically talented, and a perpetual student who strived for perfection in everything she attempted. However, life was often difficult for Fannie, as well as those closest to her, because of a lifelong tendency toward manic depression. The periods of depression became longer and more intense during her later years. Unfortunately, during her life very little was known about the medical treatment of bipolar affective disorders.

Painting: Late Summer Meadow, 1949 by Fannie Blumberg In 1945, in a desperate attempt to help Fannie escape a period of depression, Ben presented her with art supplies and persuaded her to begin to paint. So, at age 50, she began a new phase of life, which she undertook with her usual high level of intensity for new projects. Quoting her friend, artist Gilbert Wilson: "She was never satisfied. Each time that she stopped painting for a few months, it was probably because she had exhausted some particular teacher and was ready for a new one. She was always stubbornly determined to improve on all of her previous efforts. In the ten or twelve short years before her death, she had painted over two hundred canvases, many quite large. And this is not to mention countless drawings, watercolors and lithographs." Although the location of many of her paintings is known, many were destroyed or given away without a record.

Untitled painting: Summer landscape with tree in foreground, by Fannie Blumberg In Enjoying Modern Art by Sarah Newmeyer, published by the Reinhold Pub. Corp. in 1955, Fannie Blumberg was listed as an example of a professional artist (in contrast to a commercial artist). "Largely self-taught through her acquaintance with and keen observation of the work of leading modern artists in this country and abroad, she is far from being a so-called 'primitive' or native artist. She knows what she is doing and produces canvases, chiefly Expressionist in style, of superb color, boldly handled form, and frequent emotional power." Her paintings were exhibited at: the DePauw University Art Center (1952, 1959, 1965); the Lowe Gallery, University of Miami (1952); the Sheldon Swope Art Gallery (1961); Rudolph Galleries, Woodstock in the Catskills (1952), Coral Gables (1955); and, the ISU Turman Art Gallery (1949, 1965).

Fannie died on July 9, 1964, at age 70, about five weeks before their 48th wedding anniversary. Wayne Crockett, her personal physician, reported that she was sitting at the dinner table and choked on a piece of food. Coincidentally, her family indicated she had been severely depressed for several weeks and had been predicting her death.

During her life Fannie was a generous supporter of a variety of people and charities, often anonymously. Following her death she continued to give, with the largest bequest being to provide the endowment used to establish the Blumberg Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Special Education at Indiana State University. Through her efforts, it is clear that Fannie Burgheim Blumberg continues to contribute to the lives of others, both in the Terre Haute community and beyond. 

This is a reprint of an article by Mrs. Helen Sapp, Emeritus Faculty, Dept. of Communication Disorders and Special Education, Indiana State University, published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star in March of 1997. The Blumberg Center wishes to thank Mrs. Sapp for her permission to reprint this article. It has allowed us to share more information about Fannie Blumberg and her generosity.


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