Fonds RBSC-ARC-1810 - Hanne Wassermann Walker fonds

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Hanne Wassermann Walker fonds

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80.6 cm of textual records and other materials

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(13 May 1893-28 May 1986)

Biographical history

Hanne Wassermann Walker was born on May 13, 1893 to Jewish parents Rudolf Herrmann (23 February 1846-31 May 1922) and Hedwig Herrmann née Heller (3 January 1863-28 December 1940) in Vienna, Austria. Her father worked as an architect for the city and her mother did not work outside the home, instead looking after Hanne and her one other daughter, Elizabeth Fischer née Herrmann (11 December 1887- 1981).

As a teenager, Hanne studied at Hermine Brabbée’s Civic School for Girls, a private school which would have offered an education for people pursuing jobs in the commercial or trade sectors rather than for those planning to get a traditional university degree. She went on to study at the “Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie und Reproduktionsverfahren” (Teaching and Research Institute for Photography and Reproduction Processes) in Vienna from 1912-1914. Here Hanne studied such subjects as portrait photography, freehand drawing, chemistry, commercial/business math and writing, and more. Hanne would go on to become a prolific amateur photographer, however, her true calling was in the field of health and fitness.

After completion of her studies in photography and graphic reproduction, Hanne attended the Röntgen Institute, Vienna's first x-ray institute, where she learned about human anatomy and physical wellness. She completed her time there around 1917. During this period, Hanne married Dr. Gustav Wassermann, however their union was short-lived; the couple wed in July 1914 and in January 1915 Gustav died from a heart-related condition.

Hanne pioneered a series of stretches and exercises for women she called The Hanne Wassermann Method, which she described as a form of gymnastics. She focused not only on physical “improvements” but also the psychology of fitness, describing her method as “The First Psychologically Based Gymnastic System with Movement Control”. She documented these routines through written publications and extensive photo series. Her exercises were designed to help practitioners lose weight, tone figures, and reduce the “effect of age” while also improving one’s overall mental and physical wellbeing. She was also a proponent of winter sports, physical education for children, and swimming lessons, the latter which she also taught.

Hanne worked as a personal trainer, teacher, and fitness advocate at a time when the concepts of physical culture and education were only just beginning to take hold on a wider scale. She opened a school (“Gymnastikschule”) in Vienna, taught at an upscale resort in Italy, worked as a personal trainer, and sought to advance her philosophy and fitness techniques through lectures, books, pamphlets, and newspaper/magazine articles. These works featured titles like: “Daily Gymnastics”, “Everywoman The Sculptor of Her Own Body”, “Nice on the Outside, Ugly on the Inside”, and “Movement and Figure Control”. Her list of friends and clients was comprised of some the most elite members of Austrian/European society during the interwar period, including Princess Helen of Greece, Princess Marguerita of Aosta, Baron Louis Rothschild, and actress Hedy Lamarr.

During the summer, Hanne often traveled throughout Europe – travels she documented with her camera. Much of the resulting photographs depict the landscapes and architecture of Austria, France, Italy, and Greece. Hanne spent lots of time on the Italian islands of Brioni (which later became part of Croatia). Brioni had long been a popular travel destination for the upper classes of Europe, especially Vienna, and it was to here that Hanne brought her physical fitness method in the summertime, offering her classes and swimming lessons at the Hotel Brioni.

Featured in many of Hanne’s travel photographs from between 1926 and 1938 is a man who appears to have been her boyfriend/lover. However, his name is not identified on any of the photographs in this fonds, nor do there appear to be letters or other records that shed light on his identity and relationship with Hanne. Around 1934, Hanne met her future husband George Dickson Walker (19 July 1889-11 July 1981). George was a Presbyterian minister with a background in psychology. It is unclear from the records in this fonds exactly how they met or what the early years of their relationship were like, however, George did visit Austria occasionally as a tourist and it may have been during one of these trips that he and Hanne met. George, who was born in Northern Ireland, was living and working in Manchester, England, in 1934. He moved with his wife, Rachel, and daughter, Norah, to the Channel Islands in 1936; according to U.S. immigration paperwork filled out by George years later, in 1936 his wife deserted him. (He lost track of them when Germany occupied the Channel Islands in 1940, although according to correspondence with his brother years later, George appears to have had some knowledge of his daughter’s life after the war.)

Following Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, Hanne and her family began making preparations to emigrate from Europe. However, she did not depart immediately from Austria. Hanne traveled, worked, and lived in other parts of Europe (Britain and Italy in particular) during this time. It was not until December 1939 that Hanne left England for New York, followed shortly afterwards by her mother and George. Hanne’s journey to the U.S. was made possible thanks in part to her friend and client Marie Louise Wanamaker, a Philadelphia department store heiress who wrote letters on Hanne’s behalf and helped her navigate the American immigration system.

For the next three years, Hanne worked as a fitness instructor and lecturer at various hotels and studios across the country, making La Jolla, California, her temporary home. During this time she also developed a product called the “Wassermann Rescue Sling,” which was designed to more safely lift and transport injured bodies in the event of a disaster or military attack; she offered training courses on the sling’s use and issued “Modern Rescue & Transportation” certificates to successful participants.

On June 15, 1943, Hanne married George in Los Angeles and the two relocated to British Columbia, ultimately settling on the North Shore of Burrard Inlet, first in North Vancouver and then in West Vancouver. They resided here for the rest of their lives. Hanne taught private fitness classes to some of Vancouver’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, although she did not share with them stories or details of her earlier life in Europe. In addition to fitness classes, Hanne also provided some physiotherapy services such as massages.

During her 43 years in British Columbia, Hanne was a prolific amateur photographer, documenting her life with George (which included several pet dogs over the years) and much of the travel they did together. (Both were avid campers.) Hanne’s landscape photography captures many B.C. lakes and mountains during the mid-20th century. The subjects of her portrait photography include members of the Koerner, Prentice, Molnar, and other Vancouver families, as well as George and friends of theirs. In addition to photography, Hanne was also a talented sculptor.

Hanne died May 28, 1986 at the age of 93.

Custodial history

In April 1986, following Hanne's death, Gerry Davie was hired to dispose of items from her property at 2905 Marine Drive in West Vancouver. Dealing with a man he believed to be Hanne's nephew, Davie removed two loads of materials on the understanding that he could keep them or try to sell anything of value. All the records — photographs, documents, ephemera, etc. — had been stuffed into plastic garbage bags to be thrown out. Davie held onto these materials until 2018, when Victoria bookseller Bjarne Tokerud approached RBSC later that year on behalf of Davie with an offer of sale. The sale was finalized in 2019.

A portion of the photographs and negatives in this fonds (taken by Hanne) was originally donated to the West Vancouver Memorial Library (WVML) following Hanne's death in 1986. The library's records indicate these photos and negatives were received in October 1986. The donor was someone, likely Davie, who had been clearing out Hanne's unoccupied house and thought these photos might be of value to the library. They were stored at WVML until spring 2019 when they were donated to RBSC.

Scope and content

This fonds consists of documents, archival records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts pertaining to the life and work of Hanne Wassermann Walker. These materials relate to several broad themes: health and fitness, travel, friends and family, immigration to North America, and art/photography. Hanne's collection provides a window into the early 20th century physical culture movement; the experience of Jewish Europeans in the lead-up to, during, and after World War II; and the landscapes of British Columbia between the 1940s and 1970s. The fonds is comprised of manuscripts and published materials, correspondence, government records, photographs (including negatives, metadata, and albums), and more. In addition to Hanne's extensive collection of letters, postcards, personal and official records, and assorted odds and ends (e.g. household receipts, business cards, recipes, etc.), the fonds also contains the records of her husband, George Dickson Walker.

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  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Italian

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Physical description

80.6 cm of textual records ; 2213 small b&w photographs ; 105 small colour photographs ; 209 medium b&w photographs ; 144 large b&w photographs ; 649 b&w negatives ; 47 colour negatives ; 93 small photographs affixed to posters ; 1 large photo album ; 834 envelopes containing combinations of negatives, metadata information, and photo prints ; and 51 artifacts

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Finding aid created by James Goldie, October 2019.

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