Erna Johanna Ida Heinen-Steinhoff was born in Dusseldorf in 1898 as the daughter of Mr. Wilhelm Steinhoff zur Ahse (1869 -1936), a councillor and deputy headmaster from the Ahse House near Soest, and Mrs. Maria Tümmers (1874 -1943) from Solingen. She was the oldest of the couple’s children and was born three years after the marriage of her parents (1895). A younger sister was born some time later.
In 1919, she met the young writer and philologist Hanns Heinen (1895-1961) and married him. That same year, the young poet published a play in Leipzig entitled Spartakus. The year 1919 also saw him become editor of the Solinger Tageblatt. He would later become chief editor of multiple newspapers before ultimately finishing his career working as an independent journalist and author. He worked continuously as an author and lyricist, writing several plays, economic treatises and poems throughout his life.
The home of the Heinens quickly became a meeting point for artists, writers and intellectuals from the region thanks to Erna Heinen-Steinhoff’s deep interest in literature, music and art. With her exceptional erudition and spiritual charm, she cast her spell on many a creative person, whom she empowered to achieve their own intellectual and artistic accomplishments. And so a literary and artistic salon was born, of which Erna Heinen-Steinhoff was the life-long salonnière to her invited guests.
She gave birth to two sons, Hans-Theo and Gunther Heinen, in the early 1920s. The family moved several times within Solingen. In December 1932, Hanns Heinen acquired a property in the Höhscheid district of Solingen - the “Black House”, a historic timber-framed house dating from the 18th century.
In 1928, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff met the young painter Erwin Bowien (1899-1972). The family quickly “adopted” him as one of their own, and he remained intimately connected to them for the rest of their lives. Erwin Bowien was so impressed by her personality and her knowledge that she slowly became his muse, immortalising her in numerous portraits. He coined a pet name for her and called her “Amiela”. Following his return from exile and time spent underground, he moved into the so-called “Black House” in Solingen permanently in 1945. There he would subsequently establish an artists’ colony alongside “Amiela”.
In the 1930s, she gave birth to two daughters – Gabriele Eleonore (1934) and Bettina Sabine Cornelia (1937-2020). She rejected the so-called “Mother’s Cross of Honour” that was offered as a mother of four children, thus triggering a great scandal.
During the war, she and her daughters were sent to live in the country to escape the allied bombings. As the Steinhoff family always spent their holidays in Pfronten in the Allgäu, she opted to relocate to the small community of “Kreuztal-Eisenbach” near Isny in the heart of the Adelegg mountains. To begin with, she only resided there during the summer months, but lived there permanently from 1943. Bowien would join them in Kreuztal at the end of 1943. In 1945, the Heinens returned to Solingen.
The family suffered severe years of hunger between 1945 and 1948. However, this never interrupted their active cultural life. There home remained a place of great coming and going, a place of painting, poetry and composition. The family went on their first painting trips in the 1950s and travelled to the island of Sylt and Switzerland. The artists’ colony was enriched by the addition of the painter Amud Uwe Millies, son of a Hamburg factory owner, whom Erwin Bowien had met on the island of Sylt. The 1960s saw trips to Greece and Algeria.
In 1969, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff died suddenly, just a few weeks before the birth of her grandson Haroun Ayech.