The collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin includes items related to people who would possibly identify as LGBTIQ* today, but unfortunately they aren’t very visible. “Homosexuality” is a keyword in the museum database, but it is hardly used.
Felice Schragenheim and Elisabeth Wust
Most of the items associated with this keyword come from the collection on Felice Schragenheim (1922–1945) and Elisabeth (Lilly) Wust (1913–2006). Erica Fischer’s 1994 book Aimée & Jaguar made their story known, and the 1999 film of the same name made it famous.
Photos and documents record their romantic relationship, including numerous love letters, some of them sealed with Felice’s kiss.
The two “marriage contracts” that the women signed with each other in 1943 are highly unusual. The 21-year-old Felice composed hers in the form of a decalogue with ten promises:
“1) I will always love you.
2) I will never leave you alone.
3) I will do everything I can to make you happy.
4) I will provide for you and the children as much as conditions allow.
5) I won’t object to you providing for me.
6) I won’t look at pretty girls anymore, at most to confirm that you’re prettier.
7) I won’t come home late very often.
8) I will try to grind my teeth quietly at night.
9) I will always love you.
10) I will always love you.
Until further notice.
The Structure of Our Collection
In the museum thesaurus, you would search in vain for other words related to sexual orientation. Neither “lesbian,” “gay,” “queer,” nor “transsexual” have entries. Even “heterosexuality” does not appear as a keyword, though it is silently established as the norm, ultimately erasing all sexual diversity. Sexual identity and orientation are not indexed, and consequently, external users also cannot search our collection using these categories.
Of course, the thesaurus can be expanded, and new keywords can be added as needed. However, the current keyword catalog reflects the fact that very few documents, photographs, or objects were received from (openly or known) gay, lesbian, or transgender people. Since their numbers were so few, a keyword to distinguish them seemed unnecessary.
That comes as no surprise, if you think about the provenance of our collection: its core consists of hundreds of family collections left to us by donors. These bundles of papers, which sometimes span several generations, are generally focused around a married couple, around whom particularly comprehensive materials have been preserved. Further documents and photographs relate to their children, the parents of the husband and wife, and further family members. But a heterosexual family lies at the center, with the result that gay and lesbian people, for example, are hardly represented.
The problem is compounded by the fact that the donors are generally the children or grandchildren of the couple. Gay and lesbian people often had no children of their own, so their estate was not passed down to the following generation. When gay and lesbian people do appear in our family collections, as an unmarried uncle or aunt, for example, they are almost never a focus of attention, but rather a fringe figure, just as in their day they were part of a fringe group. More detailed biographical information is almost never available, not least because sexual orientation was simply a taboo in many families.
About Herbert Landau from the Collection of Paul Hugo Meyer
The extensive collection on Paul Hugo Meyer, which I inventoried in 2012, also contains a few documents about his uncle Herbert Landau (1895–1967).
The letters that have been preserved do not make it clear that he was gay, but in 2003, the donor compiled a photo album with portraits of family members and supplemented them with brief biographies. Hubert Landau’s read:
“As an artist, a homosexual, and a Jew, Hubert recognized the danger presented by Hitler long before other members of the family did.”
Born in Berlin, he left for the United States in 1935, where he remained into the 1950s:
“He left New York in 1954 after being falsely suspected of a roommate’s murder. He moved to England, spending the remainder of his life with his loving sister Dudie, much to her husband’s dismay.”
Unfortunately, we received no further original documents about his life.
The Doctor and Sexologist Felix Abraham
A year later I inventoried the collection of the Marx and Abraham families, which had been donated to us in 2013. In this case, in the course of sifting through thousands of items, I also unexpectedly stumbled upon a few documents and photographs on the doctor and sexologist Felix Abraham (1901–1937).
Beginning in 1929, he was employed at the Berlin Institute for Sexology (Berliner Institut für Sexualwissenschaft). I was particularly stuck by a photo showing Felix Abraham at the Institute with a woman.
Since we know that he carried out sex reassignment surgeries for transsexual people, I assume that the woman is a trans woman and a patient of his. Felix Abraham took his own life while exiled in Italy in 1937, and the collection provides no insight into his own sexual orientation.
Searching for Traces in the Archive
The fact that only these and a few other examples are known to me of LGBTIQ* people in our museum collections does not mean that they were the only ones; some were surely never outed in their lifetimes or afterward, to use a modern phrase. The reason for this—not only in the Nazi era—was criminalization and pathologizing, as well as social ostracization. That means that the documents passed on to us are mostly silent on the subject of sexual orientation and gender identity. Personal self-accounts such as diaries or letters, which might have provided insights into (secret) thoughts and feelings or experiences, are mostly lacking.
As an employee at the archive and a gay man, I like to keep an eye out for identifying queer people, though I know that my
“gaydar” is very subjective and I may be wrong. And I certainly can’t tell how people may have defined themselves. Often, I am looking at documents and photographs from new collections in which the sexual orientation and gender identity of those in question is unclear.
Kurt Friedman und Klaus Oliven
Just a few days ago I had such a case on my desk: I was inventorying a large collection that we had received from Brazil in 2016. It included a beautiful little book from 1938 entitled Alles um Liebe (Goethe) [All for Love (Goethe)].
The book contained poems, quotes, and philosophical thoughts on the title theme, and was lovingly decorated by the then 18-year-old author Kurt Friedmann (1919–unknown/disappeared). He dedicated it to his friend Klaus Oliven (1918–2010). The two knew each other from the Jewish youth movement in Frankfurt am Main and were “chaverim”.
“five kinds of relationships between people” Kurt writes in his first text:
“knowing each other, being acquaintances (flirting), being comrades, friendship, and love.” My curiosity had been piqued, and I paid attention for further hints to the sort of “relationship” between the two.
Klaus, who describes his romantic relationships with women in his diary, writes about Kurt:
“A handsome boy, very blond […]. A very unusual, strange boy.”
“He was a boy who could have a big effect on girls. There was something very suggestive and interesting about him.”
Undoubtedly, the two young men shared a very special relationship and shared a lot with each other:
“I discussed sexual morality with Kurt. He makes a distinction between love and sexuality. He says every person needs sexual gratification.”
Eighty years later, I am holding the little book in my hands, and Kurt Friedmann still seems interesting to me. I hope to be able to find further biographical information on him and his later life. Perhaps it will remain Kurt’s secret what he felt for Klaus. And maybe it’s better that way.
Jörg Waßmer, Archive, wrote this text in July 2018, when Christopher Street Day took place for the 40th time in Berlin. Like every year, it featured demonstrations for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, this time under the slogan “My body — my identity — my life!”. As ever, its attendees publicly display and celebrate sexual diversity. In the online feature Kurt. Hunting for Clues Jörg Waßmer describes his further research on Kurt Friedmann.
Jörg Waßmer (2018), All for Love. Sexual Diversity in the Collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin.
Behind the Scenes: Anecdotes and Exciting Finds while Working with our Collections (21)
Anecdotes and Exciting Finds while Working with our Collections
Employees of our archive and our collections provide insight into their work and share stories and insights
“No, I Want Dr. O.”
Leonie Meyer’s diaries from the years before her marriage (1910–12), presented by Jörg Waßmer
From Cowpox to Covid-19
The Archive staff members write about nearly 200 years of vaccine certificates in our archive
Anna meets Leonie
Drawings by Anna Justicz, inspired by Leonie Oliven’s diaries from 1901–1928
Historical sources on the antisemitic violence in Germany between 1930 and 1938 in the holdings of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Berlin in Times of Cholera
Doreen Tesche and Jörg Waßmer discover some parallels to the current corona pandemic in Louis Röhmann’s diary entries about cholera in Berlin in 1837.
“Since that day, Iʼve felt like a newborn”
A striking document about the 1945 Day of Liberation
That can’t be! Can it?
Jörg Waßmer about coincidences in the archive
Kurt: Hunting for Clues
Initially, all we have is a first name, but Jörg Waßmer’s intensive research brings some details to light.
Born in 1918, two minutes from his parents’ perfumery on Kurfürstendamm
Fritz Scherk and the history of a family business in Berlin
All for Love
Jörg Waßmer searches for sexual diversity in the collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin
A Joyful Occasion for the Lustig Family
Paula and Bernhard Lustig’s Wedding Album, presented by Susanne Schuur
12 of 12,000
Fallen German-Jewish Soldiers in the First World War
Shot by German Police in 1946
Aubrey Pomerance, Head of Archives, on the tragic fate of Shmuel Dancyger Z. L.
A Small Window onto History
Aubrey Pomerance, Head of Archives, on a newly acquired Passover Haggadah and its previous owners in Kreuzberg
“The best solution would be that the baby is a girl”
Jörg Waßmer prepared the inventory of Fritz Wachsner’s estate and got some insights into an internal Jewish debate about circumcision.
Salvaged from the Trash
Anna Rosemann on the photo albums of the artist Olga Irén Fröhlich
Conservation of Letters and Seals
Stephan Lohrengel reports about his work as paper conservator in the Jewish Museum Berlin.
From idyllic landscape views to the trenches
Seeing the First World War through an army doctor’s photographs
The World in Miniature
Kirsten Meyer on conserving and storing a stamp album
Farewell Letter, Ink on Paper
Exhibition curator Maren Krüger and paper conservator Stephan Lohrengel about a touching historical document and why we could only exhibit it so shortly
Ludwig Guttmann, Father of the Special Olympics
Archivist Manfred Wichmann on the Life and Work of Ludwig Guttmann