As part of our Voluntary Social Year in Culture (a program known by its German abbreviation, FSJK), we, Annika Späth and Lena Katz, decided to undertake an independent project: to make visible some of the materials from the Archives of the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB) – and the lives behind them – on the JMB website. In our research, we stumbled across two sisters, Gertrud and Margarete Zuelzer. Learning about their lives, we were moved by their determination to stick together. Also, both unmarried women pursued their own careers, thus calling into question the gender roles of their era, whether consciously or not.
A Shared Childhood
Gertrud Zuelzer was born on November 26, 1873. Her sister Margarete followed three years later, on 7 February 1877. Their mother Henriette Zuelzer (née Friedländer) and their father, fabric manufacturer Julius Zuelzer, raised both girls and their older sister Anna in Haynau, Lower Silesia (now Chojnów, Poland). In 1880, Henriette and Julius decided to move to Berlin with their family in order to give their daughters access to better education.
“Like many Jews, Julius Zuelzer was drawn from Silesia to a burgeoning Berlin, and securing good education for all the children – not only the sons – was a value that went without saying for any Jewish families who could afford it financially.” (Speech by Annette Vogt during the Stolperstein [stumbling block] installation ceremony on 2 September 2012)
From a young age, Gertrud and Margarete cultivated a close sisterhood that would long outlast their time in their parents’ home.
Training as a Landscape and Portrait Painter
At the turn of the twentieth century, Gertrud began training as a painter in Berlin. For a time, she studied in Paris with various artists including Franz Lippisch, Gustave Courtois, Charles Cottet, and Lucien Simon, whose Paris studio she temporarily shared. She was particularly inspired by the work of Paul Cézanne.
University Education and Doctorate as a Woman
Her younger sister Margarete studied science at the University of Berlin starting in the winter semester of 1898. This placed her within the first generation of women university students. Because women were still prohibited from studying in Berlin at the time, she was only able to attend lectures as a guest auditor. To be accepted as a “real” student and thus complete her degree, Margarete transferred to the University of Heidelberg in the summer of 1902. She completed her doctorate there in 1904, only the sixth woman to date at the Faculty of Science.
Life Together in Berlin
Upon returning to Berlin after completing their respective educations in the early twentieth century, the two sisters lived together in an apartment in Charlotteburg. Their well-off uncle Friedrich von Friedländer-Fuld supported them financially, enabling them to pursue their passions as an artist and a scientist.
After four years of lessons with Arthur Kampf, Gertrud became an independent painter with her own studio. She went on to establish herself at various exhibitions in Berlin, including the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1918.
In 1916, during the First World War, Margarete had decided to convert to Christianity and was baptized at the Jerusalem Church in Berlin.
“It is only a matter of conjecture as to whether this conversion was dictated by considerations of professional advancement, or perhaps may have been a requirement for her employment contract. This idea is belied by the fact that her sister, who as an independent artist was not subject to any narrower professional constraints, took the same step on 23 December of the same year, likewise at the Jerusalem Church. The patriotic surge during the war may have contributed to this decision. On 16 July 1918, Margarete received the Cross of Merit for War Aid for her work in bacteriology; beginning in April 1918, Gertrud directed a soldiers’ boarding house on the Western Front.” (Speech by Max Bloch during the Stolperstein [stumbling block] installation ceremony on 2 September 2012)
From Unskilled Worker to Senior Civil Servant
After returning to Berlin, Margarete proved herself as a successful scientist. She began her career as an unskilled worker at the Royal Research and Testing Institute for the Water Supply. When she joined the Imperial Health Office in 1916, she was able to specialize in researching protozoa, a type of single-celled organism. In only three years, she was promoted to senior civil servant and became the head of the protozoa laboratory in the Dahlem district. At the time, not a single other woman in Berlin held such a position.
Her research into leptospirosis, an infectious disease caused by bacteria, drew attention beyond Germany’s borders. In 1926, on commission from the Dutch government, Margarete embarked on a research trip to study tropical diseases in what was then the colony of the Dutch East Indies. She documented her experiences in Sumatra, Java, Malaysia, and Bali in extensive travel diaries:
“Within the first half hour of my journey through the country, I learned to set aside all the notions I had brought along. Indeed, when I devoted my concentrated attention to all my impressions of the journey, my first reflection was: “There are sparrows here! Plenty of sparrows!” I had expected to encounter large quantities of monkeys – as common as sparrows for us. That was not the case, however. It was three weeks before I saw my first monkey in the wild.” (Margarete’s travel diary, p. 1., around 1926; Jewish Museum Berlin, accession 2014/186/392, gift of Max Bloch)
After her roughly two-year stay abroad, Margarete returned home to Berlin, where she resumed her career at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and continued research in her field.
The Nazis Take Power, Professional Ban
In April 1933, two months after the National Socialists (Nazis) took power, Margarete, classified as a “non-Aryan person,” was forced to enter “retirement” effective immediately on the basis of racist legislation governing the civil service. Overnight, she was barred from pursuing her profession. Shaken by the news, Margarete wrote a letter of complaint:
“I have never belonged to any party, have always kept my distance from any party politics, and have exclusively carried out my scientific activities.”
But this letter would not save her from her dismissal.
“Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service”
This law, decreed on 7 April 1933, had the effect of dismissing opponents of the Nazi regime from the civil service, which it aimed to “align” with Nazi ideology, a process known by the German term Gleichschaltung. In addition, the very first “Aryan clause” (Section 3) ordered the immediate forced retirement of individuals who were viewed as “non-Aryan” according to the Nazi’s racist ideology.
With the establishment of the Reich Chamber of Art in September 1933, Gertrud was likewise forced to abandon her profession. Without an income of her own, she had to live on her inheritance from her uncle.
Reich Chamber of Art (Reichskunstkammer)
The Reich Chamber of Visual Arts was established on 22 September, 1933 by the Ministry of Propaganda and absorbed all existing artistic professional associations. Its purpose was to Nazify (gleichschalten), oversee, and exert control over art. Artists who were classified by the Nazi ideology as “non-Aryan” or who did not conform to the regime were excluded. In practical terms, this amounted to a ban on practicing their profession or publishing.
The Sisters Part Ways
The sisters lived together in Berlin until 1939. Margarete could not accept her inability to pursue her work; she looked for projects outside Germany. Still recognized as an expert abroad, she participated in the 1936 International Microbiology Conference. In October 1939, with the help of her Dutch former colleague Wilhelm Schüffner, she was given a position at the Institute of Tropical Hygiene in Amsterdam, for which she emigrated to the Netherlands.
From exile, Margarete kept in touch with her sister via short letters – even after Gertrud went into hiding in 1942 and attempted to escape to Switzerland. The artist was arrested at the border, then detained in a series of prisons before being deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto that November.
Margarete sent her older sister a series of letters and packages filled with clothing and art supplies. Thanks to those packages, Gertrud was able to make portraits of fellow prisoners in exchange for additional food rations. Thus, with Margarete’s support, she managed to survive her time in the ghetto.
“An old friend from Berlin, Mrs. Strauss (the Geheimrat’s wife), had asked me to draw her husband back at Christmas 1942. The drawing went over well and after that I got many commissions to make more drawings. The sisters Grete and Lotte Otzen had sent me colored pencils, and I bought some paper, and so I drew more than 100 portraits. Because the Czechs received a large number of packages, they paid me with bread and I believe that I have this to thank for my survival” (Gertrud Zuelzer/Speech by Max Bloch during the Stolperstein [stumbling block] installation ceremony on 2 September 2012)
After invading the Netherlands in spring 1940, the Nazi regime carried out anti-Jewish measures there as well. In May 1943, Margarete was deported to the Westerbork transit camp, where she died on 29 August of unknown causes. Devastated by her sister’s death, Gertrud processed her feelings in a poem she dedicated to Margarete:
So much you have bestowed on me
With warmth of heart and zest
Our life together was beautiful
I’m orphaned now, bereft!
Devotedly you cared for me
From far too far a place.
And still I cannot comprehend
That now you are deceased.
Behind you’ve left your friends and work
And science, drive, renown!
The beauty you so deeply loved!
We loved your sheer humanity:
Your character-guided deeds
Your steadfast bonds with all your dearest
Your forthright, helpful, cheerful spirit—
The way you were lives on in us.
Gertrud returned to Berlin in 1945. She resumed her career as an artist and went on to exhibit her work at the Berlin Exhibition of 1950 as well as at Charlottenburg Town Hall in 1956.
In 1968, at the age of 95, Gertrud died in her hometown of Berlin. Her sister’s death left a lifelong scar.
Lena Katz, Annika Späth (2022), The Artist and the Scientist. Two Sisters: Gertrud and Margarete Zuelzer.