Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
From Women in European History
By: Krystle Frazier
In an era dictated by a fascist, anti-homosexual, Nazi regime, one transvestite woman proudly walked the streets of East Germany in a women's petticoat and shoes. To this day, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf remains a significant female in European History for reasons that surpass her ability to stand out as a transvestite woman. More than just her choice of dress, Charlotte’s entire lifestyle from her sexuality and personality, to her family structure were in opposition to the ideals and expectations of the Nazi regime. Where Nazi Germany sought to create and violently enforce a pure definition of “a German”, based on race, and traditional gender expectations, Charlotte’s lifestyle enforced the forbidden- individuality. Despite the possibility of facing exile to a concentration camp or death, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf chose to live a life that broke the social taboos the Nazi regime held on patriarchal authority, homosexuality and gender roles.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Germany on March 18, 1928 to father Max Berfelde and mother Gretchen Gaupp. As expected of Germans during this era, her father was a known leader of the Nazi Party and her mother was a traditional housewife. From as early as she could remember however, Charlotte always felt that despite her physical sex she was intended to live life as a female. Throughout her youth, despite the resentment of her father she maintained her interest in girl's clothing and hobbies. With age, Charlotte became increasingly more comfortable with her sexuality and chose to wear female clothing on a regular basis, making her one of the most well known transvestites in Germany during the Third Reich, the period from 1933 to 1945 that denotes the rise and fall of Nazi power.
During her adolescent years, Charlotte worked as an assistant clearing out furniture and artifacts from the homes of deported Jews as a part of a “Jewish bequest”. To be Aryan meant you were of pure German descent which excludes the Jewish. At this time, individuals of Jewish descent were being forced from their homes and sent to concentration camps as a part of the Nazi extermination mission of non-Germans. The homes from which such artifacts were removed were often ravished and destroyed. Charlotte recalls how one home had the words; “die Jew” smeared across the walls and stars of David hung from the ceilings. At that same time, her fellow young, Jewish co-worker was deported and later exterminated because of his Jewish decent.
Together these incidents instilled in Charlotte a deeper understanding of the social context of being homosexual, a transvestite, and a minority in a world ruled by a fascist majority. Previous to this point Charlotte had not experienced any direct scrutiny or oppression, with the exception of abuse from her father. Charlotte first learned to despise the Nazi regime not because it oppressed her, but because she had seen the detriments it brought to other people.
Yet still, this unfortunate work stimulated Charlotte’s passion for collecting historical furniture and home artifacts. The removal of Jewish families from their homes left large amounts of antique furniture carpets, rugs, and technological devices to be obtained and sold through second hand good stores. She often spent her pay check purchasing items such as gramophones, clocks, dressers, and tables. All things she did not need or have room for but longed to salvage and collect.
Beginning battles with her sexuality and appearance
Charlotte’s femininity and interest in feminine hobbies did not go unnoticed and was not acceptable particularly to her fsther. Max Berfelde, a man of ill demeanor was abusive to Charlotte’s mother. In 1942 when she was 14, Charlotte’s father forced her to join the Hitler Youth, an organization of young men who were assumed and expected to uphold the honors and beliefs of the Hitler regime. Charlotte hated the group she felt was based on tyranny instead of the loyalty and athleticism the group claimed to instill into young men. During the Nazi regime, homosexuality was thought to ruin the structure of politics and war. Having homosexual love influences in the army was thought to be detrimental to the focus level of soldiers who would then be interested in fostering love lives. Furthermore, the Hitler youth supported the humiliation, segregation and extermination of homosexuals in concentration camps. Charlotte’s refusal to adhere to the rules of the Hitler Youth and clear display of discontent only worsened her relationship with her father. He became all the more abusive to both Charlotte and her mother.
In theory, the Nazi regime was thought to operate under the notion that “women while different from men, were as capable and intelligent and could contribute,” [Rupp] to society in the very same way that men could. In action this was not the case. The Nazi regime required more participation and more action from all pure Germans, but this does not suggests that in order to give more, the traditional sexual barriers were to be broken. While women were not thought of as inferior to men for holding traditional housewife roles, these duties were still thought to be their jobs. Households were ruled under the authority of a patriarch, just as the workforce was regulated with a male at the head. A female’s job was to take full control of the “womanly work” of cleaning, bearing children and doing office work. It did not please women to be respected as only child bearers and house cleaners. Thus women often demanded more equality and began to appear in public advertisements as athletes with more boyish nature. [Rupp] Similarly, Gretchen was not satisfied with the patriarchal system of her household.
Although it was assumed that she was fleeing from the bombing taking place as a result of the Second World War, Gretchen used the war as an excuse to escape from the brutal beatings of her husband. In 1943, Gretchen Gaupp took her three children to Bischofsburg in East Prussia and left her husband. This change in housing allowed Charlotte to procure a significant bond with her outwardly lesbian aunt who enabled and encouraged Charlotte’s homosexuality and urged Charlotte to feel sexually liberated without shame.
Death of her father
Soon after their relocation to Bichofsburg, the Berfelde house was appropriated for use as housing for denizens whose homes had been bombed. To prepare for the visitors Charlotte was sent back to their home in Mahlsdorf to rearrange furniture with her father. During this visit her father attacked her, and she was given an ultimatum. She could either choose to take her father’s side, or her father would kill her, her mother, and her two siblings. Afraid for her family’s lives and tired of living in fear, Charlotte hit her father over the head with a heavy cooking ladle three times, killing him with the blows. One year later, after spending weeks in a psychiatric institution, in January of 1945, Charlotte was sentenced to four years in a detention center by the court system.
Only two months later, as the Third Reich was being dissembled, Charlotte was released early from juvenile prison. Upon her release she worked as a second hand goods dealer and became much more openly feminine. She began to wear female coats, dresses and pants. At this stage in life, Charlotte’s real passion for antique goods and collecting such artifacts progressed. She became very active in salvaging damaged, but treasured items from bombed homes and also salvaged items from the homes of people who had left for West Germany, which was flourishing economically and becoming more greatly influenced by democratic forms of governments.
Trials and Tribulations of the Grunderzeit Museum
As her collection grew larger Charlotte established the Grunderzeit Museum, inside of the von Mahlsdorf estate which at the time was being threatened to be demolished along with other artistically and architecturally valuable estates and buildings. Charlotte pleaded to officials although they did not agree that the estate was worthy of being salvaged, she was able to keep the estate for free. Charlotte alone restored the manor to a state where it was suitable for use as a museum. She continued her work rummaging through the remains of bombed out homes, quickly gathering whatever she could salvage from homes being demolished. Although she could not save the Jewish people from being deported and exterminated, Charlotte felt she could save the precious memories and artifacts before such oppression existed. She could preserve the artifacts of history that could later be used to educate about an era of craft and exquisite taste, instead of an era of war, violence, and discrimination. Charlotte would take door frames, window frames, door knobs, and any other small but well made artifact. Throughout the 1960s the museum became a popular attraction for the community. Despite the tension left by the war and the division of Germany, people still wanted to enjoy the arts.
As the museum grew more publicized throughout the community, it also became more utilized by the gay community in particular. Charlotte began to host special meetings in the museum where homosexuals could discuss their plans to liberate themselves from the dangerous Nazi regime. Eventually, her involvement with the gay organizations meeting at her museum caused much governmental grief. Although she was not accused of any crime, East German authorities demanded that Charlotte not facilitate or support such immoral programs and commenced to limit her freedoms over the manor. This decision of the government to step in and attempt to gain control over the affairs of the Mahlsdorf museum were driven by the movement to put the homosexual community under control. Sexual deviation was thought by doctors and believed by militant leaders to destroy the Aryan race and efficacy of the military during times of war. The government wanted to instate a camp for boys, the Mannerbud, where they could fellowship with younger boys and older men with the expectation that such relationships would encourage military involvement, patriotism, and enhance the young men’s intelligence. Many felt the high prevalence of homosexuals in Germany would result in the spreading of homosexuality and disallowed this plan. During this same time period, many local, gay bars and pubs were under attack, or facing foreclosure to limit the access the gay community had with one another. Majorly, homosexuality interfered with Nazi mission to create one homogeneous, pure race. Homosexuals, incapable of reproducing more German citizens were of no use to the German use and were a detriment to society.
Until 1974 Charlotte had full control over the estate, but in order to cut off the gay community’s ability to congregate and socialize, the authorities reported that the estate need to be seized and put under East German Government control. This frightened Charlotte who pondered destroying all the furniture and artifacts she had worked so hard to salvage. In the end, Charlotte decided to give away the museums artifacts to visitors to prevent the government from having any control. Luckily, the museum had been featured as the location for a movie and Charlotte had formed a close knit bond with the star of the movie, Annekathrin Burger, during the filming. She introduced Charlotte to Friedrich Karl Kaul an attorney who was very interested in Charlotte’s case. With Kaul’s help, Charlotte’s control over the museum was reinstated in 1976.
Final Struggles and Accomplishments
In 1991 Neo-Nazis attacked the museum during one of Charlotte’s celebrations. Again the Senate threatened to take over the museum. Charlotte announced that if German authorities refused to tolerate her lifestyle and museum, she would move to another country where she would not be punished and threatened. Upon such a disclaimer the Senate again entrusted her power over the museum. She remained in the museum with a lesbian married couple and continued to make plans to improve the land.
In 1992 Charlotte was honored with the Ribbon of Merit for service to the German Bundersrepublik in the name of the President of the Republic. While the fight against the oppression of homosexuals were not over, many look past her sex to appreciate the work that Charlotte did to preserve the German arts during a time of distress and war. The award was a token of appreciation for her work in the museum that had previously been debased by the DDR. She also received full and complete ownership of the house in August of 1992.
Charlotte survived a reign of terror that sought to eliminate homosexuals, threats to current gender roles, and kept women bound to traditional roles as a transvestite homosexual woman, who built, repair and furnished museums. As a female women she survived a time period that found thousands dead at the hands of the Nazi regime. Yet, she overcame the Nazi regime and the homophobia of her world without violence, without submission and most importantly without hiding who she was.
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