Jewish Corsets and a 19th Century Drag Queen: New Exhibition Reveals the Secrets of the Yekkes

The Israeli organization of German-speaking Jews asked its members to rummage through their crawlspaces and attics – and was stunned by what they produced

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Stef Wertheimer in Bahrein.
Stef Wertheimer in Bahrein. Credit: German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum

At the beginning of the last century, the royal house of Vienna issued a special document to Heinrich Gunsberger Und Sohn, a local firm that manufactured undergarments. The letter, which came from the Office of His Majesty the Emperor and King of the House of Habsburg, confirmed that the minister of court affairs had granted the Jewish company the right to be the official supplier of brassieres and corsets to the royal house.

To market its products, the company printed a catalogue, which was also placed at the disposal of the royal women. Each type of garment was given a name: Dita, Hansie, Ida, Rika, Angela and Gertie.

One of the models who posed for the catalogue was the American actor Julian Eltinge, a drag queen who played women’s roles in stage productions wearing a Gunsberger corset. “If the man who is wearing our corsets has such an impressive feminine body, what will the women look like if they wear our corsets? Please beware of fakes of the company’s products and always check to see that the corset carries our label,” the ads stated.

Julian Eltinge wearing a Gunsberger corset.Credit: German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum

The story of the Jewish corset factory recently came to light when the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin – an organization for Jews from German-speaking countries, or yekkes – urged its members to rummage through their crawlspaces and attics and dig out old family objects.

Another item that was uncovered was a traditional German dancing dress. It belonged to Gertrud Mayer, who came from a German Christian family. Her father, Dr. Alexander Mayer, was a member of the German parliament. She married a Jew, Otto Mayer (no relation). To earn a living she danced and was the director of a local troupe near the city of Bielefeld. In her spare time she crisscrossed Germany to research and document folk dances.

Years later, one of the Mayers’ three sons, Andreas, related that after the Nazis came to power, her mother was presented with a large bouquet and hailed as “the mother of German folk dance.” The authorities were unaware of her secret: that she was married to a Jew. In 1937, the family immigrated to Palestine and settled in the northern town of Nahariya, a bastion of yekkes. Gertrud took up a new occupation: She cultivated their home and farmstead, which included a henhouse and a vegetable patch.

Gertrud MayerCredit: Courtesy of the exhibition

Gertrud Mayer died in 1966 and was buried in a Christian cemetery in Haifa. In 1991, the German Society for Folk Dancing in Israel organized an evening of performances in Mayer’s memory. It turned out that she was not stripped of her impressive title even under the Nazis. Only now, decades after she settled in Israel, is her family revealing the Nazi-era secret of her marriage to a Jew – and presenting the dress.

These and other “secrets” of the yekkes will be on display during the Sukkot holiday at the German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum in the Tefen Industrial Park Open Museum in Upper Galilee. The exhibition, titled “Now It Can Be Told,” originated from the request of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin to its members to come up with objects, stories and previously hidden “secrets.” The items on display bespeak “changes of identity, false papers, secrets behind objects, unconventional migration, flight and professional retraining,” says the museum’s curator, Ruth Ofek.

A pistol bullet also found its way to the exhibition. It represents the story of Linda Epstein, the girlfriend of the renowned Berlin-born Jewish artist Hermann Struck, who immigrated to Haifa in 1922.

In a letter she sent him through a mutual friend in 1909, she announced that she was ending their relationship and enclosed a pistol bullet, supposedly signifying that she had committed suicide. “I cannot go on, my strength has run out,” she wrote. To the intermediary she added, “He mustn’t take it too much to heart, I feel that I am no longer worthy of him.” Struck was distraught, but it later turned out that Epstein had overcome her grief at the parting and had not taken her life.

A love story of a different, more romantic kind, involves the yekke Romeo and Juliet – their real names Rene Weiss and Hella Lucas. In 1910, Weiss moved from Paris to Frankfurt. The following year, when he visited his aunt, who was the head nurse of a sanatorium in nearby Oberstetten, he met a 16-year-old girl named Hella, who was recovering from a lung ailment. She was the only child of a bourgeois Jewish family from the city of Essen.

It was love at first sight for the two, but Lucas’ parents weren’t pleased with this development. For them, the “indigent” Weiss was not worthy to be their privileged daughter’s spouse. In 1912, Weiss was hired by a company that dealt in animal hides and sent to India. The outbreak of World War I delayed his return. Lucas’ parents hoped that the distance between them would cool their ardor, but throughout his enforced exile, until 1919, Rene corresponded with his beloved Hella.

To overcome the suspicions of her parents, who censored their letters, they inserted coded messages which only they understood. When they could not contain themselves, they expressed their love in plain words, too – but did so under the stamps, in order to evade Lucas’ prying parents. “Everything will work out, my heart’s desire. Think of your Rene,” he wrote in one such case. There was a happy ending for the two: They were married in 1920 and immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s.

Billionaire industrialist Stef Wertheimer, one of the most distinguished members Israel’s yekke community, also donated an object to the exhibition. A few objects, actually: a collection of phonograph records and an accompanying letter of confession that he sent to his parents. His family arrived to Palestine from Germany in 1937. At the beginning of the 1940s, he enlisted in the British Army and was posted to Bahrein, where he served as an equipment technician during World War II.

A coded letter from Rene Weiss and Hella Lucas.Credit: German-Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum

“I hope that you are all healthy and pleased. It is completely pointless, dear mother, for you to be so concerned because of the sweets. In the meantime, I found an American friend and he supplies me with as much as I can gorge on,” Wertheimer wrote. “In general, I bought everything I need, and you don’t have to send me anything,” he added. At the end of the letter he confessed: “I now have 50 fine new phonograph records. I won’t buy any more, because I long since exceeded the baggage weight allowed me. I hope you are not angry that I spent so much money for records, but besides that I don’t spend a cent in the city.”