Recalling the First Sex Change Operation in History: A German-Israeli Insurance Salesman

The long-forgotten story of a German Jew who was born as Martha and escaped the Nazis as Karl, rediscovered by a Tel Aviv University student.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Karl M. Baer, who underwent a female-to-male sex-change operation in Germany in 1906.
Karl M. Baer, who underwent a female-to-male sex-change operation in Germany in 1906. Credit: 'Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years'
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“Karl Meir Baer, 1956,” says the simple headstone on a grave at Tel Aviv's Kiryat Shaul Cemetery.

“It’s not the kind of headstone you give a second glance to,” says Adi Sabran, who found the grave this summer as part of her research for a course on queer studies and history of sexuality at Tel Aviv University.

Baer was born in Germany in 1885 as a girl, Martha Baer. She became a feminist activist as a young woman and at the beginning of the 20th century, she entered history as the first person to undergo a sex-change operation.

Nearly 60 years after his death, Baer’s travails are being told again. Sabran and her lecturer at Tel Aviv University, Iris Rachamimov, published Baer’s story in the latest edition of Zmanim, a Hebrew-language journal which dedicated its most recent edition to queer history.

Baer was born to a German-Jewish family in Arolsen in central Germany. When he came into the world, the midwife congratulated his mother on “the birth of a lovely daughter.”

But later she told his father of a problem. Apparently Baer’s body had “such strange” characteristics that she had no way of determining his gender. After consulting a doctor, Baer’s parents registered him as a girl.

The tombstone of Karl M. Baer at Tel Aviv's Kiryat Shaul Cemetery, December 2015.Credit: Adi Sabran

But Baer’s body did not develop into a woman’s body and Baer did not feel his external appearance was compatible with his sense of self. “I was born as a boy and raised as a girl,” he wrote in his autobiography “Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years,” published in German in 1907.

According to Baer, “one may raise a healthy boy in as womanish manner as one wishes and a female creature in as mannish; never will this cause their senses to remain forever reversed.”

As a girl he learned to hide his body from other children, adapt his behavior to what was expected of him and play with the girls in class. But growing up he had difficulty at knitting lessons and was excluded from the girls’ games.

All the children knew there was something different about him, he wrote. As one of the girls at school told him: Get out of here disgusting boy – none of us wants to play with boys and you’re really a boy.

The change in his life occurred after he moved to Hamburg in 1904 and became a social worker and feminist activist in the international Jewish organization B’nai Brith. In 1904 he started living as a man.

“I introduced myself as a man never as a woman,” he wrote. “What am I really? Am I a man? Oh God, no. It would be an indescribable delight if I were. But miracles don’t happen anymore these days.”

People who knew Martha Baer said she had masculine features, facial hair and a masculine voice. She smoked thick cigars and drank beer copiously.

A streetcar named spiritual healing

Baer’s situation became more complicated when he fell in love. His first serious relationship was still as a woman, with a married woman. When the two realized their relationship was hopeless they decided to commit suicide together. But before they did, Baer was injured in a tram accident in Berlin – an event that led to his spiritual healing.

The doctors noticed his unusual body and the fact that he presented himself as a man but was registered as a woman on his ID card. So they called in the Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, famous for his efforts for gay rights. With Hirschfeld’s recommendation and a permit from the Prussian Interior Ministry, Baer underwent a sex-change operation in 1906.

Rachamimov, editor of Zmanim and herself a transgender woman, says there were transgender people – cross-dressers – before Baer, but he was the first who underwent surgery. “He was unusual in that he used medical technology and surgical means to change his gender,” she says.

The exact details of Baer’s medical procedure were never found. Perhaps they were burned by the Nazis in 1933 with the other documents in Hirschfeld’s library. Either way, the operation was a success. In a lecture to other doctors, Hirschfeld described Baer as “a man who was mistakenly identified as a woman.” He said Baer was a case of “erroneous sexual attribution.”

“This 21-and-a-half-year-old lived until today as a woman and from now, with the authorities’ approval, she intends to continue her life as a man with a man’s name and clothes,” he said.

Short hair and trousers

The author and playwright Rudolf Presber described his meeting with Baer, whom he had known as a woman, after the operation.

As Presber put it, “Instead of the young woman a young man appeared before me – her twin brother. His hair was cut short and he wore men’s clothes. His steps in men’s trousers were small and somewhat hesitant. His movements were a little forced, as a child’s; they seemed to be trying to cast off the restrictions of two decades.”

Dr. Hermann Simon, director of the Jewish Center in Berlin’s New Synagogue, said his aunt told him that one day her friend, Miss Baer, said goodbye to her and her friends; Baer was moving to another town to take on a new job.

But later a young man named Karl Baer showed up. He was the spitting image of Martha but wore men’s clothes and his hair was cut short. The friends accepted Baer back into the group without asking too many questions.

In January 1907 Baer gained legal recognition of his new gender and received a new birth certificate as a man. He added the letter M. (from Martha) to become Karl M. Baer. The inscription on the Tel Aviv head says the M. stands for Meir.

At the end of 1907 Baer married the lover he had the affair with before the operation, after she divorced her husband. A year and a half later his wife died of pneumonia and Baer married her friend Elsa and worked as an insurance agent and Jewish activist in Berlin. At the height of his career he headed the local B’nai Brith.

In 1937 the Nazis raided the organization’s offices and arrested him. After being interrogated and tortured, Baer sold his apartment and property and left with his wife for prestate Israel. Here Baer worked as an insurance agent and accountant and lived in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv.

“Baer finally came to be at ease with his body and sense of self,” says Rachamimov. “He didn’t want to be among those fighting for gay liberation. He chose to become part of the community and live an ordinary, bourgeois life.”

But Baer’s new life also had a subversive streak. He had an affair with his secretary Gitla Fisch, who set up a threesome with him and his wife. In 1947 Baer’s second wife died and three years later he married Fisch.

“Beyond that nothing is known about him,” says Sabran. “Few people in Israel knew his life story, and it was forgotten.”

Sabran found most of the details of Baer’s life in his autobiography, published under the psdudonym N.O. Body. Sabran finds his chosen pen name deeply significant: “That was exactly Baer, who lived the grayest life imaginable and disappeared into nothing, without anybody knowing about his past.”

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