Gay and Jewish in Wartime Berlin: The Link Between Homosexuality and Zionism

A fascinating exhibition in Berlin is dedicated to a group of gay and lesbian German Jews who fought for the rights of both communities during Nazi rule.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

In his book “Ziffer and his Kind,” author and Haaretz correspondent Benny Ziffer quoted a letter he found among his records. In this letter he wrote to the Tel Aviv Municipality and suggested that the name of Independence Park, a seafront hot spot for gay pickups, be renamed for Jewish-German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a leader in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights in pre-Nazi Germany.

Ziffer believed “there is a strong link between Hirschfeld and the founding of Zionism.” First, because Hirschfeld founded a group for gay and lesbian rights, called the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, in 1897, “the same year the First Zionist Congress convened.” Second, because these two revival movements had similar goals – to bring the Jewish people back into the family of nations, and to bring homosexuality back into the realm of humanity’s accepted practices. Third, after the two movements started and began to flourish, the Nazis came to power - and they abhorred homosexuality as much as Judaism.

Another attempt to commemorate Hirschfeld in Israel leaped off the pages of fiction and into political reality in 2004, when Jerusalem Municipality councillor Sa’ar Netanel (Meretz) suggested that a street in the capital be renamed for Hirschfeld, as his memory has become entwined with the tireless struggle for human and civil rights, as well as the struggle against the Nazi racism.

According to Netanel, commemorating Hirschfeld - whose writings were banned and burned by the Nazis - would be a sign of solidarity by Israel, “which was founded after the tragedy of the Holocaust, with other victims of the Nazi regime.” The committee rejected the suggestion, however, on the grounds that there was no connection between the sexologist and Jerusalem.

Although Hirschfeld isn’t well known in Israel, in Berlin today he is regarded as a prophet of his time – and he can even be granted that coveted title of “gay icon.” The German capital, which long ago ceased to be embarrassed by its gay community, proudly commemorates Hirschfeld’s legacy, as he is remembered not only as the founder of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee but also as the founder of the city’s first sexology institute, in 1919, where the first sex-change operation took place.

Hirschfeld also developed the theory of “the third sex,” which posited that gays, lesbians, transvestites and intersex individuals belonged, biologically, to a sex that was neither masculine nor feminine. He also played himself in a 1919 film called “Different From the Others,” directed by Richard Oswald, which was one of the first films to depict homosexuality. Hirschfeld was not in Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and as they decided to close the sexology institute, he decided not to return there. He passed away two years later in France.

A section of the Spree river that transverses Berlin is named for Hirschfeld, and he has recently been featured as part of a historical “lesbian/Jewish/gay” exhibit at the Schwules Museum, an LGBT museum in the Tiergarten district of Berlin. The exhibition is dedicated to 24 gay and lesbian German Jews who contributed to the struggle for freedom both of Jews and the gay and lesbian community. Many of those featured were artists, writers or scientists, and their lives document the historical transition from democracy to the Weimar Republic, to the dictatorship of the Third Reich.

The exhibition is the museum’s contribution to Berlin’s memorial year for “destroyed diversity,” which commemorates 80 years since the Nazi rise to power, and 75 years since Kristallnacht. The exhibition’s curator, historian Dr. Jens Dobler, says the featured individuals “represent the wide range of persecution, of both Jews and gays, during the Nazi era, and offer some deep insight into the fates of those who suffered from double stigmas.”

The double stigma was expressed most vividly in the yellow-pink patches that the Nazis forced gay and lesbian Jews to wear in concentration camps. Dobler says there is no exact figure for how many people were made to wear this patch - a pink inverted triangle, superimposed upon a yellow one - but estimates range between 5,000 and 10,000. It is unclear how many of those were Jews. According to his research, a substantial number of closeted gays and lesbians should be added to those figures.

The root of 
human sexuality

Hirschfeld is without doubt the most well known of those in the exhibition, though he is featured alongside many other stand-out individuals, such as historian George Mosse (1919-1999), who escaped from Nazi Germany during his youth and went on to write extensive studies on Nazi racism and the legacy of manliness, sexuality and homosexuality; and Felice Schragenheim (1922-1945), a young woman from Berlin who perished in the Holocaust. Her tragic romance with another young German woman, Lilly Wust, was documented in the book “Aimee & Jaguar,” written by Erica Fischer.

Also, as Dobler points out, many of the women featured in the exhibition were in danger of being completely forgotten. One of the more astounding women featured is Charlotte Wolf (1896-1987), who was a doctor, writer and sexuality researcher. She was from a wealthy Jewish family in Riesenburg (then in Prussia, now Prabuty in Poland), and in her youth realized that she was attracted to women. In 1918 she began to study medicine, psychology and philosophy at the University of Freiburg.

When she moved to Berlin, where she finished her studies in 1928, she became involved with the city’s permissive culture and found social gatherings for lesbians. She advanced professionally, and became the de facto head of a family-planning clinic in Berlin, but was forced to leave the position when the Nazis came to power because she was Jewish. In February 1933, Wolf was arrested by the Gestapo because she wore men’s clothing and was suspected of espionage, but was released shortly after.

A few months later she escaped to France, and became a palm-reading fortune-teller. She moved to London in 1936, where she read the palms of many leading authors and artists, including Virginia Woolf, Marcel Duchamp, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw. Later, she developed a theory on the physiological and psychological features of the human hand. In the 1950s, she began to focus her efforts on the research of sexuality, and conducted a comprehensive and revolutionary psychological study on lesbian love, published in 1971.

In 1977, she published an empirical study of bisexualism in which she claimed that it is the root of human sexuality. In addition to her studies, she released a biography of Magnus Hirschfeld, published before she died. Wolf saw herself as the “perfect outsider,” as she was both Jewish and lesbian.

Another subject of the exhibition, which runs until September 9, is author and cultural researcher Richard Plant (1910-1998), born Richard Plaut in Frankfurt. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of the city but his immediate family was secular. When he was 14 he realized he was attracted to men, and for this he was sent for therapy with psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, who was a family member. Goldstein, however, was unable to change his sexual preference, and actually encouraged Plant to accept himself.

In 1929, Plant began to study philology and German history in Frankfurt. Later, as Hitler was appointed chancellor, the university informed him that his doctoral dissertation would not be accepted. He moved to Basel, Switzerland, and in 1938 immigrated to the United States, changing his name from Plaut to Plant, and settled in New York. Plant’s father, who remained in Germany, committed suicide later that year, after Kristallnacht, and Plant’s other family members were killed in concentration camps.

During the 1960s Plant began to write for an LGBT newspaper, and in 1973 wrote his most important work, “The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War against Homosexuals” (published in 1986). What started as Plant’s efforts to discover the fates of German friends from when he was younger, became an in-depth and groundbreaking study into the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

Not only did he write about the conditions that allowed for thousands of gays and lesbians to be sent to the camps by the SS, but also about the thousands more who were sentenced to death by the German legal system, as clause 175 of the criminal code forbid homosexual relations. There were, of course, many differences between the Nazis’ persecution of gays and Jews, but, as Plant shows, the Nazis’ antigay and anti-Semitic policies were closely related.

From the film Aimee and Jaguar (1999). Based on the real-life affair between Felice Schragenheim and Lilly Wust.
Richard Plant with the Jewish youth group Kadimah in 1927 on a trip.Credit: Schwules Museum
Charlotte Wolf, fortune-teller. Anke Rixa Hansen.Credit: Anke Rixa Hansen
Logo of the exhibition.Credit: Schwules Museum
The Schwules Museum, an LGBT museum in the Tiergarten district of Berlin.Credit: Tobias Wille



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