When Jewish people got deported to labor and concentration camps during the Third Reich, one of Berlin’s most eccentric transvestites — Lothar Berfelde, known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf — bought or collected the belongings of Jewish deportees and made them part of her Gründerzeit Museum, which still exists today.
In 2003, Doug Wright, a New York-based, Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, wrote “I Am My Own Wife,” about the cultural outsider. The play has since been performed in 30 countries and is scheduled to come back to the United States for a run in early 2011. The Forward’s Henrik Eger asked the author about the plight of Jews in Berlin as seen through the eyes of Charlotte, the flawed heroine of his award-winning play, which hit a raw nerve with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.
How did Jewish theatergoers and critics respond to the fact that Charlotte apparently hoarded artifacts and clothing from Jewish people who had been deported?
Doug Wright: They no doubt found it as vexing as I did! I have to note that Charlotte felt real compassion for the Jewish community. Her first love was a fellow named Levinsohn. When she arrived at work one morning, she learned that he had been deported, along with his entire family. He’d been her soul mate, and she never saw him again. It plagued her for the rest of her life.
The truth remains murky, even now. She was also accused of furnishing her home (later, her museum) with items stolen from Jewish homes during the terrible deportations during World War II. These charges were less conclusive, but no less troubling.
And it’s true that she gave a huge record collection of largely Jewish music to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. None of this excuses the fact that she may have appropriated Jewish belongings in a less-than-noble fashion, but it does point to her complexity.
Charlotte makes many references to Jewish culture. Did you have a sense that she felt a bit guilty about having obtained items from Jews who were deported and that, subconsciously, she made the references?
Yes, without question. And as a cultural outsider, I think she felt an affinity for the Jewish experience in Germany. She lived in a morally ambivalent, confused world, and didn’t always behave nobly. That said, she did have very real compassion.
How did you — both as a human being and as a playwright — cope with your growing awareness that Charlotte, Germany’s most famous transvestite, might have deluded herself or that she might have lied to you about the less-than-noble parts of her life?
I became frightened of actually putting pen to paper; I didn’t want to reveal Charlotte’s duplicity to the world. I’d grown to dearly love her, and I didn’t want to “inform” on her myself. And yet, in my soul, I knew that these unwelcome complications in her character made her an even more compelling figure for the stage. Finally, I decided the only true way to honor her was to present her with all of her vexing contradictions intact, just as she presented furniture in her museum with its imperfections preserved.
Charlotte had trusted me enough to allow me to read her secret police file, which contained the incriminating information [that she had betrayed her closest friend to the Stasi, the secret service in communist East Germany, who had pressured her to either give up her museum and go to jail or inform on others], and I didn’t want to betray her by revealing the story. Charlotte’s death in 2002, while profoundly unsettling for me as a person, was a kind of liberation for me as a writer. I could still honor her in the play, but without hiding unpleasant truths.
You’re one of the few American playwrights who introduces Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the most important scientific pioneers who studied homosexuality and who was Jewish. How widely known do you think Hirschfeld is in today’s America?
Magnus Hirschfeld is an overlooked hero; his library, one of the most comprehensive collections on human sexuality in the world, was one of the first burned by the Nazis.
He’s a remarkable figure in his own right, but these days, he’s mostly mentioned in passing as a precursor to Krafft-Ebing, Freud and Kinsey. I hope the play brings him additional fame.
What else should people know about the play and about your work?
Seemingly marginal characters like Charlotte von Mahlsdorf make for compelling drama, I think, because in their eccentricities, we see ourselves, distilled. We may not all be avid collectors, but surely we have a relative — a mother or a maiden aunt — who lovingly enshrines Lladro figurines in the curio cabinet. We may not all be transvestites, but we all wear costumes of a certain sort: the pinstriped suit of the businessman, the noble blue of the police officer, the track suit of the active young mom. So when audiences come to see a play about an elderly East German transvestite, I hope that — by the curtain call — they’ve also learned something powerful about themselves.
My journey with Charlotte and her remarkable story has constituted some of the best moments of my life; she was truly a memorable figure.
Henrik Eger is a playwright, theater critic and professor of English and communications at Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania.