Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

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Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf 19940625.jpg
Berlin Gay Pride Parade, 1994
Born(1928-03-18)18 March 1928
Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Germany
Died30 April 2002(2002-04-30) (aged 74)
Berlin, Germany

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (18 March 1928 – 30 April 2002) was a transgender woman who founded the Gründerzeit Museum in Berlin-Mahlsdorf.

When a local mansion was due for demolition, von Mahlsdorf was allowed to live there, and its contents became the basis for her collection of everyday household items from the Gründerzeit period (c. 1870s). The museum became a popular meeting-point for East Berlin’s gay community, to the disapproval of the East German regime, and Charlotte could only save it by becoming an unofficial collaborator for the secret police (Stasi).

Early years[edit]

Von Mahlsdorf was born to parents Max Berfelde and Gretchen Gaupp in Berlin-Mahlsdorf, Germany. At a very young age she felt more like a girl, and expressed more interest in the clothing and articles of little girls. She helped a second-hand goods dealer clear out the apartments of deported Jews and sometimes kept items.[1]

Max Berfelde, Charlotte's father, was already a member of the Nazi Party by the late 1920s and he had become a party leader in Mahlsdorf. In 1942 he forced Charlotte to join the Hitler Youth. They often quarreled, but the situation escalated in 1944 when her mother left the family during the evacuation. Max demanded that Charlotte choose between parents, threatening her with a gun and leaving her in a room with an hour to choose; when he came in to kill her, she struck him with a rolling pin and killed him. In January 1945, after several weeks in a psychiatric institution, Charlotte was sentenced by a court in Berlin to four years' detention as an anti-social juvenile delinquent. She did not serve the full term because the jails were opened at the end of the war.


With the fall of the Third Reich, Charlotte was released. She worked as a second-hand goods dealer and dressed in a more feminine way. She began going by "Lottchen". She loved older men and became a well-known figure in the city as von Mahlsdorf. She began collecting household items, thus saving historical everyday items from bombed-out houses. She was also able to take advantage of the clearance of the households of people who left for West Germany.

Her collection evolved into the Gründerzeit Museum. She had become engaged in the preservation of the von Mahlsdorf estate, which was threatened with demolition, and was awarded the manor house rent-free. In 1960, Von Mahlsdorf opened the museum of everyday articles from the Gründerzeit (the time of the founding of the German Empire) in the only partially-reconstructed Mahlsdorf manor house. The museum became well known in cinematic, artistic and gay circles. From 1970 on, the East Berlin homosexual scene often had meetings and celebrations in the museum.

In 1974 the East German authorities announced that they wanted to bring the museum and its exhibits under state control. In protest, von Mahlsdorf began giving away the exhibits to visitors. Thanks to the committed involvement of the actress Annekathrin Bürger and the attorney Friedrich Karl Kaul [de]—and possibly also thanks to her enlistment as an inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (an unofficial collaborator) for Stasi, the secret East German police—the authorities' attempt was stopped in 1976 and she was able to keep the museum.

In 1991, neo-Nazis attacked one of her celebrations in the museum. Several participants were hurt. At this time, von Mahlsdorf announced she was considering leaving Germany.

In 1992, she received the Bundesverdienstkreuz, 'Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.'

Her decision to leave Germany meant that she guided her last visitor through the museum in 1995, and in 1997 she moved to Porla Brunn, an old spa near Hasselfors, Sweden, where she opened (with moderate success) a new museum dedicated to the turn of the 19th century. The city of Berlin bought the Gründerzeit Museum, and by 1997 it had been opened again by the "Förderverein Gutshaus Mahlsdorf e. V.".

Her life could be described as that of an outsider who survived, no matter the ruling ideology, during the Nazi period, Communist-controlled East Germany, or, once the wall fell, modern Germany, as described in the article "The Sexual and Political Chameleon of Berlin: The Ambiguities of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's Life in I Am My Own Wife.”[2]

Von Mahlsdorf died from heart failure during a visit to Berlin on 30 April 2002.


Some of her comments, such as those made in Berlin during a lecture on 12 March 1997, were seen as anti-LGBT and led to a loss of the support of some members of the community. On 21 July 2000, an article on her declining popularity appeared with the subtitle, "Charlotte von Mahlsdorf disqualified herself as the patron saint of the Lesbian-Gay Park Festival in Berlin,"[3] quoting her remark: "That lesbians and gays can't have children is, after all, quite natural. Nature, too, seeks out what it can use, what can reproduce, and what can't. If we look at it like that, if lesbians and gays did have children, then we'd have a lot more unemployed people today."

("Daß die Lesben und Schwulen keine Kinder kriegen, das ist doch ganz natürlich. Die Natur sucht sich ja auch aus, was sie gebrauchen kann, was sie sich vermehren läßt und was nicht. Und wenn wir's mal so nehmen: Wenn die Lesben und Schwulen nun auch noch Kinder kriegen würden, dann hätten wir heute noch viel mehr Arbeitslose.")

Regardless of these issues, some people still honour her memory, be it for her work as the founder of the Gründerzeit Museum, or for her public role as a transgender woman and her foregrounding of the persecution of homosexuals in both the Third Reich and East Germany. The appeal for a memorial to von Mahlsdorf, organized by the "Förderverein Gutshaus Mahlsdorf e. V." and the "Interessengemeinschaft Historische Friedhöfe Berlin" (Alliance of Historical Cemeteries in Berlin) was therefore a success.

The intention of the organizers was to erect a memorial with the inscription "Ich bin meine eigene Frau (I am my own woman) – Charlotte von Mahlsdorf – 18. März 1928 – 30. April 2002" on the first anniversary of Charlotte's death. However, von Mahlsdorf's relatives demanded the inscription be changed. As questions remained about the disposition of her estate, and the "Förderverein Gutshaus Mahlsdorf e. V." was concerned that her relatives could demand the return of her furniture, they yielded to these demands.

Although Charlotte von Mahlsdorf had been known almost exclusively by her "stage name" in recent years, her relatives pushed through the inscription "Lothar Berfelde, 1928 – 2002, genannt Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Dem Museumsgründer zur Erinnerung" (Lothar Berfelde, 1928 – 2002, known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In memory of the [male] founder of the museum).

Documentary film[edit]

In 1992, German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim made a film about von Mahlsdorf called I Am My Own Woman (Original title: Ich bin meine eigene Frau) with von Mahlsdorf appearing in the film.


Theatre plays[edit]

American playwright Doug Wright wrote the character play, I Am My Own Wife based on von Mahlsdorf's life from his own research of her biography. Since its initial run on- and off-Broadway the play has garnered every major American theatre award including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, Drama League Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, and the Lambda Literary Award for Drama.

German author Peter Süß [de], co-author and publisher of von Mahlsdorf's book, has made another play called Ich bin meine eigene Frau. The play had its premiere in spring 2006 at the Schauspiel Leipzig.

Larry Moss and Josef Ludwig Pfitzer made an adaptation of the Doug Wright play called Ich mach ja doch, was ich will (I still do what I want), that was shown at Teamtheater in May 2012 in Munich, Germany.


  • Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von (1992). Süß, Peter (ed.). Ich bin meine eigene Frau (in German) (1st ed.). Berlin: Edition Diá. ISBN 3-86034-109-X.
  • Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von (1997). Ab durch die Mitte (in German) (1st ed.). Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag (DTV). ISBN 3-423-20041-3.


External links[edit]

Media related to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf at Wikimedia Commons