Charlotte von Mahlsdorf: Is The Disguise She’s Wearing More Than Just A Dress?

By Warren Jacobs

Charlotte von Mahsdorf

The fascinating life of preservationist and museum founder Charlotte von Mahlsdorf has been the subject of an acclaimed autobiography, a film in which she played herself, and the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, I Am My Own Wife, now playing in San Miguel de Allende.

I Am My Own Wife, Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Doug Wright
Starring Alan Jordan
Fri and Sat, Dec 5 and 6, 7pm
Sun, Dec 7, 5:30pm
Finca y Fábrica
Plaza Pueblito
Stirling Dickinson 28
Tickets for general seating can be purchased only at Solutions, Recreo 11
175 pesos

Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde on March 18, 1928 in Berlin. Biologically a male, even as a child she identified as a girl, displayed a fascination with girls’ clothing and “old stuff,” and preferred to play with “junk” rather than toys. These early interests presaged Lothar Berfelde’s later emergence as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, famous transvestite and collector of everyday historical objects.

Mahlsdorf’s father, Max Berfelde, was a violent man who rose in the ranks of the Nazi party to become party leader in the Mahlsdorf area of Berlin. Bitterly disappointed with his son’s sissified manners and interest in girlish activities, he frequently subjected the child to harsh and inhumane treatment. In 1942 he forced Lothar to join the Hitler Youth even though the adolescent despised the Nazis and resented their treatment of Jewish friends and neighbors.

After the war, Mahlsdorf built an impressive collection by rescuing objects from houses that had been bombed and also by buying items from people who fled East Berlin for West Germany. In the difficult years after World War II, East German authorities seemed bent on destroying whole sections of Berlin, replacing distinctive old buildings with concrete high-rise towers and prefab housing. Such disregard for the past horrified Mahlsdorf, who dedicated herself to preserving condemned buildings. “I am not concerned with dead stones or lifeless furniture,” she declared, explaining her interest in preservation. “They are embodiments that mirror the history of the men who built them, who lived in them. Senseless destruction does away with a former way of life, the foundation of our spiritual and aesthetic culture, and irretrievably impoverishes our daily lives.”

On May Day 1991, a group of neo-Nazi skinheads attacked a celebration at Mahlsdorf’s museum. Several people, including Mahlsdorf herself, were injured. At the time, she revealed that she was considering leaving Germany. Before she left, however, the government of the newly unified Germany in 1992 bestowed on her one of its most prestigious honors, the Bundesverdienstkreuz (or Service Cross of the Bundesrepublik), for her preservation of cultural values. In Wright’s play, Mahlsdorf emerges as less idealized than she had been seen before the revelations about her relationship with the Stasi, but also more complex, more intriguing, and more human.

I Am My Own Wife, starring Alan Jordan, is playing at Finca y Fábrica, Plaza Pueblito, Stirling Dickinson 28. Tickets for general seating can be purchased only at Solutions, Recreo 11. Tickets are 175 pesos. Remaining performance dates are December 5 and 6 at 7pm, and December 7 at 5:30pm. Thank you for supporting theater in beautiful San Miguel de Allende.


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