It was many years before I, a Jewish lesbian, was willing to visit the city that declared itself in 1943 to be judenfrei (no Jews): that city was Berlin, the capital city of Nazi Germany. We mustn’t ever forget the Holocaust and what hatred of vulnerable minorities can lead to. It happened that friends invited me to spend a weekend in Berlin with them to experience Pride. The city was going all out to celebrate its historically persecuted, yet resilient LGBTQ community.
Amongst the Berlin Pride festivities that year, there would be a special exhibition of 20th century queer German artists, including Gertrude Sandmann (1893-1981). A few years before, I went to London’s retrospective of avant-garde German artists during the Weimar Republic period, which roughly spanned the years from the end of WWI to 1933. I adored one drawing of two nude women by Gertrude Sandmann. I never heard of her, but learned from the brief caption that she was an important Berlin artist, a lesbian, and a Holocaust survivor. By traveling to Berlin, I would discover considerably more, and so I set my reservations aside.
It was only a short plane trip from London to Berlin, which spoke volumes of how quickly fighter planes and bombers can reach across the small checkboard of Europe. On the night of November 22, 1943, the most devastating air raid since the beginning of the war began over Berlin. Six hundred British and Canadian planes dropped thousands of explosive and incendiary bombs on the city for two hours. Gertrude Sandmann crouched under a desk in her hiding place away from the windows, held her breath, and hoped that the bombs would not find her. At the same time, every single Allied attack was bringing her closer to the liberation she so desperately longed for.
According to official records in 1943, Gertrude Sandmann no longer existed. The other Jews had either fled or were taken forcibly away. But Gertrude Sandmann was still alive in Berlin. Her non-Jewish lover and their friends had hidden Sandmann at the risk of their own lives. "Will they find me, or won't they?" Sandmann kept asking herself until the war ended.
At the Berlin exhibit, each artist was introduced by their own black & white image. I smiled up at a photo taken in 1960 of a white-haired, elderly woman in a painter's smock standing confidently before her easel in a studio overflowing with drawings. Before her is an almost completed portrait of a woman with a hat. She reviews it with a critical eye and makes a few final strokes. This was Gertrude Sandmann.
Despite being banned from her profession during the Nazi years, she produced well over a thousand works over her sixty-year career. The Nazis destroyed much of her oeuvre as an example of “degenerate art.” She drew with chalk or charcoal, as well as painting with watercolor and pastels. Form was the most principal element for her, color an extra. She worked with omissions that were meant to stir the imagination, the viewer’s capacity to see. Her drawings made visible the unassuming beauty of everyday life that she discovered in a sleeping woman or a burst chestnut. Her artwork was the product of her joy in seeing, not a means of social criticism like her friend Käthe Kollwitz.
Sandmann's drawings are predominantly of women. Several nudes of pairs of women have been preserved from the period around 1925. It is truly remarkable how Sandmann was able to grasp their essence and create an erotic atmosphere with such sparing use of materials and a few powerful strokes.
Gertrude grew up in Tiergarten, a well-to-do district of Berlin, in an assimilated Jewish family. Her father was a businessperson, as well as a civil deputy. In 1913, Sandmann studied at the Berlin Association of Women Artists (women were not allowed in the national academy until after WW1). Other members of this still existing association included Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Sandmann throughout her career was very vocal about the professional discrimination of women artists.
Gertrude Sandmann discovered rather early on that she felt "closer to women than to men." At the beginning of WW1, she had a secret relationship with a fellow art student. To satisfy the demands of her family and retain their financial support, she married a physician in 1915, but the marriage, in name only, ended in divorce after only a brief time.
She wrote, "It is necessary or at least favorable for a woman artist not to live in a union that makes demands of her in the sense of a patriarchal role allocation; instead, she should have a union that neither impedes her work nor hampers her development, that is, one containing much that is reciprocal and companionate. This is why it seems lucky to me if a woman artist is a lesbian and if she can declare this without feelings of guilt.”
Starting in the mid-1920s, Sandmann worked for an extended period as a freelance artist in Paris and Italy, participated in several art exhibitions in Berlin, and drew illustrations for magazines to earn a living. In 1976, she reflected on what life was like for Weimar Republic lesbians, “if they wanted to live according to their nature, and not in the closet: they faced severe resistance, confrontation, pressure from family, and hiding their lesbianism in most occupations." Despite everything, she was successful and independent during this period. She joined the left-wing Independent Social Democratic Party while studying in Munich, since it was the only party that had voted against the war.
In 1933, Sandmann quickly recognized what the Nazis coming to power could mean for her. She fled to Switzerland but had to return to Germany in 1934 as she was unable to extend her residence and work permits. In the same year, she was expelled from the national professional association of artists, because of her "non-Aryan" heritage. In 1935, every artist of Jewish heritage, every political radical, and every gay person was banned from teaching, exhibiting, or selling their artistic works. Sandmann became dependent on her inheritance from her late father. In secret, Sandmann continued to draw.
Gertrude Sandmann (1893-1981)
By some twist of fate, Sandmann’s sister became an Italian citizen through her marriage to a non-Jewish Italian man. She registered their parent's Berlin house in her married name in 1939 to save the family from losing it through "Aryanization," as the Nazis referred to the expropriation of Jewish-owned property. Until 1942, it provided Sandmann and her mother a place to hide. Sandmann had an opportunity in 1939 to flee to England, but she could not leave her sick mother behind. She was stuck in Berlin after her mother died.
As of September 1941, she had to wear the Jewish star, which made her more visible as an outcast and subject to abuse on the street. She was required to hand in all valuables. Only her bad health saved her from having to perform slave labor. In the summer of 1942, her only uncle and
aunt were taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and murdered.
In November 1942, Sandmann was threatened with deportation to a concentration camp, since she had not performed slave labor to be useful. She decided to risk going underground. She fled her own apartment on November 21, 1942, leaving a note announcing her suicide to the Gestapo, who appeared at her door shortly afterward and stole everything. Suicide was an act of desperation not uncommon within the Jewish population. To make it look believable, Sandmann left everything behind in the apartment, including her food rations card, which was an essential document for wartime civilians.
Without the support of brave friends, it would not have been possible to survive underground. Gertrude Sandmann was lucky. Hedwig Koslowski, Sandmann’s gentile partner since 1927, did not abandon her. Hedwig arranged a hiding place with friends of hers in the Treptow district of Berlin. Sandmann remained hidden in a minuscule closet and lived on whatever they could spare from food rations. The Diary of Anne Frank vividly described what it was like for Jews to live in hiding for months or even years.
Like Anne Frank, Sandmann had to avoid making any sound whatsoever in the poorly insulated apartment. She could not stand near the window or ever leave the apartment, even during the heaviest of bombings, which left her utterly helpless. By the summer of 1944, it was unbearable to hide there, so Hedwig found a new hiding place in an unoccupied summerhouse in Biesdorf on the outskirts of Berlin. Because of the neighbors, she was not allowed to start a fire or turn on lights. Hedwig and another friend supplied her with food. Since she had not been able to draw for a long time, she recited poetry, training her memory to keep sane.
In the fall of 1944, she had to move again because of the cold. This time Hedwig took her into her own apartment, which she shared with another artisan in the Schöneberg district. This is where Sandmann was living, emaciated at seventy pounds, when the Allied troops liberated Berlin.
Gertrude was one of only 1,200 other Berlin Jews who survived the war underground. She had serious health problems caused by the conditions of her covert life. A small financial compensation for the injustices she had suffered during the Nazi period secured a modest existence for her. With the help of her partner, Sandmann soon found an apartment and studio in the Schöneberg district, where she lived until her death.
Shortly after the war, she started drawing again. Although she participated in several postwar exhibitions in 1949, 1958, and 1968, only in 1974 did she have a much-acclaimed solo exhibition in Düsseldorf, which included forty-five more recent works. In 1968 over seventy of her drawings were displayed in another collective exhibition.
Sandmann avidly followed the 1970s women's movement in Germany, and she supported the women's art gallery Andere Zeichen (“Different Signs”) in West Berlin. In November 1974, at eighty-one years old, she helped found Group L74, the first postwar organization for elderly lesbians in Berlin. Sandmann also worked on the magazine published by the group, UKZ (Unsere Kleine Zeitung, “Our Little Newspaper”). For years, her drawing "Lovers" graced the cover page of this magazine.
Yes, the Berlin Pride march and the bars were fun, but I carried back with me to London a deeper grounding in the meaning of Pride. I came to know the life story of a gifted lesbian artist and saw her surviving works. In her, I saw passion, grace, and commitment. Aided by her incredible will, she survived and lived true to her own nature. Her example continually reminds me that the struggle for respect, selfhood and the freedom to love whomever you love isn’t over, but rather something we must all recommit ourselves to defend.
In her, I find Berlin Pride.
Emily L Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir, 'Failure to Appear, Resistance, Identity and Loss' (Blue Beacon Books) and non-fiction articles appearing in digital magazines including Salon, Narratively, Drizzle Review, Creation, The Mindful Word, GO, The Gay & Lesbian Review, and Open Democracy. She has appeared on CNN Evening News and NPR’s All Things Considered; interviewed by numerous progressive radio stations, such as KPFA; and covered/quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, National Catholic Reporter, Associated Press, InfoWeek, Wired, and The John Liner Review, among others. When she isn’t writing, you might find Emily planting veggie seeds in her garden or at her piano playing Scriabin.
Author website: emilyqfreeman.com