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Mahlsdorf, Charlotte von (1928-2002)  
 
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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 a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play.

A controversial figure who may have willingly supplied information to the East German secret police during the period of the German Democratic Republic, Mahlsdorf was nevertheless honored by the German government after reunification for her preservationist and museum work. She was admired by many for her bravery in the face of persecution and for her openness as a public figure during perilous times.

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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.

Preferring the term "transvestite" to "" since she felt no aversion to her male genitals, Mahlsdorf declared that "In my soul, I feel like a woman" and described her childish self as "a girl in a boy's body."

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.

Mahlsdorf's mother, Gretchen Gaupp Berfelde, was Lothar's "good fairy," a gentle and nurturing woman who comforted her child and accepted Lothar's feminine interests. Lothar also found acceptance from a lesbian aunt, who cross-dressed in male clothing and who introduced Lothar to Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's book, The Transvestites (1910), a work that Mahlsdorf particularly valued because it reassured her that she "was not alone in the world."

After years of being beaten and humiliated by her husband, in 1944 Gretchen Berfelde announced that she was divorcing him. During this domestic crisis, Mahlsdorf's father threatened to kill his entire family. In response, Mahlsdorf struck her father dead with a rolling pin while he slept. She later defended her action as "a kind of preventive 'self-defense' to save other lives. . . . I felt neither hatred nor a need for revenge, but was forced to circumvent his designs on the lives of my mother, sister, and brother."

After the slaying, Mahlsdorf spent several weeks in a psychiatric institution and then was sentenced to four years detention as an "anti-social juvenile delinquent." With the collapse of the Third Reich in April 1945, however, she was released. In the chaos attendant on the fall of Berlin, she barely escaped summary execution for seeking refuge in an air raid shelter reserved for women and children.

Soon afterwards, Mahlsdorf assumed the name "Lottchen" and, then, "Charlotte von Mahlsdorf." As Mahlsdorf, she became a well-known figure in East Berlin, both as a transvestite and as a passionate collector of historical everyday items.

Mahlsdorf's fascination with old furniture and other collectibles had begun as a child. She asked neighbors for old items that they were discarding and, as an adolescent, she worked for a second-hand goods dealer who cleared out apartments, often of fleeing or deported Jews, and frequently kept some items for herself.

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.

Mahlsdorf, whose strongest desire was "to keep beautiful objects safe," specialized in everyday items--chandeliers, furniture, gramophones, clocks, automated music players, glassware, etc.--from the Gründerzeit, the period of the founding of the German Empire, the years between 1870 and 1900. Even before she understood the differences in period styles, she was instinctively attracted to this era's furniture, which in her childhood had gone out of fashion. "Columns, lathe-turned legs, and ball-shaped wooden decorations here and there gave me a thrill," she later recalled.

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.

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The cover of the Cleis Press edition of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's autobiography, I Am My Own Wife.
  
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