I had never heard of Harry Waldow, or Suleika Aldini, when I found her papers in the archive of the Schwules Museum* in Berlin. Neither, it turned out, had the Schwules Museum* when Suleika contacted them in 2010, at a time when she was already seriously ill (she died two years later).
Harry/Suleika was born in 1937, of a Sinti family. He/she survived Nazi persecution (his/her parents did not), and after the war was fostered by a family that travelled from funfair to funfair. Early to mid-1950s Harry/Suleika took female hormones and grew breasts, but never transitioned fully. From about that time she worked at a number of travesty pubs in Hamburg and Berlin: as an exotic snake dancer, a fire eater, and with an erotic strip show. Her time at the then well-known Berlin travesty/cabaret theatre Chez Nous was arguably the high point of her career. Her health quickly declined, and during the last years of her life, she lived in poverty and debt, receiving only a very basic pension.
Many details of her life remain unclear, especially her persecution during the Nazi period, but her life as a transgender stage artist from the 1950s to the late 1980s is well documented through her papers and photos that she gave to the Schwules Museum*.
I am currently attempting to reconstruct Harry’s/Suleika’s life: it is very much a work in progress as I continue to have more questions than answers. In my paper I will present my findings so far and ask how we can uncover the life of a transgender person who always lived in the shadows, out of the spotlight, no matter how much she struggled, first as a Roma child survivor of the Holocaust, and then a transgender person in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Harry/Suleika tried to get by as best as he/she could – at a time when there were few opportunities for an open life as transgender and when “activism” meant daring to live one’s life.
Rainer Schulze is (Emeritus) Professor of Modern European History at the
University of Essex and particularly known for his work on the Holocaust and the non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. Since March 2017 he curates and presents the weekly LGBTIQ film programme “Tales from the Margins” on Latest LGBT+ TV, Brighton.
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