The Wehrmacht and cross-dressing

Today I found a gem at the flea market – photos of German soldiers dressed as women. Browsing through boxes with old pictures and postcards, I came across a collection of photos of young men serving in the army. Most of them didn’t stand out in any way, except for two that caught my eye.

Zdjęcie żołnierzy Wehrmahtu przebranych za kobiety

Source: private collection

Cross-dressing and the Wehrmacht

At the beginning I decided to buy 2 portraits of women and 2 short correspondences from the end of the 19th century. I didn’t really want photos of German soldiers in my collection, especially without any additional information that would help me identify someone in the next step.

However, as soon as I left the stall, something told me that it would be worth reconsidering this decision – and as I kept thinking about these pictures, I came back and bought them.

While looking for information that would help me understand the context of these unique items, I came across an article about Martin Damman. An artist who has been collecting photos of German soldiers practicing cross-dressing for two decades. It seems that men in “my” pictures were part of something bigger, as Martin released his book Soldier Studies. Cross-dressing in Wehrmacht containing his photo collection in 2018.

Zdjęcie żołnierzy Wehrmachtu przebranych za kobiety

Source: private collection

Carnival, entertainment or self expression?

Dammann, besides presenting his photo collection, reflects on the role that cross-dressing could have played among German soldiers.

On the one hand, he said that it may have referred to German carnival traditions and to theatrical performances with intention to bring relief and entertainment in brutal circumstances. On the other hand, he noted that homosexuality and transgenderism were present among German soldiers, even when faced with the penalty of placement in a concentration camp and death.

Perhaps for some it was an entertainment and emotion regulation, for others it could have been a substitute for normality and the possibility of self-expression.

A short interview with Martin Damman can be viewed here here. 

Zdjęcie żołnierzy Wehrmachtu na łóżku

Source: private collection

Zdjęcie żołnierzy Wehrmachtu na polanie

Source: private collection

Żołnierze Wehrmachu przebrani za kobiety

Source: private collection

Żołnierz Wehrmachu przebrany za kobietę

Source: private collection

Żołnierz Wehrmachtu przebrany za kobietę

Source: private collection

Żołnierze Wehrmachtu przebrani za kobiety

Source: private collection

Żołnierz Wehrmachtu przebrany za kobietą

Source: private collection

Source:

  • Martin Dammann, Soldier Studies. Cross-dressing in Wehrmacht, 2018

The story of Adam Aronson from Tomaszow Mazowiecki

I would like to tell you a story. One of those that holds a special place in my heart. A few years ago, Helena and Aleksander from Mi Polin, gave me a couple of addresses of buildings where they found traces of mezuzahs. My task was to discover the history of their pre-war inhabitants.

Kamienica w Tomaszowie Mazowieckim

Photo by Aleksander Prugar / Source: MI POLIN

Trace of mezuzah in Tomaszów Mazowiecki

Usually, I start my genealogical research by collecting information about one’s last known ancestors. In this case, I started my work with the address I got from Helena and Aleks: Jerozolimska 3, Tomaszów Mazowiecki. Based on the address books, documents from DP camps, the records kept in the Jewish Historical Institute’s archive and various internet sources, I managed to discover a beautiful story and put the pieces together.

Textile Factory Samuel Steinman and Artur Aronson

Thanks to the address book from 1939, I learned that the inhabitant of 3 Jerozolimska Street was Alfred Aronson. It turned out that he was an industrialist and the son of the co-owner of the Textile Factory Samuel Steinman and Artur Aronson, which was established as a result of the merger of the two companies in 1908. Kazimierz Rędziński mentioned the charity work of Samuel and Artur’s business in his work Szkolnictwo żydowskie w Tomaszowie Mazowieckim (Jewish Education in Tomaszów Mazowiecki):

Samuel Steinmann and Artur Aronson donated two sewing machines and a cutting table to the girls’ school to teach them tailoring, as well as 12/4 fabrics for winter coats for 5 poor schoolgirls. The coats were made for: Złota Skrobisz from class III, Selma Pakul from class II and Sara Kon, Ita Rosental and L. Szuster from class I34.

In the publication of the Pasaże Pamięci Foundation we can read:

In 1914, the Samuel Steinman and Artur Aronson textile factory produced woolen fabrics worth 700,000 rubles. At that time, the factory employed as many as 200 workers on 82 looms and 3,840 spindles. […] In 1927, the company “Fabryka Sukna Samuel Steinman i Artur Aronson” had a worsted spinning mill with 3640 spindles and a weaving mill with 70 looms. It employed 180 workers. In 1930, as a result of the crisis, there were numerous layoffs, and in 1931 the factory was completely closed due to losses. After the crisis subsided, production was resumed at a relatively low level. “

To find out more about Alfred’s fate, I went through the documents kept in the Jewish Historical Institute’s archive. And there I found two important things: the post-war registration card from the Central Committee of Jews in Poland of Artur Adam Aronson, son of Alfred, and a personal file describing his fate between 1947-1948.

The registration card fom the Central Committee of Jews in Poland / Source: Jewish Historical Institute 

The survivor

The registration cards were filled out by Jewish survivors and submitted to the Central Committee of Jews in Poland. Purpose of this committee was to represent them before the state authorities and to organize care and assistance for those who survived the Holocaust.

Thanks to such a card, I learned that Artur Adam Aronson was born on October 8, 1934 in Tomaszów Mazowiecki to Alfred Joachim Aronson and Wanda nee Borensztajn. When the war broke out, the Aronson family was moved to the ghetto in Tomaszów, where Alfred became a member of the Jewish Police Service and Judenrat. After the liquidation of the ghetto, the family was separated. Artur and his mother were taken to Auschwitz, where she died shortly thereafter.

Alfred was probably in Warsaw for a while, and later was taken to Germany. According to the Pasaże Pamięci Foundation, Karol Weyman (also spelt Wejman) helped Jews in the Tomaszów ghetto – including his high school friend (and later wife), Maria Aronson, and her brother, Alfred. He helped them to get out of the ghetto and move to Warsaw.

The documentation of JOINT (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and DP camps shows that Alfred was a prisoner of the Bergen-Belsen camp, and after the liberation he was in Stuttgart. On July 8, 1947 he left Germany and emigrated to the United States to join his relatives.

Source: International Tracing Service, Bad Arolsen

The special bond with former governess

His son, then 11-year-old Artur, was in Auschwitz during the liberation. After the war, he was found by his former governess, Maria Sroka, with whom he stayed in Łódź. Alfred located his son quite quickly and tried to to bring him to the United States. Because of the legal issues and immigration formalities, the whole process took more than a year. Moreover, it turned out that it was very hard for Maria and Artur to say goodbye. The following letter leaves no doubt:

“Supposedly, the boy had confided to her (Maria) several times that he was afraid of a sea voyage. […] Besides, we got the impression that Mrs. S. would not like to part with the boy overnight and we believe that it is not advisable to press on her to allow him to travel through France.”

Source: Jewish Historical Institute

Initially, Artur was to leave Gdynia on October 26, 1948 on board the Batory ship. Ultimately, due to complications and problems with booking, he got on the train on November 28 and under the care of Zygfryd Baltuch, he went to Paris. Artur boarded the Queen Elizabeth ship and departed from Cherbourg, France, on December 16, 1948. He arrived in New York on December 21, 1948.

My unforgettable roommate Art Aronson”

This is how the story was supposed to end. However, while writing this article and summing up the story after a few years, I decided to check a few more things. I googled Arthur with no particular expectations and it was a good move.

This way I found out that Artur wrote an essay on the history of the Burza destroyer (“The Burza Was A Destroyer“), for which he won the Westcott Prize in 1958, and I came across a real gem – The Personal Navigator blog with the article called “My unforgettable roommate Art Aronson”.

Thanks to the blog’s author, Samuel Coulbourn, I was able to learn about Arthur’s further story. Reading the article, I felt like I was reading about the life of an old friend. Samuel and Artur studied together at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. According to Samuel, Aronson was fluent in Polish, English, German and Russian, and no academic subject was difficult for him. He was brilliant, friendly and cheerful despite the cruel events he experienced as a child. He was also an excellent artist and he used to illustrate Naval Academy magazines.

Sadly Artur died in Syracuse, New York on October 8, 2008. I was lucky to to get in touch with Samuel who allowed me to use their photo and provided me with some additional information. Artur was married to Eleonore and they had no children.  

Samuel Coulbourn and Artur Adam Aronson (on the right), 2002

I am amazed by the fact that the story, which now has the beginning, the middle and the end, has began with one small trace on somebody’s doorframe.

Sources:

  • Jewish Historical Institute Archive 
  • Pasaże Pamięci Foundation
  • Mi Polin
  • Pasaże pamięci. Śladami kultury tomaszowskich Żydów 
  • The Personal Navigator
  • Kazimierz Rędziński, Szkolnictwo żydowskie w Tomaszowie Mazowieckim
  • International Tracing Service, Bad Arolsen

Końcowy raport składa się z kopi odnalezionych dokumentów, tłumaczeń, zdjęć oraz podsumowania. Wyjaśniam pokrewieństwo odnalezionych osób, opisuję sprawdzone źródła i kontekst historyczny. Najczęściej poszukiwania dzielone są na parę etapów i opisuję możliwości kontynuacji.

Czasem konkretny dokument może zostać nie odnaleziony z różnych przyczyn – migracji do innych wiosek/miast w dalszych pokoleniach, ochrzczenia w innej parafii, lukach w księgach, zniszczeń dokumentów w pożarach lub w czasie wojen.  Cena końcowa w takiej sytuacji nie ulega zmienia, ponieważ wysiłek włożony w poszukiwania jest taki sam bez względu na rezultat.

Raporty mogą się od siebie mniej lub bardziej różnić w zależności od miejsca, z którego rodzina pochodziła (np. dokumenty z zaboru pruskiego, austriackiego i rosyjskiego różnią się od siebie formą i treścią).

 

Na podstawie zebranych informacji (Twoich i moich) przygotuję plan i wycenę – jeśli ją zaakceptujesz, po otrzymaniu zaliczki rozpoczynam pracę i informuję o przewidywanym czasie ukończenia usługi. Standardowe poszukiwania trwają około 1 miesiąca, a o wszelkich zmianach będę informować Cię na bieżąco.

Na Twoje zapytanie odpiszę w ciągu 3 dni roboczych i jest to etap bezpłatny. Być może zadam parę dodatkowych pytań, dopytam o cele albo od razu przedstawię propozycję kolejnych kroków.

Warto pamiętać, że im więcej szczegółów podasz, tym więcej rzeczy mogę odkryć.

Podziel się ze mną:

  • Imionami i nazwiskami przodków (wszystkich, o których wiesz)
  • Miejscami urodzenia i zamieszkania (jeśli jest inne np. wojnie)
  • Datami urodzenia, ślubów i zgonu (mogą być orientacyjne)
  • Informacjami o rodzeństwie, kuzynach, emigracjach.
  • Legendami i historiami rodzinnymi

I najważniejsze – jeśli masz niewiele informacji, zupełnie się tym nie martw, w takich sytuacjach także znajdę rozwiązanie.