Rainer Schulze representing the Department of History, University of Essex.
Suleika Aldini was a cabaret artist (working as fire eater, a snake charmer and an erotic singer and dancer) in West Germany from the 1960s until the mid-1990s. For many years, at the height of her career, she performed at the Chez Nous cabaret bar, (West) Berlin’s oldest and best known “travesty theatre” (as they were called at the time), which celebrated the artistry of female impersonators and trans women. Chez Nous was visited by celebrities and featured in Hollywood films. Suleika never quite became famous; she was more of an “also-act”, performing with some of the big names, but never quite in the limelight herself.
Her life as a cabaret artist is well documented, not least through a huge collection of personal photographs, but very little is known about her life before or after. She was born male, and her legal name was Harry Waldow, but it is not even clear whether this was her birth name, or the name given to her by her foster parents. At some point she suggested in an interview that she was of Roma descent and survived the Holocaust, returning after the Second World War from a camp in the East where her birth parents perished. In the mid-1950s, Harry/Suleika started injecting female hormones and grew breasts but she never had the operation. She died in 2011, having contacted Berlin’s Schwules Museum (LGBT+ Museum and Archive) shortly before her death to bequeath her photographs to them.
In my paper I will discuss the problems of piecing a life together which, apart from her stage performances, was lived in obscurity. It will also ask whether we have the right to probe into the life of someone who was very hesitant while she was alive to speak about her life away from the stage, stating that she felt that this was of no interest to anyone.
Suleika’s life is an untold story which documents both the unending struggles of a transgender person in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but also the joys it held for her. Transgender history before the 1990s is a hidden, or rather ignored history, in the case of Suleika made all the more poignant by the fact that she was, for all we know, a Roma child survivor of the Holocaust.