A Trove of Magnus Hirschfeld Documents: The Researcher as Detective, by Donald W. McLeod

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The thousands of books, journals, and documents of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were plundered and later burned in May 1933. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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The Institute's books and journals were destroyed in the book bonfire at Opernplatz, Berlin, May 10, 1933. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de; commons.wikimedia.org

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Gloria Mansions I, Nice, France, ca 1930. Credit: Collection of Hans Soetaert.

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Hirschfeld walks along the Promenade des Anglais with friends, ca 1935. His student and companion, Li Shiu Tong, is at right. Credit: Magnus Hirschfeld, Exil-Gästebuch 1933–35, in the collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

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Photos in the Exile Guestbook show Hirschfeld, Kirchberger, and Maass on May 13–14, 1935. Credit: Magnus Hirschfeld, Exil-Gästebuch 1933–35, in the collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

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Hirschfeld, dead at sixty-seven. The plaster death mask, right, was saved by accident from the possessions of Li Shiu Tong after Li’s death in Vancouver, Canada, in 1993, and is now at the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, Berlin. Credit: Magnus Hirschfeld, Exil-Gästebuch 1933–35, in the collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

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Li Shiu Tong, Karl Giese, and an unidentified man stand in front of Gloria Mansions I, perhaps around the time of Hirschfeld's funeral. Credit: Magnus Hirschfeld, Exil-Gästebuch 1933–35, in the collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

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Ernst Maass, ca 1935. Credit: Maass/Mann Papers, Brooklyn, N.Y., now at the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, Berlin.

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Rob Maass and the Maass/Mann Papers, Brooklyn, N.Y., February 5, 2010. Photo credit: Don McLeod.

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Hans Soetaert at Magnus Hirschfeld's tomb, Cimetière de Caucade, Nice, France, 2009. Photo credit: Don McLeod.

The German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) was one of the most important figures in the history of the LGBTQ liberation movement. He was co-founder in 1897, in Berlin, of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first organization to advocate for homosexual and transgender rights.

Hirschfeld was a prolific researcher, writer, and lecturer. In 1919 he founded the Berlin Institute for Sexual Science, which became world-famous for providing medical consultations and educational services concerning sexuality. The Institute also contained Hirschfeld’s large library and a museum of sex.[1]

By the time Hirschfeld embarked on a world lecture tour in 1930–32, he was at the peak of his career and was hailed in America and elsewhere as the “Einstein of sex”.

But Hirschfeld was facing several problems. In a letter to Harry Benjamin, he joked that he might not survive the tour.[2] Although he was only sixty-two, Hirschfeld’s health was poor. He was plagued by heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. His health worsened after he contracted malaria on the tour.

And the situation in Germany was particularly unsettling. As early as 1920, because of his work, Hirschfeld had been attacked in the street by thugs and left with a fractured skull.[3] Increasingly, his public lectures were disrupted. The rise and strength of the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany by 1932 made it too dangerous for him to return there; he remained in exile, mostly in France, for the rest of his life.

Hirschfeld’s fate was sealed on May 6, 1933, only fourteen weeks after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and the Nazis arranged for the destruction of the Institute for Sexual Science and the subsequent burning of its library.

In November 1934, Hirschfeld finally settled in Nice, on the sunny Mediterranean coast, which at that time was a center for German intellectuals in exile.

In February 1935 he moved into an apartment at the luxurious Gloria Mansions I, 63 Promenade des Anglais. Built in 1924, the six-story building contained apartments of about 130 square meters, with three large windows on the front and a balcony. Hirschfeld’s apartment was on the fifth floor and had a southern exposure, overlooking a large garden with exotic plants and palm trees, and the sea.

Hirschfeld settled in, with the remainder of his library and collection, and continued to research, write, and receive visitors.

For exercise, Hirschfeld liked to walk along the Promenade des Anglais, often in the company of friends or guests.[4]

May 14, 1935
Magnus Hirschfeld began the morning of his sixty-seventh birthday at the Gloria Mansions, in the company of Robert Kirchberger, a secretary, and Ernst Maass.[5]

Maass, the grandson of Hirschfeld’s maternal uncle Dr. Julius Mann (1853–1931), lived in Milano and had come down to visit and to help celebrate Hirschfeld’s birthday. Maass’s own twenty-first birthday was later in the month.

The trio spent time opening the birthday mail and then went for a brief walk. They returned to Gloria Mansions, where Hirschfeld suddenly collapsed and died before noon.

After Hirschfeld’s sudden death Ernst Maass was thrust into the spotlight. As the only relative present in Nice at the time, it fell to him to arrange Hirschfeld’s funeral. A service was held at the Cimetière Israélite du Château on May 21, 1935; Hirschfeld was later cremated, and his remains were placed in the Cimetière de Caucade. His simple, elegant tombstone, completed in 1936, was designed by the sculptor Arnold Zadikow (1884–1943).[6]

After his death, Hirschfeld's possessions, including books and papers, were removed from the apartment at Gloria Mansions.

Article five of Hirschfeld’s will stipulated that Li Shiu Tong (1907–1993), Hirschfeld’s student and companion, was to receive all books, papers, artwork, etc., located in Hirschfeld’s apartment in Nice.[7]

Karl Giese (1898–1938), Hirschfeld’s assistant, was at that time living in exile in Brno, Czechoslovakia. He arrived in Nice to attend Hirschfeld’s funeral and deliver a eulogy. Giese also probably took some material back to Brno, including the Exile Guestbook.[8]

But what about Ernst Maass? Did he receive any of Hirschfeld’s papers or possessions?

On the Trail of Ernst Maass
Hans Soetaert, a Belgian archivist and researcher, and I were able to visit Nice in October 2009 and pick up the trail of Hirschfeld. We were particularly interested to see where he had lived and the details of his life in Nice, where Hirschfeld was buried, the details of his funeral, and published our findings in the journal of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin.[9]

As we were preparing the article, we were in e-mail contact with Ralf Dose, the director of that Society. One question that kept recurring concerned the fate of Ernst Maass. He was very young when Hirschfeld died. What happened to him, subsequently? Did he survive the war?

Ralf said that there were a few clues, including the fact that Maass had been born in 1914 and that he had emigrated to America in 1938. This was not much to work with, but I decided to try to solve the mystery of Ernst Maass.[10]

Technology Comes to the Fore
The first place I looked was Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource. It is international in scope and includes databases with access to millions of records relating to immigration and emigration, births, deaths, marriages, census and military files, border crossings, and passenger lists.

I went to the “Search All Records” tab and searched for “Ernst Maass,” estimated birth year 1914. The first hit in the list was an entry for an Ernst Maass, born about 1915 in Germany, part of the “New York Passenger Lists, 1820–1957” database. This was a “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States” kept by the United States Department of Labor. It included “all aliens arriving at a port of continental United States from a foreign port or a port of the insular possessions of the United States, and all aliens arriving at a port of said insular possessions from a foreign port.”

I examined the manifest carefully. It included passengers sailing on the Ile de France from Le Havre, France, on March 9, 1938, arriving at the port of New York on March 16, 1938.

The entry for Ernst Maass stated that he was twenty-three years old, single, working as a clerk in a travel agency, he could read and write and was familiar with German, English, French, Italian, and Hebrew. He was a German national of the Hebrew race, born in Stettin, Germany. His visa had been issued in Jerusalem on December 18, 1937, and his last permanent residence had been in Jerusalem, Palestine. He was traveling with his widowed mother, Lotte Maass, aged forty-nine.

Surely this was a good candidate for our Ernst Maass, but additional evidence was needed to remove all doubt.

I searched Ancestry again, but for the anglicized name “Ernest Maass”. Incredibly, the first five entries in the results list related to an Ernest Maass, born May 29, 1914.

The first two entries, from the U.S. Public Records Index, Volume 2, listed Maass’s date of birth, and an address: 15076 Village Road, Jamaica, NY, 11432-1013.

The third entry was from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850–2009, which listed for Ernest Maass a birth date (May 29, 1914), a death date (January 24, 1975), a social insurance number (055121215), an enlistment date (June 10, 1943), and a release date (October 30, 1944).

Results from the Social Security Death Index confirmed that Ernest Maass, S.I.N. 055121215, was born on May 29, 1914, died in January 1975, and that his last residence had been in Jamaica, Queens, New York.

The U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938–1946 provided more information about Maass’s service record: he was born in 1914 in Germany, had enlisted on June 10, 1943, as a private, he was single, with dependents, and he had completed four years of college and his civil occupation was as a library assistant and attendant.

A search for Ernest Maass in the Biography and Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) revealed citations to biographical entries for an Ernest Maass, born in 1914, in Who’s Who in Library Service: A Biographical Directory of Professional Librarians in the United States and Canada (1966), and in A Biographical Directory of Librarians in the United States and Canada (1970).[11]

These books revealed that Ernest Maass became a distinguished professional librarian, eventually working at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the United Nations in New York City.[12]

One day after my computer search began I felt positive I had found the Ernest Maass we were looking for, the young man who had visited Hirschfeld on his birthday and who had been present at his death.[13] But, where to go from here?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850–2009 had listed a death date of January 24, 1975.

A search of ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851–2008) obituaries revealed one result, for January 25, 1975:

"MAASS—Ernest, beloved husband of Ann, devoted father of David and Bobby. Sunday, 9:45 A.M., Schwartz Brothers. Service “Forest Park Chapel,” Queens Blvd. and 76th Rd., Forest Hills."[14]

I then searched the current telephone White Pages online for the name Maass in New York City. One of those listed was a Robert D. Maass, 158 E. 7th Street, Apt E4, New York, NY 10009-6282, who was said to be 50–54 years old.

A search of PeopleFinders listed a Robert D. Maass, age fifty-three, who had lived in New York, NY, Brooklyn, NY, and Jamaica, NY. There was no doubt that this Robert Maass was the son of Ernst Maass.

A Google search for “Robert Maass” “New York” led me to the website of Robert Maass, a distinguished photojournalist who worked on contract for Newsweek magazine for ten years and is now a freelancer. He is also a filmmaker (his feature-length documentary Gotham Fish Tales was released in 2003), and he has authored and illustrated numerous books for children.

At this point in the search for Ernst Maass, I became nervous. I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to approach Robert Maass directly to ask him about his father and ask about any Hirschfeld memorabilia that might have survived in his father’s papers. I worried that such questions, from a stranger, might seem like an invasion of privacy.

A week later I sent all my discoveries to Ralf Dose, at the Hirschfeld Society, including the contact information for Robert Maass, and encouraged him, as a representative of the Society, to contact Maass.[15]

Ralf sent an e-mail to Maass asking if he was related to Ernst Maass, born in Stettin in 1914. Robert (known as Rob) Maass replied that he was the son of Ernst Maass. Ralf then asked if the family had any memorabilia relating to their distant relative Magnus Hirschfeld. Rob replied that they had lots of family records, going back to the nineteenth century. There were Hirschfeld photographs and letters.

Ralf, of course, was ecstatic at the discovery of a new trove of Hirschfeld materials. He continued a friendly e-mail correspondence with Maass, who could not provide a list of items as the large amount of material needed sorting. Ralf could not easily fly from Berlin to New York to view the collection. So, I volunteered to travel from my home in Toronto to New York to see the collection on behalf of the Society. Ralf agreed, and I was introduced into a three-way e-mail correspondence with Ralf and Rob.

A Scouting Trip to New York
On February 5, 2010, my fifty-third birthday, I arrived on the doorstep of Rob Maass at his brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. He had taken time out from his busy schedule to allow me to poke through his family papers. Rob was a perfect host and was somewhat bemused that anyone would be interested in these old papers.

Rob knew a bit about Hirschfeld, and we talked about Hirschfeld and Ernst Maass and Li Shiu Tong and others and spent the next five hours looking through the material -- one suitcase stuffed with material, several boxes, and loose items. This was not enough time to see everything, so we concentrated on the photographs and the suitcase, which Rob placed on the dining room table. I made notes and took photographs.

The more we looked through the material, the more excited I became. There was an inscribed copy of Hirschfeld’s doctoral thesis from 1892. There were family photographs; letters from Hirschfeld and postcards from him during his world tour. There were photographs (and negatives) of Hirschfeld’s funeral taken by Ernst Maass. There were letters from Hirschfeld’s assistant Karl Giese to Maass and correspondence from the executor Franz Herzfelder concerning the disposition of Hirschfeld’s estate (Maass received a bequest). There was Hirschfeld’s passport from his world tour.

Rob told me that this material had only recently come into his possession; it had been stored in a closet at his mother’s house.[16] His mother was moving and clearing out her home. She had wanted to dispose of the suitcase and other materials. Rob insisted that he wanted to look through the material first and moved it to his home in Brooklyn.

Thank goodness!

Reaction in Berlin, and a Second Site Visit
I was only able to visit with Rob Maass for one day. In our conversations, I stressed how important the Hirschfeld material was for scholarship, and hinted that it should be repatriated to Berlin’s Hirschfeld Society. We promised to correspond further by e-mail.

As soon as I arrived back in Toronto, I loaded the photographs I’d taken onto my computer and sent them as e-mail attachments to Ralf at the Society. Ralf and others there were excited to see this newly discovered material.[17]

We continued our three-way correspondence, and later in 2010, Ralf Dose was able to visit Rob Maass in Brooklyn, to have a look at the material and to negotiate for its possible donation to the Society. Rob was entirely amenable, agreeing that the material should be preserved and made available for research purposes. He agreed to begin donating the papers and other materials relating to Hirschfeld and his circle.

In May 2011, Rob and his partner Carroll Bogert were able to visit Berlin and the Society. They brought with them part of the collection, which they donated.[18] Additional donations were made in subsequent years as the material was examined and sorted.[19] Some of the material has been displayed at the Schwules Museum in Berlin and cited by scholars Ralf Dose and Hans Soetaert.[20]

The rediscovery of material relating to Magnus Hirschfeld in the papers of Ernst Maass involved straightforward research and considerable good luck. Just a few clues lead to the amazingly quick discovery of a plentiful Hirschfeld archive.

It was also remarkable that virtually all of this information was found through my home computer. I didn’t leave home to do this research.

Until a few years ago, the amount of manual research required to find these papers would have prohibited the discovery. But the advent of modern research tools such as Google, Ancestry, online phonebooks and directories, and the instant communication afforded by e-mail, made possible the discovery, with a few clicks of the keyboard, of an important, forgotten archive.

We are only in the infancy of the development of online research tools and databases. In the future, online searching will become much more powerful. There are likely many more forgotten suitcases filled with letters and trunks of photos just waiting to be rediscovered. There are historic LGBTQ documents still to be found. In the future, with research, determination, and luck, we will find them.

Donald W. McLeod is a librarian at the University of Toronto and a long-time volunteer at The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives. His books on queer topics include Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1976–1981 (2017); A Brief History of GAY, Canada’s First Gay Tabloid, 1964–1966 (2003); (with Jim Egan) Challenging the Conspiracy of Silence: My Life as a Canadian Gay Activist (1998); and Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964–1975 (1996).

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the LGBTI ALMS 2012 International Archives, Libraries, Museums, and Special Collections Conference on the Future of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Histories, sponsored by the Internationaal homo/lesbisch informatiecentrum en archief (IHLIA), held August 1-3, 2012, in Amsterdam. The author would like to thank Ralf Dose and Hans Soetaert, who made helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper. The images from Hirschfeld’s Exile Guestbook are reproduced with the permission of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

[1] The standard brief biography of Hirschfeld in English is Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. Translated by Edward H. Willis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014). This is a translation of an updated version of Ralf Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld: Deutscher – Jude – Weltbürger. Jüdische Miniaturen 15 (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2005). Other important book-length studies include Manfred Herzer, Magnus Hirschfeld: Leben und Werk eines jüdischen, schwulen und sozialistischen Sexologen, second ed., rev. (Berlin: MännerschwarmSkript Verlag, 2001), Magnus Hirschfeld, Mein Testament: Heft II. Edited and annotated by Ralf Dose (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2005), Elena Mancini, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom: A History of the First International Sexual Freedom Movement. Critical Studies in Gender, Sexuality, and Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Charlotte Wolff, Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology (London: Quartet Books, 1986).

[2] Magnus Hirschfeld letter to Harry Benjamin, February 25, 1931. Haeberle-Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

[3] See Wolff, 196–98.

[4] Hirschfeld’s life in Nice is examined in detail in Donald W. McLeod and Hans P. Soetaert, “« Il regarde la mer et pense à son idéal »: Die letzten Tage von Magnus Hirschfeld in Nizza, 1934–1935,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 45 (July 2010), 14–33.

[5] Hans P. Soetaert, “Robert Gotthelf Kirchberger (1904–1981), the Last Secretary of Magnus Hirschfeld,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 60 (June 2018), 12–20.

[6] Hirschfeld’s death and funeral are covered extensively in McLeod and Soetaert, “« Il regarde la mer et pense à son idéal »: Die letzten Tage von Magnus Hirschfeld in Nizza, 1934–1935”.

[7] Hirschfeld’s testament is published in its entirety in “Erstveröffentlichung des Testaments Magnus Hirschfelds,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 4 (October 1984), 7–12, and online at: http://www.hirschfeld.in-berlin.de/frame.html?http://www.hirschfeld.in-berlin.de/testament.html (viewed September 12, 2020). The accidental rediscovery in 1993 of Hirschfeld’s possessions held by Li Shiu Tong is detailed in Ralf Dose, “In Memoriam Li Shiu Tong (1907–1993). Zu Seinem 10. Todestag am 5.10.2003,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 35/36 (2003), 9–23.

[8] Giese committed suicide in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in March 1938. The Exile Guestbook, currently in the collection of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, had been rescued from a dustbin in Brno in 1942. The fact that it was found in Brno strongly suggests that it had once been in the possession of Karl Giese. An annotated edition of the guestbook has been published. See Magnus Hirschfeld, Magnus Hirschfelds Exil-Gästebuch. Edited and annotated by Hans Bergemann, Ralf Dose, and Marita Keilson-Lauritz (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2019).

[9] See McLeod and Soetaert, “« Il regarde la mer et pense à son idéal »: Die letzten Tage von Magnus Hirschfeld in Nizza, 1934–1935.”

[10] Ralf Dose, e-mail message to Don McLeod, December 1, 2009.

[11] Lee Ash and B.A. Uhlendorf, eds., A Biographical Directory of Librarians in the United States and Canada, fifth ed. (Chicago: American Library Association, 1970); Lee Ash and B.A. Uhlendorf, eds., Who’s Who in Library Service: A Biographical Directory of Professional Librarians in the United States and Canada ([Hamden, Conn.]: Shoe String Press, 1966).

[12] See the entry for “Ernest Maass” in Ash and Uhlendorf, eds., A Biographical Directory of Librarians in the United States and Canada, 679.

[13] Don McLeod, e-mail message to Ralf Dose, December 2, 2009.

[14] “Maass, Ernest,” obituary, New York Times, January 25, 1975, Sports section, 24.

[15] Don McLeod, e-mail message to Ralf Dose, December 7, 2009.

[16] Rob Maass, e-mail message to Don McLeod, February 1, 2010.

[17] Rob Maass later continued to find incredible items relating to Hirschfeld in the papers, including a diary from his exile in Ascona and his graduation diploma from medical school. 

[18] “Schenkung Rob Maass,” in “Chronik,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 48 (December 2011), 5.

[19] Ralf Dose has written about the discovery of the Maass papers in “Es gibt noch einen Koffer in New York — eine vorläufige Bestanssaufnahme,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 46/47 (May 2011), 12–20.

[20] The exhibition “Hirschfeldforschung Fundstücke aus neuester Zeit Objekte, Bücher, Dokumente” was held at the Schwules Museum, Berlin, December 7, 2011, to March 31, 2012. See also the illustrations of Hirschfeld’s passport in Dose, Magnus Hirschfeld: The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement, photo section, and Hans P. Soetaert, “Succession Hirschfeld: The Handling and Settlement of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Estate in Nice (France), 1935–1936,” Mitteilungen der Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft, no. 50/51 (September 2014), 13–77.