Felix Abraham: life
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Part I: life
Part II: book
Initial version: February 2016.
Felix Abraham and his older sister, Erna, were the children of a Dutch mother and a Frankfurt am Main doctor, the Jewish medical councillor (Sanitätsrat) Dr. Siegmund Abraham (1866-1929). The mother died when Felix was eleven. At school he got good grades in religion, Latin, singing and gymnastics, but in those only. Erna married an engineering entrepreneur, Erich Marx, in 1919. Felix studied medicine at Heidelberg, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin from 1920 onwards and finally obtained his doctorate in his home town in 1928 with a thesis on the mortality statistics of the first year of life. He completed his practical year at the Municipal Hospital and the Israelite Hospital in Frankfurt am Main. Whilst a student he had already published a paper in Therapie der Gegenwart on “Surgical interventions in abnormalities in sex life”.Karl Giese, became concerned about marriage issues for trans persons, and a special marriage counselling centre for transvestites was set up in the ten-point programme of the D'Eon association. Abraham was also responsible for indictable "sexual offences" as well as infantilism, exhibitionism and flagellation. He was a close friend with the noted pianist Ellen Epstein, who had played with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.
With Hirschfled and Charlotte Charlaque, acting as interpreter, he attended and gave a lecture at the World League for Sexual Reform in London, 8-14 September 1929. In 1930 he was quoted in Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft und Sexualpolitik: "The number of transvestites is greater than one would expect. In Berlin alone, 1000 cases have become known to us". He advocated “emergency surgery” - castration and sometimes penectomy - to forestall self-mutilation or suicide that desperate trans women might turn to.Fritz Ulbrich, a watch repairman, was an adventurous amateur erotic photographer who persuaded over 1,000 teenage girls to pose nude and in lesbian and S&M stagings. In 1929 he recruited the 15-year-old Lieschen Neumann and photographed her for many months. In 1930 she decided to steal his money. She got her boyfriend and his friend to do the deed, but Ulbrich woke up and they killed him. They were quickly apprehended and at a sensational trial in early 1931 the pregnant Lieschen was sentenced to 8 years 3 months, the second friend to 6 years 3 months and the boyfriend to be hanged. Abraham worked with the criminologist Erich Wulffen (who in his 1923 book, Das Weib als Sexualverbrecherin [Women as Sex Criminals], had depicted women as being of less intelligence and sensitivity, with an innate disposition to prostitution) to edit Ulbrich’s collection of photographs. This came out as a book later in 1931 with 150 of Ulbrich’s photographs, with some photographs depicting Ulbrich and his environment, some facsimile reproductions of his correspondence and a court drawing. The first edition was retracted by the publisher and 20 of the plates removed. Many years afterwards copies were still being confiscated by police in Germany and Austria.
Abraham’s four-year contract was not extended by Hirschfeld in the run-up to its expiry in 1933 - for whatever reasons. Hirschfeld was considering Dr Josef Weisskopf (1904-1977) from Brno/Brünn in Czechoslovakia - who organised the 1932 World League for Sexual Reform conference - as Abraham's successor. However when Hirschfeld left on his world tour in November 1930, Abraham officially became Hirschfeld's deputy.
In 1931 he wrote up a report on the first sex-change operations arranged by himself, with surgery by Ludwig Levy-Lenz and Erwin Gohrbandt. Both Dörchen Richter and Toni Ebel had recently had vaginoplasty and their operations were featured. This report was the only account of male-to-female surgery published in a medical journal in this period. In the report he says:
“I just wanted to give a description of the procedure itself, because I believe an infinite number of patients with these same inclinations exist, who desire similar procedures, but do not know of any means and ways to achieve same. (1931, second page)”
“Both cases are part of a larger book that I am working on at this time. I have extracted these cases because they seem to me of principle value and general interest.”
The expansion came out later that year published in Paris as Les Perversions Sexuelles translated into French by Dr Pierre Vachet. It was in effect a summary of Hirschfeld's work.
At the end of 1931, Eric Thorsell, a Swedish metalworker and later a homosexual activist, came to Berlin for study purposes and took a room at the Institut. Abraham was holding public evening events where he answered questions from the audience. Eric and Felix thus met and became friends.
In August 1932, Abraham and Toni Ebel (using the pseudonym "Wally, formerly Leo E.”) were interviewed by a journalist from Das 12 Uhr Blatt. Abraham said:
“Of course we could not make a woman out of the man Leo E. who would be able to bring children into the world. At least cosmetically, if you want to call it that, Wally E. has become completely like a woman through the operation. Above all, she now feels herself to be one hundred percent woman, and the man who loves her can, with a little illusion and imagination, find in her the woman he wants her to be.”
Abraham attended the fifth and last World League for Sexual Reform conference in Brno 20-26 September 1932. For the first time the WLSR was allowed to meet in a state university institute, namely in a lecture hall of Masaryk University.
Abraham was one of only three doctors (with Ludwig Levy-Lenz and Bernhard Schapiro) still at the Institut when it was destroyed by the Nazis on 6 May 1933. By this time he was in financial difficulties and turned to his sister’s husband, Erich Marx, for help. He was also said to be taking morphine and Veronal.
He survived and continued working in Berlin as a doctor, but changed addresses several times, and was unable to continue working with transvestites. Writing in 23 September 1933, the Swedish journalist Ragnar Ahlstedt (1901-1982) gave the following mood and situation report in a letter to Eric Thorsell:
"The Institut, as you know, is completely destroyed. Abraham, however, has opened his own practice - as long as he is allowed to run it now. He receives patients in Fasanenstraße, a cross street to Kurfürstendamm, not far from the zoo, and his home address is Budapester Straße 21. But I haven't heard from him for several weeks and therefore fear that something has happened. But it may also be that either his letters or mine have disappeared. At least his letters often have the 'bad luck'. My trip to Berlin in July was actually for him personally. I wanted to make sure that no harm had come to him and to encourage him to persevere. But the blow hit him hard too, you could tell, even if he tried to hide it in every way. Only a few days ago, however, I received a letter from mutual friends saying that he could hardly bear the strain without breaking down. And to save him from a nervous breakdown, they want him to go to France. I was asked to influence him in this direction, but I could not decide to do so, because basically it is a matter between him and his conscience. I believe that he would rather fall at his post than abandon his German patients. Surely you too know how dependent they are on him as a spiritual support. I feel so sorry for Abraham, because he is after all a person who is special in every way. Sometimes one hardly dares to think of the future."
Around this time Abraham met Pini Engle, also Jewish, who later became his wife.
In 1936 Abraham attempted to emigrate to Sweden. He knew doctors and journalists there including Ragnar Ahlstedt. He applied for a residence permit at the Swedish Supreme Social Authority in Stockholm on 12 August 1936, giving "medical work and studies" as the reason for his entry. However his application was rejected on 5 December 1936 without further explanation. Eric Thorsell wrote in his journal:
“He tried to get work as a doctor here in Sweden, but it didn't work out. He was Jewish and almost the entire medical profession was Nazi influenced. So he had to get by with the support of his friends. His friends in Germany sent him a ten-kroner note hidden in a newspaper every time. He lived in a boarding house in Wallingatan, where I visited him a few times. Abraham's fate was tragic - he didn't manage to keep the spark of life glowing after everything fell apart for him in Germany."
In sadness, he returned to Berlin, and for a while lived with Pini’s father, Alexander Engel, a publishing bookseller.
In April 1937 Abraham moved to Florence, Italy with the intention of taking the Italian state medical examination. However the Berlin police had filed charges against him for abuse of narcotics. He took his own life in September.
His sister, Erna, her husband, the mechanical engineering entrepreneur Erich Marx, and their two children, managed to emigrate to England in November 1937.
|The commemorative plaque in Florence|
Abraham’s friend Ellen Epstein died in a slave work camp in Latvia in 1942.
There is commemorative plaque for Abraham’s burial in the Cimitero Israelitico di Caciolle in Florence.
* not the Felix Abraham who wrote about South Africa.
Also at the Institut were Karl Abraham and Hans Abraham. It is not known if they were related.
While Felix Abraham was the Institut doctor with special responsibilities for ‘transvestites’ for only four years, 1929-1933, he did more for trans persons than any other doctor before Harry Benjamin almost three decades later. He certainly did more than his predecessor Arthur Kronberg who as a psycho-analyst preferred the ‘talking cure’ to practical help. Abraham was more in line with Hirschfeld’s approach to allow patients to dress as they pleased and to acquire a Transvestitenschein.
There are no documents about the time and place of the Abraham-Engel marriage - it may not have taken place until the beginning of 1937. Pini Engel's life and fate are otherwise also unknown. The fact that they were married can only be deduced from a few preserved private letters and Felix Abraham's Italian death certificate, in which he is referred to as "marito di Pini Engel".
The Israelitische Privat-Klinik in Munich continued taking Jewish patients after they lost their entitlement to treatment in public hospitals after 1933. In May 1942 Heinrich Himmler ordered the hospital to be evacuated. The patients, nurses and doctors housed in the house, including the chief physician Dr. Julius Spanier, were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in three successive transports in June 1942.