Third Reich or not, lesbians are always at war. With their families, with their friends, with societal institutions. With the law, with the streets. With themselves. Hiding is a part of life. Death or violence are always possible. This is a reality for lesbian and bisexual women throughout history, and in our current world. However, to focus on the darkness is to miss much of the picture. The resilience and beauty of love under persecution, of love in secret, must be celebrated and admired. Adding in the complex terrors of having a Jewish lover during the Third Reich, as in Erica Fischer’s Aimee & Jaguar, our horror and reverence are both taken to new levels.
Although a biography, this book feels like a melange between novel and historical document. The reader is introduced to Lilly Wust (Aimee), a young Berlin mother and housewife, who is taking on a new housekeeper, Inge Wolf. Wolf introduces Wust to her circle of female friends, including Felice Schragenheim (Jaguar), who takes a liking to Wust right away. After a courtship of letter writing, flower bouquets, and weekly visits, they have their first sexual encounter. This marks the start of a love affair, and Wusts awakens to her attraction to other women. (It is not clarified if Wust is lesbian or bisexual. She is married with children, and has affairs with men, but never had real feelings for the men in her life. Her first relationship with a woman is the first relationship where she feels love and sexual chemistry.) Schragenheim moves in with Wust (the husband Herr Gunter Wust is away on official duties), and eventually reveals to Wust that she is a Jew.
This book is the summation of interviews between Austrian feminist author Erica Fischer, and Lily Wust. The interviews included in the book are from friends and family members contacted by Fischer. Letters and photos have been given by the real Lily Wust, and she recounted her experiences to Fischer directly. Though weaving through the letters, prose, poems, and diary entries can feel a bit disorienting at first, overall it gives a multidimensional look into this true story, and any initial lack of cohesion is easily forgiven.
As central in the book as the personal relationships are, a close historical portrait of Berlin in the late thirties and forties is just as prominent. We see Nazism and its antisemitic policies take deeper and deeper root in German society as the story unfolds, slowly cornering the lives of Jews in Berlin and their allies. The details are sure to satisfy those interested in historical timelines, and propel a sense of fear and sorrow through the narrative. The global neglect of the persecution of Jews, the few avenues of escape, and the growing doom as families are rounded up and sent off to camps, are documented and haunting.
Fischer is a notable feminist in the Germanic literary community. She lives and works in Berlin as a freelance writer, journalist, and translator. Details on her sexual orientation are not available.
Overall, any smaller qualms in how the story is organized, or potential lack of flow in this regard, are greatly overshadowed by the unbelievable courage and heartbreak taken on by those in this story.
- Find Aimee & Jaguar at Bookshop
- Erica Fischer Wiki (In German)
- The Search for a Lesbian who battled Nazis
- Interview with Lily Wust (The Guardian)
- Felice Schragenheim Wiki
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Review by Indu Iyer.