Resistance: Vera Lachmann

Here is a sneak peak into Resistance: The LGBT Fight Against Fascism in WWII. I loved researching,  writing about, and drawing Vera. Like all of the folks in this book, she was absolutely fascinating and by the end, I completely wanted to become Vera.

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Vera Lachmann, 1904–1985, Germany/United States and drawn by Avery Cassell

Vera Lachmann was a poet, classicist, scholar, and an educator. She was born in Berlin, Germany into an upper class, well-to-do Jewish family. Her father, Louis Lachmann, was a prominent local architect, designing one of Berlin’s opera houses, department stores, and other buildings. In 1910, when Vera was only five years old, her father committed suicide when his firm fell into bankruptcy.1 There were several suicides in Vera’s extended family, and suicide was common amount bourgeois Jewish-German families in that era.2 Louis’ death left Vera, her mother, and her two siblings, Nina and Erick, alone. Vera was studious, attended a private girls’ school, then went on to Humboldt University of Berlin and the University of Basel to study philology, language, and literature. In 1931, Vera earned her PhD from the University of Berlin, with an interest in Icelandic saga. Her goal was to teach at the university but, due to the sexist hiring practices of the era, she was denied that opportunity and earned a secondary school teacher’s certificate instead. In 1933, Vera founded Jagowstrasse School, a small progressive private school for Jewish and non-Aryan children.3

By 1932, the progressive Weimar Republic was slowing down, and Hitler was well on his way toward leading Germans into a conservative, anti-Semitic, fascist regime. Fascism had held sway in neighboring Italy since Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister in 1922 and declared himself the Italian dictator in 1925. Known as Il Duce (The Leader), he believed that people were divided into a hierarchy of races and established a police state. In 1933, two countries over in Spain, fascism was also rising, leading to the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. A violent, conservative movement was sweeping across the continent of Europe. In 1933 in Berlin, Hitler had been appointed Chancellor and quickly begin implementing restrictive laws. The Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (Law to Remedy the Distress of People, and Reich or Enabling Act of 1933) was the death knell for progressivism.

The years prior to the start of WWII saw the implementation of many laws and repercussions for educators and students, affecting Vera, her colleagues, and their students; in 1933, Das Reichsgesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentum (The Reich Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service) made it legal to fire Jewish and undesirable teachers and civil servants, massive book burnings took place in Berlin, and a 1.5% cap was put on the admittance of Jewish students into secondary schools and colleges. In 1934, the parents’ advisory council was abolished. In 1935, the Boy Scouts and other youth organizations were banned, the Nazi-approved Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) was the only permitted youth organization, and by 1936, membership in the Hitlerjugend was mandatory for children.4 In 1936, Jewish teachers were banned from teaching in public schools, and in 1937, Jewish students were banned from attending public schools. In 1937, Nazi teachings were fully implemented in schools. Anti-Semitic literature such as Die Judenfrage im Unterricht (The Jewish Question in Education), which contained guidelines for the identification of Jews, were instituted in the classrooms.5 1938 was a turning point leading up to WWII and in Germany’s persecution of Jews and undesirables. In  November 1938 the bloody, far-right, Nazi uprising Kristallnacht took place: two days of rioting and violence against Jewish citizens and their businesses, homes, schools, and cemeteries. That year, Vera’s school was permanently shut down by the Nazi government, Jewish children were rejected from schools, and Jews were advised to start their own segregated schools.

In the summer of 1939, Vera’s sister and parents emigrated from Germany to safety, her sister taking the last flight out of Berlin to London.6 Even though her family had escaped, Vera was adamant about staying in Berlin to assist folks. Between the summer and winter of 1939, Vera volunteered with Reichsvertretung der deutschen Juden (The Representative Body of German Jews), assisting orphaned Jewish children with fleeing to safer countries. Efficient and tender-hearted, Vera gathered the necessary paperwork and booked ship transportation for the children. Despondent at the political climate and the violent Nazi regime in Germany, Vera attempted suicide. Finally, her ex-girlfriend Erika Weigand and colleague Renata von Schelih, a.k.a. “Miss Socrates,” intervened and convinced Vera to leave Germany and join them in the United States.  Renata pulled strings with her brother Rudolf to get Vera’s exit paperwork. Rudolf was a Nazi diplomat, German Resistance fighter, and whistle-blower who arranged for paperwork for hundreds of escapees and leaked documentation of the early Holocaust atrocities to Great Britain. In 1942, the Nazis hung him in Plötzensee Prison for his actions.

Vera arrived in New York in the winter of 1939. Vera’s friend Erika and her family were respected academics in the United States and begged the President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, to assist in obtaining an extended work visa for Vera and, in the end, Eleanor’s intervention paid off.7 Vera said about the process of emigrating at age 35: “Luckily I had a friend, who managed to get a visa for me, when the quota had long been exhausted, and so I came to the USA via Sweden in 1939 with the ‘Gripsholm’ from Göteborg. Suddenly there I was on my own, and that even had its good sides. For me exile was a reincarnation. There was nothing of my former life which burdened me. The only thing which counted was what one knew….So I went through this until I finally ended up in my own subject again.”8 Upon landing on foreign soil, Vera also became a poet with her first poem, “Terra Renata” (“Land Reborn”).

Before she left Germany, Vera had a dream that affected her deeply. She called it a “prophetic dream,” and in this dream, she had seen her future summer camp for boys.9 Four years later, Vera’s dream came true. In 1943, Vera, a dedicated, lifelong caregiver and protector of children, opened a small summer camp for refugee boys whose families immigrated from Nazi Germany. This camp was called Camp Rena, short for the Latin word “renata” or “rebirth.”10 In 1944, Vera founded Camp Catawba, a progressive camp for 6- to 12-year-old boys in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Camp Catawba ran for 26 years and changed many boys’ lives with its combination of love, comradery, art, and drama. The children read Homer around the campfire in their pajamas and performed theatrics, including works by Shakespeare, The Persians by Aeschylus, Philoctetes by Sophocles, and The Birds and The Frogs, both by Aristophanes. In the late 1940s, Vera met her partner, Tui St. George Tucker. Tui was 20 years younger than Vera, an avant garde composer, musical instrument inventor, and colleague of composers John Cage and Grete Sulta. Tui soon joined Vera at Camp Catawba during the summers, rising to become the camp’s musical director and guiding the children into performing classical work including Bach and Händel. The campers were enthralled with Tui, “I’d never seen a woman in jeans before. She was so outspoken—I’d never heard a woman curse. We absolutely adored her; she was so liberated.”11

In 1946, Vera became a naturalized American citizen. During the school year, Vera taught the Classics, classical Greek, Greek mythology, German, and Greek theater at colleges including Vassar College, Salem College, Bryn Mawr, Yale University, and Brooklyn College, and published three books of poetry. In 1985, Vera died in Manhattan at age 80. Irascible to the end, Tui retired to Camp Catawba after Vera’s death and died there in 2004.

Vera Lachmann Resources
Bredow, Moritz Alexander Von. Rebellische Pianistin: Das Leben Der Grete Sultan Zwischen Berlin Und New York. Mainz: Schott, 2014.
Kreis, Gabriele. Frauen Im Exil: Dichtung Und Wirklichkeit. Darmstadt: Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 1988.
Lachmann, Vera. Homer’s Sun Still Shines: Ancient Greece in Essays, Poems, and Translations. Translated by Charles A. Miller. New Market, VA: Trackaday, 2004.

Vera Lachmann Endnotes

  1. Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. Edgar and Brigitte: A German Jewish Passage to America. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 158.
  2. Ibid., 159.
  3. Thiel, Guenter. “THE CAMP CATAWBA Founded by Vera Lachmann.” Wolfguenterthiel. February 20, 2014. Accessed August 29, 2018. http://wolfguenterthiel.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-camp-catawba-founded-by-vera.html.
  4. “Auszüge Aus Gesetzen Und Verordnungen, Die Das Schulleben Zur Zeit Des Nationalsozialismus Veränderten.” Schule Im Nationalsozialismus. Accessed August 31, 2018. http://www.grunewald-grundschule.de/html/Schule/Schulgeschichte/2Nationa.html.
  5. Simkin, John. “Education in Nazi Germany.” Spartacus Educational. Accessed August 31, 2018. http://spartacus-educational.com/GEReducation.htm.
  6. Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After (New York: Viking, 2016), 222.
  7. Ibid., 223.
  8. Schoppmann, Claudia. “Www.lesbengeschichte.de Vera Lachmann (1904-1985).” Lesbengeschichte – Biografische Skizzen – Claire Waldoff. 2005. Accessed September 01, 2018. https://www.lesbengeschichte.de/Englisch/bio_lachmann_e.html.
  9. Barnieck, Jens, and Wheeler Sparks. “Between Two Worlds: A Time at Camp Catawba.” Editorial. 2008. Accessed August 30, 2018. http://www.periodicals.narr.de/index.php/real/article/viewFile/1591/1570.
  10. Thiel, Guenter. “THE CAMP CATAWBA Founded by Vera Lachmann.” Wolfguenterthiel. February 20, 2014. Accessed August 29, 2018. http://wolfguenterthiel.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-camp-catawba-founded-by-vera.html.
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About Avery Cassell

Avery Cassell is a genderqueer San Francisco writer, poet, cartoonist, and artist who grew up in Iran. They live with their Maine Coon cat, Lulu, and bake yeasted waffles every Sunday morning. Behrouz Gets Lucky is their first novel. You can find their erotic short stories sprinkled in various anthologies, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 and Sex Still Spoken Here. Avery is currently working on a book of more of Behrouz and Lucky's shenanigans, a memoir, and an illustrated early reader children's book about a eight year old transgender boy and his family.
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