N.O. Body, Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years.
The German original of this book Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren enjoyed great popularity and saw several printings in Germany in the first decade of the twentieth century. The NO/Body of the title was a man who was misdiagnosed at birth as a woman – she was in the terminology of the time a hermaphrodite. She changed sex and wrote this book after the legal proceedings had been completed. The writer of the new afterword, Hermann Simon, director of the New Synagogue in Berlin, tells the story how he discovered the real name of the author. When he was a young kid, his parents were friends with a certain Karl M. Baer and he asked what this M stood for. First they explained it was Martha which of course raised the second question why a man should have a female name. After some hesitations the answer came that as this friend had been born in Russia, his parents had raised him as a girl to prevent his conscription into the Army – as was common to strip Jews of their heritage. Migrating to Germany, this friend had taken up his real sex again. The story should have been told in the reviewed book in a slightly different version (the mistaken genitals) to protect the author. This Martha/Karl Baer (1885-1956) is the NO/Body of the book and he distorted the story indeed to hide his traces – but not the plot with the genitals. So he said to be of French origin, while it was in fact Jewish. Also the place of birth had been relocated while the kind of salvation work Baer was involved in – white slavery in Eastern Europe – remained unmentioned.
The book is very elegantly written and translated while the quite short story of Baer’s life is very engaging reading. The afterword is interesting with the search story of the author which brings Simon to zionist circles in Hamburg in the early twentieth century and to postwar Israel where Baer died. He married immediately after his legal change of sex with the woman who had alerted Martha to the fact that she was in fact a man. His first wife died within a year. He was apparently a staunch heterosexual because he married twice more and lived with his second and third wives in a triangular relation until the second died and the third could marry him.
The introduction by Sander Gilman offers little beyond the novel. In Magnus Hirschfeld’s afterword for the original book he asks how to deal with indeterminate cases of sex in newborns, suggests that they should be registered as such and not as male or female and praises the old Prussian regulation that such persons were allowed to decide themselves on their sex at age 18. He also does the remarkable suggestion that it would be better to socialize these babies as men because it would be easier for a male to continue life as a female than for a female to do the reverse. But the best and most readable part of this small and nice collection remains Martha/Karl Baer’s autobiographical story.
Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam