Helga and the Amber Room

Helga and the Amber Room

By Melissa Tawn
A young transsexual tries to survive in Nazi Germany, and gets involved in the biggest art theft of the twentieth century.




The decadence of Berlin in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s has been amply documented and described by writers ranging from Bertold Brecht to Christopher Isherwood. It had a large and vibrant homosexual community, as well as a smaller but equally-vibrant transsexual community. The bridge between the two was the flamboyantly-gay doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the World League for Sexual Reform, who is best known for attempting the first “sex change” operations, which, though they were not considered particularly successful, did lead the way for the SRS operations a generation later.

Many runaways from all over Europe flocked to Berlin to join these communities, and among them was a slightly-built and extremely beautiful blond boy of 16 from Augsburg by the name of Helmut Angermann. Helmut was not really the sort to fit into “the life”, being both shy and unable to hold his liquor, but he managed to hang on for two years, earning his living in ways best left unelaborated. The crowning achievement of his short career as a performer on and off stage was to obtain from one Martin Pietsch, a minor bureaucrat in the Ministry of the Interior who had certain “unspeakable” tastes best satisfied at cabarets such as the notorious Eldorado Club (the model for the Kit Kat Klub in the movie "Cabaret"), a complete set of quite authentic documents in the name of Helga Schmidt, the name which he now used. Having received those documents and enough cash to build a small nest egg, Helga Schmidt vanished from the Berlin nightclub scene as suddenly as she arrived. Martin Pietsch was devastated by the loss, and sank into a deep introspective depression.

Helga was not stupid. Her ambition in life was to be a “real and ordinary” woman, and she realized that the Berlin scene was not the place to fulfill this ambition. She also noted the rise of various nationalist groups, the National Socialists being the foremost among them, which she sensed would close down the Berlin demimonde at the first opportunity. It was important to get out while there was time to do so.

So Helga bought a suitcase and filled it with clothes and jewelry suitable for a prim and proper middle-class young lady of 18, and took the train to Dresden, leaving behind all of her other belongings (including a rather interesting and exotic collection of whips, chains, and other tools of the trade which she had learned how to use during her short stay in Berlin, as well as the appropriate leather costumes to go with them) and anything that could in any way tie her to the now-officially-nonexistent Helmut Angermann. In Dresden, Helga found a room in a boarding house for young ladies and enrolled in secretarial school, where she learned typewriting and shorthand and from which she graduated with honors.

Things did not go smoothly, of course. Helga’s “transition” was done without the assistance of female hormones, which were not then available, and without any psychiatric counseling or support groups. But she was lucky in having a very girlish build (she was flat-chested, of course, but that was the fashion during the 20’s and early 30’s) as well as an iron will to overcome all obstacles. Often, when things went badly for her, or when she thought she was not passing well enough (though she never had any real incidents of being “read”) she would first sit in her room and cry for an hour but then follow that up with an hour of Buddhist meditation and breathing exercises (they were all the rage in Germany at the time; like everyone else in her generation, Helga had read Hermann Hesse’s short novel Siddhartha and was profoundly influenced by it) which restored her control over herself and her life.

Helga did not date men, yet, for fear of “complications”, but did form friendships with several of the other women living in the boarding house and would go out with her friends to concerts or the theater, or sometimes just to sit in a café or in the park. Often, they would be joined by young men, and Helga slowly learned how to socialize on the more respectable plane than that on which she had lived in Berlin. She soon earned a reputation as being a nice girl, the sort you would bring to your mother, but not one to ever take to a nightclub or even a rowdy party at the University.

And so Helga found her niche, and just in time, as it turned out. While she was still in secretarial school, the Nazis came to power and the era of toleration towards transsexuals came to an end. Indeed, one of the first things the Nazis did, having assumed power, was to destroy Dr. Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin and burn its extensive library and records. Helmut Angermann, if he had still existed, would undoubtedly have been thrown into prison or, perhaps, been beaten to death by SA thugs. But Helga Schmidt, with her authentic papers, was not suspected — at least not for the time being.


After completing secretarial school, Helga found a very nice job as a secretary at the Dresden museum. She was assigned to the office that handled the group of young researchers attached to the museum, most of them still working on their Doctorate or Habilitation at the University. There were seven of them — five men and two women — but Helga’s favorite was clearly Dieter von Stuhler.

Dieter was an aristocrat, the second son of a Bavarian count. Dieter’s father had been a Major General during the World War and -- following the family tradition -- Dieter’s older brother Hans had also joined the army and, in the new Wehrmacht, had achieved the rank of Oberst (Lieutenant Colonel). He made no bones (at least in private) about detesting the Nazis and their thugs, but he insisted that it was his duty to make sure that the military was staffed by professionals with a sense of duty and history, who would do their best to keep it above politics. Dieter was gentler and had a more academic frame of mind and was allowed to go to the University and study art history. His doctoral thesis had to do with the famous Amber Room, originally designed for Prussian queen Sophie Charlotte by sculptor Andreas Schlueter but never assembled. It was later sent by Prussian king Friedrich William I as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. After various constructions and reconstructions, it ended up in the palace of Catherine the Great in Tsarskoye Selo (now called Pushkin) outside of St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad), where it was considered one of the artistic treasures of Russia. A room the walls of which were amber panels, and which was lit by over 500 candles -- it shimmered like a living jewel and was often called one of the wonders of the architectural world. How Dieter yearned to actually see the Amber Room, something which was of course impossible in the current political constellation. He devoted years to studying it in minute detail, and was sure that one day he could see and examine it.

Helga was immediately attracted to this gentle aristocrat, and did her best in typing his letters and notes, often working late to get things just right. He, in turn, was always very thankful and kind to her, and would often bring her presents of chocolates or flowers. On her birthday, he even bought her a very fine-looking gold bracelet. After a while, he asked her if she would be willing to type some private manuscripts for him (unrelated to his work at the museum) in her off hours, for which he would of course pay her a quite generous fee. He had a typewriting machine in the study of his townhouse, which she would be able to use.

Helga agreed, of course, though she feared that he would abuse the situation in order to make sexual advances at her. On one hand, she was flattered that he took an interest in her, but on the other she knew that she could not expose the secret of her body to him. Still, she took the chance and soon found herself spending three evenings a week at Dieter’s luxurious townhouse, ostensibly to type his personal correspondence and papers, but in fact often just talking with him about his work and his life. At some point in the evening, they would adjourn to a restaurant or a café for dinner, and often afterwards they would walk along the boulevards or in one of the municipal parks. They sometimes held hands.

Dieter’s behavior was, at all times, correct. In fact, it was unusually so. Helga sensed that he would like to get closer to her — several times he seemed to bend over and want to kiss her but backed off at the last moment. She felt that he liked her, but something held him back.

One evening, when Helga arrived for their usual meeting, Helga found Dieter unusually disturbed. Instead of greeting her politely and sitting down on the sofa next to her, as had been his habit, he paced the room in a very agitated manner. Finally, he faced her and blurted out. “Helga, I have reached a decision. There is something I have to tell you. It is very difficult.” She looked at him quizzically and he continued: “Helga, I am in love with you, and have been for a long time now. I have been wanting to say this and have been putting it off again and again.”

“I love you too, Dieter,” Helga replied quietly.

“Helga … dear …”, said Dieter, “there is unfortunately a problem.”

“Have I done anything wrong?” asked Helga.

“No,” he replied. “The problem is mine. I have a terrible secret, which will forever prevent me from having an affair with a woman, even one as beautiful and perfect as you. It is one that it is impossible to explain, and certainly a well-bred girl like you could never understand.”

Helga approached Dieter and hugged him. “Please,” she said, “confide in me.”

“You see,” Dieter began, “ever since I was a schoolboy I had a terrible and vile attraction not only to women but especially to women-boys, those creatures who look like women but who are really boys underneath their clothes. They live in certain neighborhoods of the city which I am sure you have never frequented, but to which I find myself compelled to go every once in a while. I have tried to cure this passion, and have even visited a psychoanalyst, a disciple of Herr Doktor Freud of Vienna, but nothing seems to work. Therefore, much as I love you, I know that if I ask you to marry me, it would just end up causing you much pain and suffering, which would be unbearable for both of us.” He then fell on his knees, weeping.

Helga held Dieter tightly and slowly kissed him on the lips. “I too have a secret, Dieter, which I have never told anyone. Now is the time, however, for you to know it.” Then, slowly, she took Dieter’s hand in hers and guided it under her skirt.


Four months later, Dieter and Helga were married in a private ceremony in the family’s ancestral castle in Bavaria. Helga feared, at first, that the count would object to Dieter marrying a mere typist, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact, as the old general merrily explained, his own wife of forty years (who had died a few years earlier) had been a barmaid at a tavern in Leipzig where she met him, a young and very lonely lieutenant, just beginning his military career; his mother -- the wife of the famous Grand Admiral von Stuhler and, judging from the portraits of her on the walls, a most imposing and aristocratic woman -- had begun life as a chambermaid in a Hamburg hotel. So Dieter was merely following the family tradition in going outside the ranks of the aristocracy to find a suitable mate. Of course, nobody in the family or out of it knew Helga’s secret.

After her marriage, Helga resigned from her job at the museum and devoted herself to caring for her husband and helping him complete his doctorate, which he did successfully in 1937. He then was given a permanent appointment at the museum as curator of their imposing amber collection, while continuing his researches into the history of the Amber Room. Life seemed placid and carefree and Helga was very happy.

And then the war broke out.

Dieter, being both aristocratic and academic, detested the Nazis and all they stood for, even more than his brother. However, he was not one to act on his political beliefs, and, with a resigned sigh indicating that “this too will pass”, he dug himself deeply into the cocoon of his work while the troops marched through Europe under the sign of the swastika. He, Helga, and their friends never talked about politics and tried to avoid newspapers and radio broadcasts, so as not even to think about it. They both practiced Buddhist meditation. However, Dieter did accept an invitation from his brother Hans, who led one of the Panzer divisions now occupying Paris, to pay a visit to the City of Lights and see the Louvre. He also agreed to consult concerning the “repatriation to Germany” of a certain rare collection of amber artifacts liberated from the home of a rich Dutch Jewish banker, who seems to have mysteriously disappeared, leaving everything behind him. Upon his — purely professional, you understand — advice, the collection was split between the museums of Dresden and Stuttgart, with a few choice pieces unfortunately disappearing along the way. (After the war, they turned up in the private collection of Marshall Goering.)

Helga, who typed and arranged the paperwork involved, did not especially like this and felt it was morally wrong, but what could she do against the whole government? She meditated more than usual that evening.

The war continued. England was bombed extensively but not invaded, as everybody expected it would. Suddenly, Hitler turned eastward and sent his armies deep into Russia. Smolensk and Kiev fell, and mighty armies were headed for Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. It seemed only a matter of time until Russia shared the fate of France. Nothing could stop the unbeatable Wehrmacht. Dieter, however, was busy in the Dresden museum, cataloging and studying amber. Helga did her breathing exercises every night.

Then, one cold day in January, 1942, an officer in full uniform knocked on the door of their townhouse. “I am Captain Karl-Heinz von und zu Faunberg, on the staff of Panzer Generalmajor (Brigadier General) von Stuhler ” he announced, “I have an urgent message for Herr Doktor von Stuhler.” Helga invited Captain von und zu Faunberg in, and called her husband from his study. When he came, Captain von und zu Faunberg clicked his heels smartly and handed him a large envelope. Dieter opened it and quietly read what was written. He then gasped. “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it!”

Helga ran to him and asked him if it was bad news about his brother, whom they knew was somewhere on the Russian front. “No, he said, it is good news, tremendously good news.” Hans’ panzer division has conquered Tsarskoye Selo, and he is acting commander of the town. He is writing this letter to me from his office in a room of Catherine’s palace. And it is not just any room — he has located his office in THE AMBER ROOM!” Captain von und zu Faunberg explained the details. The Russians had, of course, done their best to evacuate all of the artistic treasures of the palace before the Germans had closed in around Leningrad. However, they could not figure out how to dismantle the walls of the Amber Room (which would be too big and too fragile to move in any case) and so tried to cover them up and hide them. They had worked in haste and the German soldiers had no trouble noticing and removing the camouflage.

Captain von und zu Faunberg continued that there was another message, which he was empowered to transmit orally. Even though Generalmajor von Stuhler was fully confident that Leningrad would fall in the coming spring, he was worried that the Amber Room would be damaged by the bombardment which the Russians were directing from the city towards Tsarskoye Selo, either from a direct hit or as a result of vibrations caused by a near miss. He has therefore decided that it would be best to dismantle the room and pack it for safekeeping, perhaps sending it back to Germany. Since Herr Doktor von Stuhler was without a doubt the world’s greatest expert on the room and its construction, he was instructed to bring Herr Doktor back with him to Tsarskoye Selo as soon as possible to help save this priceless treasure — in the interests of civilization -- from the needless fury of war.

Helga did not want Dieter to go. In her eyes, he was being made an accomplice to art theft on a grand scale, perhaps the biggest art theft since Napoleon “liberated” the art treasures of Italy or since the Venetians “liberated” the art treasures of Byzantium. But Dieter disagreed. He must help save the Amber Room from damage and destruction. It was his duty to humanity.


Dieter accompanied Captain von und zu Faunberg back to Tsarskoe Selo in a military aircraft. For three months, Helga heard not a word from him. Then she received a long letter, again by military courier. After careful study, Dieter had figured out how the room was assembled and was able to take it apart without causing damage to the highly-fragile amber panels. They were now carefully packed in special crates. By the personal order of the Fuehrer, they were to be shipped to Koenigsberg, where the room was to be reassembled in the Koenigsberg castle, built by the Medieval Teutonic knights. Dieter would accompany them on their way. Helga was requested to go to Koenigsberg, where a villa would be put at the disposal of the couple, while Herr Doktor von Stuhler supervised the reassembly of the room.

Helga was still very much opposed to what she considered theft on a grand scale, but had no real choice. And so she agreed to be flown by military transport to Koenigsberg, where she reported to Professor Doktor Alfred Rohde, the director of the museum in Koenigsberg castle, who had made all of the arrangements. When she met him in his office, she deliberately displayed a coldness and aloofness which signaled her lack of enthusiasm for the entire project. This distaste was clearly evident to Prof. Doktor Rohde, as it was to the man who was with him (and whom he did not introduce to Helga). Still, he behaved correctly, if not warmly, and gave the keys to the villa to this unnamed person, and told him to drive Helga to her new home.

When they were in the car, the man turned to Helga with a smile, and said that he was the Gauleiter (regional leader) of the Nazi party in Koenigsberg, and that he was sure that Helga would be very cooperative in the project of the Amber Room. When she didn’t reply, he added that it was very nice to see her again after all of these years. “Again?” asked Helga, “Have we ever met before? “Yes we have,” he replied, “and I am sorry that you have forgotten it so quickly. Of course, at the time you were called Helmut, not Helga. And I am Martin Pietsch, in case you have forgotten my name. As you see, I have advanced somewhat since my days as a flunky in the Ministry of the Interior. And it is now I who hold the whips. So let me make things very clear — you will enthusiastically support your husband in his project of preserving the Amber Room and returning this jewel of German art to its rightful home. You will even give interviews to the newspapers on how fitting it is that we have liberated it from the barbarian Slavs. Of course, should you refuse to do your part for the Fatherland, certain information could be sent to General von Stuhler and his father the count, information which would ruin their lives, as well as that of your husband. We wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?”

And so Helga felt boxed in. As she looked through the magnificent villa put at her disposal (which had been confiscated from a Jewish merchant who “would no longer be needing it”) she tried to think of ways to get out of this situation. She was determined, Siddhartha to the contrary, that she could not just accept this as another situation in life which is not to be fought. Somewhere, there was a way out. She meditated.

Dieter arrived in Koenigsberg three weeks later. The crates containing the Amber Room were in two special railway cars, guarded at all times by a company of soldiers supplied by his brother, waiting to be transported to the castle. On their first night together, Helga told him about Martin Pietsch and his threats. “It is not just a matter of the Amber Room,” she said, “if we let him get away with this, he will blackmail me, and you, forever. We will never hear the end of this.” Dieter was convinced. He would find a way out. Somehow. Meanwhile, Helga did whatever Martin Pietsch requested.

Before the room could be reassembled, Dieter had to carefully survey the castle and find a suitable and safe place for the Amber Room to be reassembled. This, needless to say, took a certain amount of time, and Dieter managed to stretch it out as long as possible — well into the autumn of 1942. Meanwhile, the war was not going as well as expected. Both Leningrad and Moscow were besieged but held out. In the summer of 1942, the Wehrmacht tried to capture Stalingrad, also without success. Resources were being drained from the army. The crates containing the Amber Room were unloaded from their railway cars and stored in the cellars of the castle. Then the British began bombing German cities, including a raid on Koenigsberg. Not much damage was done, but perhaps it was inadvisable to begin just now. The project of reconstructing the Amber Room was put on a back burner.

Herr and Frau Doktor von Stuhler asked for permission to return to Dresden. Permission was denied. They were to remain in Koenigsberg for as long as it took to finish the Amber Room project. This was a direct order from the Fuehrer. Martin Pietsch was becoming more and more impatient, but Museum Director Rohde sided with Doktor von Stuhler. The Amber Room was too precious to risk any damage. Helga and Dieter meditated, and planned.

The year 1943 came and went. An entire German army group surrendered at Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht was everywhere in retreat. In January, 1944, the German forces retreated from the Leningrad area. In Koenigsberg people began talking about the defense of the city from the advancing Red Army. Obviously there was no point in erecting the Amber Room now. Dieter had urgent meetings with Prof. Doktor Rohde and the military authorities. The crates containing the Amber Room must be moved to a more secure place deep in Germany.

It was decided to send the crates to safety in Saxony, where nobody would be likely to bomb them. They were reloaded onto a train and sent westward. However, as the special military train headed onward, it was overtaken by a dispatch rider on a motorcycle (he was none other than Captain von und zu Faunberg, who was killed in action a month later), carrying new orders, signed — so it appeared — by Marshall Goering himself. The train was to be diverted to another destination.

On the lands of the von Stuhler estate in Bavaria there was an abandoned coal mine, with a convenient railway spur leading right up to it. The train carrying the crates with the Amber Room was diverted to that mine, and the crates hidden deep in it. Then the entrance to the mine was covered over, and the railway spur torn up. Only Herr and Frau Doktor von Stuhler (who had carefuly forged the orders to divert the train) knew where the treasures lay. They would be safe there until the war ended — however it was to end. Meanwhile, they returned to Dresden and tried to live as normal a life as they could.

For three days, between the 13 and 15 of February, 1945, 1300 bombers of the RAF and the USAAF mercilessly pounded the city of Dresden with high-powered and incendiary bombs, creating a firestorm which claimed over 25,000 civilian casualties. Among these were Dieter von Stuhler and his wife, and with them — unfortunately -- the secret of the location of the Amber Room. It has never been recovered.


AFTERWARD: This story is fiction, and the characters (with the exception of a few “walk-ons” such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Alfred Rohde) are figments of my imagination. The Amber Room is not. The facts about the room, its removal from Catherine’s palace in Tsarskoye Selo to Koenigsberg, and its subsequent disappearance are well-documented. What happened to it after that remains a mystery; it has never been found. The case of the Amber Room remains the largest art theft, and its fate is one of the greatest question marks, of the 20th century.

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