The remarkable story of Margarete Klopfleisch

rs21 member Sonja Grossner tells the story of her remarkable mother Margarete Klopfleisch, an artist and communist during the Nazi period in Germany who spent time in hiding in the UK. The full biography The Troubles to Greet Beauty is available to buy from Waterstones or Amazon.

‘Girl with Dove of Peace’ by Margarete Klopfleisch. Credit: cover image of ‘The Troubles to Greet Beauty’

Margarete (‘Greta’) Klopfleisch (nee Grossner) was born in Dresden, Germany in August 1911. Her father was a cabinetmaker and her mother an amateur opera singer. After serving in WW1 her father struggled to make a living and her mother was forced to work in a bottling factory. Following her mother’s early death, Greta left school aged 14, and in addition to looking after her father and brother took jobs as a maid or nanny. Brought up with left-wing sympathies by her parents, she soon joined socialist worker youth groups and became politically active. She taught herself to play the violin and then received lessons from a local violin teacher. From the age of 17 she started to take an interest in art, especially sculpture. She began modeling for life drawing classes run by Otto Dix at an art school in Dresden. Though she never formally enrolled as a student, she asked Dix for advice on how to become an artist, to which he replied, “just take a pencil and paper and start”.

Through her political activities for the communist Rote Gewerkschaft Internationale (Red Trade Union) Greta met Peter Klopfleisch (1902 – 1976?), a prominent German communist and printer of pamphlets. When Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Peter was forced into hiding, and in May fled to Prague. In November with a warrant issued for her arrest Greta was also instructed by her communist colleagues to leave the country. She joined Peter in Prague, where they quickly chose to become unofficially “married”, as a visit to the German Embassy for a license would have resulted in them both being arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

Greta also had to go into hiding in an empty factory building. Her brother Hans was arrested because of his anti-fascist activities.

Forbidden to work, they suffered extreme privation, feeding only in soup kitchens. Notwithstanding this hardship, Greta found an art teacher, Käte Schäffner, who was a personal friend of Käte Kollwitz. Her teacher introduced Greta to Professor Grund, a sculptor, who acquainted her with stone carving. Naturally talented, by 1937 she was accepted as a member of the prestigious Oskar Kokoschka Club, exhibiting her work with other fellow anti-fascist artists, and associating with anti-fascist intellectuals such as the communist poet and writer Max Zimmering and political Dada artist John Heartfield, as well as Kokoschka. Eventually Greta found work as a nanny to the children of a sympathetic doctor.

With Hitler’s invasion of the Czech Republic imminent, Greta had to flee again. In March 1939 she emigrated to England on the last train for women and children to leave the Czech Republic, traveling via Finland and Sweden and arriving in England on 9 March. Peter managed to escape via Poland and Sweden arriving in London on 15 May. Greta was employed as a domestic help in Hampstead by artist Roland Penrose, who helped her with further studies.

In May 1940 Greta and Peter were both interned, Greta first in Holloway Prison and then the Isle of Man. Greta, by then pregnant, suffered a miscarriage that led to a persistent hemorrhage, from which she almost died and was saved only by an emergency operation. It is likely that a visit to a doctor, who examined Greta before she was arrested, caused this miscarriage purposefully.

Peter was sent first to the Isle of Man, then back to Liverpool to join the infamous HMT Dunera to Australia where he spent nine months in Hay Camp, NSW, only to return to the Isle of Man for a further two months. After their release, Gretel and Peter were reunited, and in 1942 Sonja, the first of their two daughters, was born. Settling in Maidenhead, Peter resumed his work as a compositor and Greta resumed sculpting and painting, attending classes and exhibiting in London, Reading, Maidenhead, Cookham and elsewhere locally.

In 1950 they applied to the German Democratic Republic (DDR) to return to Dresden, but the application was denied after a two-and-a-half-year delay. In 1956 they received an unexpected visit from Greta’s brother, Hans, who illegally visited the UK and cautioned them not to return to the DDR. Nevertheless, in 1960 Greta and her two daughters went on holiday to Dresden ostensibly for six weeks, but were refused an exit permit and were forced to remain. This turned into a permanent stay, the DDR authorities taking away her two daughter’s British passports, replacing them with DDR ones, thus making a return very difficult. As Dresden was Greta’s home town, she stayed, and her elder daughter was given the opportunity to study music. However, in Greta’s words: “We were regarded with suspicion, mistrust and as spies by many people and [were] eventually victims of the Stasi secret police.”

The DDR authorities refused to acknowledge and accept Gretel’s art. Thus she was compelled to work as a gardener, post-woman and scene painter for the Dresden State Theatre. In 1965 Gretel was awarded a compensatory pension as a victim of Nazi persecution together with a new flat. Peter died in 1976. Beginning in 1971, they were subjected to unexplained thefts and damage to the contents of their home, especially artwork, and were placed under constant surveillance by the Stasi.

In the 1970’s Greta’s health deteriorated and she died in 1982. It was not until one year before her death that she was accepted as a member of Dresden Artists’ Union after a successful exhibition of her artwork at the Gallery Comenius in Dresden. A further exhibition of her sculpture, paintings and drawings took place in December 1987 at the John Denham Gallery in London. Examples of her work are held in Moritzburg, Halle and New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester.

‘The Troubles to Greet Beauty (von der Mühe die Schöheit zu begrußen)’ is the title of a newspaper article written about my mother’s last successful exhibition, one year before she died. At last, after many struggles, the Association of Artists in the DDR Verband Bildender Künstler finally accepted her and gave her the artistic recognition she deserved. This last exhibition in Dresden 1981, organized by the culture league of the DDR, was a great success. I gave my book this title.

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