Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

Dear Friends of the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project:

The account below contains many details about Charlotte’s early years which were not known before I went to Germany in July. Many more new important findings are not mentioned here. This trip brought light into Charlotte’s early life in ways that would not have been possible without someone walking the streets of Duisburg and Leipzig, without someone searching the state and city archives for days, following clues, a date, a street name, which suddenly revealed new vital details about Charlotte.

Duisburg Address book 1910 entry for Wittgenstein

Duisburg Address Book 1910.

Paul is Charlotte's father, co-owner of 'Wittgenstein u. Vasen'. Hermann is Paul's father, Otto Paul's brother.

(Königstrasse was later renamed Amtsgerichtsstrasse.)

This work takes time and it has to be funded. I have been very happy to give my time over the past 2 ½ years to this and I have only been able to do so because of your generosity. I really appreciate your trust and I do not take it for granted. However, at this time there are no funds left to draw from and until there are I will be unable to properly continue work on this great project. I will spend the next weeks trying to secure major funding because I want to avoid having to look for other sources of income which would drastically slow down work on the book. For this I am seeking advice and support. I hope not to spend increasingly more time on fundraising which leaves less time for working on the project. I also want to build a stronger financial foundation for the project because the unpredictability is becoming unsustainable for me and my family. If you have ideas or are willing to share your expertise with me I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

While I work on this I ask you to continue supporting the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project. Please consider a donation now, especially if you have not contributed this year.

Funding or not: I can assure you that I am not abandoning this important project even if a lack of money forces me to giving up working at it at the pace I have been. Everyday I am fascinated by Charlotte’s life story. It is not only the story of a Sensory Awareness pioneer. It is the story of an unusual woman living the 20th century; it is the story of a German Jewish life; it is the story of times and people exploring the human potential, struggling sincerely to find ways of living in harmony with one-another and all life on earth. To tell this story is a tall order and the hardest thing I have ever done but I am as committed to doing it – and doing it thoroughly – as I have ever been. With your help I can.

Thank you!

Sincerely yours,

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


From Ruhrort to Leipzig

Research in Germany, Summer 2010.

Charlotte Wittgenstein was born in Ruhrort, an old city on the banks of the Ruhr and Rhine, right where these two much traveled rivers merge. The town is nestled in a maze of rivers, canals and basins which make up one of the worlds busiest inland ports. Ruhrort belongs to the large city of Duisburg and is surrounded by steel plants and coal mines but when I recently spent a week there to research Charlotte’s early life, it seemed to still have that small town feel to it about which Charlotte wrote to Heinrich Selver upon visiting her parents in 1922: “Ruhrort is one big family, I’m an outsider but for ten days its child.

Aerial view of Ruhrort 1926 Ruhrort is in the upper right corner
below the Rhine bridge on this
photograph from 1926.
(Courtesy of Stadtarchiv Duisburg.)

And family it was. A child can walk across this town in 15 minutes and winding her way through the streets of Ruhrort little Charlotte would have passed the homes of her grandparents, she might have waved at her uncle Otto through his shop window, she might have seen an aunt on the market and later played hide and seek with her nephews – okay, that would have delayed her a bit.

Corner building in Ruhrort Rheinallee Ruhrort colored photograph
Amtsgerichtsstrasse 25 in Ruhrort. The only original building I found
in which Charlotte's family lived
early in her childhood.
Vintage postcard of Rheinallee in Ruhrort, where Charlotte lived during her teenage years.
(Courtesy of Stadtarchiv Duisburg)


She then could have hopped on a train that would have taken her in 10 minutes to Meiderich, where her father ran a firm for butchers' supplies next to the Duisburg Slaughterhouse, the latter of which still remains there to date. Then again, she might not have gone there because she was horrified by the screams of dying animals which could be heard from her father’s office. He, too, hated to be there, Charlotte told me, and he disliked the nature of his business, which presumably started as a franchise of her grandfather’s lamp factory, Wittgenstein & Horn, supplying it with tallow before electricity changed the nature of that enterprise.

Grandfather Hermann's Lamp Factory on Amtsgerichtsstrasse in Ruhrort.
(Courtesy of Stadtarchiv Duisburg)

It was a small world but it was not an island. The inns were frequented by sailors, lively trading went on by the docks where boatloads of cargo from many parts of the world changed hands, while the nearby steel factories produced goods to be shipped across continents. Father Paul’s sausage skins, too, were shipped to places as far away as South America.

“That’s Ruhrort, dirty and sleepy. The Rhine flows by leisurely. I see it from my window and I can see the boats in the harbor. But smog fills the air. My Oberhof sky [mountain resort in Thuringia], where have you gone? Gone is the blue vastness, gone are the delicately interlaced lines of mountain tops. The land is flat and sober. Still, I love this sight with its fire-spewing chimneys and glowing furnaces.” (Charlotte to Heinrich in 1921)

When it was time for me to move on, I took the train to Leipzig just like Charlotte did many times when she lived in Leipzig. Just as in Duisburg, I wanted to walk the streets of the city in which Charlotte and Heinrich lived for years, looking up addresses I had from her letters. Here like in Ruhrort most of the buildings in which Charlotte lived and worked are long gone, having been bombed during the war. But the cities have retained their distinct characters and Leipzig has a cosmopolitan spirit which Duisburg seems to lack almost completely. It is here that Charlotte thrived as a teacher of Bode Gymnastik and where – not long after she had finally made the long desired step to work according to her studies with Elsa Gindler and Heinrich Jacoby – the National Socialists all but destroyed her promising career in Germany.

Augustusplatz Leipzig Charlotte Selver working with Children

The building in the center is Augustusplatz 1,
a prime location in Leipzig, where Charlotte had a studio from 1928 - 1935. (Courtesy of Stadtarchiv Leipzig)

Charlotte Selver-Wittgenstein working with children in her Augustusplatz 1 studio. Early 1930s.
(UCSB Library, Courtesy of Sensory Awareness Foundation)

At the state and city archives in Leipzig I looked through hundreds of photographs to find out how the city looked when Charlotte lived there. I was particularly interested in locating the building of Augustusplatz 1, where Charlotte had her gymnastic studio for many years. This turned out to be quite challenging because, as I realized only the night before I left, the cross street where the entrance to her studio had been, no longer leads all the way to Augustusplatz. When I finally found the photograph that put it all in place it revealed much more than a location: The photograph shows a massive Nazi parade passing by the very building in which Charlotte lived and worked, saluting Hitler on one of his frequent visits to that city in 1933. It was three months after the first nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses.

Charlotte lived in Leipzig for two more years, trying to hold on to her career – a futile endeavor. Among other papers I found at the archives was an index card documenting her citizen status. Its last relevant entry, dated October 17, 1935, states that her citizenship was revoked. The day before, Charlotte had officially left for Berlin, where Heinrich lived. Three years later, in October of 1938, Charlotte was able to leave Germany, only weeks before the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht), leaving behind her parents in Duisburg, who’s apartment was ransacked that fateful night. It would take another two years until they, too, would be able to escape the Nazi terror.

Festspielhaus Hellerau

I also briefly visited the Garden City of Hellerau by Dresden. Hellerau was one of the first big manifestations of the German reform movement of the early 1900s. The photograph shows the "Festspielhaus", where Swiss music educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze taught his influecial "Rhythmische Gymnastik" (later Eurhythmics).
One of his students was Charlotte's teacher Rudolph Bode (Bode Gymnastik).

Her later teacher Heinrich Jacoby taught at Hellerau before WWI and then again from 1922 - 1925. Charlotte mentions working with Jacoby there in a June 6, 1923 letter:
"Jacoby: You won't recognize him as the man we met, when you work with him.
It's no use to write about it, you have to experience it.



Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449, USA
stelaeng [at] / Tel.: (603) 525-7289