Eva Kemlein with her camera, Berlin, between 1945 and 1951 (detail)
© Stadtmuseum Berlin| unknown photographer

Eva Kemlein

Through her border crossings between East and West, Eva Kemlein became one of the most important post-war photographers. Her photographs document a city in ruins, the early stages of post-war life and the theatre life of the stages in both East and West Berlin.

by Dr. Martina Weinland

Eva Ernestine was born in Berlin Charlottenburg on 4th August 1989, the youngest of Jewish businessman Albert Graupe and his wife Gertrud’s three children. Her father, who worked as a grain wholesaler and banker on Dorotheenstraße, wanted to see her progress and made sure she got a good education. In fact, Eva had multiple interests, none of which were at the school she was attending, so she left the girls’ high school on Sybelstraße whithout graduating.

She wouldn’t get her school leaving certificate until later, and subsequently went on to complete an apprenticeship as a medical technical assistant at the Lette School, where she also learned about technical scientific photography. In 1929, she received a certificate for having passed her exams from the head of the Lette School’s photographic academy Marie Kundt.

Clouds cast over a carefree life

During a trip around Italy in the early 1930’s Eva met journalist Herbert Kemlein. The enterprising freelancer had a revolutionary spirit and Eva was very impressed by his nonconformist lifestyle. Their occasional encounters developed into a relationship. Despite Eva’s father’s initial concerns, the couple married in the spring of 1933. Soon afterwards, Herbert and Eva Kemlein went on a trip to Greece that lasted several months: They rode a motorbike across the Balkans all the way to Athens, where they both settled down. They led a carefree life under the southern sun. Eva took photographs for travelogues and Herbert wrote features for German newspapers.

However, despite being miles away from Germany, the Nazi regime, which had come to power by that time, was still able to cast its dark shadow. Eva became the target of antisemitic discrimination due to her Jewish background. Their wages were no longer being paid out to them, but were sent to blocked accounts instead. She was banned from practicing her profession. Her husband was also affected due to their so-called “mixed marriage.”
Uniforms are turned into clothes, Spandau, 1945
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Eva Kemlein

Due to fear of Nazi persecution, Eva and Herbert decided to divorce in 1935 – a pure formality. However, the Nazi authorities knew very well, due to being informed by other Germans who were residing in Athens, that the couple was still living together – committing “racial defilement,” as the Nazis called it. They made their money by doing odd jobs, pawning off their belongings and from Eva’s mother, who was a widow at the time. In 1937, they received the unexpected news that they were going to be deported from Greece. They only had 24 hours to leave their adopted homeland and return to Berlin. At that point, Herbert separated from Eva.

Going underground and resistance

Eva Kemlein’s brothers emigrated to South America, however, her mother, who came from a long line of Berliners, refused to leave her hometown. Most of the assets they once owned had been confiscated. To earn a little bit of money, Eva first got a job at Siemens and then with a rag dealer.
Album with mementos from the time Eva Kemlein lived in illegality, with ID cards, photographs, notices and notes
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Meanwhile, the pressure put on the persecuted minorities by the Nazis kept increasing. Jews were becoming more and more isolated and even Eva and her mother were forced to wear the Star of David in public. One day in 1942, Eva arrived home to find her mother gone – deported. When she also received a notice ordering her to be transported to a detention camp, she decided to go underground with her new partner: Werner Stein, an actor, director and author who was 21 years her senior and also from a Jewish background, who, as a socialist and anti-fascist, was against the oppressive regime.

Steel helmets are turned into cooking pots, 1945
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Eva Kemlein
Eva Kemlein and Werner Stein sought shelter at friends’ houses and changed hiding places over 30 times. They would venture outside together during the day, narrowly escaping being caught several times. Despite that, Werner managed to organise a resistance group with two Bulgarian students, which produced and distributed leaflets with Eva’s help. They were finally able to come out of hiding after nearly three years at the end of April 1945, when the Red Army liberated them from a cellar where they’d been hiding in Schöneberg.

Crossing borders for photography

After the end of the war, Eva Kemlein moved into an apartment in the Wilmersdorf artists’ colony on Breitenbachplatz. One of the few personal possessions she was able to hold on to while living underground was her Leica camera. With this camera, she took photographs of the rubble women, the black market and subjects unique to Berlin for the newly founded Berliner Zeitung newspaper, where she was one of the first staff to be hired. At first, her darkroom was her closet, and then a room close to her apartment. She rode all over the city on her bicycle taking photographs; and every day, she would take her finished pictures from Wilmersdorf to the editorial office in Lichtenberg.

Album mit Erinnerungsstücken aus dem Leben von Eva Kemlein, 1951-54
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
The new rulers in the Soviet occupation zone refused to give Werner Stein a leading position in the redevelopment of the cultural scene due to his Jewish background. Nevertheless, he and Eva stayed true to their political beliefs and felt connected to the newly founded German Democratic Republic, especially since former Nazis had managed to get leading positions in the Federal Republic.
After having worked at the GDR’s domestic news agency for two years, Eva Kemlein returned to freelancer work in order to be able to choose the topics and motifs she would be working on herself. Her features on the city’s reconstruction continued being printed in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. She was commissioned by the Berlin Magistrate to photograph the Berlin Palace before it was demolished in 1950.
A boy holding the first edition of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper from May 21st, 1945
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Eva Kemlein

At the start of the “Cold War” between the East and the West, Eva would roam between these two worlds. She lived in West Berlin and worked – even after the wall was erected in 1961 – in East Berlin. As a result, her pictures were boycotted by the West Berlin newspapers and her claim to receive compensation for being a victim of the Nazi regime was rejected. Her salary was paid in East German marks, meaning that she had to do all her shopping in East Berlin and then go through the border control to bring it over to West Berlin.

Berlin stages in the picture

Eva Kemlein was closely connected to the theatre through her partner. She was deeply impressed by the German premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mutter Courage” [Mother Courage] starring Helene Weigel at the Berliner Ensemble and that marked the beginning of her 50-year career as a theatre photographer – always up close and always in black and white.

With her camera she captured almost every single performance taking place in East Berlin’s stages. From the 1970’s onwards she was also active in the western part of the city and photographed outstanding productions at the Schiller Theater and the Schaubühne – from the first rehearsals all the way to the premiere. Her love for the theatre was also reciprocated by the actors. Eva Kemlein was equally cherished by both the directors and the actors. Until 2004, she had attended numerous rehearsals. She died in Berlin on 8th August 2004, shortly before her 95th birthday.

The photographer’s estate has been part of the Stadtmuseum Berlin’s theatre collection since 2004. The Stadtmuseum Berlin also holds the exclusive right to her photographs. The archive, which includes over 330,000 negatives, was acquired in 1993 with the financial support of the Preußische Seehandlung Foundation and the pictures taken by Eva Kemlein up until her death were added to the collection in 2004.