‘The Pink Triangles: The Gay Victims of the Holocaust’
The 27th of January commemorates Holocaust Memorial Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the notorious 'Death Camps'. This day is a time for us to remember the millions of lives lost under Nazi persecution and the subsequent genocides. 2023's theme, ‘ordinary people,’ explores the idea that everyone involved, victims, survivors, or perpetrators, were just ordinary people, reminding us that we all have a choice and to look inwards at what we are doing to support the minorities that were persecuted all those years ago.
Tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people were killed during the Holocaust, a fact that most know, but few consider in more depth. Due to varying attitudes, their stories are told less – growing up through the British education system and studying WWII more than once, the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community was not taught to me, and if mentioned at all, they were stuck on the end of a long list of minority groups impacted with no further explanation. This month, I wanted to take some time to discover some of the stories that are available to us, and investigate the changing attitudes and persecution of LGBTQ+ people during the Holocaust era.
Anyone who has been to Berlin can attest that it’s incredibly liberal, and it boasts a strong LGBTQ+ community. The city had a similar story in the 20th Century, hailed as one of the most tolerant cities in Europe, sporting a number of lesbian and gay cafes, bars and organisations. The German government was leading the way, and by 1929, processes towards complete decriminalisation were already in place (compared to the UK, where we only saw decriminalisation in '67).
As soon as Hitler became chancellor, attitudes swiftly changed, with the looting and burning of the Institute for Sexual Science in 1933 marking the beginning of a new, darker era. Similarly to the Jewish population and other minorities at the time, many gay men and lesbians fled abroad or married into straight relationships to hide their identities. Lists of homosexually active persons were released, and an estimated 50,000 severe jail sentences were given out, with an unknown number arrested.
Historians estimate that approximately 10-15,000 gay-identifying people were deported to concentration camps, many of whom were castrated or subjected to cruel medical experiments.
Rudolf Brazda was one of these men, the last known concentration camp survivor deported for homosexuality. His story didn’t emerge until the final years of his life, due to the continued discrimination against the community long after the war ended.
Rudolf, a second-generation Czech immigrant, found a tolerant community in the modern area of Meuselwitz, where he was able to be open about his sexuality in the late 20s. He met his first boyfriend, Werner, at age 20, and soon moved in together, his family even acting as witnesses to a symbolic marriage ceremony in their home. In 1933, the Nazis began raiding gay clubs and Brazda was arrested for 'debauchery between men', using love letters he had written to Werner against him. After completing his prison sentence Rudolf was deported to then Czechoslovakia, but not knowing the language, he moved to Sudetenland with its German-speaking population. However, by 1941, the Nazis had invaded this region and he was arrested again, serving another 14 months.
1942 came, and he was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, prisoner number 7952. Here he was forced to wear the infamous 'Pink Triangle' badge, and was subjected to numerous beatings, and had his teeth knocked out. Rudolf survived, a fact which he attested to the support of a kapo, who hid him in a shed from the other guards before a 'death march' to another camp.
Rudolf survived, but so many did not. After liberation, neither the Allies, the new German states, nor Austria, recognised gay prisoners as victims of the Nazis, meaning reparations for them could never be claimed. The Nazi-amended paragraph 175 which persecuted gay men was not reverted until 1950 and was only discarded in 1968.
It wasn’t until the 2008 memorial for gay victims of the Nazis was unveiled that Rudolf broke his silence. So many more never told their story and died in silence, unrecognised and forgotten.
Before his death in 2011, he said, ‘If I finally speak, it’s for people to know what we, homosexuals, had to endure in Hitler's days... It shouldn't happen again.’
Another notable figure to be mentioned is Pierre Seel, a French soldier who also survived the concentration camps. In his book I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror, he describes his harrowing experience of the gay persecution by the Nazis, a story which he kept secret for 40 years after the fact.
Gad Beck, a gay Jew living in Berlin, has an extraordinary story. He lived underground through the whole war, funnelling food, money and clothes to hidden Jews and helping smuggle others out of the country. But when the Nazis took his first love, Manfred Lewin, he took a three-sizes-too-large Hitler Youth Uniform, marched into the transit camp he was kept and demanded his release. Unfortunately, Manfred wouldn’t leave his family, so he went back to the camp – none of them survived. As reporter Deborah Peifer so aptly put it, his is ‘An inspiring tale that should serve as a reminder that straight people don’t have a monopoly on courage.’
Their stories are heartbreaking, inspiring and, tell, tales of ordinary people who experienced persecution and had to hide it for years thereafter. The psychological traumas, as well as the physical ones, impacted the community and societal attitudes toward the Community for generations, and make their stories so much more important today. LGBTQ+ people around the world are still being murdered for their identities and structural homophobia and transphobia leak into our politics and laws. As Rudolf put it, "It shouldn't happen again", but unfortunately, we are not there yet.