Friday 09 December 2005
Pierre Seel, writer: born Mulhouse, France 16 August 1923; married (two sons, one daughter); died Toulouse 25 November 2005.
Had the 16-year-old Pierre Seel's watch not been stolen in the Alsace town of Mulhouse in 1939, his life might have turned out very differently. Events made him an ambiguous but courageous war hero. Only in the past two decades did he describe that unusual, picaresque and particularly horrible odyssey - and, supported by his wife and children, reclaim the homosexuality which brought such trouble 64 years ago.
The last of five sons, he was born in 1923. His parents ran a high-class patisserie/teashop, while an aunt left after an affair with a Protestant but not before giving her nephew a watch as a Communion present. Seel had an early aversion to masculine violence - as when the teacher punished him for screaming on opening his desk to find that fellow pupils had put dead birds in it. Youthful romance with a girl languished after he sent her images from his missal, but in the choir, during Mass, and on the beach during Dieppe holidays, he had intimations of homosexuality.
His confidence grew among the "zazous" - the stylishly dressed - who gathered near a café whose patrons joined them in brief encounters. His family was oblivious to this, but, when his aunt's watch was stolen, the police took details: the officer twigged what the location betokened. Seel's card was - literally - marked. Life continued, with hopes of work in textiles, as all round, Jews left. He had passing affairs, and found his first true love with a fellow called Jo.
Such was the region's national ambiguity that, with the German invasion, Seel's family wept; their neighbour was overjoyed. The Vichy government sold it down the river. A friend joined the Hitler youth. Did he denounce Seel? Or did the police officer? On 3 May 1941 the Gestapo pushed him - cochon de chien - into a dank room with a dozen others: the authorities got his number from the police card.
After weeks of torture, they were bundled into a van for Schirmeck concentration camp. Hideous cries came from the women's section at night. Prisoners were regularly beaten. Set to build crematoria, Seel risked his life to steal rabbits' carrots. Medical experiments were undertaken (one prisoner died when the syringe hit his heart).
While the camp's Nazi leader Karl Buck (who died in luxury in 1977) gave his Sunday-morning addresses, rooks circled bodies on the gallows. One summer's day Buck ordered all to watch a miscreant be eaten alive by the guard dogs. This turned out to be Jo, whom Seel had not realized was there. As he recalled, "depuis plus de 50 ans, cette scène repasse inlassablement devant mes yeux". His account is harrowing, and he feared the same when summoned by Buck in November 1941.
Instead, he was asked to sign a form, and allowed home, where he was greeted in friendly silence, his experience unvoiced as he pictured the first Resistance ashes wafting from the crematoria to the snowy hillsides. In March 1942, that form obliged him to join the German army. He spent six months training in a Vienna much as it was before the war. After his next brief visit home, the BBC reported that, on the platform, the SS was powerless to stop well-wishers from breaking into the "Marseillaise".
In Yugoslavia, these troops were ordered to set alight houses containing women and children. When they claimed to have lost their briquets, soldiers found matches on their tables at dinner. Seel's writing the story makes it clear who survived arm-to-arm combat. The Nazis "avaient fait de nous des assassins".
Wounds took him to a still-vibrant Berlin, and, to his puzzlement, he was invited to a grand, country house: a surreal scene, where beautiful youths were engaged in creating supermen. He was terrifed by this "procréation quasi animale". Was he to take part? Unlikely. Expected to beguile men to be brought here? He never knew, for he then shuttled on trains between Belgrade and Salonica, partly in quest of gold, before return to now-bombarded Berlin and eventual despatch to Germany's collapsing forces on the Eastern front close to Smolensk. "Ce bruit me poursuit toujours." As an ordinance officer, in the grim winter of 1944, he spent three days and nights beside a dead man before fleeing - fearful of how the Russians would greet his extraordinary story.
He was lucky, taking his place with them and, months later, via Poland, joined a train to France: the carriage erupted with the news on 8 May 1945. Via Paris, he went home, living in muted horror at all that had happened, homosexuality still unspoken - until his mother lay dying in 1949. He told her everything, including Jo's end (and she was shocked to think they gave the police officer Christmas presents). In Alsace a mother's death heralds a marriage: in 1950, four years before his father's death, Seel married a Spanish refugee's daughter. The ceremony was conducted by Seel's brother, then town mayor.
Mulhouse felt uncomfortable, and they went to Paris, where he at last ran a textile business. They had children, but he was often uncomfortable with himself (a priest told him he was a sinner); he did not claim the handy pension (the reason for deportation would come out). As fate had it, he was caught up unawares in the événements of May 1968; alarmed at being thought a ringleader of these students, he took the opportunity of his wife's getting an administrative job in Toulouse, and they began a new life there.
While she was away, he motored shyly around homosexual trysting spots. Troubled, he took anti-depressants, his marriage suffered, and divorce began in 1978. He felt suicidal, and, after a routine operation, paperwork muddle brought convalescence in a psychiatric clinic. Bars on the windows aroused old terrors - and, curiously, this image duly liberated him. He confronted the past, galvanised by the Bishop of Strasbourg's attacks on homosexuality. Anonymously, Sell began to describe his experiences, then more openly, eventually appearing on national television with President François Mitterrand in 1989 and writing the remarkable, brisk memoir Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel (1994). This has been translated in America (as I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual, 1995, reissued as Liberation was for Others, 1997), but not England.
A remarkable Second World World War memoir - the stuff of a dozen existential novels - it deserves a British publisher forthwith. Happily, Seel found domestic happiness in his last years.
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