Survivors of a forgotten holocaust

Heinrich Himmler set out to rid Germany of the homosexual 'plague' by mass extermination; Peter Tatchell hears the testimony of the gay men and women who survived Nazi death camps but whose stories were never told after the war

Tuesday 12 June 2001 00:00 BST

"We must exterminate these people root and branch. We can't permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated."

With these chilling words, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, set out the Nazi master plan for the sexual cleansing of the Aryan race.

Heinz F, now 96, was a carefree young gay man living in Munich in the early 1930s. He had no idea of what was about to happen. "I didn't fully understand the situation," he admits with pained regret. One morning, out of the blue, the police knocked on his door. "You are suspected of being a homosexual," they told him. "You are hereby under arrest."

"What could I do?" he asks, struggling to hold back the tears. "Off I went to Dachau, without a trial."

After spending a year and a half in Dachau, Heinz was released but soon rearrested and sent to Buchenwald. He was stunned to discover the grisly fate of gays in the camp. "Almost all the homosexuals ­ nearly all of them," he says, now sobbing, "were killed."

Heinz survived a total of eight years in concentration camps. Following the war, he never spoke to anyone about his experiences. He was afraid. Gay ex-prisoners were regarded as common criminals ­ not victims of Nazism. "Nobody wanted to hear about it," he says, with tears still rolling down his cheeks.

Heinz is one of only eight known gay holocaust survivors who are still alive. Together with five others ­ and one lesbian ­ he recounts his experience of the homophobic witch-hunts of the Third Reich in a new film, Paragraph 175, which premieres in Britain this week.

The feature-length documentary is by the US directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Oscar for their Aids film Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. "Paragraph 175 explores a history that has not been told," says Epstein. "We felt a particular urgency to record what stories we could while there were still living witnesses to tell them."

The dignified, defiant testimonies of gay survivors are seldom heard in mainstream holocaust histories. Indeed, until now most historians have neglected the Nazi war against homosexuals.

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Martin Gilbert's recent book, Never Again, purports to be "a comprehensive account of the holocaust". Yet the fate of non-Jews merits only one two-page chapter and the mass murder of homosexuals is accorded a single sentence.

The film Paragraph 175 rescues historical truth from half a century of amnesia. There is no happy ending, but the beginning was full of joy and hope. Before the ascent of Nazism, Berlin was the queer capital of the world. Jewish lesbian Annette Eick, who escaped to Britain shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939, recalls with fond nostalgia: "In Berlin, you were free. You could do what you wanted."

The city boasted dozens of gay organisations and magazines; plus more than 80 gay bars, restaurants and night clubs. The film describes it as "a homosexual Eden".

Although homosexuality was illegal under paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, prior to the Third Reich it was rarely enforced. In the Reichstag, MPs were on the verge of securing its repeal. A new era of freedom seemed to be dawning.

Within a month of assuming power in 1933, Hitler outlawed homosexual organisations and publications. Gay bars and clubs were closed down soon afterwards. Stormtroopers ransacked the headquarters of the gay rights movement, the Institute of Sexual Science, and publicly burned its vast library of "degenerate" books. Before the end of the year, the first homosexuals were deported to the concentration camps which had been established to hold political and social "undesirables", Communists and homosexuals among them.

Now 78, Gad Beck was, in those days, a precociously gay Jewish schoolboy, innocent of homophobia. "I had an athletics teacher ­ one day we were showering together and I jumped on him. I ran home to my mother and said: 'Mother, today I had my first man.'" Fortunately, his parents accepted his homosexuality. But they feared for his future. He remembers their reaction: "They said: 'Oh my God, he's Jewish and he's gay. Either way he'll be persecuted. This cannot end well.'"

But Beck survived, although nearly everyone around him perished. Two of his lovers were seized by the Nazis. "I met this beautiful blond Jew. He invited me to spend the night. In the morning the Gestapo came ­ I showed my ID ­ not on the list. They took him to Auschwitz. It had a different value then, a night of love."

Later, Beck tried to free another lover, Manfred, from a Gestapo transfer camp by posing as a Hitler Youth member. This incredibly dangerous deception was successful, but as they walked to freedom, Manfred told Gad he could not abandon his family in the camp. Beck watched helplessly as his lover returned to be with them. He never saw Manfred again.

In 1934, the Nazis stepped up their anti-gay campaign, with the creation of the Reich Office for Combating Abortion and Homosexuality. According to Heinrich Himmler: "Those who practise homosexuality deprive Germany of the children they owe her ­ our nation will fall to pieces because of that plague." The police were ordered to draw up "pink lists" of known or suspected homosexuals. Mass arrests followed.

At the age of 17, Frenchman Pierre Seel was detained by the invading Germans, who had raided local police files on homosexuals. "They saw our names on these lists," he says. "I ended up at the camp in Schirmeck. There was a hierarchy from weakest to strongest. The weakest in the camps were the homosexuals. All the way at the bottom.

"I was tortured, beaten, sodomised and raped," Seel continues. His lover, Jo, was attacked by the Nazis' Alsatian dogs.

The Nazis again intensified the war against "abnormal existence" in 1935, broadening the definition of homosexual behaviour and the grounds for arrest. Gossip and innuendo became evidence. A man could be incarcerated on the basis of a mere touch, gesture or look.

Later, Himmler authorised a scientific programme for the eradication of "this vice", with homosexual prisoners being subjected to gruesome medical experiments ­ including hormone implants and castration.

From 1933 until the final defeat of the Nazis in 1945, about 100,000 men were arrested under Paragraph 175 for the crime of homosexuality. Some were sent to prisons; others to concentration camps. The death rate of gay prisoners in the camps was 60 per cent.

Heinz Dörmer, now a very frail 89-year-old, spent nearly 10 years in prisons and concentration camps. In a quivering, barely audible voice, he remembers the haunting, agonised cries from "the singing forest", a row of tall poles on which condemned men were hung: "Everyone who was sentenced to death would be lifted up on to the hook. The howling and screaming were inhuman. Beyond human comprehension."

This "homocaust" was an integral part of the holocaust. The planned eradication of Jews and queers was part of the grand design for the racial purification of the German volk. The Nazis set out to eradicate all racial and genetic "inferiors", including Jewish, gay, disabled, black, Slav, Roma and Sinti people.

Even after the Nazi defeat in 1945, homosexual survivors of the camps ­ about 4,000 people ­ continued to be persecuted. Men liberated from the concentration camps who had not completed their sentences were re-imprisoned by the victorious Allies. Since they were regarded as criminals, all were denied compensation for their suffering. The German government still refuses to pay reparations. As a further insult, the work of the former SS guards in the concentration camps counts toward their pension entitlements, whereas the time spent in the camps by gay inmates doesn't.

Similarly, after the war, most Nazi doctors, including those who experimented on gay prisoners, were never put on trial at Nuremburg. The most notorious of all, Dr Carl Vaernet, was allowed by the British military authorities to escape to Argentina, where he lived freely until his death in 1965.

Paragraph 175 remained in force in Germany until 1969. Some gay holocaust survivors, such as Heinz Dormer, were repeatedly re-arrested in the post-war period and again jailed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of convictions for homosexuality in West Germany was as high as it had been under the Nazi regime.

The film Paragraph 175 is the last testament of the remaining few living victims of Nazi homophobia. It will indict for all time, not just the perpetrators of the holocaust, but also the victorious Allies, successive post-war German governments and revisionist historians who have allowed the gay holocaust survivors to pass unnoticed into history.

'Paragraph 175' premieres at the Imperial War Museum, London (020-7416 5499) this Sunday at 12.30pm and 4pm. A discussion will be held after each screening

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