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Oral Histories from Holocaust Survivors Shed Light on Gay History
Video testimonies illuminate a lesser-known narrative of persecution
The USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive includes rare testimonies from gay Holocaust survivors.
Limited resources impede awareness and understanding
When Natalie Musante, a student at Michigan State University, sought resources to help her understand “why America doesn’t have a larger collective memory about homosexuality in the Holocaust,” she discovered a dearth of primary source materials to help her in her research.
Why is there so little information available on this topic?
Because homosexuality remained a crime in Germany until 1994, very few gay Holocaust survivors came forward to tell their stories after World War II. Upon release from concentration camps, some of these men were even re-arrested and put in prison based on evidence gathered by the Nazis.
It wasn’t until the 1980s and ‘90s when governments started acknowledging these victims of the Holocaust. As a result, some of the dwindling population of gay survivors still living were empowered to share their experiences.
By 2000, fewer than 10 of these men were known to be alive.
Hearing from survivors in their own words
Firsthand accounts from these survivors revealed little-known details of the particularly cruel abuses and “experiments” inflicted on the gay community; their intimate stories revealed the struggles and suffering of human beings coming to terms with their sexuality.
In 1986, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant was the first comprehensive book on this topic published in English. Plant was a gay Jewish émigré who fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland during the war.
Pierre Seel, the only French person to have spoken out about being deported as a homosexual during World War II, published his memoir I, Pierre Seel, Deported* in 1994.
Gad Beck published his autobiography, An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, in 2000.
Seel and Beck are also among the small number of gay Holocaust survivors who shared their testimonials in video-recorded interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.
“We lived as if being gay was a state religion”
Photographer and actor Albrecht Becker is another survivor who shared his story with the USC Shoah Foundation. He gave his testimony in 1997 at the age of 91.
Becker recalled living openly as a young man in Hamburg – despite homosexuality being technically illegal, gay men didn’t feel endangered. After all, the leader of the Nazi paramilitary Stumabteilung (SA) organization, Ernst Rohm – one of Adolf Hitler’s longtime advocates and allies – was himself openly homosexual. It just wasn’t a big deal.
“Without mincing words,” Becker admitted, “we lived as if being gay was a state religion.”
However, the government’s leniency regarding Paragraph 175 – the law which criminalized homosexuality – came to an abrupt end as Hitler sought to consolidate power. As the regime carried out the execution of other Nazi leaders deemed threatening to Hitler’s takeover, Rohm was among those killed. Subsequently, a special division of the Gestapo compiled a list of gay individuals.
Between 1933 and 1945, approximately 100,000 men were arrested. Many were imprisoned, others were sent to concentration camps. By some estimations, up to 60% did not survive. Hundreds of men living in Nazi occupation were castrated under court order.
In 1935, Becker received a summons to appear for questioning at the police station. When asked if he was homosexual, he told his interrogator, “Of course. Everyone in Hamburg knows I’m gay.”
At his trial, Becker did not contest the charges – others who denied being homosexual were sent to Dachau and were never heard from again. But Becker was ordered to serve three years in Nuremburg, after which he was released. He accepted that he had broken the law and said he was prepared to “swallow my medicine.”
You can view a segment of Becker’s testimony.
Shedding light on a subject difficult to imagine
Natalie Musante, the researcher from Michigan State University, says the Visual History Archive provided her with insight and information she was lacking.
“In the video testimonies, I discovered an interview with a woman talking about the differences she noticed in the acceptance and openness and of gay men European compared to the United States,” she explains. “The testimony gave me some answers that I can apply to my research topic.”
“The field of LGBT History is more visible than ever,” says Cookie Woolner, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Her specialty is in LGBT history. “But there is a dearth of firsthand accounts of queer life from the first half of the twentieth century, before the birth of modern ‘gay liberation.’”
“The Visual History Archive can help students and scholars working on this subject explore untold narratives to contribute to a fuller understanding of the past,” she adds.
Woolner points out that oral histories of experiences in concentration camps and during World War II shed light on everyday life under circumstances difficult for many of us to even imagine. These stories illuminate the lesser-known narrative of gay persecution during the Holocaust and reveal the intimate everyday interactions that helped people survive thanks to the generosity of strangers.
The interviews, she says, highlight the full humanity of a marginalized community, who acted nobly under the worst possible circumstances. “These unique stories would complement research on gay life during the Holocaust, under the Nazi regime, as well as life during World War II in the U.S.”
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer a streaming version of the video testimonies in entirety.
*Available from ProQuest Ebook Central.