“Gad, I can’t go with you. My family needs me. If I abandon them now, I could never be free.′ No smile, no sadness. He had made his decision. We didn’t even say goodbye. He turned around and went back. In those seconds, watching him go, I grew up.”
So wrote Gad Beck, describing the moment his lover Manfred Lewin returned to his family, who were subsequently deported to their deaths at Auschwitz.
27 January marks Holocaust Memorial Day. As a student at university I recall being moved to tears by the accounts of survivors of the Holocaust. Relatable stories of uniquely beautiful people, with concerns, dreams and families, so similar to our own, but exposed to the most repulsive state sponsored persecution. Six million Jews were murdered under the Nazis, culminating in the gas chambers of the concentration camps.
Whilst most victims of the Holocaust were Jewish, there were people from other groups who were also targeted, including the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and gay men. I am gay myself, but even when I was at university, around the turn of the millennium, there was a notable dearth of literature on the gay victims of the Holocaust.
We know that approximately 100,000 gay men were imprisoned by the Nazis. They were often beaten, tortured and even forced to perform sex acts with lesbians to “cure” them of their sexuality. Not all ended up in concentration camps; often they were held in normal prisons or brought into Gestapo and police custody for days or weeks, before being released again. Up to 15,000 gay men did die in the concentration camps though. Lesbians also died in the camps, but legislation in Nazi Germany was not as punitive towards gay women as gay men.
Prior to Hitler’s appointment as Reichskanzler in 1933, Berlin was one of the most liberal cities in the world. There was a gay rights movement and many LGBT people were out. Upon Hitler’s ascension to power the gay community rapidly came under attack. In 1933 the Institut für Sexualwissenshaft, a prominent gay organisation, was banned. It was not easy for gay men to conceal their pasts – Nazi officials seized records and kept lists of suspected homosexuals. Some gay men renounced their sexuality, tried to conform and even married, which provided cover.
Those gay men who did end up in the concentration camps faced among the most horrific conditions of any internees. Gay men had to wear a pink triangle and were segregated. There are accounts of gay men having their testicles boiled off, having wood inserted into their anuses, as well as beatings from guards and also, occasionally, other internees. Gay men were perceived as the lowest of the low. Many of the gay men in the concentration camps were also Jewish, or came from the lower social strata of society.
Most European countries at the time of the Second World War had legislation criminalising homosexuality, not just Nazi Germany. Sadly this homophobia continued after the end of the war. Decriminalisation did not take place in England and Wales until 1967 and it also remained illegal to be gay in Germany and across much of Europe in the decades following 1945. This meant that many gay survivors of the concentration camps were not awarded reparations or state pensions. Some countries even used data gathered by the Nazis to continue to persecute gay men after the war.
The gay victims of the Holocaust are still sometimes overlooked. It was not until the 1980s that historians began to assess the internment of gay men under the Nazis. By this stage many gay survivors had died. In 2002 the German Government apologised to the LGBT community and then, in 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included gay men.
State-sponsored persecution of gay men was particularly ruthless under the Nazis. These prejudices still exist today, if not in the UK, then in other parts of the world. Many gay men have gone missing in Chechnya over recent years, the Russian Government responding with intransigence. Uganda and Senegal are examples of African countries where there are regular clamp downs on the LGBT community.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the millions who died in the Holocaust, but also to consider human rights today. It is rarely just one minority that falls victim to intolerance. The lessons of the Holocaust are as relevant now as they were 70 years ago.