Gay Holocaust Survivors Speak
July 9, 2001
Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107
By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff
Toward the end of "Paragraph 175," a 92-year-old man weeps at the
memory of what was done to him in a concentration camp, and of the silence he
was forced to maintain in the years following his release.
You may weep with him. It is a shatteringly intimate moment, one of many in
this powerful film (airing at 8 tonight on HBO) about the persecution of
homosexuals by Nazi Germany.
The seven survivors, several of whom are at first reluctant to talk, tell
their stories haltingly or in emotional torrents. Each one constitutes
important testimony to a monstrous time and an aspect of the Holocaust too
little remembered. One, who as a teenage prisoner saw his best friend devoured
by dogs and who was himself horribly tortured, says, "I am ashamed for
Under a 19th-century German law known as Paragraph 175, which forbade
homosexuality, more than 100,000 gay people were arrested in the late 30s
and early 40s. As many as 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where
they were at first identified with the words "homo" or
"Paragraph 175" on their uniforms, later by pink triangles.
Gays, many of whom were German Christians, were spared the gas chambers
that killed millions of Jews. But two-thirds of the gay prisoners died as
victims of slave labor, castration, or surgical experimentation. It was part
of the Nazis campaign to eradicate homosexuality, which they viewed as a
threat to the "Aryan purity" deemed essential to Germanys
comeback from World War I humiliation. Heinrich Himmler went so far as to say
that the German nation might "fall to pieces because of that
That was not always the official view. In fact, narrator Rupert Everett
notes, in the 1920s Berlin was "known throughout the world as a
homosexual Eden." Gay culture flourished in bars, clubs, and youth
groups. But despite efforts to repeal it, Paragraph 175 remained on the books.
It became a weapon in Hitlers hands. Starting in 1935, the Nazis
expanded the definition of homosexual behavior and intensified the campaign
against gays. "A touch, a look, a gesture" was enough to get a man
arrested, Everett says. Lesbians, by contrast, were generally not arrested,
but they were essentially driven underground, their gathering places shuttered
by German authorities.
As the Nazi storm gathered, realization was slow to dawn among German gays.
A survivor recounts how some gays initially believed the Nazis posed no threat
to them because Ernst Rohm, a high-ranking aide to Hitler, was homosexual. In
fact, illustrating how homosexuality was becoming a political football,
communists used Rohms gay identity as a propaganda weapon against the
Nazis. Eventually Rohm was murdered at Hitlers behest, along with 300
others, during the "night of the long knives."
One of the strengths of "Paragraph 175" is Everett. He is
effective in large part because he eschews the usual stentorian voice-over of
wartime documentaries. Everetts low-key style meshes with that of his
collaborators, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Academy
Award for "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt." (Epstein also
won an Oscar for "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.") With
"Paragraph 175," the pair chose archival footage and music wisely
and well and was also smart enough to leave pockets of resonant silence within
When that silence is broken, it is the voices of the survivors we hear,
often poignantly juxtaposed with photos of their younger selves. Fewer than 10
gay prisoners of concentration camps remain alive today, according to the
film, making their testimony even more vital.
Sometimes these survivors, in their 80s and 90s, seem almost to be speaking
to themselves, trying to sort through the meaning of so much horror. One man
recalls an evening with a Jewish lover, who was arrested by the Gestapo the
next morning, along with his mother, and transported to Auschwitz. "It
had a different value then, a night of love," he says sadly.
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