Last edited: July 11, 2004

Gay Holocaust Survivors Speak

Boston Globe, July 9, 2001
Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107
Fax: 617-929-2098

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 humanity. Ashamed."

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 Germany’s 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 plague."

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 Hitler’s 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 Rohm’s gay identity as a propaganda weapon against the Nazis. Eventually Rohm was murdered at Hitler’s 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. Everett’s 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 the film.

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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