Auschwitz

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ITS EX­TENT OF TOR­TURE IS un­par­al­leled in Euro­pean his­tory; un­think­able by any civil­i­sa­tion. What hap­pened within the barbed gates of Auschwitz re­mains the deep shame of a now peace­ful con­ti­nent. The Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps were the abat­toirs of hu­man­ity, mak­ing it their business to kill as quickly and mer­ci­lessly as pos­si­ble.

Though it may be an im­pos­si­ble episode to com­pre­hend, as the 70th an­niver­sary of Auschwitz’s lib­er­a­tion dawns on 27 Jan­uary, com­pre­hend it we must. It’s guys like us – if we’d been born in a dif­fer­ent na­tion in a dif­fer­ent time – who’d have seen first-hand the ugli­est face of hu­man op­pres­sion.

Ex­act es­ti­mates of deaths at Auschwitz are dif­fi­cult to come by. The killings were so fast – the dis­abled, young and el­derly were fre­quently killed im­me­di­ately on ar­rival – that re­li­able reg­is­ters don’t ex­ist. It’s a fig­ure up­wards of one mil­lion.

The Jews, gyp­sies, Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses, crim­i­nals and the po­lit­i­cally out­spo­ken were viewed by Nazis as in­com­pat­i­ble with their Aryan race. So, too, were ho­mo­sex­u­als. It was a de­clared aim of the Nazi regime to com­pletely erad­i­cate gay men.

More than 100,000 were ar­rested. Thou­sands upon thou­sands per­ished, ei­ther through gas cham­bers or by tor­ture. By 2012, all known gay sur­vivors had died. But other

27 Jan­uary marks the 70th an­niver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of Auschwitz-Birke­nau

sur­vivors of this hu­man atroc­ity con­tinue to walk among us. The hor­rors of Auschwitz are still alive.

Be­fore Nazi rule, Berlin had been one of the most open ci­ties in the world. Gay bars and dance halls had sprouted across met­ro­pol­i­tan land­scapes, and many gay men and women led open, con­tented lives.

“To­day it’s hard to imag­ine what it was like in Berlin after the 191418 war,” re­called Heinz F, one gay sur­vivor, then aged 94. “In Berlin those were the golden years.”

Para­graph 175 of the Ger­man Pe­nal Code had pro­hib­ited ho­mo­sex­ual acts since 1871, but the Weimar Repub­lic had seen a change in pub­lic at­ti­tudes. Though it tech­ni­cally re­mained il­le­gal, the law had be­come semi-re­dun­dant. “We were free in the whole of Berlin, we could do what we wanted,” he re­called.

Dr Mag­nus Hirschfeld was a prom­i­nent physi­cian at the time. A gay man him­self, he founded the In­sti­tute of Sex­ol­ogy, con­sid­ered to be the first or­gan­i­sa­tion of the mod­ern era to pro­mote gay and trans rights, and cam­paigned for the re­peal of Para­graph 175. He built up a li­brary of books and his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments on sex­u­al­ity and the hu­man form that, even to this day, is hardly ri­valled.

The cam­paign had real mo­men­tum, and was backed by some 5,000 in­flu­en­tial sig­na­tures – in­clud­ing that of Al­bert Ein­stein. Though the re­form ini­tially strug­gled, Hirschfeld con­tin­ued to ar­gue ar­dently for the change, re­sort­ing to what we would now know as ‘out­ing’: nam­ing gay mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment in a bid to ex­pose their op­po­si­tion as hyp­o­crit­i­cal. This con­tro­ver­sial method saw the tide change among those with power, with a re­al­is­tic prospect of some le­gal equal­ity emerg­ing by the late 1920s.

On 30 Jan­uary, 1933, it all changed. Adolf Hitler be­came Chan­cel­lor with the strong support of Ger­man peo­ple and, within a month, had or­dered the clos­ing of all gay venues. Four days later, the Re­ich­stag was burned to the ground. Com­mu­nist op­po­si­tion lead­ers blamed the part­ner of Ernst Röhm: one of Hitler’s clos­est al­lies in the Nazi party, and gay.

On 6 May, Hirschfeld’s ex­ten­sive li­brary was de­stroyed in re­tal­i­a­tion. As they did with the Jews, the Nazis sought to erad­i­cate any whis­per of an al­ter­na­tive to their tyranny.

“There was an in­cred­i­ble at­mos­phere of fear,” the last gay sur­vivor, Gad Beck, who died in 2012, re­called of those early Nazi months. “Things used to be happy and care free, but now they were be­ing per­se­cuted. It didn’t seem like per­se­cu­tion to me, since the bar was still open. But they said this bar is only open to round us up. They did this again later with the Jews. They’d let them keep their meet­ing places so they could snatch them up.”

The gay bars were left open to round us up. They did this again later with the Jews. They’d let them keep their meet­ing places so they could snatch them up

Hein­rich Himm­ler be­came ob­sessed with the idea that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was an in­fec­tious dis­ease, en­dan­ger­ing Hitler’s pro­gramme to in­crease the master race.

As the Nazis rounded up all those who didn’t fit their master race, gay men too were fer­ried into the har­bours of death – some 15,000 la­belled with pink tri­an­gles and sent to their likely end. Though they were small in num­ber com­pared to other per­se­cuted groups, a spe­cial bar­bar­ity was re­served for the pink tri­an­gles. Beat­ings, “ex­ter­mi­na­tion through labour” in the work quar­ries and cases of forced cas­tra­tion. They also suf­fered the ho­mo­pho­bia of fel­low in­mates.

Ru­dolf Brazda, who died in 2011, re­called the dis­dain of be­ing seen to have the pink tri­an­gle: “The other pris­on­ers would say, ‘Oh looks, this one’s a fag.’”

Brazda had kept his si­lence un­til 2008, when a memo­rial for the gay vic­tims of the Holo­caust was un­veiled and Berlin’s gay

mayor marked their pass­ing. Fi­nally ready, he con­tacted the mayor to tell his story.

As a young man, Brazda led a happy and open life in Leipzig, Ger­many. In 1937, Brazda was ar­rested for ‘un­nat­u­ral lewd­ness,’ and sentenced to six months in­car­cer­a­tion after of­fi­cers found love let­ters he’d writ­ten to his boyfriend.

Soon after, a more sys­tem­atic, bru­tal per­se­cu­tion be­gan. “The Nazi stormtroop­ers dragged us out by our hair,” Brazda re­called. “We gays were like hunted an­i­mals. Wher­ever I went with my com­pan­ion the Nazis were al­ways al­ready there.”

Ar­rested again in 1941, he was this time sent to a con­cen­tra­tion camp, given the num­ber 7952, and made to sew a pink tri­an­gle on to the left breast of his camp uni­form. “I didn’t un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing but what could I do? Un­der Hitler you were pow­er­less,” he re­called.

“I ar­rived in a very big room. There was a pool there. In that pool we had to un­dress, and we had to bathe, naked. It was called ‘dis­in­fec­tion.’ In that mo­ment, an SS of­fi­cer pushed my head un­der the dis­in­fec­tant liq­uid. I still had my gold chain, with a cross. It was a gift from my boyfriend. He ripped it and asked if I was a church­goer. Of course I didn’t an­swer.”

He was sub­ject to forced labour and re­mained there for 32 months.

To win their re­lease from the camps, some gay men were forced to un­dergo mu­ti­la­tion – fre­quently tan­ta­mount to mur­der – in so­called med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments by Nazi doc­tors, who in­sisted that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was a dis­ease that could be cured. Hitler also or­dered the death penalty for any SS of­fi­cers found to have en­gaged in ho­mo­sex­ual re­la­tions.

On 3 Au­gust, 2011, Ru­dolf Brazda died at the age of 98, in Bantzen­heim, France. In the fi­nal years of his life, he con­tin­ued to tell his story as a warn­ing to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of what hap­pens when we don’t re­spect dif­fer­ences. Dur­ing th­ese last years, he said: “If I fi­nally speak, it’s for peo­ple to know what we, ho­mo­sex­u­als, had to en­dure in Hitler’s days. It shouldn’t hap­pen again.”

We gays were hunted like an­i­mals. The Nazis were al­ways there

Auschwitz To­day 70 years, almost to the day, de­pend­ing on when you read this, have passed since the last car­riage of in­no­cent men, women and chil­dren chugged into the spiked bound­aries of Auschwitz. Yet still to­day, main­tained as an area of na­tional im­por­tance by the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment, the grounds of this death camp reek with the im­pla­ca­ble in­hu­man­ity that was once ortho­dox. The build­ings are main­tained; the barbed fences, though largely re­placed, are in­tact; the ground is cob­bled and un­even. As you walk the long, nar­row cor­ri­dors of its work­houses, end­less black and white images of those who died within line the walls. The build­ings are hulk­ing, rec­tan­gu­lar and as uni­form in ar­chi­tec­ture as the killing they were de­signed to con­tain. But it’s Birke­nau which echoes loud­est. Un­like Auschwitz – a camp nes­tled in the Pol­ish, once heav­ily Jewish town of Os´więcim – Birke­nau’s sur­round­ings are baron. Its rail­way tracks – once the fastest method of trafficking those due for ex­ter­mi­na­tion – re­main. They seem to ex­tend for an eter­nity. Draw­ing the whole length of the camp, from its pierc­ing en­trance to the faint rub­bled re­mains of its gas cham­ber. They say a pic­ture tells a thou­sand words. Within the im­age of those tracks are a thou­sand, a hun­dred thou­sand, a mil­lion words of hu­man shame. Hun­dreds of thou­sands were com­mit­ted to their deaths along the rusty an­nals of Birke­nau’s tracks in just the fi­nal months, Nazis fear­ful of their im­pend­ing de­feat. As dusk closes on the camp, 70 years his­tory seems tri­fling. The out­line of the watch­tow­ers, the build­ings, the cham­bers, the fences and those seem­ingly ubiq­ui­tous rail­way tracks stalk the coun­try­side with their haunt­ing shad­ows. “Those who do not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it.”

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