A Separate Category of Prisoners
In 1943, Himmler issued a new decree allowing homosexuals who submitted to castration and demonstrated good behavior to be released from the camps. Some of them took advantage of this ruling, although “walking out the gates of the camps” did not mean they were no longer under the “care” of the Nazis. They were assigned to the penal Dirlewanger division and sent into combat, which equaled a death sentence. The death rate among the soldiers in this division, which was notorious for its brutality towards Russian partisans, was extremely high.
Homosexuals were subjected to medical experiments. A Danish endocrinologist, Carl Vaernet, castrated 18 homosexuals in the Buchenwald camp and then injected them with high doses of male hormones. The goal of the experiment was to discover whether they would be interested in the opposite sex following such procedures. The results remain unknown, since a yellow fever epidemic in the camp caused the experiment to be suspended. Vaernet carried out similar experiments at the Neuengamme camp.
At the end of the war, the majority of homosexuals were freed from camps in both parts of divided Germany. However, the homophobia directed against them by the public remained strong. Article 175—the basis for sending thousands of innocent people to concentration camps—remained in force in the DDR until 1967, and in West Germany until 1969. There were some American and British lawyers who demanded that homosexuals convicted under Article 175 serve out their full sentences. For instance, if someone had been sentenced to eight years and served five years of the sentence in prison followed by three years in a concentration camp, the lawyers demanded that the person return to prison to serve out three years. The number of people forced to “complete” their sentences in this way is not known. To this day, no financial compensation has been paid to the victims of Nazi homosexual policies, despite the fact that the German government offered compensation to victims of Jewish ethnicity, political prisoners, and other groups that survived the concentration camps. Only the homosexuals were passed over. Many people deny that the homosexuals have a right to any such compensation, stating that victims with an alternative sexual orientation were justly imprisoned, and “had no one but themselves to blame.”
Significant numbers of the homosexuals who survived the war found themselves unable to return to their families or hometowns following their camp experiences. There were many reasons for this. Above all, however, shame and the fear of being stigmatized motivated homosexuals to change not only their addresses but everything else that could have been associated with their earlier lives.
The attempts that homosexuals made to conceal their pasts in the camps combined with the attitudes prevailing in postwar Europe to make it difficult for researchers to find many of those who had been sentenced under Article 175. As one of those researchers, Richard Plant, noted in his book The Pink Triangle: “Despite the fact that they no longer had to wear the pink triangles that designated them, they remained marked to the end of their lives.”
To My Comrades – from Karl…
Gays were imprisoned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, just as in all the camps. If researchers into sexuality are correct in estimating that four percent of the European population has homosexual tendencies, this would mean that there may have been approximately 16,000 gays and lesbians among the 400,000 registered Auschwitz prisoners. Although this is hardly a small number, we know nothing about them to this day, because this subject has been nonexistent in the historical research on Auschwitz. One reason for this is the fact that sexuality in general, and same-sex relationships in particular, are covered-up in our society and represent a zone of taboos and various fears. Homophobia is widespread in Judaeo-Christian civilization, and speaking of homosexuality in the shadow of the Holocaust strikes many citizens, and not only the ordinary ones, as tasteless. A group of orthodox Jews in the USA recently threatened to boycott the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as long as the Museum depicted the persecution of gays.
Another reason is the fact that their sex lives were simply not an issue for the majority of male and female prisoners in Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Conditions there forced them to renounce entirely any sort of romantic interests, especially with the ubiquitous terror from the SS and capos combining with chronic undernourishment to extinguish their sex lives and eliminate the associated physical reactions. Survivors have stated that the women stopped menstruating, and the men had neither erections nor nocturnal emissions. Sex life was possible in the camp only for those who enjoyed better living conditions and belonged to the narrow caste of the “privileged,” such as capos, foremen, scribes, flegers, block supervisors, room wardens, and the like.
In Auschwitz, as in all the concentration camps, the sexes were segregated—with the short-lived exceptions of the two “family camps”, for Jews from Theresienstadt (Sept. 8, 1943 – June 12, 1944) and Roma (Feb. 26, 1943 – August 2, 1944). Heterosexual contacts among haftlings occurred, but rarely, since men in labor details working on an occasional basis in the women’s camp, such as the dachdeckers or the electricians, had access to the women’s blocks.
Generally, however, camp conditions directed the sexual drive towards members of the same sex. “Dance parties” in the so-called “asocial block” in the Birkenau women’s camp are familiar from the memoirs of Fanja Fénélon and Olga Lengyel. Memoirs by former prisoners also feature occasional references to piple, who were young Jews and Poles, often mere children, taken under the protection of prisoner functionaries who exploited them for various personal services that sometimes included sexual ones. Such relationships also occurred in the women’s camp.
It would nevertheless be incorrect to assume that everyone who maintained homosexual relations in Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a gay or a lesbian. It would be even more incorrect to assume that those prisoners, or even the majority of them, had been imprisoned in the camp for homosexuality. While the Nazis did generally regard everyone with sexual preferences outside the petit-bourgeois norms as “community pests,” they did not necessarily see it as imperative to physically eliminate them, especially if they belonged to the “master race.” The Nazis deliberately treated “perverts” in a differentiated, plainly inconsistent way.
For instance, approximately 50,000 men were penalized for homosexual behavior in the Third Reich. Yet only 5,000 of them (or perhaps two or three times that number) ended up in the concentration camps. The Nazis found this sufficient as a general deterrent. Female homosexuality was not subject to penalties, either under the criminal code or under Third Reich police policy. There was no separate category of prisoners designated as “lesbians.” Among all the camp documentation that we know about, there are two or three women with the notation “lesbian” next to their names. They were probably not arrested for their “perversion,” however, but rather because they were Jewish (as is indicated by the fact that they were classified as “political” prisoners).
Lesbians were indeed imprisoned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but because of crimes that the police viewed as “very serious.” They wore green, black, or red triangles, sometimes combined with yellow ones. As opposed to the situation at Ravensbrück, “reeducation” was not meted out to Auschwitz prisoners for alleged lesbian behavior in the camp. This may be because “reeducation” had already been discarded in the concentration camps by late March 1942, when the first women arrived in Auschwitz. In the camps, therefore, the situation was the same as in German society at large: lesbians were open to condemnation, but not to prosecution.
The situation for male homosexuals in the Third Reich was completely different. Articles 175 and 175a of the German criminal code made “promiscuity between men” a crime. Those convicted of it were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp. The German criminal code applied only to citizens of the Third Reich. Other laws applied in the occupied countries. For instance, the German police paid no attention to “promiscuity” between Polish men. If a German man had “promiscuous relations” with a Pole, however, they were both subject to harsh penalties. As a rule, the German was sent to a concentration camp and the Pole executed, with no trial in either case. This is why the majority of the prisoners designated as homosexuals in the concentration camps were Germans. Of the 97 men identified by name as homosexuals in Auschwitz, for instance, 96 were Germans.
Homosexuals, marked with the pink triangle, made up a separate category of prisoners in the concentration camps. They occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of the German prisoner population. Generally looked down upon by “politicals” of all nationalities, they suffered harassment not only from the SS, but also from their “green” and “black” fellow prisoners. They were isolated, and every attempt that they made at contact with other prisoners brought them under suspicion of “initiating promiscuous relations.”
All this meant that homosexuals had far smaller chances than the average prisoner of surviving the camp. We know about the fate of 64 gay Reichsdeutsch prisoners in Auschwitz; 51 of them, or 80%, died in the camp.
One of the German prisoners who died in Auschwitz concentration camp was Ernst Ellson, born in Duesseldorf on February 18, 1904, of Jewish religious denomination, bachelor, who resided with his parents in Essen. The vice squad, then responsible for supervising places—certain bars and, above all, public toilets—where gays regularly met, had him under observation from 1935. In mid-November 1940, Willy M., a male prostitute, was caught in the act. Under interrogation, he identified Ellson as an occasional client. The police arrested Ellson on November 22. Since he was a Jew, the criminal police, following procedure, notified the Gestapo, which brought charges. On March 14, 1941, the municipal court in Essen sentenced Ellson to four months imprisonment, with time off for the period he had already spent awaiting trial, for “perverted promiscuity” under Article 175 of the penal code. Ellson was scheduled to be released on March 23.
The criminal police regarded the sentence as too lenient. They therefore requested that the Gestapo “take the appropriate measures.” On the day of Ellson’s release from prison, he found a Gestapo agent waiting for him outside the prison gates with a “temporary preventive detention” order. On April 18, the Berlin Gestapo issued an arrest warrant on the following grounds: “Ellson . . . is a threat to the existence and security of the nation by reason of his having committed perverted promiscuity. . . . It is to be feared that, if left at large, he will persist in behavior that is harmful to the national health. . . . “ The warrant was signed by Reinhard Heydrich.
Here is how the further fate of Ernst Ellson and his parents played out: he was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in a collective transport on May 16, 1941. His elderly parents were committed to the Holbeckshof transit camp in Essen-Steele on April 25, 1942, and transferred from there on July 21 to the Theresienstadt camp, where they died. Ernst Ellson was sent to Gross Rosen Concentration Camp on September 15, 1942, and transferred to Auschwitz on October 16, 1942. On November 26, 1942, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp commandant’s office notified the Gestapo in Duesseldorf that Ernst Ellson “ . . . died of pneumonia in the camp hospital on November 23, 1942 at 9:30 a.m. in the morning. . . . The family should be informed that his remains were cremated at the cost of the state and the urn deposited at the urn cemetery at the crematorium here.”
Both the reason for Ernst Ellson’s death and the cemetery where his ashes were cremated were fictitious. It bears remarking that this gay Jew survived a year and a half in the Buchenwald and Gross-Rosen camps. Five weeks in Auschwitz were enough to finish him off. This indicates the conditions and rigors prevailing in Auschwitz, in comparison to other camps. The number of prisoners with the pink triangle in Auschwitz was always relatively low. On January 20, 1942, there were 22 of them in the Auschwitz I-Main Camp, and on August 21 of that same year there were 28 of them in the entire Auschwitz complex. However, there were also men wearing other triangles who had an attraction to their own sex. For instance, the “recidivist criminal” Franz Waldhauser, a Reichsdeutsch, wore the green triangle even though he had been sentenced to five and a half years hard labor for “perverted promiscuity and blackmail and theft in a homosexual situation” on November 28, 1935 and sent to a concentration camp on May 30, 1940. Another, similar instance of a prisoner wearing the green triangle, and a Reichsdeutsch, was the capo Michael Unger. He forced a twenty-year-old German Jew to have anal relations in the Buna camp in early 1944. The incident came to the attention of the camp administration. After interrogation, the victim was punished with 25 lashes with a club for “fulfilling a request for perverted promiscuity.” There is no further trace of Unger in the camp records, and we therefore do not know whether he was castrated, as was, according to Hermann Langbein, the usual practice in such cases in Auschwitz.
Homosexuals also reached Auschwitz concentration Camp as “political” principles. Some of them were arrested for political reasons with no reference to their sexuality. Others managed to change their prisoner category on such occasions as transfers between camps. This is what Karl Gorath did. He wore the pink triangle in Neuengamme Concentration Camp, where he was assigned to labor as a fleger. He and four of his fellow flegers were transferred to Auschwitz at the beginning of June 1943. On June 11, he was registered in Auschwitz Concentration Camp as a schutzhäftling, that is, a political prisoner. He was evacuated to Mauthausen in January 9145, and survived. He settled in West Germany after the war.
In his camp memoirs, Gorath recounts that he was made a block supervisor in Auschwitz. He made friends there. Two younger Poles, Tadeusz and Zbigniew, became his lovers. He came back to the site of the Auschwitz camp 50 years later to show his gay friends the small room he lived in on the top floor of one of the blocks.
He told them: “I had my own room as a block supervisor . . . it was right here . . . this is where I spent the happiest days of my life . . . with Zbigniew. . . .” His voice broke off when he spoke with tears in his eyes about how only once in his life he experienced such deep love from another man, and that it was “here, in the camp, among all the misery surrounding us, never before, and never again—never more: I met the love of my life in Auschwitz.”
Later, he learned in the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum that Tadeusz and Zbigniew had both died in Auschwitz. Before going home to Germany, he and his friends placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial in Birkenau, in memory of all the gay victims of Nazism. Next to the wreath, Karl left a small bouquet of pink roses with a handwritten note that read: “To my comrades Zbigniew and Tadeusz – from Karl.”
Robert Biedron, a political scientist, is the head of the Polish Campaign against Homophobia.
Joachim Neander, born in Gdańsk, lived in Germany until he moved to Cracow in 1999. He holds doctorates in philosophy, mathematics, and physics, and is the author of various articles including one on the Mittelbau Concentration Camp. In 2002, he held a fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and is an honorary member of the staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State museum in Oświęcim.