An update from SMU junior Will J.:
Buchenwald is mostly remembered for its large number of political prisoners, but I’d like to highlight a smaller group of prisoners who too often are forgotten.
Embedded within Buchenwald’s main gate is the slogan “Jedem das Seine.” Literally it means “to each his own”; figuratively it means “everyone gets what he deserves.”
Buchenwald is one of the few camps that had a large population of homosexuals, whom the Nazis considered threats to the survival of the German people.
Here, as at other camps, gay men were were treated as the lowest of the low among camp prisoners, and subjected to unimaginably horrific torture that included having their testicles boiled off; being sodomized with 10-inch broken rulers; having their fingernails pulled out; being castrated; being forced, on freezing nights, to keep their hands above their blankets to “prevent masturbation”; or being beaten to death on a whim. Some were even forced to stand like human dart boards, at which SS officers threw syringes, aiming for the prisoners’ pink triangles.
Adding to their torture was the medical experimentation inflicted by Danish physician Carl Værnet. He attempted to “cure” homosexual inmates via “hormonal transplants” via incisions he made to the men’s groins before metal tubes filled with testosterone were inserted to serve as artificial “hormone glands.”
To this day, we don’t know the full extent of humiliation, torture and death that homosexuals faced during the Nazi era. Leading Holocaust scholars believe that as many as 60 percent of gay men detained by the Third Reich didn’t survive their imprisonment.
What we do know is that Dr. Vaernet escaped prosecution by the Danish government and Nuremberg tribunals. Following the war he fled to South America, where for two decades he lived a comfortable life – even continuing to research how to eradicate homosexuality – until his death in 1965.
What we also know is that most prisoners classified as homosexuals refused to speak out after the war. Rightfully so: Because of Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality between males a crime, gay Holocaust victims weren’t liberated along with their fellow inmates. The majority of them were actually re-arrested and re-imprisoned before being classified as sexual offenders.
Homosexuality didn’t become part of Holocaust discourse until the 1980s, by which time most relevant information had been lost. Additionally, the German government didn’t remove Paragraph 175 from their criminal codes until 1994 — or officially apologize until 2002.
(Note: Shortly after our return from Germany, the country announced it would pardon and compensate 50,000 men criminally convicted of homosexuality under Paragraph 175. “We shall never be able to completely atone for the crimes of the judicial system, but we want to rehabilitate the victims,” said German justice minister Heiko Maas. “Prosecuted gay men should no longer have to live with the stigma of their conviction.” )
Information about homosexual Holocaust victims is appallingly slim: Sachsenhausen’s Wikipedia page doesn’t address the camp’s large number of homosexual prisoners – a fact I was surprised to learn from Dr. Halperin during our trip. Why do homosexuals deserve to not only be subjected to the same torture and death of every other persecuted community in Nazi Germany, but also be forgotten, imprisoned, and attacked by the world after the end of the war? Why did Nazi homophobic sentiments trickle down throughout Europe and America? Why were/are homosexuals still considered a lesser person, a sub-human? These are things to think about, and things to change.
In the meantime, I’d like to share the story of Pierre Seel, the only French Holocaust survivor to publicly discuss his imprisonment for being gay. Pierre was 18 when he was arrested, raped with a section of wood, and sentenced to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück camp. He didn’t speak out about his experience under the Nazi regime until the 1980s for fear of persecution – which wasn’t unfounded: He was refused a handshake by the mayor of Strasbourg, France, during a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.
Pierre Seel (1923-2005)
To understand what he experienced, here’s an excerpt from his 1995 book, I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror:
It happened during my earliest weeks in the camp and contributed more than anything else to making me a silent, obedient shadow among the others.
One day the loudspeakers ordered us to report immediately to the roll call … The commandant appeared with his entire general staff. I assumed he was going to bludgeon us once again with his blind faith in the Reich … but the actual ordeal was worse: an execution … .
Two SS men brought a young man to the center of our square. Horrified, I recognized Jo, my [lover], who was 18. I hadn’t previously spotted him in the camp. Had he arrived before or after me? We hadn’t seen each other during the days before I was summoned by the Gestapo.
Now I froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their lists, their roundups, their humiliations. And there he was before my powerless eyes, which filled with tears. Unlike me, he had not carried dangerous letters, torn down posters or signed any statements. And yet he had been caught and was about to die … .
The loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved a tin pail over his head. Next they sicced their ferocious German Shepherds on him: The guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped. My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror, tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly.
Since then I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For 50 years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing though my mind. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love – before my very eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses. Why are they still silent today?”