Non-heteronormative victims of the Nazi regime
Theodor Schaaf was born in 1869. He lived to be 74 years old. He died on 17 November 1943. Nothing is known about his life prior to the final “episode”. One can only speculate as to his political sentiments, his religious affiliation, whether he was in a long-term relationship or single, if he smoked cigarettes or shied away from alcohol.
In 1871, Schaaf was a two-year-old boy. At that time, paragraph 175 was added to the penal code of the German Empire which stipulated punishment for “homosexual relations” between men, deeming them “unnatural” and “immoral”. Previously, before the unification of Germany, homosexual relationships between men were punished in Bavaria among other places. In 1935, paragraph 175 was tightened as a result of the Third Reich’s new social policy. From that moment on, it was possible to be arrested for any kind of behavior deemed to be non-heteronormative, whether that be kissing, touching or holding hands. At that time, Theodor Schaaf turned 66. It is possible that he remained “in the closet” throughout his whole life or raised his children and resolved to divorce his wife. Perhaps he wanted to live differently than he had until then. Were the “days of masquerade” which took place among the homosexual community in Germany from 1933 onwards any kind of surprise for him? The manner in which he was captured by the police remains unknown. Was he betrayed by an overly zealous neighbor outraged by the old man’s behavior? Or was he at a club when a round-up happened to take place? We know neither exactly when he was picked up by the Nazi regulators of social morality nor if he had been to other penal facilities prior to his final destination. Did anyone from his family try to have him released? Or did he try to escape, but was simply not strong enough?
Schaaf was the oldest inmate of KL Dachau to wear the symbol of a pink triangle on his camp uniform. The prisoners arrested under paragraph 175 were not always marked with that symbol. Schaaf was imprisoned in KL Natzweiler prior to his transport to KL Dachau at the beginning of the second week of September 1943. It is not known how long he was there. He received a five-digit number at the camp in Dachau: 50 725. He lasted only ten weeks there, a little over two months. He died in November 1943. At that time, 145 homosexual men marked with a pink triangle were trying to survive along with thousands of other prisoners at KL Dachau, an exemplary concentration camp in the Nazi penitentiary system.
Schaarf’s story is one of the thousands of untold microhistories from that group of forgotten victims of Nazi terror. A characteristic feature of these cases is the lack of reports. Only about a dozen testimonies of people persecuted under paragraph 175 have been gathered since the end of the 1980s. The majority of the witnesses brave enough to tell their stories appeared in Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman’s film Paragraph 175. Several of them wrote books or gave interviews. Some of them never had the opportunity to talk about their past. They stayed silent for so long not only because their war-time suffering went unacknowledged; they were not treated as victims of the Nazi regime. Paragraph 175, however, survived the war. It was finally removed from German legislation at the beginning of the 1990s. The tightened-up Nazi version of the law remained in force in the Federal Republic of Germany until 1969. Many of the witnesses survived the camps, returned home and several months later found themselves locked up in prison serving sentences of several – or a dozen or so – years. The fear of punishment effectively prevented them from speaking about their past and forming a memory of it. Up until the beginning of the 1970s, the only way to survive was to remain silent on the issue of non-heteronormative lives. The Nazi days of masquerade continued for another forty years.
Klaus Müller describes this lack of reporting as a “void of memory”. Speaking about the role of testimony in the formation of the past and the influence of “oral history” in Holocaust discourse and the Second World War, he recalls names everybody knows and without whom building a collective memory would be unthinkable: “Imagine for a moment that we have to reconstruct the persecution against Jews without the testimonies of Elie Wiesel, Victor Klemperer, Anne Frank, and Primo Levi. Imagine that we have to build a memory of the persecution against Jews without the testimonies, the memoirs, the contemplation of the survivors – without their voice. It is inconceivable. That is the situation we are facing as we try to rebuild the memory of the homosexual victims. What are the names (or pseudonyms) of those who were brave enough to speak up? The first was Heinz Heger (Josef Kohout, Johann Neumann), then Karl Gorath, Teofil Kosiński, Pierre Seel, Albrecht Becker, Heinz F., Gad Beck, Heinz Dörmer, Rudolf Brazda, and Annette Eick.”
Even if paragraph 175 provided exclusively for intimate relationships between men, women were also persecuted. A separate paragraph 129 existed in Austria, which also punished women for deviation from heteronormativity. Some of the victims were interned in camps as female prisoners marked as “asocial”/”for resocialization”, often with the added note: “lesbian”. Margarete Rosenberg, Eli Smula, Mary Pünjer, Henny Scherman, and Herta Sobietzki went to FKL Ravensbrück. Only Margarete survived. Claudia Schopmann has spent years researching the fates of lesbian women during the national-socialist period. The pages of her first book Zeit der Maskierung, Lebensgeschichten lesbischer Frauen im „Dritten Reich” [Days of Masquerade: Life Stories of Lesbians During the Third Reich] contain the pseudonyms of a dozen other women who were able to survive the war and who were asked about their pasts. Schoppmann published the book at the beginning of the 1990s. All of the women continued to appear under their pseudonyms.
Today, the broadening of the field of research includes first and foremost the search for microhistories based exclusively on archival sources including courthouse, police, and prison records. For a long time, the research was based entirely on the aforementioned reports and prison/camp documentation which only covered the period of a given victim’s imprisonment. In the case of this group of prisoners, as with other groups of forgotten victims of the Nazi regime, the number is the least significant factor. The quantitative argument upholds the hierarchy of suffering. Put more simply, very often nobody looks into these victims purely because they were the least numerous. Based on the example of the history of particular penitentiary units, the value of the male or female prisoner’s story/report/fate is based on their category (the color of their triangle). In many cases, the “most correct” category was the political prisoners. It was also for this reason that the victims of paragraph 175 (and, more broadly, the non-heteronormative victims of the Nazi regime) never spoke of their ordeals. They were often compared to criminal prisoners. Nobody took care to foster their memory.
In 1994, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum responded to a letter from Ryszard M. Madetko from the SG Lambda company in Kraków which concerned a proposition to install a commemorative plaque in memory of the prisoners with pink triangles. The Museum was represented by its associate director Krystyna Oleksy. Naturally, the response was negative: “We foresee finding a place where both organizations and private entities will be able to install commemorative plaques in the future”. At the same time, attention was called to the fact, that “the homosexual male and female prisoners interned at the Auschwitz camp figure as part of the general exhibition in block 6 where the table detailing prisoner categories can be found […]”, this in reference to the colored triangles and the pink symbol representing the prisoners interned under paragraph 175. This exhibition remains the only “means of commemorating” the non-heterosexual prisoners at that place of remembrance to this day. The argument that they “figure as part of the general exhibition” was nothing less than disconcerting. Twenty-four years later, it is still difficult to comment in any way.
It is worth cultivating the memory of the prisoners whose names only appear in a handful of documents from the period of their persecution by filling out their biographies with details from the period before their arrests. With regard to the forgotten victims of the Nazi regime, particularly those persecuted under paragraph 175, preserving this memory will enable the creation of a more personal story beyond the numerical statistical details of the group of prisoners itself.
Without a doubt, there were more than 120 prisoners with pink triangles interned in the Auschwitz camp complex. One of them was the German Oskar Birke. He was transported to KL Auschwitz I on 29 August 1941 in a small transport carrying just a handful of people. He had been caught by the Kriminalpolizei Breslau and paragraph 175 was cited as the reason for his arrest. Just one day later he was taken to block 11 – camp arrest. He spent a single night in the penal company. The reasons for the change remain unknown. Birke’s death certificate shows the date 1 November 1941. He was 48 years old. He survived barely two months in KL Auschwitz I. He was prisoner no. 20 281.
Prior to being brought to the camp, he had lived in the village of Jaszkowa Górna (German: Oberhannsdorf) in the Kłodzko district of Lower Silesia. He was born on 28 August 1893 in the village of Stary Lesieniec (German: Alt Lassing), meaning that he was interned at the camp on the day after his 48th birthday. He described himself as a Catholic. His wife’s name was Klara. They had no children. He had most likely worked as a farmer as he came from an agricultural family. In the “occupation” row, he wrote: Landwirt.
He was detained for the first time in January 1929, twelve years before being transported to the camp and six years before the legislation was tightened. The reason was multiple transgressions against paragraph 175. Unfortunately, Oskar’s testimony was not preserved in the prison archives in Kłodzko (German: Glatz). He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and charged the cost of the trial, but he was promised that he would be released from prison after 90 days if he showed good behavior. He was released in March, but his probation period was extended to three years. From that moment he returned to prison on two further occasions for the same reason: homosexual relations. Perhaps he simply had a long-term partner. He left prison for the last time at the end of 1931. He likely lived in secret until 1941.
After the first transfer to the prison in Kłodzko, Birke had no more than 1.80 Reichsmarks in his pocket. Prison records describe him as a stocky man, 170cm tall, with blue eyes and no distinguishing features. He had a woolen winter coat with him. He was represented by Dr. Brie at all of his appearances in court and his wife Klara stood in his defense every time, pleading her husband to be shown mercy. In the end, Oskar was released in September 1931. He lived beyond the arm of the law for the next decade. Unfortunately, it is not known what transpired before May 1941. It can only be assumed that he was most likely detained during a round-up or was informed on, as two other prisoners from his transport had been (also arrested under paragraph 175). It is possible that his former lover was tortured into giving up his name and recalling their affair from previous years. That was enough. Karl Gorath was caught in exactly that way. Both Karl and Oskar had criminal records, a fact which led to them being immediately transported to a concentration camp.
Paragraph 175 was a piece of legislation aimed at punishing homosexual relations between men, but it also served for decades as a “countermeasure” against all non-heteronormative people considered to be men. None of the perpetrators took the sexual identity of their victims into account; none of them asked about their orientation. That was what happened in the case of Fritz Kitzing. The first gender correction operation was performed in 1912. By the beginning of the 1930s, over a dozen of similar operations had been performed. Several dozen other people were preparing for an operation or were already at various stages in the process. A large part of that community was not yet ready to make the final decision. Some of them did not need such a change. Trans individuals received special identification documents which helped them to avoid arrest in as early at 1909. Twelve years later, the possibility for a trans individual to legally change their name became a reality, a fact which resulted in no small number of people making use of it.
After the Nazis came to power, Kitzing was detained on several occasions on charges which included prostitution. He was sent to KL Sachsenhausen and then released after having served his punishment. His path through the penal system breaks off in around 1938. Nothing is known of what came after. What is known is that several police photographs were taken in 1936 which show Fritz in a woman’s outfit. He was forced to do so. He had been in hiding, wearing men’s outfits, for a very long time. The police located him after a neighbor informed on him.
Poland’s memory of the Second World War does not include the groups of forgotten victims of the Nazi regime. The non-heteronormative victims remain “cursed”. Their stories remain in the realms of the taboo. Their fate and their past is a stigma. In contrast to other places of remembrance/museums around the world, this group of victims has still never been commemorated in Poland. They remain silent, 73 years after the end of the Second World War.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum archives, documents concerning Oskar Birke.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum correspondence – Ryszard Madetko (SG Lambda) letter: no. III-893-38/4925/94 – 5.09.1994.
Heger Heinz, Mężczyźni z różowym trójkątem, transl. Alicja Rosenau, Warsaw 2016.
Herrn Rainer, “In den heutigen Staatsführung kann es nicht angehen, dass sich Männer in Frauenkleidung frei auf der Strasse bewegen”. Über den Forschungsstand zum Transvestitismus in der NS-Zeit, w: Homosexuelle im Nationalsozialismus. Neue Forschungsperspektiven zu Lebenssituationen von lesbischen, schwulen, bi-, trans- und intersexuellen Menschen 1933 bis 1945, ed. Rainer Herrn, Oldenbourg 2014.
Müller Klaus, Introduction, in: The Men with the Pink Triangle. The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps, transl. David Fernbach, Boston 1994.
Paragraph 175, dir. Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (2000).
Schoppmann Claudia, Czas maskowania. O sytuacji lesbijek w narodowym socjalizmie, transl. J. Ostrowska, M. Garus, „Teksty Drugie” 2008, no. 5, pp. 163-174.
Schoppmann Claudia, Elsa Conrad – Margarete Rosenberg – Mary Pünjer – Henny Schermann. Vier Porträts, w: Homophobie und Devianz. Weibliche und männliche Homosexualität im Nationalsozialismus, ed. Insa Eschebach, Berlin 2016.
Schoppmann Claudia, Nationalsozialistische Sexualpolitik und weibliche Homosexualität, Pfaffenweiler 1997.
Schoppmann Claudia, Zeit der Maskierung: Lebensgeschichten lesbischer Frauen im Dritten Reich, Frankfurt a.M. 1998.
State archives in Wrocław, prison in Kłodzko, no. 30, 66–92.
Sternweiler Andreas, “Er ging ihm alsbald ein sogenanntes »Festes Verhältnis« ein”. Ganz normale Homosexuelle, w: Homosexuelle Männer im KZ Sachsenhausen, ed. Joachim Müller, Andreas Sternweiler, Berlin 2000.
Joanna Ostrowska – PhD in history from the history department of Jagiellonian University (UJ), graduate of the Institute of the Audio-Visual Arts and of Jewish Studies at UJ and of Gender Studies at Warsaw University (UW). Also studied film and television production at the National Film School in Łódź. Lectured for Jewish Studies at UJ, for Gender Studies at UW and for Polish-Jewish Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Literary Research. Studies issues connected with the phenomenon of sexual oppression during the Second World War and the forgotten victims of the Nazi regime. Film critic and selector for the Kraków Film Festival. Worked as a dramatist for the theatrical plays of Małgorzata Wdowik and Marta Ziółek.