Queer victims rarely feature in the historiography of the Holocaust. One of the reasons for this neglect is that they complicate the dominant categories of analysis: we usually regard persecuted homosexuals as gentiles and Jewish victims as heterosexual. The very idea that these two categories could intersect often provokes discomfort, rooted in a historic homophobic stance towards same-sex behavior in the concentration camps. This essay offers a historiographical discussion of this intersection: how queer history has been debated in Holocaust history, and how queer historians have approached Jewish and Holocaust history. Although histories of the Holocaust do not usually acknowledge the possibility of intersecting or multiple identities — say as Jews, homosexuals, or men or women—we can, in fact, find traces of queer Jewish Holocaust victims. Recognizing these multiple identities, I argue, and analyzing them in connection to one another, contributes to a better understanding of Holocaust history.
I deliberately use the terms “queer” people and “same-sex conduct”, following historians such as Regina Kunzel and John Howard. These terms avoid the false binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality, which fails to do sufficient justice to human social interactions either in the “free” world or in the camps. The term “homosexual,” as used by historians of Nazi persecution of gay men, is often too reductive. In contrast, the interpretive opportunities of “queer” reflect the complexity with which real people lived their sexuality — sexuality that could be, but was not necessarily, linked to their self-identity. However, I leave the terms “homosexual,” “gay” [schwul], or “lesbian” intact where they have been established in the historiography, or where they are used as terms of self-identification.
Same-sex sexuality in the prisoner society
The first studies of the Holocaust and concentration camps were written by survivors. These early works set up homophobic patterns that have proved durable. One example is The Death Factory, an account of Auschwitz published by two Czech Jewish survivors, Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka. They describe prisoners with the pink triangle: “Worn by persons imprisoned for sexual perversion or homosexuality (Schwule Brüder). In the camps they had a splendid opportunity to corrupt the maximum number of young lads.”
This description had nothing to do with reality but is symptomatic of the perception of prisoners persecuted under §175 of the German criminal code, which criminalised homosexual acts between men (after 1935, §175a; below I cite both only as §175).
Men with the pink triangle were almost always in the lowest ranks of the prisoner society and only very rarely gained positions of power; they had no ‘splendid opportunity’ to express their sexuality. In the prisoner society, sexual autonomy was a marker of status, and as such was usually preserved only for prison functionaries, such as capos who might have exploitative relationships with very young prisoners, nicknamed pipel. In the camps, violence (including this kind of sexual violence) was part of everyday life. The boundaries between sexual barter, prostitution, relationships with teenage and child prisoners, and rape could be blurry. For the participants, however, those differences were crucial, delineating power, status, and relationships.
Descriptions such as Kraus and Kulka’s – which equated men with the pink triangle to “perverse”, rapist capos – has remained a persistent feature of Holocaust historiography. The historian Lucy Dawidowicz listed “prostitutes, homosexuals, perverts, and common criminals” in one breath when describing those deported alongside the Jews. Sociologist Anna Pawełczynska described same-sex sexuality in Auschwitz as “deeply immoral or deeply demoralizing,” and referred to those who engaged in these acts as “pederastic.” Statements such as these continue to color Holocaust history to this day, as in David Cesarani’s final, monumental study Final Solution.
How then should we make sense of this long-standing hatred directed towards expressions of same-sex desire in the camps? In their analysis of homophobia in the prisoner society, feminist scholars Ulrike Janz and Insa Eschebach understand it as a demarcation mechanism in the chaotic and brutal world of the camps. Significantly, homophobia against women was often harsher than against men. In his nuanced study of power struggles among prisoner groups in the concentration camps, Nikolaus Wachsmann shows how same-sex sexuality was used to discredit opponents. At Buchenwald, the political prisoners, who were in a position of power as prisoner functionaries, sent the §175 prisoners to particularly deadly camps, such as Nordhausen-Dora in the German Harz mountains. Eugen Kogon, a survivor of Buchenwald and a public intellectual in postwar West Germany, described this swap: “the camp always had the understandable tendency to deport those elements that were undesirable or seen as less valuable.” Camp society was a society in its own right, and not (as Hannah Arendt and Wolfgang Sofsky argued) a broken, atomized mass. It created its own hierarchies and “othered” individuals in order to stress the relative value of prisoners. These hierarchies pervaded §175 prisoners’ experiences in the camps and in their histories.
History of the persecution of queer men and women
The fact that it was even possible to establish an alternative narrative alongside that of crushing homophobia is a credit of the Gay Liberation movement. Until the 1970s, historians failed to discuss the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. This changed with Hans Neumann’s “Men with the Pink Triangle”, published under the pseudonym Heinz Heger and based on the story of the Austrian survivor Josef Kohout. It remains to this day probably the best-known memoir of a queer survivor and its success was at least in part due to timing: this captivating testimony appeared just after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Germany and Austria. It was later translated into numerous languages, staged as the play Bent, and later became a movie of the same name.
In the following years, research took off, starting with the pioneering work of the West German sociologist Rüdiger Lautmann in 1976. His work was trendsetting, influencing the research of Richard Plant, Geoffrey Giles, Hans Georg Stümke and Rudi Finkler, Günter Grau, Andreas Pretzel, Lutz van Dijk, Albert Knoll, Jörg Hutter, Alexander Zinn, and others. Their research focused on explaining how the persecution of the homosexuals unfolded, who were the persecuting agencies and main perpetrators, and chronology; many studies were biographical or regional. Scholars have, for example, identified significant differences between German regions and have emphasized the importance of denunciations in queer histories of the Holocaust. But as Geoffrey Giles and Laurie Marhoefer pointed out, not every queer person identified by the Gestapo was automatically arrested. Social capital, crucially including gender-conformity, influenced whether an individual’s community tolerated and covered for them. It is estimated that of about 78,000 queer men who were identified, some 53,000 were sentenced under §175 and 175a, and about 15,000 were deported to concentration camps.
If queer men have received only limited attention in histories of the Holocaust, research into histories of queer women in Nazi Germany is even more under-researched. Moreover, even within the small community of queer historians, the results of this research remain much debated – sometimes aggressively so. Historian Alexander Zinn, for example, rejects claims that the Nazis persecuted lesbians due to their sexual orientation. He argues that §175 in Germany addressed only men, and dismisses reports that women were arrested and sent to concentration camps for their sexuality. So, were queer women persecuted in Nazi Germany due to their sexual orientation?
Significantly, Claudia Schopmann and Alexander Wäldner have shown that some women were indeed sentenced under §175. In Austria, the occupied Protectorate Bohemia, and Moravia, officials applied the old §129 of the criminal code (which criminalized both male and female homosexuality). Moreover, if a German woman was caught engaging in same-sex sexual activity in Austria, local territorial jurisdiction applied and she was prosecuted. Most importantly, as shown by Schoppmann, Jens Dobler, and Camille Fauroux in Germany, even if they weren’t victims of §175, queer women were often persecuted under different paragraphs: §74 (sex with dependents), §176 (child abuse), §183 (causing a public disturbance). Although fewer queer women were persecuted than queer men, records nonetheless demonstrate that they faced danger because of their sexual orientation.
Overall, for women as for men, persecution often took place intersectionally – that is, same-sex sexuality was rarely the only factor. The repressive climate against female conduct in general, and queer women in particular, also played a role. Further, persecution for sexual orientation is usually recorded only in documents relating to men (for whom there was a specific paragraph), but not for women. Consequently, historians can normally only trace female stories when they already know that a woman engaged in same-sex sexual acts. And in the camps queer women were not identified with the pink triangle. Austrian women arrested for same-sex activity were usually marked as “criminal” or “asocial,” further complicating systematic research. By contrast, additional reasons for the arrests of queer men are often omitted by historians. I suspect this may have a more recent political function: gay historians who wished to create an imagined community of §175 victims – men who were arrested because they were gay and for no other reason. This kind of simplification distorts our understanding of historical persecution generally, and further marginalises the persecution of queer women specifically.
This erasure of lesbian persecution is characteristic of German historiography (which represents almost all of the research on this topic). Research on lesbians has long not been recognized or seen as relevant for wider histories of Nazi Germany. An out-of-print monograph by Claudia Schoppmann, the doyenne of research on lesbians in the Third Reich, is to date the only book on the topic. One palpable effect is that to this day, lesbian victims are denied recognition at the Ravensbrück Memorial, the site of the largest concentration camp for women, where many queer women were imprisoned.
Queer and Jewish
Queer women in Theresienstadt ghetto were treated with the same disgust as in other concentration camps. Ruth Bondy, a survivor of the ghetto and its historian, dismissed their presence: “[L]esbian relationships were extremely rare in the ghetto; most of the young women of my age, including me, had been brought up in puritanical homes and did not even know what the word lesbian meant.” Indeed, Bondy actively erased traces of queer women. When she edited the diary of Gonda Redlich, the leader of the Youth Care department, Bondy removed all mentions of love between women.
Both queer men and women were more likely to be persecuted if they were Jewish, or categorized as such. A particularly well-known case is that of Elsa Conrad, owner of several Berlin lesbian bars, who was arrested in 1935 and imprisoned in Moringen women’s camp. Claudia Schoppmann showed that Conrad’s sexual orientation, together with her “non-Aryan” background, was a decisive factor in her arrest. In her book on Jews in pre-war concentration camps, the historian Kim Wünschmann showed how Conrad became “the Jewess Conrad”, concluding that Conrad could not be persecuted as a lesbian because women were not subject to §175. These historians, although working with the same sources, treat Conrad very differently: Schoppmann recognizes her intersectionally as both a Jew and a lesbian, while Wünschmann denies her lesbian identity was relevant to her persecution history. Incidentally, once Conrad arrived in exile in colonial Nairobi, she stressed that she was not Jewish.
Unlike Holocaust historians, scholars of Nazi persecution of queer men consider in cases of persecuted men the categories “queer” and “Jewish” even more narrowly. Their studies say little about the Jewishness of Jewish men arrested for same-sex conduct; they argue that §175 was sufficient for such men’s persecution. The only important exception is Albert Knoll, the archivist of the Dachau Memorial, who established that the homosexual prisoners in early concentration camps were primarily persecuted for their sexual orientation and that “Jewish identity played an aggravating role.” Holocaust historians such as Robert Gellately, Saul Friedländer, and Kim Wünschmann point out that the Gestapo might also focus on Jewish homosexuals, who, if deported to concentration camps, had an even smaller chance of survival than the “simple” homosexuals. Apart from Knoll, only two queer historians have considered both persecution factors: Jens Dobler, in an exhibition at the Schwules Museum, and Jan Seidl, whose study of the Protectorate mentions the queer Brno Jew Willi Bondi. Bondi was deported to Auschwitz in the summer of 1941 and later murdered there.
The feminist scholarship, which established the important role of female Jewish social workers during the Holocaust, has also drawn our attention to the fact that some of these women were queer. Gudrun Maierhof discovered that some of the women in the Reich Association of German Jews, a forced umbrella organization for German Jews, were same-sex couples, including Hannah Karminski, head of the Welfare Department, and Paula Fürst of the School Department. Karminski and Fürst lived together but were not deported together because they were not married. When Fürst was taken away in June 1942, probably to Minsk, Karminski stayed behind, disconsolate, until she herself was murdered in Auschwitz a few months later. As my work has shown, being able to go together on one’s last journey was immensely important: Holocaust victims stressed that families staying together to the end was the thing that mattered most to them. When Martha Mosse, who headed the Accommodation Advice Center, was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, she was separated from her Gentile partner. Had she been in a mixed marriage, she would have been protected from deportation. Mosse survived, and after the war was accused by survivors of having collaborated with the Gestapo. The historians Beate Meyer and Javier Samper Vendrell presented evidence that Mosse was singled out for accusations of collaboration because she was a queer woman, unlike her male, and straight, colleagues.
What is probably the best-known female couple of the Holocaust, “Aimée and Jaguar”, further demonstrates the issues of making female queer desire invisible, and intersectionality. The writer Erica Fischer researched the love story between the Gentile housewife Lilly Wust (Aimée) and Felice Schragenheim (Jaguar), a Jewish woman whom Wust helped hide, but who was eventually caught, deported, and murdered. Thus Wust, a bearer of the Cross of Honour of the German mother, fell in love with a woman, and became a rescuer of Jews. Fischer’s book was turned into a movie by Max Färberböck. After the resounding success of this blockbuster, a fellow survivor of Schragenheim’s came forward with a very different story. The journalist Katharina Sperber questioned the narrative of romantic love, pointing out Schragenheim’s complete dependency on Wust, and expressed the suspicion that Wust herself denounced her lover. In this retelling, the affair was merely a circumstantial relationship of convenience, owing to the absence of men in wartime. Beate Meyer looked at a similar case of a somewhat older Hamburg couple, but does so with far more differentiation, and takes queer desire seriously. Here too, the key themes are love and dependency. However, Meyer did not question the queerness of these women and instead showed how their sexual orientation influenced their negotiations with the Gestapo.
Three queer Holocaust survivors published their memoirs, in which they discussed their sexual orientation. Notably, all three are men, further indicating the particular erasure of queer women in the Holocaust and the structural processes that continued to privilege the testimonies of men. One of them is Gad Beck, the Berlin queer Jewish resistance fighter, who merrily reports (and occasionally exaggerates) his sexual conquests. In the book, Beck outed his colleague from the resistance, Jizchak Schwersenz, who responded by threatening the publisher with a lawsuit. The second edition was revised accordingly. It was only shortly before his death that Schwersenz, supported by his biographer Lutz van Dijk, publicly stated that he was gay.
The near-universal invisibility of queer Jewish Holocaust victims is connected to the fact that those who survived rarely spoke out about their queer desires or self-identity, at least not in the context of the Holocaust. Even though the Holocaust is well documented in oral histories, there are few queer testimonies. I know for a fact that queer Holocaust victims were interviewed; it seems probable that the established homophobic frameworks of interview processes made it impossible for them to speak about their own queer biographies.
Some long-marginalized topics in Holocaust historiography, such as sexual violence or the “asocial” prisoners, have now become subjects of interest, However, Holocaust scholarship (as opposed to research on Nazi Germany) has not incorporated queer perspectives. Most historians are not even aware that the topic exists. This blindness is based in the persistent homophobia that was already apparent in prisoner society. Lived sexual practice had little impact, and this homophobia has continued to influence the historiography of the Holocaust to this day.
Contrary to queer Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the Nazi persecution of queer people, especially queer men, is fairly well researched. However, scholarship has focused on sexuality as a reason for persecution, probably to legitimize this long stigmatized group. Unfortunately, the struggle for legitimacy has led to a politicized competition between victim groups, in which the persecution of lesbian women is denied. This is unfortunate, not least because it is a shame that to this day, historians of queer female victims of Nazism need to fight for recognition. This focus hinders understanding of the intersectionality of persecution which we can discern particularly well for persecuted queer women; it also keeps these people invisible, denying part of their selves in the past and in the present.
By studying the history of sexuality, we can learn so much about a society, its culture, values, and logic. But the discomfort about and erasure of queer sexuality in studies of the Holocaust demonstrates that the history of this genocide has too often been written normatively, violently, and with prejudice.
This is a translated and revised version of an essay that was first published in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte. Thanks are due to Anne Seibring for her editorial support.
Dr Anna Hájková is associate professor of modern European history at the University of Warwick. She is writing a book on Anneliese Kohlmann and transgressive sexuality in the Holocaust. She tweets @ankahajkova
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