Friday, 1 February, 2013

This LGBT history month we take a look at the life of Rudolf Brazda, was the last known concentration camp survivor, persecuted specifically for being gay. 

For many decades, Brazda’s story remained unheard as discrimination against gay men and lesbians in Europe continued.  He began to speak out publicly about his experiences only in the final years of his life, telling the world about the persecution gay men and lesbians faced at the hands of the Nazis, specifically the experience of gay men in the camps which was often extremely harsh. 

The Nazi regime targeted anyone who did not fit their narrow ideals of what was ‘normal’.  They targeted gay men for persecution, expanding and reinforcing the pre-existing legislation known as Paragraph 175 which criminalised homosexual acts between men.  They also targeted lesbians, albeit less severely than they persecuted male homosexuals.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of people faced persecution for their sexual orientation.  Significant numbers of gay men were arrested, of whom an estimated 50,000 were sentenced to prison terms varying from a few months to several years.  Most were not sent to concentration camps but were instead exposed to inhumane treatment in police prisons; some were subjected to hard labour and torture. 

As a young adult, Rudolf Brazda lived in Meuselwitz and Altenburg, Germany, where he found a tolerant atmosphere.  Despite the prejudicial legislation in place, there was little discrimination at the time and Brazda could be open about his sexuality.  At the age of 20, he met Werner at a swimming pool, a man who would soon become his first boyfriend.  The two later moved in together, subletting from a Jehovah’s Witness landlady who accepted them as her tenants.  Brazda’s family also approved of his relationship with Werner, acting as witnesses to a symbolic marriage ceremony in their home.

As early as 1933, the Nazis began raiding gay clubs in larger cities and the pre existing, thriving Gay culture in Germany was destroyed.  Brazda was arrested on the charge of ‘debauchery between men’.  Love letters and poems that he had written to his partner were used against him.  Werner, who had enlisted in the military, was also arrested and the two soon lost contact with one another.  Brazda served a six month sentence before being deported to Czechoslovakia, where he had been born, but before long, the Nazis had invaded the region, he was arrested again and forced to serve another six month prison term. 

In August 1942, he was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp.  There, he was assigned the prisoner number 7952 and was forced to wear a pink triangle.  He was subject to forced labour and remained there for 32 months.  It is estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people were sent to camps because of their sexuality, each individual was forced to wear a badge which would identify them to their oppressors and to others in the camp, gay men were forced to wear a pink triangle.  These gay men are commonly referred to ‘The Pink Triangles’; in reference to the badges they were forced to wear.  Whilst in the camps, gay men were treated particularly badly - many people died from exhaustion due to heavy labour, others were castrated and some subjected to other gruesome medical experiments. 

After release from the camp, Brazda moved to France and led a quiet life as a free man and Rudolf met his life partner, Edouard Mayer.   However, this was not the case for all gay survivors of Nazi persecution.  After liberation neither the Allies, nor the new German states removed the Nazi-amended Paragraph 175 and did not recognise homosexual prisoners as victims of the Nazis – thus many gay men continued to serve their prison sentences and many continued to experience discrimination.

Brazda broke his long silence about his experience of persecution in 2008, after hearing of the upcoming unveiling of a memorial to homosexual victims of Nazism, at a ceremony in Berlin.  He was persuaded by his friends to his story.  Brazda devoted the last few years of his life to telling his story, as a warning to future generations of what can persecution can happen if we don’t respect differences.  During these final 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.’

Read the full life story of Rudolf Brazda.