An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights may also be imposed.
—Paragraph 175 (German Penal Code, 1871)
Between 1933-1945, approximately 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality in Nazi Germany, half of whom were imprisoned. An estimated 10,000-15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where the death rate of homosexual prisoners was 60% (the highest among non-Jewish prisoners). By 1945, only 4,000 survived. After the war, the persecution of male homosexuals, who were not seen as political prisoners but criminals under the sodomy law, continued. Some were even re-arrested and re-imprisoned after the war. In the 1950s and 60s, the number of convictions for homosexuality in West Germany was as high as under the Nazi regime. Gay male prisoners received no reparations by the German government and the sodomy law was not repealed until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany.
Paragraph 175, the new documentary by the Academy Award-winning producing/directing team, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, examines the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The film received numerous awards at festivals this year, including Best Documentary Jury Prize for Direction at Sundance 2000 and the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. Over the years, the duo has made an invaluable contribution not only to gay cinema, but also to the field of gay and lesbian studies. Together they have brought to light such subjects as the assassination of gay San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk (The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984), AIDS (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, 1989), and the representation of homosexuality in the cinema (The Celluloid Closet, 1995). The new film is a somber, revealing testament to the gay men and lesbians who, for too long, have been excluded from Holocaust history.
Epstein and Friedman follow German historian Dr. Klaus Müller, Project Director for Western Europe at the United States Holocaust Memorial, to Germany, France, England, and Spain in search of what he calls his “gay grandfathers” ten of the twelve known remaining survivors (the other two declined to be interviewed). “It’s a little bit too late in a way,” Müller observes in the film, “coming now after fifty years and telling them suddenly that their story is very important and we would like to hear it . . . and suddenly they are supposed to believe that when all their lives they are told whatever you went through, we don’t want to hear it. I don’t think so.” In one way Müller is right. The survivors, who are understandably reluctant to tell their stories, reveal how they were not only persecuted by the German state for being homosexual, but also ignored as homosexual survivors of the Holocaust. There is no doubt that future generations will benefit from Epstein and Friedman’s efforts to preserve on film, in one survivor’s words, “uncomfortable memories” that history has almost completely erased.
What have been so skillfully preserved by the filmmakers are the words of several Holocaust survivors. As in their other films, Epstein and Freidman use minimal narration (nicely delivered by openly gay actor Rupert Everett) throughout the film, choosing instead to rely on the witnesses themselves to describe gay life in pre-war and Nazi Germany. They effectively integrate archival footage from 1920’s Weimar Germany with the testimonies of their living witnesses, several of whom are also Jewish, who describe in detail how their seemingly idyllic gay lives were shattered when Hitler and the Nazi Party assumed power in 1933 and began enforcing Paragraph 175. Their individual stories, which involve confinement, persecution, and torture, are clearly extremely difficult and painful to tell, particularly when no one families, friends, the government has taken any interest in their stories until now.
This was particularly true for one survivor, Heinz F. (his last name withheld on request), who was arrested by the Gestapo after one of his friends gave his name to the authorities. For nearly nine years, he was in and out of prisons and concentration camps. When he returned home at the age of forty, he found no one, including his own father, who would speak to him about his years in captivity.
The most disturbing story is told by Pierre Seal, living on the German occupied French province of Alsace Lorraine when he was arrested and sent to the interment camp at Schirmeck. Seal is reluctant to talk to Müller. On their first meeting, he tells him frankly: “I swore never to shake hands with a German again . . . You can’t understand this, because you’re not from the same generation. This is the difficulty between us today. You’re trying hard to understand me. And I’m trying not to hurt you. Because it’s difficult to talk about that time.” Seal’s reluctance is understandable, considering the humiliation and torture he endured. He describes how he was forced to build crematoria at a neighboring concentration camp, was used as a human dartboard by camp orderlies with syringes, and was forced to join the German army. When he was captured and then eventually released by the Russian army, Seal returned to his family under the condition that he would never reveal the circumstances surrounding his arrest.
The group of witnesses includes one woman a German-born Jewish lesbian named Annette Eick. Lesbians were not persecuted under Paragraph 175 because the German government did not recognize their existence. Eick’s story seems like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. She was jailed in a small town for being Jewish, but managed to escape when the jailer’s kind wife left the jail door open. As she was fleeing from her village, she passed her mailman, who gave her a letter containing her passport, which was she then used to escape to England.
As we listen to the stories of Heinz F., Seal, Eick, and the others who participate in the film, it is difficult not to recall the phrase that has long been associated with the Holocaust “We must never forget.” Paragraph 175 is an extraordinary film that serves as important reminder of the necessity of recording, documenting, and preserving the most shameful chapters of our past so future generations can insure history will never be repeat itself.