If you’ve lived through and witnessed some of the worst things one human being can inflict on another, how is it possible to revisit that time, to analyse or even just describe the depth of horror that you have been party to? Those who have written their memoirs of surviving the Nazi Holocaust do so for undoubtedly mixed and complex reasons, including the need to confront their own feelings of guilt that they made it while others, no less deserving, died. But many also stress the need to write down what they saw for the sake of history – to bear witness – for those of us coming along later and trying to understand what depths of hell can be mined in the cause of extremist ideologies.
Some great writers have captured the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective but similar memoirs from other persecuted groups are much less familiar. This is especially true for those in the gay community who also found themselves the victims of Hitler’s maniacal urge to purge Europe of anyone he considered impure, perverse or ideologically dangerous. Perhaps one reason that those able to bear witness to the systematic slaughter of homosexuals have been slower to come forward stems from the fact that even when the horrors of the Holocaust had ended, the persecution for them continued. Made illegal and forced to live lives of misery, subterfuge and denial of their true natures right through to the later years of the 20th century. This is a community that has had to face the legally sanctioned persecution of ‘decent’ society as well as that of psychotic dictators.
I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual breaks that silence and speaks with unsettling frankness of what the author had to endure – and not only in the concentration camps. Seel was a teenager who soon came to realise his sexuality was not that of the mainstream. In his home town on the French-German border in the Thirties he was pretty openly part of the gay sub-culture which, while not admired, was tolerated until the outbreak of war and the German occupation. When his town is occupied and the Gestapo begin rounding up Jews and perverts, Seel realises that an incident involving the reporting of a stolen watch a little time before had probably resulted in him being added to a covert police list of likely homosexuals that was now in the hands of the Germans.
He is shipped to a concentration camp at Schirmeck where he joins the (now all too familiar story of) the struggle to survive in the face of starvation and unspeakable, cruel brutality from those guarding him. Arbitrary acts of sadism fill his day and the horror culminates in the fact that he’s forced to witness the death of his former lover, Jo, being ripped apart alive by dogs. However, much to his surprise he does survive all this and is astonished to discover his re-education is deemed successful enough for him to be released.
But whatever relief there seems to be in this unexpected turn of events is short lived as he’s now considered a German citizen and fit to be called up to take part in the war effort. And so begins another set of extraordinary events that see him acting as a labourer, finding himself in one of Hitler’s breeding camps for the Aryan race and eventually on the Russian front.
He ends up being captured by the advancing Soviet army and within minutes of being executed until he finally succeeds in convincing them that he’s French. But even as the war ends, his journey back to France is just another desperate set of problems to overcome. But he does, in the end make it back to his family.
However, as I intimated before, that wasn’t the end for him. He finds himself essentially unable to talk about what had happened to him and, more importantly, why he’d been singled out for the camps and deported. This would mean he would have to publically confess he was arrested because he was gay and the introduction of harsh post-war legal constraints on homosexuality make that impossible. In an attempt to integrate he has in fact gone through the charade of marriage to a woman with who he can have children – but it’s an arrangement that simply can’t last. It’s not just the fact of his homosexuality that’s irrepressible but increasingly it’s his need to speak out and to bear witness to what happened to him and to others – especially his first love, Jo. He feels he must fight to have the fact of his deportation recognised and in some way compensated:
“When I am overcome with rage, I take my hat and coat and defiantly walk the streets. I picture myself strolling through cemeteries that do not exist, the resting places of all the dead who barely ruffle the consciences of the living. And I feel like screaming. When will I succeed in having my deportation recognised? When will I succeed in having the overall Nazi deportation of homosexuals recognised?….When I have finished wandering I go home. Then I light the candle that permanently burns in my kitchen when I am alone. That frail flame is my memory of Jo.”
I am indebted to a colleague of mine from work who uncovered and recommended this book to me. I’m especially grateful because it’s unlikely I would have come across it otherwise and it’s a story that needs to be known.
The paperback translation was published in the UK in 2011 and if you can’t find a copy in your local bookshop get them to order it from Basic Books.