For decades, the subject of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals during the Third Reich was swept under the rug and reparations were almost never paid. Rudolf Brazda, who may be the last living gay man to have survived the terror, shares his life story in a newly published book.
His body emaciated and his toothless mouth hanging open, Rudolf Brazda is skin and bones. Then comes his scream -- a loud lament that becomes a moan and then tapers off. Brazda is lying in his hospital bed, waiting at death's door. He alternately shouts, whispers or goes silent. Minutes creep by, then a quarter of an hour, then half an hour. Sometimes he'll say something and then go quiet again.
When he does speak, he utters lines like, "I'm too old to live," "I'm waiting for time to pass by," "I just don't want to do this anymore!" or "Everything's shit."
The door to Room 8411 opens. Worried about the condition of her elderly patient, a nurse at the Emile Muller Hospital in the Alsatian city of Mulhouse has come in to check on Brazda. She doesn't speak any German and he barely speaks any French, so they communicate by making faces at each other. The nurse raises a questioning eyebrow at her patient and he shakes his head. Then he winks at her and smiles. It's nothing serious.
"You comédien," she says, playfully cursing at him in French. Ever the comedian and charmer, Brazda, grins back at her. It is exactly these traits that helped him to cheat death when he was a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Ninety-eight-year-old Brazda is believed to be the last gay man alive who can recount what it was like to live as a homosexual man during the Third Reich. He's a man who can also remember the persecution, the legal proceedings against gays, the punishment and murder of his friends. But he also remembers what it was like to have sex in a concentration camp and what it felt like to be liberated.
6,000 Gay Men Murdered Under Hitler
Brazda kept his past to himself for many years. For the last five decades, he worked as a roofer, built his own house and lived together with his life partner in France's Alsace region near the German border. A few years ago, he buried his partner there, too. Thoughts about the Nazis weren't much of an issue for him over the past 50 years. But in 2008, at the age of 95, Brazda was confronted by his past when he saw a news story about the dedication of a new memorial to homosexual survivors from the era of Nazi persecution in Berlin's Tiergarten park.
"We didn't think there were any more (homosexual survivors) left, we thought they were all dead," says Uwe Neumärker, the director of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is comprised of 2,711 concrete slabs commemorating the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Neumärker is also responsible for another memorial site located just across the street. Hidden between trees, it features a single slab almost identical to those in the main memorial. It was erected to honor the memory of the homosexual victims of Nazi persecution.
But the memorial has also been the source of some concern for Neumärker. Attacks have been perpetrated against the site, and the memorial is also the subject of an ongoing dispute over what it is actually intended to honor. Is it supposed to be a memorial remembering the estimated 6,000 gay men murdered under Hitler? Or should it also honor the memory of lesbians even though they weren't forced into concentration camps?
When Brazda came on to the scene in Berlin, it was like a ghost of the past appearing, albeit a very pleasant one. "Suddenly this nice old guy appeared from out of nowhere," Neumärker recalls of the visit Brazda made to the Berlin memorial during the summer of 2008. The cheerful nonagenarian reveled in all the attention, the cameras and the bouquets of flowers. He also flirted unabashedly with Berlin's openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit. Photos taken during the visit show Wowereit stroking Brazda's hair in front of the memorial -- a belated gesture of amends for a man who is nearly 100.
Visiting his hospital room now, one would love to ask Brazda more questions about his past and how he feels today. He has woken from a short nap and is eating a piece of apricot cake. It's a beautiful day outside, the sun is shining and a letter from Wowereit has just arrived. Wowereit felt sorry that Brazda had to cancel a recent trip to Berlin. Brazda finishes reading the letter and kisses it, his face filled with a beaming expression.
Refuge in Photos
Brazda is almost completely deaf, and he has a tough time understanding questions. But he still has good eyesight, and the best way for anyone interviewing him to get the man talking is to show him pictures from the past. Snapshots from his home state of Thuringia, from the town of Meuselwitz where he lived before being arrested by the Nazis, and of the Phönix public swimming pool located next to a coal factory. It was here in the summer of 1933 that Brazda, who was 20 years old at the time, met his first love. Looking at the old photograph seems to cheer him up -- he perks up and smiles.
Ever the comedian, Brazda says, "I pushed him into the water in order to make his acquaintance."
In another picture, Brazda can be seen posing with five friends, all dapper in suits and ties, looking happy and relaxed. At that time, life in the German countryside was apparently still more open for gay men than in the big cities, where the Nazis had already started their campaign of persecution against homosexuals.
"It was a wonderful time, we had so much fun," Brazda reminisces. He even staged a mock wedding to marry his boyfriend, with his mother and siblings joining in the celebration. Nobody seemed to mind that the young men had even gotten a fake priest to bless their union.
The Nazi Witchhunt Against Homosexuals
Their faux wedding took place in the summer of 1934, around the same time Adolf Hitler ordered the shooting of Ernst Röhm, the head of the SA -- the Sturmabteilung or Stormtroopers -- and the execution of his cronies in the elite paramilitary unit. Although the Stormtroopers had played a key role in Hitler's rise to power, they now stood in his way. Hitler used the false pretense of purging homosexuals from Nazi ranks as a way of ridding himself of Röhm and his followers (or even opponents he deemed a threat to his power).
Shortly thereafter, the Nazi witchhunt against homosexuals began in earnest. On July 2, the Meuselwitzer Tageblatt, the local newspaper in Brazda's town, even joined in the homophobic fray by railing against what it called the "lust boys" in the SA. "Our Führer has given the order for the merciless extermination of these festering sores," the paper wrote.
Rudolf Brazda, who died on August 3 aged 98 was the last known survivor of the thousands of men who were sent to Nazi concentration camps for being homosexual.
Some six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. The Nazis also killed Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political opponents. And they persecuted gay men. Heinrich Himmler was obsessed with the idea that homosexuality was an infectious disease, endangering the “National Sexual Budget”. Gay men were seen as obstacles to Hitler’s programme to increase the master race.
Estimates suggest that between 10 and 15 thousand gay men from all over Europe were sent to the concentration camps where, like other inmates, they had to wear coloured badges to denote the nature of their “crimes”. The red triangle was for political prisoners, green for common criminals, blue for would-be emigrants from Germany, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, black for Gypsies and other “antisocials”, and pink for homosexuals. Jews wore a yellow triangle with a triangle of another colour superimposed to make a Star of David.
Although homosexuals constituted one of the smallest categories in the camps, they were often treated with a special ferocity — subjected to beatings, “extermination through labour” in the quarries, castration and medical experiments to make them “normal”; they also often suffered the homophobia of their fellow inmates.
Brazda was living an openly gay life in Leipzig when Hitler came to power. Though homosexuality was technically illegal, the Weimar Republic was largely tolerant: “We had our own meetings. There was a dance club in Leipzig where we would often meet,” Brazda recalled. “There was great freedom for us. I couldn’t imagine anything else. Then we started hearing about Hitler and his bandits.”
The Nazis expanded anti-gay laws to make homosexual acts a felony and, in 1934, began raiding gay bars in big cities. In 1937 Brazda was denounced and arrested for “unnatural lewdness”. After a month in custody, presented with love letters and poems he had written to his then partner, he “confessed” to the relationship and was imprisoned for six months for “debauchery”.
After his release Brazda, who had Czechoslovak citizenship though he did not speak the language, was deported to Czechoslovakia. He moved to the spa town of Karlsbad in the German-speaking Sudetenland. There he joined a theatre troupe, developing a popular tribute act to Josephine Baker, and stayed on even after the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland in 1938.
Arrested for a second time in 1941, Brazda spent another six months behind bars, then, in August 1942, was sent to Buchenwald where he was given the number 7952, and made to sew the pink triangle on to his camp uniform: “I didn’t understand what was happening but what could I do? Under Hitler you were powerless,” he recalled.
Two guards at the camp saved Brazda’s life. The first, apparently himself gay, removed Brazda from the “punishment battalion” at the local quarry and secured him a posting to lighter duties in the quarry’s infirmary. Several months later, Brazda joined the roofers unit, part of the “Bauhof” kommando in charge of maintaining the concentration camp buildings. As part of the kommando he was given extra food rations.
Then, just before liberation, when the camp’s prisoners were rounded up for a “death march” to another camp at Flossenburg, a second guard hid Brazda in the camp’s animal pen. “He put me in a shed with the pigs, made me a bed and I lay there for 14 days until the Americans came. After that, I was a free man,” he recalled.
Rudolf Brazda was born on June 26 1913 in Brossen, in the central German state of Thuringia. His parents were originally from Bohemia and Rudolf was the youngest of their eight children. His father worked at the local brown coal mines, but died in a work accident in 1922 when his youngest son was nine years old.
After leaving school, Brazda trained as a roofer, having failed in his ambition to become a sales assistant with a gentlemen’s outfitter. Aged 20 he met his first boyfriend, Werner, at a dance in Leipzig and they moved in together. Indeed such was the tolerant atmosphere of the time that the pair went through a ceremony of “marriage”, with Brazda’s mother and siblings serving as witnesses.
Brazda had his first encounter with Nazi brutality at Café New York, a well-known haunt of Leipzig’s gay community: “The Nazi stormtroopers dragged us out by our hair,” he recalled. After the closure of gay pubs and meeting places, a more systematic persecution began.“We gays were like hunted animals. Wherever I went with my companion the Nazis were always already there.”
In 1936 Werner was enlisted to do his military service and Brazda took up a position as a bell boy at Leipzig hotel, where he was arrested the following year. Werner, meanwhile, is believed to have been killed on active service in 1940. During his time in the Sudetenland, Brazda settled in with a new companion called Anton, and one of his most enduring and painful memories of Buchenwald was when an SS man ripped a gold chain that Anton had given him from his neck.
Yet he was acutely aware of his good fortune in surviving the camp and retained vivid memories of some of the 650 “Pink Triangles” deported to Buchenwald who were not so lucky. One young man had gouged his own eyes out on arrival at the camp so that he would be sent to the infirmary rather than the quarry. “The only thing that was waiting for him in the infirmary was a lethal injection. I never saw him again.”
Within the roofers’ kommando, Brazda made friends with a French communist from Alsace. After the camp’s liberation he followed him back to Mulhouse and decided to make his home there.
At a costume ball in the 1950s, Brazda met Edouard, an ethnic German who had been expelled from Yugoslavia and who became his companion. In the early 1960s they moved into a house they had built in the suburbs of Mulhouse, where Brazda cared for Edouard after he was crippled by a work accident in the 1970s. He continued to live there after Edouard’s death in 2003.
For decades Brazda did not speak about what had happened to him. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in France until 1982. It was only in May 2008, when Berlin’s openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit unveiled a memorial to homosexuals persecuted in the Third Reich, that Brazda decided to speak out. He had been watching the ceremony on television and picked up the phone to correct a claim by the organisers that the last witness had died three years earlier. Three weeks later Klaus Wowereit went through the ceremony again. Standing at his side, clutching a red rose, was a white-haired, still wildly flirtatious nonagenarian.
Brazda’s reappearance led to invitations to attend a number of gay events, including Europride Zurich in 2009. Last year he took part in Mulhouse in the unveiling of a plaque in memory of homosexual victims of the Nazis and was a guest of honour at a remembrance ceremony at Buchenwald.
This year the German journalist Alexander Zinn published his biography and in April Brazda was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honour.