Pink-triangle prisoners at Buchenwald

Pink-triangle prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp

Not long after the establishment of the Nazi regime homosexual men were already being sent to concentration camps. In many cases this happened as an exemplary measure of terror. Corresponding regulations were only issued some time later to give an appearance of legality. Himmler's order of 14 December 1937 and his decree of 12 July 1940 defined the target groups as sex criminals, by which he especially meant 'corrupters of youth', 'rent boys' and those with related previous convictions. Thus, not every man convicted under Section 175 had to reckon with deportation to a concentration camp after the end of his sentence. And yet, where political considerations were involved, the provisions could be interpreted in such a way that an arbitrary attribution of one of the above labels opened the way to such a harsh punishment.(1)

Buchenwald concentration camp started operating in 1937 and was soon admitting its first homosexual men. By the end of 1938 28 prisoners were already wearing the pink triangle; the figure went up to 46 by late 1939 and stood at 51 two years later. As a result of Himmler's directive of 12 July 1940 - 'in future, after their release from prison, all homosexuals who have seduced more than one partner should be taken into preventive police detention'- the number of male homosexuals also rose at Buchenwald, passing a hundred for the first time in 1942. At the end of 1943 the camp held 169, and a year later 189. The figures were small in comparison with the total number of prisoners there - well below one per cent in every year.(2)

Deportation was justified on the absurd grounds that 'encouragement to perform regular work' would help to cure male homosexuals of their unnatural inclinations'. According to Heydrich's cynical classification of 1941, Buchenwald was a Category II concentration camp. This meant that, together with Flossenbürg, Neuengamme and Auschwitz, it was to be used for 'severely disturbed persons in protective custody' who were still 'capable of being educated'.

Their daily life was governed by the inhuman conditions of the camp. In addition there was the stigma of being a homosexual, which gave them a dangerous special status. They were isolated in many different senses: from their friends, who did not dare write for fear of themselves being registered as homosexuals; from their family, which out of 'shame' might disown father or son and might in the case of death - as we know from the file of Karl Willy A. - even refuse to accept the urn or hold a funeral; and from other groups of prisoners, who avoided men with the pink triangle both to keep clear of suspicion and because they shared the widespread prejudices against 'queers'. But the homosexual prisoners were also isolated from others like themselves, for gay men are seldom bound together by anything more than their sexual orientation. There was no question of the kind of solidarity that was evident among political prisoners or Jehovah's Witnesses. And they had correspondingly little influence in the prisoners' structure of communication and authority.

Until autumn 1938 male homosexuals were allocated to the political blocks. But from October they were sent en masse to do quarry work in the punishment battalion, where inhuman working conditions and the arbitrary violence of the SS claimed ever more victims. In the summer of 1942 they started to work with other prisoners in the war industry, and in the autumn or winter of 1944 were deported to the centers producing V-2 weapons in the 'Dora' out-camp near Nordhausen.(3) Catastrophic conditions of internment, heavy labour in the underground galleries and a generally poor state of health brought death to most of them. Thus, 96 homosexual prisoners died between 8 and 13 February 1945 alone - more than half the number interned in Buchenwald up to that time.

Reports of fellow-prisoners, such as Walter Poller who worked as a doctor's secretary in the sick-bay in 1939 and 1940, indicate that most of the homosexuals deported to Buchenwald were castrated.(4) But it has since become known that they were also used for the dreadful typhus fever experiments. As these were very incompletely documented, we cannot definitively gauge the scale on which they were carried out.(5) So far five homosexual men have been identified in this context; and the refusal to hand over the dead body of Karl Willy A. suggests that he too should be counted among the victims.

The situation of homosexuals at Buchenwald concentration camp
Report from spring 1945 (Extracts)(6)

[... ] Until autumn 1938 homosexuals were divided among the political blocks, where they went relatively unnoticed. In October 1938 they were sent en masse to the punishment battalion and had to work in the quarry, whereas previously all other units had been open to them. Apart from a few recorded cases, every member of the punishment battalion had the prospect of being transferred after a certain time to a normal block where living and working conditions were significantly better, but this possibility did not exist for homosexuals.

Precisely during the hardest years they were the lowest caste in the camp. In proportion to their number they made up the highest percentage on transports to special extermination camps such as Mauthausen, Natzweiler and Gross Rosen, because the camp always had the understandable tendency to ship off less important and valuable members, or those regarded as less valuable. In fact, the wider deployment of labor in the war industry brought some relief to this type of prisoner too - for the labor shortage made it necessary to draw skills from the ranks of such people, although in January 1944 the homosexuals, with very few exceptions, were still going to the 'Dora' murder camp, where many of them met their death. The striking fates of a few homosexuals at Buchenwald may afford some insight into the conditions.

L. Adloff, a librarian at the State Library in Berlin and a collaborator of the left-leaning periodical Die Weltbühne, was arrested as a political suspect in 1938; he was also under suspicion of homosexuality. In summer 1938 he was sent as a political to Buchenwald concentration camp. In October 1938, when all homosexuals and others under suspicion were sent to the punishment battalion, he had the sign of homosexuals, a pink triangle, put on him and went to work in the quarry. In January 1939 he was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, where terrible conditions prevailed. While working in the quarry there he suffered a leg injury which developed into a huge inflammation, and in the same year he was shipped as an invalid to the concentration camp at Dachau. After severe mistreatment at the hands of the Dachau sick bay kapo 'Heathen joe' [Heiden-Sepp], he was sent as an invalid to Buchenwald camp, then returned as an invalid to Dachau, then sent back to Buchenwald in autumn 1941 where he finally remained and died. This constant moving of broken people had the result that they died off like flies with every change of conditions. In Dachau in 1941 he picked up a sentence for some trifling incident, and although he was already punished in Dachau he received 25 lashes twice more in Buchenwald as well as a few weeks in a detention cell. Jail was then an absolutely deadly place to be: he had long been written off in his block before the sheer miracle of his return. But meanwhile the leg inflammation, which had never healed, developed in such a way as to cause serious damage to his heart. As he was a naturally strong person and had enormous will-power, he pulled himself along for another month until pleurisy prepared the end in April 1943.

In the spring of 1942 a Berlin writer called Dähnke was sent to the camp as a homosexual. The main reason for his internment, however, was political statements which had brought him to the attention of the Gestapo. One morning, after he had been working for several months in the quarry, he was taken by someone on fatigue duty to the sick bay and presented to the camp doctor as suffering from TB. As a matter of fact he was having chest trouble. The camp doctor at first wanted to put him in the TB unit for treatment, but when D., not knowing how things stood, mentioned that he was really there for political reasons, the doctor sat up and took notice, realized that he was dealing with a homosexual, and had him taken into the room reserved for the death list. Two days later he was given the lethal injection. H. D., an office worker born in 1915, was arrested on 20.4.1938 because of an illegal trip abroad to Prague. He had tried to make contact with the Russian Consulate in Prague so as to get away from Germany; the Gestapo suspected him of being an underground Communist courier. At the same time, a friend with whom he had been in a relationship of trust was arrested and forced to confess. The charges of high treason had to be dropped, because nothing could be proved against D. and nothing could be got out of him. So he only received three-and-a-half years' imprisonment for unnatural sex acts. After serving his sentence, he was sent to Buchenwald in November 1941. The first impression he had was of the bodies of various people who had died in the punishment battalion, which were thrown in front of the door like sacks of flour. On the same evening a young homosexual hanged himself - everyone calmly went on eating, nobody cared a jot about it. Still on the same evening, a prisoner who had already been there a long time told him that he would have to work in the quarry, that the kapo was a terrible man, that especially §176 people (relations with juveniles) were done for, and that he should be careful although there was no point in keeping quiet about anything. After an agonizing sleepless night, D. decided to prepare himself for every eventuality: he mentioned to the kapo that he had been told such and such and that he did not want to hang himself, and asked him for advice about what he should do. But he got the exact opposite of what he wanted. The kapo, Herzog, was a former member of the foreign legion, extremely brutal, apparently homosexual-sadistic and with a frightening tendency to become frenzied; if someone was beaten by him it was all over. Herzog was determined to find out who had spoken to D. and he threatened him with some terrible things. But as D. realized that it would mean curtains for his comrade in suffering, he refused to reveal the name of the man who had warned him. The next day he was sent to work on the quarry wagon - an exhausting and dangerous job. Anyone who could not keep going was tossed on the wagon and then dumped on a heap of stones. Then Herzog either trampled them to death without further ado, or poured water down their throat for so long that they suffocated. If anyone still survived, Herzog treated him as a malingerer and crushed him underfoot. Although D. was young and strong, the work exhausted him so much that only the end of the day saved him from collapse. Next morning the friend who had warned him, now grateful for his silence, took him to another part of the quarry where the work was a little easier and where he was out of the kapo's line of sight for the next few weeks. After three weeks or so, however, Herzog remembered him, again asked for the name and presented him with an ultimatum: at a certain hour he would drive him through a cordon of duty sentries. D. knew this was deadly serious and he was ready for anything. He was saved by a sheer miracle. An hour before the appointed time, Herzog was called to the door and quite unexpectedly released from the camp. (The word later went round in the camp that he had been stabbed to death in his home area.) On 4.1.42 D. was sent to the typhus fever experimental ward, where young homosexuals were favorite guinea-pig material. He came through the illness but suffered from heart trouble as a result. On 15.7.42 he was discharged from the ward to perform light quarry work. Meanwhile things had become quite wild in the block. Assisted by isolation from the other camp and more supported than supervised by the SS, a number of bandits were completely terrorizing the workforce, stealing the packets they were supposed to receive since winter 1941, and holding real orgies of brutality and the most shameless sadism. Sexual abuse and the foulest murder were the order of the day. The battle still raging between politicals and the Greens (criminals) who wanted to get control still tied the hands of the Reds for the time being. Only after some months was it possible to clean out the Augean stables - which was made casier by the fact that some of the guys were sending each other to kingdom come. One incident described by D. throws a revealing light on the conditions. The punishment battalion was not allowed to smoke. But people on the typhus ward bought things like everyone else, and that included tobacco. As they had also not been allowed to smoke on the typhus ward, they all naturally had a small stock of tobacco and cigarettes. The first thing the block elder, a former SS man, did was to ask all those who returned to hand over their tobacco. When they hesitated for a moment, he singled one out, spread him over a table and counted out 25 lashes - whereupon the tobacco and cigarettes shifted double-quick into his pocket.

The liquidation methods had meanwhile changed somewhat. Until early 1942 a sorting of new arrivals had undoubtedly been carried out in the political department. People - especially §176 homosexuals - were called to the door a few days after their arrival and moved into the cells. Some days later came the announcement of death. From spring 1942 the cell murders stopped. But to make up for it the second camp Führer, Gust, turned to the now compliant quarry kapo, Müller, generally known as 'Waldmüller' [forest miller]: he came to see him nearly every day, shook hands and regaled him with cigarettes, and no doubt gave him instructions. The number of people 'shot white attempting to escape' was terrifyingly high in the summer of 1942. For the sake of appearances, it was felt necessary to post quarry trustees as sentries to hold people back. D., who stood out from the others by his human qualities, was made a sentry and witnessed some hideous scenes. [...]

In autumn 1942 these quarry shootings came to an end. The greater use of prisoners' labour forced the SS to be a little more sparing with its 'human material', and the forces of order in the camp finally managed to wrest away its instruments of murder. Later, when conditions eased a little, D. managed to get sent to a better unit, to hold on in the camp by keeping a clean slate, and to appear as a witness at trials as one of the few to have survived.

(1) See in general R. Lautmann/W. Grischkat/E. Schmidt, 'Der Rosa Winkel in nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern', in R. Lautmann, ed., Seminar: Gesellschaft und Homosexualität, Frankfurt/Main 1977, pp. 325-365.

(2) G. Grau, 'Homosexuelle im KZ. Buchenwald', in S. N. Rapoport and A. Thom, eds., Das Schicksal der Medizin im Faschismus, Berlin 1989, pp. 67-69; and W. Röll, Homosexuelle Häftlinge im KZ. Buchenwald, Weimar-Buchenwald 1991.

(3) For an account of the 'Dora'camp (but without any reference to the group of homosexual prisoners), see E. Pachaly and K. Pelny,'KZ Mittelbau Dora. Terror und Widerstand', Buchenwaldheft 28, Weimar-Buchenwald 1987.

(4) W. Poller, Arztschreiber in Buchenwald, Hamburg 1947.

(5) On the typhus experiments in general see W. Scherf, 'Die Verbrechen der SS-Ärzte im KZ Buchenwald. Der antifaschistische Widerstand. 2. Beitrag: juristische Probleme', diss., criminal law department, Humboldt University, Berlin 1987.

(6) Passages omitted here do not specifically refer to the situation of homosexual prisoners at Buchenwald. Cf. the unabridged version and commentary in Zeitschrift fur Sexualforschung, Vol. 2, 1989, pp. 243-253.

Source: Hidden Holocaust ?, Günter Grau, Cassell, 1995. Translated from German by Patrick Camiller.

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