Remembering the forgotten gay stories of Auschwitz

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we look back at some of the stories of the gay people who lost their lives in Auschwitz.

Three figures, one in uniform, one in concentration camp rags walk through Auschwitz with their backs to the camera
Image: Via YouTube @Channel4Documentaries

Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the United Nations to commemorate the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as well as the other victims of the Nazi regime. Among them were the gay people who were arrested and killed in what is remembered as the most severe persecution of homosexuals in history. It was estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 gay men were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps and 98 of them were sent to Auschwitz.

Homosexuality in Germany had been illegal since 1871, but the law was made harsher in 1935 by the Nazi regime, with even simply “having homosexual fantasies” becoming illegal. Of those who were deported to camps, it is estimated that 60 per cent died. Many were executed, but many more died because of forced labour, malnutrition and the horrifying tortures they had to endure.

Moreover, the gay inmates were subject to unusually cruel treatment not only by the SS, but also by other fellow inmates who isolated them and considered them the lowest of the camp hierarchy. If they dared to approach other prisoners, they could be accused of trying to seduce them, as the common belief at the time was that homosexuality could be spread.

After the Nazi regime had fallen, the law that criminalised homosexuality remained as one of the only laws from that era to be retained in its original form in West Germany. This meant that those who were freed from the horrors of the concentration camps would still be punishable for simply being gay. The law was then revised in 1969, but it took waiting until 1994 for it to be completely repealed.

Auschwitz was the largest of Nazi concentration and death camps and historians estimate that 1.1 million people died here. Of the gay people who entered Auschwitz, 51 perished in the camp. Although this is a small, often overlooked number compared to all the lives lost in that camp, their stories deserve to be heard. Read on to discover and remember them.

Freddy Hirsch

Freddy Hirsch was a PE teacher, Jewish and gay. He was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp first, where he began to look after and protect a group of children. Later, he was sent to Auschwitz where once again he became the children’s carer, saving so many of their lives. He soon learned that a large group of those children were to be gassed and he became part of a resistance movement inside the camp.

Hirsch died of an overdose when he was 28. Scholars speculated that he took his own life or that the overdose was caused by Jewish doctors who were scared that he was going to cause an uprising that would jeopardise their lives.

Karl Gorath

After a jealous former lover denounced him to the Nazis, Karl Gorath was sent to the concentration camp at Neuengamme, where he was put to work as a nurse. His punishment for refusing to reduce the food rations for the inmates was to be sent to Auschwitz. Nine days before the camp was liberated, he was transported to Austria in freezing cold weather on a journey that lasted 11 days. He was finally liberated in 1945 only to be arrested again in 1946 and sentenced to five years in jail because homosexuality was still illegal.

In his memoirs, Gorath recalls two Poles, Tadeusz and Zbigniew, who became his lovers while in the camp. He speaks about his days with Zbigniew as the happiest of his life, as only once in his life had he encountered such a deep love and, he says, it was “here, in the camp, among all the misery surrounding us, never before, and never again – never more: I met the love of my life in Auschwitz”.

Ernst Ellson

ombstone for Ernst Ellson, a gay many who lost his life in Auschwitz.

Ernst Ellson was arrested in 1940 when a male sex worker reported him as a client to the police. He was sentenced to four months in jail for “perverted promiscuity” but on the day he was released, the Gestapo were waiting for him. The warrant they had was signed by one of the architects of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich. He survived only five weeks in the horrors of Auschwitz.

Manfred Lewin

Manfred Lewin was a gay and Jewish man who was deported with his entire family. His boyfriend, Gad Beck, stole a uniform and managed to trick the guards at the detention centre into releasing his lover.

They walked out of the gates together, but Manfred couldn’t leave his family behind and went back inside. He died in Auschwitz aged 22. In a 2000 interview Gad Beck, who survived the war, remembered losing his “great, great love”.

Kitty Fischer’s saviour

Kitty Fischer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, has never known the name of the gay man who saved her life. When she met him, Kitty asked him what his pink triangle meant, as she didn’t know the meaning behind it.

The man smuggled food for the girl and her sister and contributed to her survival. It was also his suggestion to lie to the guards that ultimately saved her life and prevented her being sent to the gas chambers, as was planned. She told them that she could weave, as the man had advised, and she was sent to a factory where she was liberated in 1945.

These are only a few of the forgotten stories of the gay people who died in Auschwitz, which we were able to uncover thanks to Dr Anna Hájková‘s research into the queer history of the Holocaust. But many more of them lost their life in the camp including: Hermann Bartel, Erwin Schimitzek, Emil Drews, Max Gergia, Emil Sliwiok, August Pfeiffer, Walter Peters, Willi Pohl, Rudolf von Mayer, Willi Kacker, Oskar Birke, Otto Hertzfeld, Johann Majschek, Franz Ruffert, Richard Schiller, Josef Klose, Hugo Prabitzer.

Learn their names and remember, so that this can never happen again.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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