By Eugene Brockman
Valentine's Day has come and gone. Even after 11 years of a very, very long engagement, Henry and I still celebrate the day. Our focus is generally on appreciating one another, which is a good thing as 11 years of "ball and chain" can admittedly make you a little bit blasé about just how special the other truly is.
This year the real value of Valentine's day was driven home hard the night of the 13th of February with us attending the opening night of the film "Paragraph 175" at the Labia, with the director Dr. Klaus Mueller himself brought to our shores by the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation as well as the It Gets Better Project.
The film is based on Dr. Mueller successfully tracking down 5 surviving gay men, who made it through the Nazi persecution of homosexuals under Paragraph 175, hence the title of the film.
The mere fact that Mueller managed to find 5 coherent survivors is astonishing, even more so that he got them to share their stories and open up as these men had been told repeatedly by friends, family and society for over 50 years that: "The war is over. That is the past now." Understandable as post-war Germany faced a divide into a Socialist East and allied West, severe economic devastation and depression and each and every person suppressing the trauma and impact the war had had on them. The film is a perfect insight into the context and surroundings of Berlin before, leading up to and all the way through the Holocaust.
It starts in Berlin's Gay Golden Age between the end of WWI in 1918 to a couple of years before WWII started in 1939. This is also the time in which Christopher Isherwood dove into the hedonism and more than one "hübscher blonde junge" rentboy to leave us with his literary work that ultimately became the stage play Cabaret in which Liza Minelli endears herself to queer generation after generation. (Also see the movie "Christopher and His Kind").
Jazz and cabaret was the scene, hustlers and healthy, toned wholesome Heinz and Herman's were eager and obtainable for foreign currency, flaunting their wholesome bodies in the parks and lakes of Berlin and whilst the police turned a blind eye.
The story then takes you on a narrative of the 5 survivors on how they went from a Gay Doyenne, naive gay twink or boy scout regional leader in a moderate and tolerant Berlin, to a member of a concerned and hidden underground and eventually to a deportee in holding or concentration camps via Gestapo and military police.
It is important to stress here that these men survived an ordeal that more than 50 000 men were incarcerated for and 15 000 were sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau with a mortality rate of above 60%. Pierre Seel; one of the most enraged and outspoken survivors in the documentary, claimed that in Alsace's internment camp and I quote loosely "homosexuals were the lowest of the low, we had the worst living conditions and punishments. I was almost 18 and tortured, beaten, broken, raped, sodomized ...eventually I was forced to watch my friend eaten alive by dogs, I was utterly without any defense."
What really struck me is that when you meet these men via the silver screen, the camp cheekiness, and the queer sparkle still remained in their eyes, as they at first reminisce over their first lovers, the health and virility and wholesome fun that they had as youths as several of them were a real stunning young man once. Most had dignity and composure, except for Pierre who could not contain his rage at speaking to Dr Mueller, a German and eventually setting foot on German soil again, which he promised to never do.
Hitler enters the picture and at first there was uncertainty what to make of the Nazi's. Homosexual and Anti-Zionist prejudices did spike but Hitler's bulldog Ernst Rohm; commander of the storm troopers was a well-known homosexual himself. For non-Jewish Germans they believed their nationality would keep them safe. But before too long Rohm was butchered and his homosexuality used an excuse and then the heat really turned up.
Gay pubs and bars were closed across Berlin, the ones open were a ploy to swoop in arrest large numbers of gays simultaneously, the arrests and deportations also became frequent.
What is important to stress here is that though people were persecuted and arrested for homosexuality; Nazi cruelty and ingenuity had each believe that they were singled out and persecuted for their homosexuality, rather than it being a broad discrimination. Even worse was that innuendo and suspicion was grounds enough to be arrested, sending the men to dire conditions feeling that they personally were inadequate and to blame.
There are some astounding tales like Gad Beck's as a "submarine" or undercover Jewish resistance operator who donned a Hitler Youth outfit and walked into his old school and took his lover out of the Gestapo holding centre, Annette Eick; the Jewish lesbian who managed in the course of one afternoon to escape the holding cell she was held, to find her passport, a working bicycle and then to bump into the postman who handed her a "love letter" with papers to go to England and Albrecht Becker the devastatingly handsome young incarcerated gay man who became a Nazi soldier after incarceration because he "wanted to be around men".
The saddest fact of all was that when WWII was over, the homosexual survivors of the holocaust were still labelled criminals, seriously impeding their chances of rebuilding their lives on an equal footing. Worse still was that Paragraph 175 was still in action till 1968 West Germany and 1969 East Germany where having gay sex or relationships was grounds for incarceration leading to repeat arrests and victimization of gay survivors of the holocaust. Even more so since there has been no reparations paid to any gay survivor ever, by the German government.
This movie is a must-see and I urge Cape Town's queers to go and see the movie this month at the Labia theatre and the exhibition at CapeTown Holocaust Centre as these are stories of astounding resilience that have been neglected by our collective queer culture.
Also attend It Get's Better Project's long awaited video launch on Wed 20th at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and a play called The Timekeepers on 5 & 6th March about a Jewish and a flamboyant German homosexual man fixing watches for Nazi's and finding common ground.
So, though Valentine's Day could have been stressful because nobody asked you out, you were rejected or you had to scramble to buy chocolates and a card early that morning because you were too busy the day before (my own account) this film brings wonderful perspective, that at least we have the liberty to concern ourselves with expressing love for that special person of the same sex.
Who knew buying chocolates or getting your heart broken could also be an act of practicing your civil liberties....