At 98, gay concentration camp survivor Rudolf Brazda shares story

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

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Gay concentration camp survivor Rudolf Brazda (left) during a visit to Berlin’s Memorial
to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism together with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (right)
in June 2008. The attention generated by a new book about his experiences at Buchenwald
and his role in the memorial have felt like a second coming out for Brazda.

By Frank Hornig
Der Spiegel

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.

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Rudolf Brazda (right) and friends from the town of Meuselwitz where he lived before he was arrested and deported to a concentration camp
by the Nazis. “It was a wonderful time, we had so much fun,” Brazda reminisces of the years before the persecution began.

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.

The Nazi Persecution Begins

Brazda went on with his day-to-day life as if nothing had happened — at least he tried to. By that point, he had moved in together with his boyfriend, and they would hold hands in public and go to village festivals and the annual summer market with their other gay friends. If locals shot them disapproving looks, Brazda and his friends would pretend to be an especially boisterous soccer team.

But Brazda only seems to remember parts of the story when he looks at those pictures from the summer of 1934– the good parts. He has gaps in his memory. One of the few friends that Brazda still recognizes, Alexander Zinn, is sitting next to Brazda’s hospital bed and helping with the interview by blaring the reporter’s questions into Brazda’s ear while showing him the old photos. Zinn, an author and sociologist, first met Brazda three years ago. He was old at the time, but still sprightly. The author had been researching Brazda’s story when he came across the criminal file from the concentration camp survivor’s trial. The two men then traveled together to Meuselwitz and the former concentration camp in Buchenwald.

“I had always been blessed with good fortune,” Brazda told his new friend. Zinn would go on to use it as the title of his new book about Brazda’s life.

Blessed with good fortune? For Christmas 1936, their last together, Brazda gave his boyfriend a large chocolate heart. While the two were celebrating the holiday, police and prosecutors were busy tightening the noose. Now that the Nazis had rid the big cities of the “festering sores,” they had turned their attention to stamping out homosexuality in the countryside. Their strategy was to arrest Meuselwitz’s gays, interrogate them and get them to make incriminating statements against one another.

On April 8, 1937, Brazda finally got caught in their noose. At first, he insisted that he was not “attracted to men whatsoever.” The official investigating Brazda’s case, however, noted that the accused displayed the “typical appearance of a man with homosexual tendencies.” Officials also presented further pieces of “evidence” like letters and love poems.

Buchenwald’s ‘Punishment Battalion’

Following a month in custody, Brazda finally collapsed in tears and confessed his “crimes.” A short time later, he was sentenced to six months in prison because, according to the verdict, “he felt love for his friend” instead of “conquering his unnatural urges.”

Four years later, the Nazis arrested Brazda a second time, and in August 1942, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Zinn’s book, recently published in German, is full of the crazy tales Brazda told him about concentration camp life a few years earlier, when he was still lucid enough to do so. Almost all homosexual prisoners landed in the so-called “punishment battalion,” where they were subjected to excessive forced labor. Separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire, they started work at the quarry in the early hours of the morning. “Extermination through labor,” was the SS’s strategy for homosexual prisoners.

But Brazda was spared. He had caught the eye of a political prisoner who worked as a so-called “Kapo,” camp inmates appointed by the SS to oversee the quarry work gangs. The man who was feared for his brutality by other prisoners told Brazda to “set his shovel down.” After that, Brazda was allowed to work in the medical barracks and dress injuries and wounds.

“One day I was alone in the clinic when the Kapo guy came in,” says Brazda. “He took me in his arms and kissed me — he had his hands all over me.” Brazda let the Kapo have his way with him in order to escape the quarry and a slow death by exhaustion.

Ostracism for Gays after War

After working as a medical orderly for a while, he was given a job as a roofer, and then Brazda was moved to the camp’s administrative office. Even as American troops advanced closer and closer to the camp and SS troops sent 28,000 camp prisoners out on a death march at the beginning of the spring, Brazda’s good fortune never abandoned him.

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Brazda (right) after his liberation in 1945 from Buchenwald:
Unlike the around 6,000 gay men who were murdered
by the Nazis, Brazda cheated death.

“I had a friend, a Kapo, who hid me in the pig stalls,” Brazda says. On April 11, the American army liberated the camp. Afterwards, Brazda moved to Mulhouse, France, where he still lives today.

Neumärker of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial says Brazda has been on his mind a lot since he came forward in 2008. Suddenly there was a fate, a face that could be attached to his gay memorial.

“The especially tragic thing about this group of victims is the fact that, after they were persecuted by the Nazis, they were then subjected to another form of ostracism after the war,” says Neumärker. Neither Brazda nor the bulk of his fellow homosexual survivors of Nazi persecution ever received reparations after 1945.

For the past year, a commission in Berlin has been busy with the task of trying to determine the future of the memorial. The lone concrete slab features a small window through which visitors can view a looping video in which two young men from modern-day Germany can be seen kissing.

An Update for the Memorial

Now the commission wants a different video for the memorial, one that is more inclusive than two men kissing. The commission held a competition and received 13 proposals before selecting five finalists for the final round of decision-making. After months of controversial wrangling and consulting, the commission finally made a decision. They agreed the new video should also show lesbian couples kissing.

“The memorial has to remain contemporary,” Neumärker says.

Others have been critical of plans to include lesbians. Brazda biographer Zinn told the news agency AFP in 2010 the plan to depict lesbians is an inaccurate depiction of history. “Historical truth must remain the focus,” he said, as no lesbians were targeted during the Holocaust.

Brazda himself isn’t sure what he should think about the memorial debate. “People need to know that we homosexuals were persecuted,” he says, pausing for effect, “by people who themselves were also gay.”

Brazda has grown tired. He glances over at Zinn, rallies a bit of energy and then starts flirting again. “I wish we could have had something together,” he says to the man who is almost 60 years his junior. He then smiles and adds, “Whenever I am in the mood for love, I will think of you.”

When Zinn first came to visit Brazda in France’s Alsace region three years ago, Brazda was so excited and so lonely — most of his friends had already passed away — that he gave his house a fresh coat of paint for the occasion. All the attention, the memorial and now the book have been something of a second coming out for Brazda.

“Are you afraid of death?” Zinn shouts into his ear. Brazda is lost in his thoughts and doesn’t reply immediately.

“Everyone has lives his own life, and I have lived mine,” he answers. “The main thing is to be happy.” He says he is appreciative of the freedom that today’s young people enjoy. “Everyone is free to do what he wants.”

It’s time to end the visit and say goodbye.

“Whatever happens, happens,” he says. “I’m not scared.” He then closes his eyes again and dozes off.

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