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What happened to gay women during the Holocaust?

Lesbians are the Nazis' forgotten victims, Stefanie Gerdes writes, but their stories of torture, lucky escapes and determination have to be told

What happened to gay women during the Holocaust?

In all recollections of the Holocaust horror of Nazi Germany, full of cruelty and inhumanity, the stories of the Third Reich’s homosexual women are frequently left out or overlooked.

Famously the pink triangle was the very visible symbol gay men had to wear under Hitler’s regime and its concentration camps. The tale of gay women’s lives in the Holocaust is distinct from this and almost untold.

What is known today is patchy, but there are some stories of great suffering and fierce resistance. In particular we know of women fleeing the country for the safety of America or England, escaping the very worst social isolation, violence and forced prostitution.

German feminist magazine EMMA went as far as to call lesbians the ‘forgotten victims’ of Hitler’s attempt at ‘ethnically cleansing’ Germany.

Annette Eick, born to Jewish parents in Berlin, is one of the lesbians who fled the country.

At 10 years old she wrote an essay in school in which she dreamt of living her late life with a girlfriend, surrounded by animals and writing.

In 2000 Eick, among five gay men, spoke out about her experiences during the Third Reich as part of the documentary Paragraph 175.

‘They were not very religious, my family, but we did hold the holy holidays. That’s why we called ourselves the Yom Kippur Jews,’ Eick said.

When she was growing up in Berlin before the Nazis rise to power, she was living in arguably one of the best places in the world at the time to be LGBTI. There was a small, but visible, gay and lesbian subculture.

‘I was a bit scared I must say,’ she recalled about entering her first club where LGBTI people would congregate. ‘If you have never seen boys and masculine lesbians, there was such a heap of them.’

In one of the clubs Eick met a young Jewish girl from Berlin, who became incredibly important to her.

‘I saw a woman who looked a little bit like Marlene Dietrich,’ she said. ‘She is the one I saw occasionally later, the one who saved my life because she was the one who sent me this permit [that saved me].’

When the Nazis took over Germany, Berlin became a no-go zone for gay people. Gay groups were banned, clubs were purged and all were forced to conform to the ‘German norm’.

Eich worked as a nanny, and was facing increasing discrimination based on her Jewish heritage.

She moved to a farm in Brandenburg where she, together with other Jewish children and teens, was being prepared to leave Germany for Palestine. She remembered singing Hebrew songs while working on the fields, but also the underlying feeling of danger.

‘I have a very good intuition,’ she said, ‘and I had a feeling that something horrible is going to happen. I made a decision to go off in the country, and I did.’

During the Night of Broken Glass, between 9 November and 10 November 1938, Nazis ambushed the farm as part of a series of coordinated, deadly attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria.

‘But not all Germans were aggressive and nasty,’ Eick recounts.

Everyone on the farm was detained in a police prison, but the police officer’s wife purposefully left the cell door unlocked, allowing the prisoners to escape.

Eick returned to the burnt-down farm and retrieved her passport: ‘I went in and, a miracle, I found my passport in this muddle and glass without hurting myself. I went on the bicycle and off I tried to go to Berlin.’

The young woman planned to go back to her family in Berlin when her luck struck in the form of the mailman passing her a love letter from a former affair.

The Marlene Dietrich lookalike, the woman she fell in love with, had sent her a letter with something that would save Eich’s life: an entry permit to England.

She managed to flee, but her family was not so lucky.

‘I could hardly believe it. Had I ever missed this letter,’ she said, ‘I would have gone with my parents to Auschwitz.’

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The 1872 law, Paragraph 175, banned sexual acts between men and sexual acts on animals, but did not mention women. Lesbians were, technically, legal in Germany. The exception was Austria, later annexed by the Germans, where sexual acts between women had been criminalized since the 19th century.

While sexual acts between women were not criminalized under 175, lesbians who still did not confirm to the norms of Hitler’s society were victims of propaganda aimed at unmarried, childless women.

They were also deemed ‘asocial’ and defamed as prostitutes by the SS and so-called racial hygienists.

Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer-SS (the SS leader), said: ‘Those who practice homosexuality deprive Germany of the children they owe her.’

German law mostly ignored women because the Third Reich considered them of so little importance.

Women were non-sexual human beings; they had to conform to societal norms but nothing more, which meant following their husband’s lead, bearing children and settling in to their role as housewives and mothers.

The one-dimensional role of women was best described in an essay by Doris Seekamp and Cora Mohr: ‘The Aryan woman marries and bears many children for the Führer.’

When the Nazis considered expanding Paragraph 175 in 1935, to include homosexual acts between women, the discussions were halted on the basis that women played a ‘relatively minor role in public life’.

The Reichsminister of Justice also concluded lesbian acts could not be clearly determined given women’s generally ‘more intimate public contact’. He argued women’s marginal role in public offices would not allow them to falsify or bastardize public life like gay men could.

The image of the German mother and wife is what likely saved the majority of German lesbians from being arrested and detained in one of the concentration camps: their sexuality was seen as ‘fixable’ by the Nazis.

Lesbians were not believed to be ‘lost for reproduction’ as they could still bear children and, most importantly, could be forced to become pregnant if need be – their homosexuality was merely seen as a temporary and curable condition.

The records of most camps have been destroyed, leaving behind a patchy account of exactly how many people died. While the number of Jews murdered in the camps is probably the most accurate, there is no certainty about how many homosexual men, Romani, political prisoners or others died at the hands of the SS.

There are rarely any accounts of how many lesbians were interned in the camps. Researchers have discovered only a few cases of women who were sent to concentration camps because of their sexuality.

Henny Schermann

One of those women were Henny Schermann, a shop assistant in Frankfurt. In 1940, she was arrested and deported to Ravensbrueck concentration camp. She died in 1942.

Lesbians in the camps, because their sexuality was not criminalized, had to wear the green badge, denouncing them as ‘Berufsverbrecher’ (established or ‘career’ criminals) or the black triangle, the ‘asocial’ badge, also worn by Romani and homeless people.

Stories from women’s camps, while not as violent as the men’s, highlight one way the Nazis tried to reform lesbian internees.

Witnesses report that interned women, unless they were Jewish, were forced into prostitution during their time in the internment camps, working in the camp brothels.

Not only did they have to serve SS men but at some point camp administrators decided to force homosexual men into having sex with prostitutes to ‘heal them’ from what the Nazis considered to be a curable sickness and not a valid sexuality.

The Nazis used the brothels to ‘convert’ lesbians back to heterosexuality – but the women’s lives came with a ‘use by’ date, after which most of them were killed. The average span, and often life expectancy, for a woman to work in forced prostitution in one of the camps was six months.

Gay women not interned in the camps were, in a few cases, defiantly open about their sexuality. But more often they hid their identities, living as normal a life as possible. Others, particularly those with foreign roots, fled the country. A few married gay men to complete their disguise.

Those who decided to stay in society were confronted with the Nazis’ sexist agenda – women, required to be mothers more than laborers, were only able to work in low-paying jobs.

Lesbians were most affected by the low wages typically set for women. Living without a husband whom they could rely on to provide a main income increased not only financial hardship but also social pressure, making their life difficult – especially combined with the fear of being arrested.

One enterprising lesbian activist was Lotte Hahm, the editor of Die Freundin (The Girlfriend) and held balls exclusively for women in 1920s gay Berlin.

Die Freundin

But when the Nazis cracked down on the LGBTI community, and banned all gay magazines, she took her movement further underground.

Police attempted to arrest her several times, with one time her girlfriend’s father falsely accusing her of seducing a minor.

One day she was approached by a man on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, when she was asked by him if she could watch his suitcase for a moment.

The suitcase contained illegal communist material. Hahm was arrested by the Gestapo, Germany’s state police, just minutes after agreeing to watch the case.

She was then taken to Moringen, a concentration camp just for women, and was beaten,  whipped with a lead ball at the end of the tail and thrown into ice-cold bathtubs.

When Hahm was freed, she was undeterred. She set up a human rights movement group, set up a new women’s club in Berlin and fought against discrimination every day until her last breath in 1958.

Not every lesbian was captured by the Nazis. Some survived. Some, like Eick, were lucky enough to flee, although the story of the girl who looked like Marlene Dietrich giving her that ticket to freedom has to be one of the closest escapes recorded.

Eick lived the rest of her life in Devon, England, found love with girlfriend Trude in the 1960s and published her collection of poems. It was called, and dedicated to, her ‘Immortal Muse’. She died on 25 February 2010, just four months after her 100th birthday.


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