The Nazis called them ‘anti-social’, ‘criminal’ or ‘crazy’.
But the lesbians imprisoned during the Holocaust in Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp, were none of those things.
And now their modern-day lesbian and feminist sisters are setting about telling their stories and honoring their memories.
For decades these stories were lost, as lesbianism remained taboo in the post-Nazi era.
So today it is difficult to know exactly many lesbians were persecuted and murdered for their sexuality or how many lesbians were among other categories of prisoners in the camps.
But here are some stories we can tell of women persecuted under the Third Reich.
All of them passed through Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp 90km north of Berlin. For some, it was also where they ended their lives.
Henny Schermann was born on 19 February 1912 in Frankfurt.
At the time of her arrest she was a saleswoman in the city. Her legal name was Jenny Sara Schermann but she preferred to be called Henny.
Researchers assume she was arrested in a raid on a lesbian bar. This is supported by official documents stating she was a ‘libidinous [lustful] lesbian and moves only in such bars’.
Official Nazi paperwork claims she was ‘single’, though it would not necessarily have recognized any steady female partners. It also records her as a ‘Stateless Jewess’ – all Jews were stripped of their German nationality.
She was deported to Ravensbrück in 1940. In 1942 she was selected by one of the Nazis’ death doctors, Dr Friedrich Mennecke.
He – along with other doctors – controlled the selection of people deemed ‘unworthy of life’. The victims were then sent to the gas chambers. Mennecke also carried out ‘euthanasia’ – murder – on children with disabilities.
Henny Schermann was sent to the gas chamber on 30 May 1942.
Elli Smula, born 1914, worked on the trams in Berlin.
She was reported by her employer, Berlin Public Transport, and was arrested on 12th September 1940 and interrogated by the Gestapo.
They accused her of having sex at parties with female colleagues and not reporting for work the following day.
On 30 November 1940 she was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. The official documentation recorded the reason for her imprisonment was that she was a ‘political’ prisoner and added the word ‘lesbian’.
Little is known about her time in the camp other. But after the war her mother wrote that she died ‘quite suddenly’ in Ravensbrück on 8 July 1943.
Inge Scheuer, born 1924, was conscripted in 1943 into military service as a ‘Marine Assistant’.
She was discharged because of her relationship with a female comrade. And in March 1944 she was committed to the Psychiatric Hospital Brandenburg-Görden by the Office of Health in Angermünde.
They told the hospital to see if her ‘same-sex tendency’ made an even worse fate necessary – being sent to the so-called ‘youth protection camp’ for girls in Ravensbrück.
She was released after six weeks and survived the war.
Mary Pünjer was born Mary Kümmermann in 1904. She worked in her parents’ business for women’s clothing in Wandsbek, a borough of Hamburg.
On 24 July 1940 she was arrested, probably during a raid on a lesbian bar.
She spent almost three months in police cells in Fuhlsbüttel, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Hamburg from where people were often sent to other camps.
On 12 October 1940 she was admitted to the Ravensbrück.
Official documents record that she was imprisoned because of her ‘political’ differences and because she was a ‘lesbian’.
The Nazis decided in 1941 to murder seriously ill concentration camp prisoners who were unable to work. They referred to them as ‘balast’.
Women from Ravensbrück who fell into this category were sent to the camp at Bernburg near Dessau. This had been set up as a ‘hospital’ to murder sick and handicapped people under the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ policy.
Pünjer was gassed in the killing wing of the ‘Convalescent and Nursing Home’ at Bernburg, probably in spring 1942.
Marie Glawitsch was born in 1920 in the Austrian city of Graz.
In September 1939 she was sentenced to six months prison for theft and for violating paragraph 129 of the Austrian Penal Code.
Section 129 was the part of Austria’s legal code that punished same-sex behavior. The law described this as ‘fornication with someone of the same sex’.
Further sentences for theft followed.
On 31 October 1942, aged 22, she was committed to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück and labeled as a ‘career criminal’.
Marie Glawitsch survived the camp and died in 1966 at the age of 46.
Rosa Jochmann was born in 1901 in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
Her mother, a washerwoman called Josephine, died when Rosa was just 14. Her father, an iron molder, died in 1920.
In that same year, she became a union representative in a factory that made glass covers for gas lamps. She rose up the trade union movement and joined the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP).
By the early 1930s, Jochmann was a senior member of the SDLP. Her politics put her on collision course with the Nazis.
When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss in 1938, she refused to flee.
By the time war broke out in the summer of 1939 she had already been arrested several times. On 22 August 1939, she was arrested again. She spent months in Gestapo prison before being sent to Ravensbrück in March 1940.
Even there, she refused to stop advocating for others and became a mediator between the prisoners and camp authorities. She risked even harsher treatment but survived.
When Soviet troops liberated the camp in 1945, Jochmann stayed behind to care for the sick.
She was later named an honorary citizen of Vienna. When she died in 1994 of a heart attack, she was awarded a grave of honor in the city.
Her sexuality remained secret throughout her life. But in a 2005 exhibition about her life and about the persecution of gays and lesbians, she was identified as lesbian.
Tribute to the lesbians of Ravensbrück
Lesbian groups and feminist historians have been investigating and commemorating what happened to lesbian and bi women at Ravensbrück since at least the 1980s.
For the last three years, a group of feminist women and lesbians from Germany and Austria have led that movement.
The have organized debates on the persecution of lesbians by the Nazis. They researched these stories.
And on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück last year, they laid a memorial stone for the lesbians persecuted and murdered there.
They are now applying for a ‘commemorative orb’ to those women to remain at the camp.
It will be a permanent commemoration of the Nazis’ persecution of lesbians. And a reminder of a history that remained hidden for decades and of the women whose tragic stories are still lost in the mist of time.
More about gay Holocaust victims
Find out more about the Nazi persecution of gay and bi women here.
You can read about the fate of gay men under the Nazis here. And read why gay men continued to be persecuted in post-Nazi Germany here.