In 1995, Pierre Seel published one of the few first-hand accounts of homophobic persecution by the Nazis (I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror also published as Liberation was for Others).
The story of his life not only informs our understanding of the suffering of gay people, and how they continued to be victimised after the war, but also says something about the role each of us can take in recording our collective memory.
Pierre was born on August 16, 1923 in the Alsace region of France. Since his teenage years, Pierre had been aware that he was gay. Although there was a high level of homophobia, there were no anti-homosexual laws at that time in France — they had been done away with by Napoleon.
On May 2 1941, Pierre Seel received an order to report to the Gestapo in Strasbourg. He had made the mistake of reporting a theft in a known cruising area the year before, prior to France’s defeat. The police officer had added him to a list of suspected homosexuals that was soon turned over to the occupying Germans. Rather than placing his family in jeopardy, he chose to comply. Once there, he was brutally interrogated and tortured.
After violently shutting my file, the SS man facing me instantly called me Schweinehund (dirty bastard), filthy queer. The interrogation was only just starting. Did I know other homosexuals? What were their names and addresses? Had I heard about so-and-so? Wasn’t it true that a certain churchman liked young men? Where were our meeting places? He knew a lot more than I did. I remained silent.
The Germans, who obviously knew that I was homosexual, were trying to use me to trap a portion of the city’s populace. But what proof did they have of my sexuality? They showed me the statement I had signed at the age of seventeen, when I had told a French police officer about the theft of my watch in a dubious place. There was my signature. I couldn’t deny my homosexuality Others, who could deny theirs, were lucky enough to be expelled from the territory instead of being Pierre Seel interned.
The blows came raining down. Behind the desk each SS man followed the last in an even rhythm. Each time, the grilling started from scratch: last name, first name, date of birth, names and addresses of homosexual acquaintances. One after another the interrogators yelled, threatened, brutalised. They tried to corner us, exhaust us, quell any resistance. After reiterating the same words, the same denials twenty times over for ten hours in a row, we saw lists emerging from files. We had to sign. Kneeling on a ruler we had to confirm that all these names made up the roster of homosexuals in Mulhouse. The walls echoed with our screams. Sometimes they took us to a different office, where we were asked to identify other victims who had been rounded up that day. Our eyes met, terrified.
At first we managed to endure the suffering. But ultimately it became impossible. The machinery of violence accelerated. Outraged by our resistance the SS began pulling out the finger nails of some of the prisoners. In their fury, they broke the rulers we were kneeling on and used them to rape us. Our bowels were punctured. Blood spurted everywhere. My ears still ring with our shrieks of atrocious pain.’
Pierre was imprisoned in the Schirmeck-Vorbrüch concentration camp, where he was forced to witness the SS execution of his lover Jo, devoured in front of his eyes by dogs.
Then the loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved a tin pail over his head. Next they set their ferocious German Shepherds on him: the guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped. My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror; tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly.
“Since then,” he wrote in 1995, “I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For fifty years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing through my mind. I will never forget that barbaric murder of my love — before my very eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses. Why are they still silent today? Have they all died? It’s true that we were among the youngest in the camp and that a lot of time has gone by. But I suspect that some people prefer to remain silent forever, afraid to stir up hideous memories, like that one among so many others. As for myself, after decades of silence I have made up my mind to speak, to accuse, to bear witness.”
After the War, Nazi inspired Vichy laws condemning homosexuals had not been repealed, and so to speak out was to risk re-imprisonment. Pierre only told his mother of his ordeal in the early 1950s, as she lay terminally ill. The family rule was silence. ‘The Liberation was for others’, he later said.
Pierre found a wife and had three children. In 1981 he attended a reading of what was then the only autobiography of a gay victim of the Nazis, The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger. After the session he quietly spoke to the contributors, and for the first time in 30 years began the process of remembering and telling his story. He passed away on 25 November 2005.