'I Had Always Been Blessed with Good Fortune'
At 98, Gay Concentration Camp Survivor Shares Story
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.
"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.