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