Weimar Germany was a homosexual Eden in the 1920s: gay and lesbian nightclubs and magazines flourished, the first gay-rights movement was born… and then the Nazis came to power. The persecution of homosexuals at the hands of the Nazis is relatively undiscussed. Homosexual victims of the Holocaust were one of the last groups to come forward with their stories.
Using both intimate personal portrayals and a sweeping narrative, PARAGRAPH 175 features elderly homosexual men who vividly describe their experiences during the Nazi era and reveal the long-term consequences of this hidden chapter of history.
Homosexuals were one of the least known groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, and one of the last to come forward with their stories. Both intimate in its portrayals and sweeping in its narrative, PARAGRAPH 175 features elderly homosexual men who vividly describe their experiences during the Nazi era — and reveal the long-term consequences of this hidden chapter of history. All are exceptional human beings — sometimes bitter, but just as often filled with irony and humor; haunted by their memories, but possessing a strong will to live. Their moving testimonies, woven together with evocative images from personal photo albums, unseen historical archives, and original material created for this film, tell an epic story. The Nazi persecution of homosexuals is one of the last untold accounts of the Third Reich, and PARAGRAPH 175 fills this crucial gap in the historical record.
The pink triangle has been adopted as a symbol by the gay community, but its history and meaning have not been well understood by most gays and certainly not by the public at large. According to a 1993 survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, only about half of the adults in Britain and a mere quarter of those in the U.S. knew that gays were victims of the Nazi regime, let alone that the pink triangle was the physical emblem used by the Nazis to identify homosexual men.
PARAGRAPH 175 explores a history that has not been told on film and has hardly been looked at in history books. Why has there been such an exclusion in the historical record of the experiences of tens of thousands of people who were persecuted and murdered?
As gay men and as Jews, we had obvious personal reasons to be drawn to this issue. We felt a particular urgency to record what stories we could while there were still living witnesses to tell them. And as filmmakers, we were drawn to the ambiguities of the story. There were homosexual victims, there were homosexual resistance fighters, and there were homosexual Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. And although the Nazis consistently persecuted homosexuals, their opponents repeatedly used the homosexuality of one high-ranking Nazi official to propagandize that all Nazis were homosexual. During the Nazi era, many gay people escaped persecution. How did they survive? What makes one person a hero and another a villain? And why are so many of us discomforted by the gray areas of human experience?
In 1997, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were in Amsterdam for the premiere of their film The Celluloid Closet. There they met Dr. Klaus Müller, a German historian and European Project Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Dr. Müller has been researching gay survivors of Nazi persecution since the early 1990s, and he proposed a collaboration to help bring this hidden history to international attention.
Convinced this history would be lost unless the stories could be recorded quickly, Rob and Jeffrey joined with producers Janet Cole and Michael Ehrenzweig to launch the project. They received television pre-sale commitments from Channel Four Television in the UK and HBO/Cinemax in the U.S. to help fund the production. Zero Film in Berlin offered to manage European production shoots, and also secured a loan from the Berlin-Brandenburg Film Fund to help pay for the first shoot in October, 1997. Those funds were matched with U.S. grants from the Columbia Foundation and several private donors. The second and third shoots in 1998 were funded by grants from the Open Society Institute, the Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation, the R. Gwin Follis Foundation, and individual donors in Europe and the U.S. Production took place in Germany, France, Spain, and England.
PARAGRAPH 175 is a feature documentary built around personal stories of homosexual men who experienced persecution under the Nazis. Their filmed testimonies tell an epic story, made vivid with evocative images from the period and original, haunting images shot for this film. These are complex individuals — often bitter, but just as often filled with irony and humor; haunted by their memories, but determined to survive. Their collective story fills a crucial gap in the historical record, and is a testament to human resilience in the face of unconscionable cruelty.
Born into a Jewish-Christian family in 1923, Gad lived a seemingly untroubled childhood. After 1933, however, he and his twin sister Miriam were labeled half-Jewish and experienced growing anti-Semitism. The harassment became so intolerable that Gad convinced his parents to send him to a Jewish boys’ school in 1935. Gad had his first male-male sexual experience at school, seducing a sports teacher. He proudly boasted about his conquest to his mother, with a frankness that became typical for him. Hardly surprised, his parents accepted his homosexuality.
In 1941, Gad — then eighteen years old — joined “Chug Chaluzi,” an underground Jewish resistance group in Berlin that organized hiding places and food for Jews. In 1942, Gad tried to liberate his lover, Manfred, from a Gestapo transfer camp by posing as a Hitler Youth member. His dangerous charade was successful, but as they walked away, Manfred told Gad he could not abandon his family. Gad watched helplessly as his friend returned to the camp. He would never see Manfred again.
In 1944, Gad became head of his resistance group, and was imprisoned when the group was betrayed, shortly before the Russians liberated Berlin. After the war, Gad went to Munich and worked with Ben-Gurion in the displaced persons camps, counting survivors and preparing them for emigration to Palestine. He emigrated to Israel in 1947 together with his lover. In 1979, he returned to Berlin to work with the head of the German Jewish community, Heinz Galinski. In the 1980s and ’90s Gad became more and more open about his homosexual orientation and has given many public presentations in Europe and the U.S.
Born in Berlin in 1912, Heinz Dörmer spent his early years in church-related youth groups. By 15, he was living the wild life in Berlin’s gay bars and discovered a passion for theater — and actors.
In 1929, he founded his own youth group, the so-called “Wolfsring” (ring of wolves), and in 1931 he was officially recognized as a “youth leader.” The work in the group connected many of Heinz’s interests: sexual affairs, amateur theater performances, and travel. In 1932, Heinz was promoted and worked on the Scout movement at the national level. When the Nazis started to force all independent youth groups into the Hitler Youth, Heinz and his group tried to stay independent. In October, 1933, however, they capitulated to brute force, and joined the Hitler Youth.
In April, 1935, Heinz was accused of homosexual activities with members of his troop. Thus began a series of arrests for Paragraph 175 violations that kept him in prisons and concentration camps for nearly ten years, until the war’s end in 1945.
After the war, he was re-arrested for violations of Paragraph 175 in 1949, 1951, and 1959 and spent another eight years in prison. After his last release in 1963, he returned to Berlin to live with his father, who died in 1970. Throughout the years Heinz followed the discussions about homosexual persecution during the Nazi regime. In 1982, he applied for reparations from the German government. His application was rejected.
When Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by the Germans in 1940, the Nazis systematically began to weed out “anti-social” elements. They directed the French police to establish the notorious “Pink Lists” to keep track of homosexuals. One of their targets was 17-year-old Pierre Seel. Pierre was arrested after reporting a theft that occurred in a homosexual club. He was interrogated both about his sexuality and about his suspected involvement in resistance activities before being sent to the internment camp at Schirmeck. While there he was forced to build crematoria, at Struthof, a neighboring concentration camp, and was violated with broken rulers and used as a human dart board by camp orderlies with syringes. At the end of 1941, Pierre and thousands of other Alsatians were forced to join the German army. This was the ultimate humiliation: to be forced to fight on the side of the enemy. Having survived several Allied bombings, he was eventually taken prisoner by the Russians, who gave him his freedom. After the war he was allowed back into his family under the condition that he never reveal the true circumstances of his arrest. He went into a downward spiral, entering a marriage of convenience and eventually becoming suicidal — until deciding to take a stand and make his story public.
HEINZ F. (Last name withheld by request)
Born in 1905 in a small town near Hannover, Germany, Heinz F. completed high school and studied law. He spent time in Berlin during the 20s and 30s, where he frequented such gay clubs as The Owl, The Olivia, and the Eldorado. He met Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin. Eventually he lived as an artist in Munich. There he met a subordinate of Ernst Röhm who tried to lure him into the SA by promising him a good career. Heinz declined.
In 1935, one of his friends was arrested and, under pressure from the Gestapo, revealed the names of other homosexuals. Heinz was working in his family’s store when he was called in by the local police. He was arrested and sent, without a trial, to a concentration camp at Dachau. This began a series of arrests and confinements in prisons and concentration camps for nearly nine years.
The war ended when Heinz was 40 and he went home. He found no one with whom to speak about his years of captivity. Now 93, Heinz tells his story for the first time in Paragraph 175.
Born in 1906 in a small town in the mountains of Germany, Albrecht always had an eye for a bigger life. Exceptionally handsome and a snappy dresser, he attracted attention wherever he went. At eighteen, he fell in love with an older (40ish) man, with whom he lived for nearly ten years. Through him, he met an array of artists and influential people who took him on travels around the world and showed him a life of culture and sophistication.
When he was brought in for questioning in 1935 on suspicion of violating Paragraph 175, Albrecht declared, “Everybody knows I’m a homosexual.” He was sentenced to three years in prison at Nürnberg which he describes as a monastic life of study and thought. When released to his home town, he found all the men were gone, either to the army or to prison. Surrounded by women, he decided to join the German army — because “that’s where all the men were!” Throughout the years, he has been an avid photographer of himself and others.