Among the people hunted by the Nazi regime in Germany were, obviously, LGBT people who were deemed “anti-social” or “crazy”. Most of us have heard about the pink triangle and what it meant as a symbol of recognition for gay men in concentration camps. But what about gay and bisexual women and their fates during Hitler’s regime in Germany?
The sources of knowledge we have concerning lesbians and bi women and what they went through are limited, but we do know about some women leaving the country and seeking shelter in England and America. Lesbians have been named as the “forgotten victims” of Hitler’s attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Germany, by the German feminist magazine EMMA.
There are gender-related differences when it comes to the reasons, justification and forms of oppression that gay men and women faced in Nazi Germany.
Lesbians weren’t directly referred to by the 1872 law, Paragraph 175 that banned sexual acts between men and sexual acts on animals. That coincides with the general cultural assumption of the era that sex between women is not “real sex”, so lesbians were technically not illegal in Germany, unlike Austria where sexual acts between women were criminalized in the 19th century.
However, there was a justification for the ostracization of queer women that was based on different priorities of the Nazi regime: women were supposed to bear children and be mothers and housewives to German husbands; they were not seen as sexual beings, or as able to have any considerable influence in public and social life.
So the actual issue with lesbian women was that they refused to conform to the Nazi norms of being a German mother and wife. And yet, as Stefanie Gerdes states in her article
What Happened to Gay Women During the Holocaust”, the thought that lesbians could actually be “fixed” and still become pregnant and bear children, was what saved some of them from detention in concentration camps. Homosexual people, in the opinion of Heinrich Himmler, the leader of SS, would “deprive Germany of the children they owe her.
As part of the Nazi cruelty in the concentration camps, homosexual women had to wear a badge, either green as “career” criminals, or black as “asocials” (like Romani and homeless people were deemed). That classification took place because lesbianism was not criminalized. They were also forced into prostitution – unless they were Jewish – and forced to serve SS men as well as homosexual men in order to “heal them”.
The lives of women who didn’t go to the camps were difficult and dangerous, as they either had to pretend they were straight by marrying, flee the country, or live in poverty as they had no husbands and were paid really low wages – while constantly fearing for their lives and the possibility of being arrested.
The research that’s been made has brought up some stories of women who passed through Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp 90km north of Berlin. Today we share their stories as a tribute to their memories. (Based on this article).
Henny Schermann was one of those women. She was born in Frankfurt in 1912 and worked as a saleswoman when she was arrested. Official documents stated that she moved only in lesbian bars and she is thought to have been arrested in one of those. According to official Nazi paperwork she was also a “Stateless Jewess” and was selected by one of the Nazis’ death doctors, Friedrich Mennecke who claimed her “unworthy of life” in 1942. She was sent to the gas chamber on the 30th of May that year.
Elli Smula, born in 1914, was another woman who worked at the Berlin trams and was arrested on 1940 after being reported by her employer, Berlin Public Transport, accused of not reporting at work because she stayed up late at nights in parties, having sex with female colleagues. She was logged as a “political” prisoner and the word “lesbian” was also added in her documents. Her mother wrote that she died quite suddenly’ in Ravensbrück on 8 July 1943.
Inge Scheuer was born in 1924 and conscripted into military service as a “Marine Assistant” in 1943. She was found to have a relationship with a female comrade so she was discharged and sent to the Psychiatric Hospital Brandenburg-Görden in 1944. Fortunately, she was released early and survived the war.
Mary Pünjer was born in 1904 and worked in the clothes shop her parents owned in Hamburg. She was arrested in 1940 and admitted to the Ravensbrück. Her documents stated that she was imprisoned because of “political” differences and because she was a “lesbian”. She died in gas chambers in the killing wing of the ‘Convalescent and Nursing Home’ at Bernburg, presumably in 1942.
Another homosexual woman, who was actually sentenced to prison for violating paragraph 129 of the Austrian Penal Code (the paragraph that made homosexual behaviour punishable) in 1939, was Marie Glawitsch, born in 1920 in Graz, Austria. She was also accused of theft and was committed to Ravensbrück as a “career criminal” in 1942.
Rosa Jochmann was born in Vienna in 1901 and became a union representative in a factory that made glass covers for glass lamps. She rose up the movement and joined the Social Democratic Labour Party. That was the reason she was arrested several times. On August of 1939 she was arrested again and in March of 1930 she was sent to Ravensbrück, where she continued to advocate for the rights of others and became a mediator between the camp authorities and the prisoners.
She risked a lot but miraculously survived. The camp was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, but Rosa stayed back to care for the sick. She became a honorary citizen of Vienna and was awarded a grave of honor in the city when she died in 1994. Her sexuality was not something talked about but she was actually identified as a homosexual woman in a 2005 exhibition about her life and about the persecution of gays and lesbians.
Finally, Stefanie Gerdes writes in her article about the story of Annette Eick, who was born to Jewish parents in Berlin and one of the lesbians who managed to flee the country. Her story is an extremely inspiring one that brought tears to my eyes, as did the other stories of the harsh realities faced by LGBT people during the Nazi regime. She spoke about her experiences during the Third Reich in 2005, together with 5 gay men, as part of the documentary “Paragraph 175”.
Eick had actually realized her identity from a very young age. When she was only ten she wrote an essay in school about dreaming of living her late life with her girlfriend, surrounded by animals and writing. She talked about growing up in Germany before the Nazi regime, when Berlin was still one of the best places in the world for an LGBT person to live, due to the small subculture that existed. She met a Jewish girl from Berlin and they became too close. “I saw a woman who looked a little bit like Marlene Dietrich,” she said. “She is the one I saw occasionally later, the one who saved my life because she was the one who sent me this permit [that saved me].”
During the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 the Germans ambushed the farm where she was staying, preparing to leave with other Jewish children and teen for Palestine.
A police officer’s wife left the cell door of everyone caught unlocked in purpose and all the prisoners escaped. Eick was lucky enough to retrieve her passport from the destroyed farm in the middle of the chaos. She was planning to go to Berlin but a letter arrived for her, from the aforementioned former love affair. The woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich with whom she was in love had mailed to her an entry permit to England. That saved her while her family was sent to Auschwitz.
She lived the rest of her life in Devon, found love in the 1960s, published a collection of poems and died a littler after her 100th birthday, in 2010.
For the last three years a group of feminists and lesbian women from Germany and Austria have led a movement to commemorate the horrible experiences of lesbian and bi women at Ravensbrück. Feminist historians and lesbian groups have been doing extensive research about the issue since the 1980s.
On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück last year, a memorial stone was laid for the queer women who were persecuted and murdered in Ravensbrück. LGBT people and feminists are applying for a “commemorative orb” to those women to remain at the camp, in order to pay a tribute to them and engrave a hidden reminiscence of history that should not be concealed and forgotten anymore.