“I´m happy to be alive”
Rudolf Brazda went through three years of hell at the Buchenwald concentration camp. He survived. Today the 96-year-old is the last known former victim of Nazi persecution of gays. “I´m not complaining. I´m thankful to be alive and healthy,” said the senior with a smile.
This week, for the first time in 64 years, Brazda visited the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen to see his original documents from the Buchenwald concentration camp. The bureaucracy of the horror of the degradation is listed matter of factly: “Registered on 8 August 1942, Paragraph 175 homosexual, prisoner number 7952, pink triangle” – entry lists, personal effects card, prisoner´s personal sheet, work camp.
“I have made my peace with the past,” said Brazda, as he looked through the records. But the memories of his persecution sound recent. Born of Czech parents in Brossen, near Leipzig, Brazda was 20 years old as the Nazis took power. He had his first experience with his homosexuality during the Weimar Republic, as gays and lesbians were allowed to live freely. Paragraph 175 of the Reich Penal Code already existed, which made sexual acts between men punishable. “But it was ignored,” Brazda remembered. He and his companion Werner boarded with a Jehovah´s Witness who accepted the relationship despite her religiosity.
Brazda had his first brush with the brutality of the new strongmen in Germany at Café New York, a well-known gay meeting place in Leipzig. “The Nazi storm troopers dragged us out by our hair,” said Brazda. “Preemptive obedience, as SA leader Ernst Röhm was gay himself.” Röhm was executed on Hitler´s orders on 1 July 1934. After the shutdown of pubs and meeting places, the systematic persecution of gays began.
Every minority was mercilessly oppressed by the Nazis. Over 100,000 gay men were apprehended and around 50,000 of them convicted. An unknown number ended up in psychiatric institutions. Hundreds were castrated under court order. Roughly 10,000 were sent to concentration camps wearing a pink triangle on their prison uniforms. Over half were murdered.
In 1937, the Nazis first sentenced Brazda to 6 months in jail in Altenburg for “unnatural lewdness.” After his release the Saxon native was deported to Czechoslovakia, but National Socialism caught up to him again there. Brazda expected to be captured daily with the German occupation of the Sudetenland in October 1938. “We gays were like hunted animals. Wherever I went with my companion the Nazis were always already there,” remembered the 96-year-old.
Brazda was arrested on 1 April 1941 and after 16 months in prison he was deported to the concentration camp Buchenwald. The young man had painful memories of the moment he arrived at Buchenwald and an SS man ripped the gold chain from his neck. “It had been a present from my companion,” said Brazda. But everyday life in the concentration camp was merciless and impersonal. It degraded people and turned them into numbers.
Gays at Buchenwald were usually forced to work at the quarry. Chances of survival were low. Brazda was lucky. “Like so often in my life,” the 96-year-old emphasized. A Kapo (concentration camp guard) who oversaw prisoners´ work for the SS fell in love with Brazda. He assigned Brazda to a less stressful work detachment where he could work as a roofer, his profession by trade.
Once again Brazda was in danger, as one day he gave an SS man the wrong answer. He knocked three of Brazda´s teeth out and ordered his death for the following day. Once again he was saved by the Kapo; Brazda the tradesman was an important worker. “Others had to die but I came through,” repeated Brazda over and over. He told of a young man who had gouged his eyes out after arriving at the concentration camp – the man had wanted to go to the infirmary in order to avoid the deadly work in the quarry. “The only thing that was waiting for him in the infirmary was a lethal injection. I never saw him again.”
Shortly before the end of the war, in a last defiant act, the Nazis conducted death marches which cost countless prisoners their lives. Once again luck was on Brazda´s side. Another Kapo hid him in a tool shed in a pigpen for three weeks and brought him food. On 11 April 1945 the US Army liberated the camp. “After everything I have been through I have no more fears,” said Brazda retrospectively. “No one can escape his fate. The world is constantly changing.“
After the war the 32-year-old settled in Alsace with a fellow prisoner. Homosexuality was not punishable there. Paragraph 175 was not reformed until 1969 in the Federal Republic and in 1994 it was permanently abolished. Brazda met his partner Eddi in Mulhouse in 1950, and they stayed together until his death in 2002.
Brazda notes that millions of people were broken by the Nazi regime. “Yet they were never able to destroy me. I am not ashamed.” Today the 96-year-old is a life-affirming and warm person who likes to laugh. He shares his experiences with the younger generation of gays and lesbians: “They should consider themselves lucky to live in a free democracy.”