Wednesday 27 January 2016

Extraordinary Life : Holocaust Survivor

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day we look at a Holocaust survivor whose life straddled both sides of the conflict. His name is Pierre Seel (1923-2005). I must give Chris Furneaux of the Australian lgbt radio and online channel Joy 49.9 the credit for suggesting I write about him today.

As his name suggests Pierre Seel was French. He was born in Alsace, a part of France that borders Germany. For centuries the region has been a political ping-pong ball bouncing between the two countries. During Pierre’s lifetime he found his home town, and indeed his own nationality, changing twice. From 1871 Alsace was a French province but at the end of the Franco-Prussian War it became part of the German Empire. Then, after the defeat of the German in the First World War possession of Alsace was returned to France.

In France at the time of Pierre’s birth there was no law prohibiting homosexuality though the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church led many to hide their sexuality in public, and even from their own families, as was the case with Pierre.

In 1939 he was in a well-known gay “cruising” site when his watch, a precious gift from his godmother, was stolen. He reported it to the police, but the officer he reported it to was not sympathetic. He shouted abuse at Pierre because of his admission to being in a notorious cruising site and placed his name on a list of homosexuals. This list had no official or legal purpose but it was to prove disastrous to many in a very short time.

The Second World War began with Britain, followed by France, declaring war on Nazi Germany later in 1939. In response Germany invaded and annexed Alsace. Now Pierre and his fellow Alsace natives found themselves being treated as German citizens subject to the laws of Nazi Germany. Pierre joined many others in working secretly for the French Resistance.

That list of homosexuals to which Pierre’s name was added was handed to the German authorities and soon Pierre was arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to painful physical and emotional torture, including being forcibly sodomised with a wooden stick.

In May 1941 Pierre was transferred to the Schirmeck labour and “rehabilitation” camp in the south of Alsace. More than 15,000 Alsatian citizens were imprisoned there over the next 4 years, all being forced to work with little rest or food. There were none of the infamous Pink Triangles on the uniforms of the gay prisoners, this camp did not use them. Instead Pierre wore a blue bar which was used to indicate someone who was anti-social. This also implied homosexuality and was virtually just as bad. Life for a gay man in the labour camp was still hazardous. Gay men could not find comfort in their own subgroup because fellow prisoners and SS guards alike regarded them as the lowest class of society.

When Pierre was arrested he became separated from his boyfriend Jo but he saw his beloved again in the labour camp. He could not acknowledge Jo, but watched in horror as the guards stripped Jo naked and set the guard dogs on him. The bloody death of his boyfriend marked Pierre for the rest of his life and gave him a fear of dogs.

To his surprise and relief Pierre was released, the camp’s commander having been satisfied that he had been “re-educated”, though Pierre would have to report daily to the Gestapo. Pierre returned home to his family but nothing was ever said of his experiences or sexuality.

Now a “free German” citizen Pierre was conscripted into the Nazi army. He was placed in the Wehrmacht which contained other Alsace natives forced to fight against the Allies. Then, in 1943, he was surprised again, this time to find himself being sent to the Nazi’s Aryan-breeding programme. He was only there for a few days.

By summer 1944 Pierre found himself on the Russian front, one of the most hostile combat zones of World War II. As the Allies pushed from the west and the Soviets from the east the Nazi regime began to crumble. Pierre found himself the only survivor of his post and surrendered to the Soviets.

He made his way to Poland where he joined a refugee convoy of concentration camp survivors. The Red Cross arranged for them to travel to Odessa on the Black Sea and Pierre was placed in charge of order and discipline at the refugee camp there. Eventually he managed to catch a train back to Paris and from there back to Alsace. He never revealed the full truth of his experiences, they were too traumatic, and for nearly 40 years his story was hidden in his memory.

Alsace once more changed hands after the defeat of the Nazis and the French laws were restored – except one. In 1942 the Vichy government of Nazi occupied France outlaws sex between adults and minors. This law was retained after liberation. Pierre received abuse from his own family because of his sexuality and eventually he sank into what he called “years of shame” when he tried to come to terms with his sexuality.
The memorial illustration dedicated to Pierre Seel, one of several produced by the Italian lgbt rights group Arcigay in 2015.
In 1950 he decided to marry, not telling his bride about being gay. They had 3 surviving children. Family life was very unsettled as work took them all around France. He also felt uncomfortable relating to his children, He became stressed and depressed and haunted by nightmares, He turned to drink and tranquilisers. The stress grew as the decade progressed and in 1978 Pierre and his wife separated.

In 1981 Pierre attended a book launch for “The Men With The Pink Triangle” by Heinz Heger, one of the inspirations for the play “Bent”. It was then that Pierre decided to speak out, anonymously in writing at first, about the truths behind the persecution of gay men by the Nazis. He was particularly keen to highlight the French victims, as most of the prevailing stories of persecution were about German gay men.

Pierre became a well-known activist and campaigner for the recognition of lgbt Holocaust victims at memorial commemorations. In 1994 he published his life story with the help of a journalist and fellow activist Jean Le Bitoux. Because of his high profile appearances in the media and elsewhere Pierre received more homophobic abuse, some of it physical. Through it all Pierre’s dignity and resolve remained steadfast.

By 2003 Pierre Seel was receiving official recognition for his activism. In 2005 France’s President Jacques Chirac spoke about the plight of French Holocaust victims, a tribute to Pierre Seel’s campaigning.

Pierre Seel died 7 months after President Chirac’s speech. By the end of his life he had gone to live with his partner Eric in Toulouse and had received the acceptance of his lifestyle from his family. A street near where he lived in Toulouse was named after him in 2008.

Pierre’s persecution during the Holocaust was not unique, except perhaps for his forced non-combative career in the Nazi army, but his testimony as one of the very few French gay Holocaust survivors and his personal experiences helped to change French attitudes to Nazi persecution of their countrymen on occupies France who were all too often forgotten during remembrances.

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