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Joanna Ostrowska, author of a book about gay people during World War II, talks about why it is crucial ...
2021-05-13 09:00:00

Silenced Memories: LGBT People in World War II

Joanna Ostrowska. Photo by A. Lasocki
Silenced Memories: LGBT People in World War II
Silenced Memories: LGBT People in World War II

The horrifying stories of persecution against LGBT individuals during World War II are still marginalized by historians. In the current political climate in Poland, this feels like an ever pertinent topic. Dr. Joanna Ostrowska, a researcher and the author of Oni. Homoseksualiści w czasie II wojny światowej [Them: Homosexuals During World War II] explains how to honour the memory of LGBT people, and why it is crucial to do so now.

Read in 10 minutes

Paulina Małochleb: Why did you decide to write about the history of LGBT people detained in prisons and concentration camps after 70 years? What is the aim of your book?

Joanna Ostrowska: The purpose of writing this book was to symbolically bang my fist on the table and raise awareness about the topic. It is a story of double injustice: the suffering of non-heteronormative people convicted under Paragraph 175 of the German penal code – a statute that criminalized homosexuality [it was introduced in the 19th century and often used during the Third Reich – author’s note] – as well as the silence and shame that was cast on them after the war. This silence endures today, when we decide that there were not enough LGBT war victims to even bother writing about them. I wanted my book to be a signal for other researchers that there are thousands of documents waiting to be found. When I started working on this project 10 years ago, I had no idea my book would have but one goal: to remind society about the LGBT community in the fight against rising homophobia.

Do you want to present a martyrology of those who have been entirely removed from the collective memory?

I wasn’t interested in a martyrology. However, I felt moved by another keyword: ‘element’. Not only would I constantly see it used in source texts from the war or right after, it was also regularly used among historians who wanted to study this subject. When described as an ‘element’, my heroes don’t need a voice, their stories do not interest us, because they are criminalized and regarded as anti-social. What’s more, the characters in these stories aren’t seen as true Poles. I have been trying to fight this way of thinking for a long time, ever since I started working on the book Przemilczane [Omitted], about women sent to brothels on the front lines. I repeatedly underscored the fact that they were part of our history, too; that they were our heroines. The process of repressing and silencing certain memories is so far gone in contemporary society that our belief in phantasms is stronger than facts and historical evidence.

Do we only want to remember the heroes of Auschwitz who organized resistance movements in the largest death camp in Poland?

That’s the simplest way of dealing with history. Moreover, we often hear that it is too early for some things. Too early because witnesses are still alive, too early because society isn’t ready. Notice that whenever LGBT is mentioned in these discussions, we are immediately told that we have to wait, that it is too early for any changes, or that it’s even premature to demand change at all. From a historian’s perspective, queer issues are still a kind of fabrication, something that can be taken up only after hours, frivolous research that requires a change of language.

Cinderella’s ugly sister – is that an adequate description of queer issues in history studies?

Yes, and that’s the only way we can explain why we know so little about the wartime and post-war stories of LGBT people. In fact, in May 1945 there was no liberation for them in Germany, because Paragraph 175 still applied, and even if they were freed from the camps, they risked imprisonment at every step. One single denunciation and the verdict could be binding. Even though the statute did not apply in Poland, I often came across records showing that LBGT individuals were persecuted and interrogated in various criminal cases, as if their sexual orientation made them more prone to criminal behaviour than heterosexual people. Unwarranted arrests were not cause for moral concern in those times.

Your book delves right into the conflict over Poland’s collective memory, and tackles the dark and shady aspects of our past.

Because the historical sources are dark and shady as well – you read investigation files that document how one side was trying to prove someone’s guilt at any cost, while the other side was willing to do whatever it took to avoid jail. And you become exposed to a narrative that has been entirely constructed by the oppressors. These documents record pure violence. I often lacked a counterpoint, a different voice that would work against the dominant narrative – which is an extremely dangerous situation. Moreover, while writing my book I tried not to avoid the taboo topics that were omitted in stories about the detention of LGBT people – for instance, members of the Nazi Party. That’s why I often mention those who were ‘in-between’, people who functioned both as victims and executioners. That was the case of Stanisław Oczkowski, who was sent to a death camp wearing a red triangle [worn by political prisoners – author’s note]. There, he was glorified by other prisoners because he used to belong to a unit known for terrorizing the Volksdeutsche around Poznań. But he wasn’t sentenced to extermination by hard labour for aggravated assault, although it was the offence that got him arrested in the first place. He was actually sent to the camp under Paragraph 175, after being found guilty of repeatedly and brutally raping his cellmate. He died in Gusen at the age of 23.

So how should we describe such stories?

The most important thing is to avoid artificial selection. And we must rid ourselves of naiveté: being a victim does not exonerate any individual of wrongful deeds, nor should it affect our perception of their morality. If we believed that all of the people described in my book are good and innocent, not only would we be gravely mistaken, we would also be demonstrating a lack of respect towards the witnesses by forcing them to wear yet another mask. No wonder that such books as The Tattooist of Auschwitz are popular among readers. We expect war stories to be colourful, sharp, full of difficult and clear-cut decisions. And here we have a sexual predator who is also presented as a victim. What should we do with him?

Oczkowski’s story is full of transgressions: a Pole who becomes a sexual predator, no prison solidarity, assault under the auspices of patriotism.

In Poland, we tend to think about LGBT people as brutal monsters, described in faecal or abject terms. We used to associate homosexuality with German identity – the stereotype of the bad Gestapo officer with sexual deviances. Another stereotype is based on class identity – ‘homosexual inclinations’ would often be ascribed to aristocrats or artists; intellectuals, too. However, when I started looking through the files, it quickly turned out that those convicted under Paragraph 175 included farmers, milkmen, locksmiths, construction workers, turners, apprentices and craftsmen.

You also argue that the number of convictions is much higher than we would expect it to be, much higher than what we would normally deem irrelevant from a historical point of view.

It is estimated that more or less 100,000 people were convicted under this statute, and 10-15% were sent to death camps. However, in the last few years the way of counting convicted LGBT people has changed, and, as a result, this group is growing bigger and bigger. Categories often became mixed up in those times, with people being convicted for undertaking non-heteronormative sexual activities and not for homosexuality, which is an entirely different accusation. That’s why nowadays, we work on statistics that are based on camp and prison records. In Poland, Paragraph 175 convicts were sent to maximum-security prisons, and that is where we should be looking for their biographies. Actually, Rainer Hoffschildt would be the best man to answer your question – he’s been compiling data on Paragraph 175 since 1987, calculating, making tables, drafting descriptions. We owe him so much knowledge, the man is an institution.

Why do you go beyond 1945 to describe the fates of your heroes?

Let’s remember that only a small percentage of LGBT convicts survived the war. If they were sent to camps as repeat offenders, they usually died soon afterwards, either because of the violence they suffered at the hands of other prisoners, or because of sickness, accidents and executions. Paragraph 175, the so-called ‘pink triangle’, was a category that brought extreme hatred upon the prisoner, loathed and abased in the camp hierarchy. My book also shows that the injustice lasted much longer: 1945 was no breakthrough for the LGBT community. Its members never stopped feeling fear and shame, they never took off their masks. Some of them went abroad, others changed their names and never admitted they had been POWs, or often pretended they had been imprisoned for different reasons. I was trying to trace the various paths they took, their defence strategies and how they escaped the post-war reality. An example may be the story of Kurt Brüssow, an actor castrated in Auschwitz, who married the widow of a soldier after the war. It was a marriage of convenience and protected both of them. In fact, marriages were generally entered for financial reasons and the emotional side was less relevant, not only for LGBT people.

What I found striking in your book were the many strategies of transgressing privacy. You keep wondering about the marital lives or intimate features of your heroes. When telling the story of Bogdan Machula’s childless marriage, you suggest his relationship was a marriage of convenience that served to dissimulate a non-heteronormative identity. And this isn’t only about confirming the well-known truth that the private is also public and political.

In many archives, it is impossible to photograph an LGBT person’s file, because the documents are classified as confidential. However, if you are writing about an Auschwitz resistance hero, you are allowed to photograph everything and describe their private life, their love life and their family life in a detailed manner. This difference proves that we remain intolerant, and that sexual orientation in the case of LGBT people is still seen as a shameful and sensitive aspect of their lives. Thus, it is believed we should not write about the subject, especially when speaking of victims and the deceased, who cannot defend themselves.

Many archives also require researchers to sign a special agreement saying that we will not use any information against the close ones of our subjects, as if historical facts could harm someone nowadays. In Poland, we portray LGBT people as a mass, an indescribable mass, because only then can we start talking about them – usually, we discuss them as faceless people, devoid of names and biographies (which is exactly why it is possible for Polish politicians to tell the public that LGBT is an ideology and not real people). That’s why I want to honour their memory, restore their identities, and turn a nameless crowd into a group of distinct, concrete and specific people. I believe they would not mind being open about their sexual orientation – actually, telling their stories would be much harder for them. Because we still don’t deserve to hear them out.

In the case of Machula, I didn’t have to write any archival plea to access his file. Thanks to the digital archives in Scotland, where Machula emigrated after the war, I simply logged into the system and read the documents made available years ago, since Machula passed away in 1976, and his wife, Jessie, followed in his steps 20 years later.

Do you use the names of your prisoners to lift their shame?

I believe it is a crucial practice, because if you open any German book about the history of Paragraph 175, the first page will be filled with the names of those imprisoned and killed. Citing names is also a way of honouring the memory of innocent people, convicted under a horrifying statute. In Poland, we talk about ‘marginal numbers’ or the above-mentioned ‘element’ – if we don’t know their names, the whole process becomes much simpler. In the case of my heroes, there is no ‘them’. I don’t use the word ‘they’. Instead, I describe people with specific names and biographies: Józef, Erich, Stanisław or Stefan. I decided I would not use the exact dates of birth in order not to encourage exceptionally curious and ill-minded people, since most personal files open with the date of birth.

Is providing someone’s name key to honouring them? In order to restore someone’s reputation or honour their memory, is it crucial to restore their name as well?

That’s what I came to believe, but it’s the outcome of a very long learning process. I didn’t know it when I was writing my last book, Przemilczane, although I hesitated to the very end. Even though I used the first names of my heroines, I changed their last names. I didn’t want their stories to be used in a bad way. In Poland, this kind of fear is real, while referencing the real names of victims is standard practice abroad. Maybe this is what it’s all about: names will move collective memory, they will allow us to notice the real people of our past and present, instead of a so-called ‘ideology’. I would like my book to be a collection of sources. It’s my only goal and I want nothing else.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Homomonument – a monument in Amsterdam in memory of homosexuals who were persecuted or killed because of their sexual orientation. Photo by BoBink, CC0 /
Homomonument – a monument in Amsterdam in memory of homosexuals who were persecuted or killed because of their sexual orientation. Photo by BoBink, CC0 /

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura

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Paulina Małochleb

is a literary critic and the secretary of the Wisława Szymborska Award. She is a laureate of both the “Nagrody Prezesa Rady Ministrów” award and the “Stypendium Młoda Polska” award. In 2018, she was nominated for the Polityka Passport Award. She sits on the jury of the Julian Tuwim Literary Award. She runs a blog at