How should we remember Auschwitz?

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose stories are told and whose are marginalized? 

Anna Hájková
27 January 2015
 US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Homosexual Auschwitz prisoner August Pfeiffer, who was murdered in the camp in 1941. Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

70 years ago today, Red Army soldiers entered Auschwitz-Birkenau and liberated its remaining 6,000 people. Auschwitz was not the largest or the most deadly annihilation camp.

But because it served as a place of both extermination and forced labor, it had a relatively large number of survivors who lived to tell the story, coining Auschwitz into a synonym for the Holocaust.

How we remember the camp today is very different from the Auschwitz of 70 years ago. The stories we hear fit into neat, sanitized frameworks of melodrama, heroism, monstrosity, and collaboration. The 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to re-examine the way we think about the Holocaust.

Looking at testimonies related to gender and sexuality shows that the history of Auschwitz does not fit into simple, black-and-white categories. Today, we will not be able to unearth the voices of those deemed “unworthy victims,” but thinking about the marginalized can help us to develop a more inclusive past. 

As a Holocaust historian, I encounter a fair share of generalizations. Women raped in the camp brothels are casually described as ‘asocials’, and prisoner functionaries (prisoners working in the camp administration with better access to food and a small measure of power) are seen as 'collaborators with the Germans, who were deservedly hated'.

When teaching I can dissipate these statements, showing how they separate Holocaust history into comfortable, moralizing categories imposed by a postwar society. But what about everyone else?

Dominant survivors’ narratives are constitutive of much of what we have come to accept about the camps and the Holocaust. For many years after the war, the master narrative was coined by political prisoners; in the 1990s, it was taken over by Jewish survivors. Both their groups were large, erudite, and middle class. Of course, not all survivors belonged to the middle class after the war, but those who bore testimony nearly always were. Alternative, conflicting stories have in effect become impossible to tell.

There are extremely few testimonies of those marginalized as 'asocials', homosexuals, or of women forced to work in the camp brothels. These stories are familiar only to a handful of experts. 

A well-known 1946 account by two Czech Jewish political prisoners, Ota Kraus and Erich Schön (later Kulka), titled The Death Factory, shows the emergence of some of these ways of framing stories about Auschwitz. Such discussions of homosexuality and forced prostitution gave birth to gendered, moralizing notions of the camp's society.

Kraus and Kulka spent two years in the Auschwitz locksmith work unit, moved around the entire camp complex, and worked for the resistance movement, smuggling out information about the mass killing. Their book contains statements like: “Pink triangle: worn by persons imprisoned for sexual perversion or homosexuality (Schwule Brüder). In the camps they had a splendid opportunity to corrupt the maximum number of young lads.”

This remark conceals the fact that nearly all men arrested for homosexual conduct (§175 of the German criminal code addressed men only; lesbians were persecuted as 'asocials' or 'criminals') were on the bottom of the camps’ social hierarchy, with a terrifyingly high mortality rate. 

Only a thin social elite, some of the prisoner functionaries, were able to have sexual relationships. These men had sex with men not necessarily because they were gay, but because they were in single sex camps. They picked teenagers because they were coded as feminine, and in exchange for protection, because youngsters could not cope in the brutal camp system alone.

There is much to analyze about this often violent sexual barter and the issue of consent; my point here is to do with the contempt in nearly all survivors’ testimonies. Prisoners engaging in same sex activity were often perceived as equally distressing as other, violent aspects of the camps. This stands alongside similar statements on women in the camp brothels or women arrested for prostitution. Even Jorge Semprún’s achingly graceful What a Beautiful Sunday contains scathing, sexualized remarks on the forced sexual exploitation in Buchenwald.

Most of the homosexuals and 'asocials' from Auschwitz did not survive. When they did, they were not only denied any reparations, but they also often faced renewed persecution. This makes Kulka’s and Kraus’s remarks all the more disturbing. Why would people who witnessed the murder of thousands, the murderous quotidian, who courageously took part in a resistance network, demean their fellow prisoners?

The explanation lies in the logic of our human society. Even in the most extreme of circumstances, people bring with them their moral codes, they differentiate and stratify to feel better about themselves. Kulka and Kraus applied the mores they internalised in the homophobic European society of the early 20th century. Sexuality is one of the salient markers of what society is about and how it expresses its essential values–which is why we need to think about these uncomfortable statements of former prisoners.

Societies often mark those who break crucial behavioral codes as sexually deviant. During the Holocaust, this mechanism applied to violent female guards, whom the victims perceived and later depicted as monsters. People more easily accept that men are violent, but they see women’s brutality as abnormal.

Just as the media depicted Lynndie England, the US soldier who abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib, as a beast, the survivors, including Ota Kraus, viewed the women guards as monsters with an unnatural sexual appetite, or as lesbians.

If you search for the keyword “homosexuality” in the over 52,000 oral histories of Jewish survivors conducted by the Shoah Survivors' Foundation, all you will find eyewitnesses looking back on homophobic encounters with disgust. Of course there were Jewish gay Holocaust victims, and it is likely that they were among the interviewees.

But the heteronormative framework prevented the interviewers from prodding, or the survivors from self-identifying as gay–even though most of the interviews took place between 1994 and 2000. There were only six interviews with people persecuted as gay, who were all gentile, and whose interviews were collected separately.

Indeed, the final staged scene in these interviews–when the survivor is joined by their spouse and grand/children–scripted success as exclusively straight, making it impossible to tell a story of a happy queer life.

The stories that could have been collected are irreparably gone. Even more, the fact that this largest, and excellent, oral history collection of Holocaust survivors exclusively depicts homosexuality as an abhorrent, violent, terrifying aspect of the concentration camps means that the homophobic stories will continue, in one version or other.

This contrasts with depictions of people with disabilities and the Sinti and Roma, whose persecution the scholarship has been addressing in the past thirty years: they may not stand in the center of today's commemorative attention, yet can still be remembered. 

We will not be able to create a canon of the marginalized voices. But what we can, and should, do today is ask questions about the omissions and contradictions in Auschwitz memoirs and histories. Thinking about these gaps enables us to break away from simple, sanitizing narratives and to remember all victims of Auschwitz, different as they were. 

People often ask me, what is the legacy of the Holocaust? I usually explain that there is no moral to the six million slaughtered; we ask for a lesson because we struggle to comprehend such a negation. A redemptive story of the Holocaust, endowing it with meaning, makes us feel better.

The next book Kulka and Kraus wrote, Mass Murder and Profit, discusses the ways in which German industry capitalized on the forced labor of the million of prisoners, under the program named “Annihilation through Labor”. Only in the 2000s did German large business recognize their responsibility and pay reparations to those forced laborers who were still alive. 

Thinking about these questions, it occurred to me that there may be a legacy of the people of Auschwitz after all: developing a more inclusive and less judgmental history; making place for the many different genocide victims; striving for a better, socially just, society; starting with ourselves.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData