Stay Strong

As a survivor of the Holocaust, I, Wilhelm Kroepfl, feel it is my duty to enlighten you about my experiences and those of my partner. We were lovers for years even though relationships like ours were made illegal by Paragraph 175, which went into effect in September of 1935 . We lived in Bernau, one of the cities “purified” by the Gestapo, or secret Police . In early winter of 1939, they came in and started collecting names . They brought us in and sorted us into groups by crime . Josef and I were in a ghetto block with other homosexual men.

In nearby blocks were Jews and Gypsies; the rules were different in each block depending on the crime. Josef and I were allowed to live together, but in our block, no one was allowed to sleep in anything more than a nightshirt and all hands had to be outside of the blankets. Anyone found in violation of the rules was taken outside and had cold water poured over their heads . They were left standing there all night in the freezing winter and many died. On one particularly bitter night, Josef and I were caught with our hands under our blankets and punished. We both nearly died and were sent to the hospital the next morning.

In the hospital, the German “doctors” weren’t interested in healing us so much as they wanted to use us for experiments. We found out that, rather than being at a normal hospital, we had been sent to the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin and were both subjected to rigorous experimentation. We were separated at the Institute and he was transferred out before I was. I was tortured in the most inhumane ways while they tried to figure out the roots of homosexuality. I was beaten, starved, and castrated only to be shipped to Flossenburg Concentration Camp about three months later (“Nazi”).

Upon arrival at Flossenburg, I was stripped, showered, clothed, and placed in a group with other new prisoners. I was in a work group with other homosexual men and we were sent to do manual labor in a factory every morning. We had an identification number and a colored triangle indicating our crime sewn onto the sleeve and chest of our shirts. My group had pink triangles to represent homosexuality . There were about 200 homosexual men in the camp, which had about 2,000 prisoners, and we had to get up at four in the morning for roll call and a meager breakfast before we were sent to work.

The nights were unbearably cold and the same rules that we had in the ghetto were still in effect there. At age 29, for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be completely alone: I had no family, no partner, and no hope. I lost track of the days that passed, but I was there for several months. We had two insufficient meals a day and many men died of starvation. One day, we were going through roll call and the man next to me, as well as another man further down the line, were dragged out of line by the guards. They beat them and tied them up; none of us knew why.

We all looked on, unable to do anything. Later in the day, they were hanged and we were told that they had been caught in bed together the night before. We were powerless and had to go on with our lives as if nothing had happened. Eventually, some SS came into the camp and told us that we were all being transferred because the camp was being shut down. My unit of 50 men was sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Oranienburg, Germany. When we arrived, we went through the same procedures as at Flossenburg and were sorted into new groups of mixed crimes.

The guards did not allow any contact between homosexual prisoners, although I did recognize the other homosexual man in my group of five prisoners: my partner, Josef Kohout. Being in the same group, Josef and I were allowed to get away with breaking many rules regarding contact between homosexuals. It had been over a year since we had been together, so naturally we spent as much time together as possible. We were able to talk and he told me what had happened to him in the time since we had last seen each other. Our work involved moving things around the camp, so we could talk and work at the same time.

He told me that he had been transferred almost immediately to Bergen-Belsen where he had stayed until he was transferred to Sachsenhausen at the same time as me. He had been beaten, worked, and starved at the camp, but was never severely punished. Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were so poor, he said, that more men died from the cold and starvation than from the guards. Unlike Flossenburg, the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen had gone through selection, where doctors thoroughly examined everyone and those deemed unfit were sent to be killed.

Josef told me that he had narrowly escaped selection and watched several of his close friends go. It was rumored that those selected dug their own graves. Josef and I can hardly imagine what that would feel like. We went about our lives at the camp which, overall, was quite similar to Flossenburg. Every morning we assembled for roll call, then had an insufficient breakfast, and were then sent to work on our various jobs. The hours dragged on as we hauled lumber and bricks across camp and then back again. By the end of the day, we could barely stand and we only got a few hours rest before we had to do it all again.

It was grueling work, but it left minimal opportunity for punishment, since it was hard to do something wrong. Many of the guards were on good enough terms with the prisoners that several incidents went unpunished. I think Josef and I both knew that our blatant disregard for the rules about homosexuals would get us in trouble, but we didn’t expect what we got. We had been talking as usual and we happened to pause for an embrace when we finished carrying bricks to one end. One of the few guards who punished everyone for everything happened to see it and we were both beaten severely.

I was unconscious by the time he was done beating us, so I was left there in the middle of the camp on the ground. When I finally came to, it was night time and I dragged my broken body to my bunk. The next morning was a Sunday, so we weren’t required to work. It was then that I learned how caring my bunk mates had become. After roll call and breakfast, a man by the name of Heinz helped me back to the bunkhouse and the other men all expressed their concern and tried to help me. Josef was less injured than me because most of the blows hit his legs and arms whereas I was hit in the head and chest.

Two of the men carried me to the camp doctor while Josef walked alongside, holding my hand and trying to comfort me. I realized then that, while we had all tried to avoid attachment, we had become one big, close family. I was in the hospital for a few days recovering from several broken ribs and a concussion, but two days after I returned to the normal daily routine, we were standing for roll call when they called for us to form ranks and march. We would be leaving the camp to evade the incoming Red Army. We started out walking but after we had gone a few miles, we broke into a run to keep our body temperatures up.

It was the middle of winter 1945. I think it was January. We were freezing and we ran non-stop all day and well into the night. Several hours after dark, we stopped in an old warehouse where we spent the night, then continued running the next morning. Around midday we stopped briefly, and anyone who went to the woods to relieve themselves was shot if they did not return fast enough. We continued our march shortly, but we were no longer running. The whole time, Josef and I were next to each other and holding hands when it was safe.

The guards were going up and down the ranks shooting anyone that couldn’t keep up. When the temperature started to drop as night approached, we started running again. Josef and I were in the middle of a block five people wide, and after running all night and well into the morning, he collapsed when we finally stopped. I bent to help him and he had broken his already weak legs. I will never forget what happened next. He looked into my eyes and said: “They’re going to kill me. You have to go on. Stay strong. Don’t let them take you too. ” Being incapable of going on, he was shot by a guard.

I laid him in the grass nearby and took his shirt for warmth and to remember him forever. The only thing I remember about the rest of the march is constantly fighting back emotions. The group stopped at an abandoned factory and the guards just left us there. The building was crumbling and I cowered in a corner and allowed my emotions to show. It was at least a day before I allowed myself to talk with anyone and when I did, it was the men from my bunkhouse that helped me so much. Three days after arriving at the factory, the Red Army showed up.

They took lists of names and started preparing everyone for transport. We had to walk a couple of miles to get to a train station, but after the march, none of us minded that much. We boarded trains and were taken to Poland (“Heger”). We were given a place to sleep and were trained to eat food again. After living on soup that was water with maybe a little meat in it for six years, I could not keep down normal food. For the first month, my food, along with that of the others around me was pureed and, at first, watered down so that we could take in nutrients.

When we were able to eat normally and any injuries had been tended to, we were allowed to leave. Many of the homosexuals fled to countries where they did not have to worry about being punished. I went to Sweden and stayed with some relatives who had moved there to get away from the war. By this point, I was 34 years old and had lost everything. It took me several months before I could bear to look at Josef’s shirt and remember what we had been through. I continue to celebrate his birthday every May and am reminded of our time together constantly. I now live on my own in a house in Sweden and have never loved since.

In the 34 years that have passed since paragraph 175 went into effect, the homosexuals of Germany have been brutally punished and oppressed. I decided to tell my story because I received news a couple months ago that Paragraph 175 had been repealed. I hope that this means that the mistreatment of homosexuals in Germany will stop or significantly decrease. Every day I see Josef’s shirt with its pink triangle and the number D0722 and I am reminded of what a horrible time that was. It is my wish that homosexuals of future generations, or anyone for that matter, never have to experience what Josef, I, and so many others, had to experience.