Content note: Please be aware that today’s Secret History contains a graphic account of torture and death.
8. Pierre Seel
In 1939, Pierre Seel was the handsome youngest son of a rich Catholic family in the town of Mulhouse, Alsace. He was also member of the ‘zazou' subculture, a group of stylishly-dressed and generally wealthy young people who enjoyed clubbing, 'decadent' jazz music and shocking their elders. At the time, Mulhouse had a small but reasonably active gay scene — and by the age of 16, Seel was already visiting its bars and cruising grounds. At around this time, he also developed a steady relationship with a young man identified as 'Jo' in his autobiography.
What teenage Pierre Seel didn’t realise was that the German officers occupying the city, and the French police who were collaborating with them, had already taken his name as a suspected homosexual — possibly after he reported the theft of his watch while attending a known gay venue in 1939. In 1941, Seel was seized by the Gestapo. He was tortured and raped, then taken to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück concentration camp, outside Strasbourg. While his prison uniform was tagged with a blue bar, meaning ‘Catholic’, Seel later discovered that at this particular camp, the symbol was also used to identify homosexual prisoners. Here’s how he describes the events in his autobiography (from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/seel.asp)
"Stripped of our torn filthy clothing, we were handed camp uniforms: ill-fitting shirts and trousers made of hard linen. I noticed a small, enigmatic blue bar on my shirt and on my cap. It was part of an indecipherable prison code that was known only to our jailers. According to documents I eventually checked ‘blue’ meant ‘Catholic’ or ‘asocial’. In this camp blue also meant homosexuals."
While in the camp, something happened that would haunt Seel for the rest of his life:
"One day the loudspeakers order us to report immediately to the roll-call. Shouts and yells urged us to get there without delay. Surrounded by SS men, we had to form a square and stand at attention, as we did for the morning roll call. The commandant appeared with his entire general staff. I assumed he was going to bludgeon us once again with his blind faith in the Reich, together with a list of orders, insults and threats - emulating the infamous outpourings of his master, Adolf Hitler. But the actual ordeal was worse: an execution. Two SS men brought a young man to the centre of our square. Horrified, I recognized Jo, my loving friend, who was only eighteen years old. I hadn’t previously spotted him in the camp. Had he arrived before or after me? We hadn’t seen each other during the days before I was summoned by the Gestapo.
(I’m going to quibble slightly with the translation here — the original French gives ‘Horrifié, je reconnus Jo, mon tendre ami de dix-huit ans...’, but I think the sense here should really be something closer to ‘boyfriend’ rather than ‘loving friend’.)
"Now I froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their lists, their roundups, their humiliations. And there he was before my powerless eyes, which filled with tears. Unlike me, he had not carried dangerous letters, torn down posters, or signed any statements. And yet he had been caught and was about to die. What had happened? What had the monsters accused him of? Because of my anguish I have completely forgotten the wording of the death sentence.
"The the loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved a tin pail over his head. Next they sicced their ferocious German Shepherds on him: the guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us. His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped. My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror, tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly.
"Since then I sometimes wake up howling in the middle of the night. For fifty years now that scene has kept ceaselessly passing and re-passing through my mind. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love - before my very eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses. Why are they still silent today? Have they all died? It’s true that we were among the youngest in the camp and that a lot of time has gone by. But I suspect that some people prefer to remain silent forever, afraid to stir up memories, like that one among so many others.”
Later that year, in November 1941, Seel was summoned before the commandant of the camp. He expected to be sent to a fate similar to that to which Jo had been condemned — but instead, he was given release papers and drafted into the German army. He was eighteen years old. Seel spent the remainder of the war fighting half-heartedly for the German army, and was on a train from Poland to France when the end of the war was announced in 1945.
Understandably traumatised by his experiences, Seel returned to Mulhouse, where no-one in his family knew the real reason that he had been captured and deported in 1941. He spoke of his experiences in the war to nobody besides his mother (shortly before her death in 1949), and refused to claim the pension to which he was entitled, in case the reason for his deportation was revealed. He married a woman, and the couple moved to Paris and later Tolouse. In the late 1970s, Seel suffered from alcoholism and severe depression. His marriage broke up in 1978, and he spent time in a psychiatric institution.
Before World War II, French law had been remarkably liberal on the issue of homosexuality – it had been decriminalised during the French Revolution (c.1787-99), and France had provided a haven for many queer men from the UK during the nineteenth century. However, this had changed markedly during the Occupation and afterwards. In 1981 the Bishop of Strasbourg, Léon-Arthur Elchinger, made a number of public anti-gay remarks, suggesting that homosexuality should be regarded as a ‘sickness’.
Seel, recovering from his period of illness, decided that it was time to speak out. First he wrote an anonymous open letter to the Bishop, then he began to appear publicly, writing newspaper articles and giving TV appearances to speak about his experiences. He became an active supporter of the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle, an organisation founded to preserve the memory of the LGBT+ victims of the Nazis, and in 1994 he published his autobiography, Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel (I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual). In the early 90s, he also began a relationship with Eric Feliu, who would remain his partner for the final twelve years of his life.
Persecution wasn’t necessarily over for Seel, though – he received death threats and hateful letters after appearing on television. However, by the time of his death in 2005, Seel’s decision to speak out, together with the actions of other survivors and supporters, had changed the way that people in France and beyond thought about the LGBTQ+ victims of the Holocaust. He is now honoured by a street named after him in Toulouse, the Rue Pierre Seel, and in 2010 a partially-fictionalised version of his story was filmed as for L’Arbre et la Forêt (‘Family Tree’ in English).
Pierre Seel had every reason in the world to stay silent about who he was and what he suffered. His decision to speak out instead played a massively important role in changing things for those who came after him, and in helping to make a world where what happened in 1941 will – I hope with every part of me – never be allowed to happen again.
In his own words:
"When I am overcome with rage, I take my hat and coat and defiantly walk the streets. I picture myself strolling through cemeteries that do not exist, the resting places of all the dead who barely ruffle the consciences of the living. And I feel like screaming. When will I succeed in having the overall Nazi deportation of homosexuals recognized? In my apartment house and throughout my neighborhood, many people greet me, politely listen to my news, and inquire about the progress of my case. I’m grateful to them and appreciate their support. But what can I say to them?
"When I have finish wandering, I go home. Then I light the candle that burns permanently in my kitchen when I am alone. That frail flame is my memory of Jo."
Seel’s obituary in the Independent newspaper: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/pierre-seel-518692.html
Profile and short video at LGBT History Month website: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/pierre-seel?tab=biography
Extracts from Moi, Pierre Seel at the Fordham University History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/seel.asp
Amazon link for English-language version of I, Pierre Seel: http://www.amazon.co.uk/I-Pierre-Seel-Deported-Homosexual/dp/0465018483/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352717082&sr=8-1
IMDB page for L’Arbre et la Forêt: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt1345444/plotsummary
Trailer for for L’Arbre et la Forêt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcmqltJ7Gj0
Book review of Moi, Pierre Seel: http://artwednesday.com/2010/12/02/moi-pierre-seel-deporte-homosexuel/
Official blog of the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle (in French) http://deportation-homosexuelle.blogspot.co.uk/
Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Seel
French Wikipedia article: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Seel