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Pierre Seel

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Pierre Seel (August 16, 1923 – November 25, 2005) is the only French person to have testified openly about his experience of deportation during World War II due to his homosexuality.

BiographyEdit

Pierre was the fifth and last son of an affluent Catholic Alsatian family, and he was born at the family castle of Fillate in Haguenau. At the age of eleven, he discovered that his younger sister, Josephine (Fifine to him), was in fact his cousin, adopted by his father when her mother died. His father ran a successful patisserie-confiserie shop on Mulhouse's main street (at 46 rue du Sauvage). His mother, Emma Jeanne, once director of a department store, joined the family business when she married. By his late teens, Pierre Seel was part of the Mulhouse (Alsace) gay and Zazou subcultures. He suspected that his homosexuality was due to the repressive Catholic morals of his family which forbade him to show interest in girls his age in his early teens. He found it difficult to come to terms with and accept his homosexuality, and described himself as short tempered.

In 1939, when he was 16, he was in a public garden (le Square Steinbach) notorious as a "cruising" ground for men. While he was there, his watch was stolen, a gift that his godmother had given to him on his recent communion. Reporting the theft to the police meant that, unknown to him, his name was added to a list of homosexuals held by the police (homosexuality had not been illegal in France since 1792, and was only re-criminalized by the Vichy Regime in 1942).

The German invasion curtailed Seel's hopes of studying textile in Lille. He completed vocational trainings in accounting, decoration and sales and found a sales assistant job at a neighbouring shop.

In Schirmeck-VorbrückEdit

On 3 May 1941, Seel was arrested. He was tortured and raped with a broken wooden ruler. He was then sent to the city jail before being transferred on 13 May 1941 to the Schirmeck-Vorbrück camp, about 30 km west of Strasbourg. His prison uniform was marked with a blue bar (marking Catholic and "a-social" prisoners) rather than the infamous pink triangle which was not in use at Schirmeck. He later noted: "There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste. Other prisoners, even when between themselves, used to target them."

File:Pierre seel3.jpg

"... But I delay from relating what was the worst test for me, when, in fact, it happened in the first few weeks of my being imprisoned in the camp. It contributed more than anything to turning me into this silent and obedient shadow among others.

One day, the loudspeakers ordered us to report immediately to the Appellplatz. Shouts and barks meant that we all quickly got there. Surrounded by SS men, we had to form a square and stand at attention, as we did for morning roll call. The commandant was in attendance 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 instructions, insults and threats -- emulating the famous outpourings of his master, Adolf Hitler. But the actual ordeal was far worse: an execution. Two SS men brought a young man to the centre of the square we were forming. Horrified, I recognized Jo, my sweet 18 year old friend.

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 froze in terror. I had prayed that he would escape their roundups, their lists, their humiliations. And here 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 taken, and he was going to die. The lists were complete indeed. What had happened? What had the monsters accused him of? Because of my pain, I have completely forgotten the content of the death sentence.

Then the loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked. Then they violently shoved a tin pail over his head. They set 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 remained 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 still often wake up howling in the middle of the night. For more than fifty years now, that scene has ceaselessly replayed in my mind's eyes. I will never forget the barbaric murder of my love -- before my eyes, before our eyes, for there were hundreds of witnesses..." (translated from the French by Joachim Neugroschel , Basic Books, 1995, pgs 42-44 ) (augmented and edited by wikieditor from the original French text)

0n 6 November 1941, after months of starvation, ill treatment and forced labour, Pierre Seel was set free with no explanation and made a German citizen. He was sworn to secrecy about his experience by Karl Buck, the commander of the camp. He was made to report daily to the Gestapo offices.

The rest of the warEdit

Between 21 March and 26 September 1942, Pierre Seel was forced to join the RAD (Reichsarbeitsdienst) to receive some military training. First, he was sent to Vienna as an aide-de-camp to a German officer. Then, it was a military airport in Gütersloh near the Dutch-German border.

On 15 October 1942, he was incorporated to the Wehrmacht and become one of the "malgré-nous" (despite ourselves), young men born in Alsace or Lorraine enrolled against their will into the German army who had to fight with their enemies against the people they supported. During the next three years, he criss-crossed Europe without much recollections of events, places and dates. This time he was sent to Yugoslavia. While fighting the local resistance, he and his fellow soldiers burnt isolated villages inhabited by women and children only. One day he found himself in front of a partisan who broke his jaw, as a result of which he soon lost all his teeth. The man did not recover from the ensuing life and death fight. Wounded, he was sent to Berlin in an administrative position.

In Spring 1943, to his bemusement, Seel was sent to Pomerania to a Lebensborn. One of a dozen places in the Reich dreamed up by Himmler and dedicated to breeding the new pure race. Young, healthy couples were encouraged to procreate and give their children to the Reich. He only stayed there a few days.

In Summer 1943, he volunteered to join the Reichsbank and became a teller on trains for soldiers on leave between Belgrade and Salonica. This ended with the attack against Hitler on 20 July 1944, which demanded a strengthening of authority. Seel found himself helping the civilian population in the Berlin underground during a forty days and nights attack by the allies.

While things started to unravel for the Reich, Seel was send to Smolensk on the Russian front. After having allowed the horse of the officer he was serving to run away, Seel was sent to a dangerous and exposed position alone with another Alsatian. The enemy kept on firing at them and soon Seel's companion was killed. He spent three days there, close to madness, believing himself forgotten.

As the German debacle was becoming imminent, his commanding officer invited him to desert with him. Soon after, the officer got killed and Seel found himself alone and decided to surrender to the Soviet troops and started to follow them west. Somewhere in Poland, however, he found himself arrested and threatened to be shot as a part of reprisal execution after the murder of an officer. He saved his life by stepping forward in front of the firing squad and starting to sing the Internationale.

In Poland, Seel parted way from the Russian army and joined a group of concentration camp survivors soon to be brought back to France. The Red Cross soon took over and organised a train convoy. This however did not go west but south, through Odessa and the Black Sea, in terrible sanitary conditions. Seel was still in Poland on 8 May 1945 when the Armistice was declared. In Odessa, as he was put in charge of order in the refugee camp he was in, he contracted malaria. At this time he was also advised to change his name to Celle and hide the fact that he was Alsatian by saying he was from Belfort.

After a long wait in Odessa for a boat to take him, back to France, "Pierre Celle" finally arrived in Paris on 7 August 1945 after a train journey through Europe, via Romania, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Again, Seel found himself requisitioned for an administrative task, in this case, the ticking of the long lists of other refugees being sent home.

On Finally reaching Mulhouse, Pierre Seel realized that he would have to lie about his true story and, like all the others, lie about the reasons of his deportation.

"I was already starting to censor my memories, and I became aware that, in spite of my expectations, in spite of all I had imagined, of the long-awaited joy of returning, the true Liberation, was for other people." Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel, Calmann Levy, 1994, p 110. translated by wikieditor.

After the warEdit

After the end of the war, the De Gaulle government cleaned up the French Penal Code, principally getting rid of the anti-semitic laws. The articles against homosexuality, however, remained and were even strengthened in 1962. It was not until 1981, that homosexuality ceased to be illegal in France.

This meant that for the returning victims, the possibility of telling their story was thwarted by the fear of further stigmatisation and possible legal action. In his book, Seel also notes an increase of homophobic attacks in Mulhouse, after the war. In his family itself, Seel found a negative reaction to his homosexuality. His closest relatives decided to avoid broaching the subject while other members of the extended family made humiliating jokes. His godfather disinherited him.

After starting to work as a stock manager at a fabric warehouse, Seel set up an association to help the local destitute families by giving out food and clothes. He also cared for his aging and ailing mother, with whom he grew close and the only person to whom he related his experience for over thirty years.

For four years, the beginning of what he called the years of shame, Seel led a life of "painful sadness", during which he slowly came to decide that he must renounce his homosexuality. Following in his parents' footsteps, he contacted a dating agency and on 21 August 1950, he civilly married the daughter of a Spanish dissident (the religious marriage took place on 30 September 1950 at Saint-Ouen). He decided not tell his wife about his homosexuality.

Their first child was still-born, but they eventually had two sons (1952 and 1954) and a daughter (1957).

In 1952, for the birth of their second child, they moved near Paris, in the Vallée de Chevreuse, where Seel opened a fabric store which was not successful. He soon had to find work in a larger Parisian textile company. The family got involved with the local Catholic community. Seel found it difficult to relate to his children. He felt remote from his last born while he did not know how to express his love for his two boys without it being misinterpreted.

The 1960s offered little stability to the family with moves to Blois, Orléans, Compiègne, Rouen and back to Compiègne, following Seel's career. This instability put further strains on the his marriage.

In 1968, Pierre Seel found himself trapped for four days in the besieged Sorbonne when he was sent as observer by his local Parents Association. He then went down to Toulouse where he was to check the family's new flat attached to his wife's new job in the administration. There, he was arrested under suspicion of stirring the young demonstrators. The family finally settled in Toulouse.

The next ten years were the start of a slow destruction for Seel. Feelings of inadequacy as a father and husband, shame at his secret, confusion around his sexuality, contributed to he and his wife growing apart. They separated in 1978 as Seel, depressed, was already under tranquillisers. Feeling on the brink of madness, conscious that his attempt at living a "normal" life had all been for nothing, he started to drink and considered becoming homeless, even sleeping rough three times "to test himself".

After one of his sons threatened to never see him again if he didn't stop drinking, he joined a counselling group.

In 1979, as he was working for an insurance company, still trying for reconciliation with his estranged wife, he attended a debate in a local bookshop for the launch of the French edition of the Hans Heger's testimony (The Men with the Pink Triangles which inspired Martin Sherman to write the play Bent). After the event, Seel met with the speakers, who seized the (for them, no longer expected) opportunity to talk to a French survivor. A meeting was organised for the next day which saw the beginning of a rebirth for Seel.

He joined his local branch of David et Jonathan, a gay and lesbian Christian association, which allowed him to tell his story and to meet other people.

On 9 April 1989, he returned to the sites of the Schirmeck and Struthof camps for the first time.

He spent the last 12 years or so of his life with his long-term partner, Eric Feliu, with whom he bred dogs in Toulouse, which helped him to overcome the fear of dogs he had developed after Jo's death.

Pierre Seel died of cancer in Toulouse in November 2005. He is buried in Bram, in the Aude département.

Speaking outEdit

The testimony collected by Jean-Pierre Joecker (director and founder of the gay magazine Masques) was published anonymously in the special edition on the play Bent, in 1981.

In April 1982, following his anger at homophobic declarations and actions by the bishop of Strasbourg, Léon Elchinger, he decided to speak publicly and, taking time for reflection, wrote an open letter to the Bishop on 18 November. He simultaneously circulated the text to his family. The letter was published in Gay Pied hebdo No 47 on 11 December.

At the same time, he decided to start the official process of getting compensation from the State.

In 1994, he published the book "Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel" (I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual). He appeared on National television and in the national press. This and his relentless action supported by a few militants very slowly brought about the late recognition of homosexual deportation in France. Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister at the time, mentioned it on 26 April 2001.

In 2003, Seel finally received official recognition as a victim of the Holocaust by the International Organization for Migration's program for aiding Nazi victims[dead link] .

In April 2005, the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, during the "Journée nationale du souvenir des victimes et des héros de la déportation" (the French equivalent to the Holocaust Memorial Day), said: "In Germany, but also on French territory, men and women whose personal lives were set aside, I am thinking of homosexuals, were hunted, arrested and deported."

Despite, all he had to go through, Pierre Seel still found himself under attack in the 1980s and 1990s, even receiving death threats. After he appeared on French television, he was attacked and beaten by young men (Seel described his surprise at seeing that they were not skinheads but rather bourgeois) shouting anti-gay epithets. Catherine Trautmann, future socialist Culture Minister and then mayor of Strasbourg, once refused to shake his hand during a commemorative ceremony.

When finally learning the truth about his deportation, his wife did not ask for divorce, deciding that separation would suffice. His close family was supportive of his campaign.

Pierre Seel's story also appeared in the film documentary on homosexual deportation, Paragraph 175. Returning to Germany for the first time since the war, he received a five-minute standing ovation at the documentary's premiere at the Berlin film festival.

"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." Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel, final words

On 23 February 2008, the municipality of Toulouse renamed a street in the city in honour of Pierre Seel. The name plaque reads "Rue Pierre Seel - Déporté français pour homosexualité - 1923-2005" [1] [2].

BibliographyEdit

  • Moi, Pierre Seel, déporté homosexuel, Éditions Calmann-Lévy (1994), ISBN 2-7021-2277-9
  • I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual, Basic Books (August 1 1995), ISBN 0-465-04500-6, 208 pp
  • Liberation Was for Others: Memoirs of a Gay Survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, Vol. 2, Joachim Neugroschel (Translator), Da Capo Press (April 1997), ISBN 0-306-80756-4, 576pp
  • Les oubliés de la mémoire, Jean Le Bitoux, Hachette Littératures (24 avril 2002), ISBN 2-01-235625-7, 291pp
  • De Pierre et de Seel, Pierre Seel and Hervé Joseph Lebrun, Create Space (2005), ISBN 1-43-483696-7

See also Edit

External linksEdit

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