I fled Frankfurt am Main on February 27, 1933, the day the Reichstag went up in flames. I was fortunate. My father, however, a physician, a veteran, a Socialist and a Jew, had been arrested several weeks earlier. Because a few of his patients, though nominally members of the Nazi party, intervened in his behalf- this was possible during the early years of the Third Reich- he came home after only one month of imprisonment. He insisted I leave Germany as quickly as possible for Basel, Switzerland, and enrol at the university there. After encountering many obstacles, I succeeded in obtaining a passport, an object that had suddenly acquired enormous value. I gathered a few belongings and some luggage, and rushed to the Frankfurt railroad station to take the earliest train the Switzerland.

Only years later did I realize how lucky I had been. Although the anti-Jewish and the anti-gay laws became officially part of the Nazi onslaught of terror in 1934-35, the crusade against various minorities had really begun long before. Brown shirted gangs of trigger –and hammer-happy youths, in an outbreak of “spontaneous” national outrage, had vandalized Jewish stores or thrashed the patrons of the few timid gay bars in Frankfurt. By June 1933, a few Swiss newspapers had reported with near incredulity that Hitler’s threats in Mein Kampf to expunge his enemies had not been empty posturing – that Jews, Social Democrats, Catholics, and labour leaders had been arrested or murdered; that, in short, a revolution was rocking Germany to its already shaky foundations. The Swiss never alluded to the Nazis’ anti-gay crusade –in part because this movement began only in full in June 1935, but also because in the 1930s no self-respecting publication would dare to discuss such a delicate subject. To what length the Nazi regime was prepared to carry the war against “non-Aryans” no Swiss newspaper could foresee. Yet another agency concerned with the public good, the Swiss Foreign ministry in Berne, did exhibit a knack for anticipating Hitler’s moves.

A few weeks after my arrival in Basel, I had gone to the university, a sixteenth-century fortress overlooking the Rhine, to register as a graduate student in history and literature. About six months later the Foreign Ministry struck, ruling that foreign students could not attend classes in Switzerland unless they had been in the country for a certain length of time and had been given a provisional permit of residence. Fortunately, because I had registered in February, I was safe. By the time I was ready for my first class at the fortress, I had found a place to stay in the eccentric household of Gabrielle Gundermann, a very unmarried old lady, tiny and vivacious, a former coloratura soprano and telephone company employee. She insisted I call her “Miss Gaby”. I tried to settle down to the life of a financially insecure alien student. Like other fugitive German students I met, I had few forebodings of what was going to happen in Germany, though I harboured a profound worry. I spent some nights sleepless with anxiety. Certain events in Germany gradually made the situation clearer. The Frankfurter Zeitung, for example, one of the better liberal German dailies, not only acquired a new editorial staff, but its tone began to change markedly. Jewish names disappeared from the masthead. The paper now seemed to speak in code. In contrast, the small local liberal daily, the Basler Nationalzeitung, began to print more and more news about Germany, most of it shocking. Throughout the Nazi years the paper resisted the pressure put on it by German interests and compliant Swiss officials to change its anti-Nazi bias. Meanwhile, my father kept writing guarded letters to me. But he did not mention that one day the SS had put a uniformed guard in front of every Jewish physician. This I heard about late one night on Basel radio.

I had left friends behind in Frankfurt. Ferdi Strom, an old classmate, had shared my brief tenure in one of the youth groups known as the Rovers. The leader of such a group usually expected the members, as his disciples to be loyal if not devoted. Soon I had discovered that a Rover leader had his favourites. Whether this went beyond arm-on-the-shoulder familiarity I could not tell then. In such brotherhoods a few adolescents had a little affairs, misty and romantic sessions around a blazing fire in the dark of the forest. Other boys, more down to earth, talked openly about “going with friends” and enjoying it. The leaders of these groups tended to disregard the relationships blossoming around them –unless they participated- just as they paid scant attention to the ideological debates that regularly erupted while we sat and talked around the campfire. I left the Rovers, a vaguely romantic association of mostly middle class Protestant and Catholic teenagers, and a similar Zionist brotherhood when, as an older teenager, I fell in love with the cinema. From Ferdi’s letters I learned what happened to the youth groups. After 1933 the Nazi’s forcibly dissolved all independent youth organisations, even the Catholic ones, hurled accusations of “homosexual degeneracy” against their leaders, and embarked on a campaign to enforce strictly heterosexual behaviour.

By this time Ferdi, too, had left the Rovers. He also quit school. It was Ferdi who had explained and demonstrated the mysteries of sex to me and my friends. He was basically a street kid, tough, truculent, and wise. But he did not hold it against me that he had menial job at a pharmacy while I went to university. I had not kept in touch when he joined the Communist Youth League. On the night in 1933 when Hitler was inaugurated as chancellor, Ferdi phoned me very late, and his curses sounded drunk. A few weeks before my journey to Switzerland, I had gone to the pharmacy where Ferdi worked, and where I often picked up medicine for my father. I was shocked to see Ferdi wearing a brown shirt with a red, white, and black swastika armband, and I yelled at him. To Ferdi the brown uniform meant only that he could get a better job. He urged me to “get away from this mess,” and it was he who provided the useful channels for obtaining that indispensable passport. He never wavered. After I had settled in Basel het started sending me unsigned postcards with badly spelled messages that I could not always decipher, though mostly they concerned acquaintances who had disappeared or had been taken to jail.

From the summer of 1935 on, Ferdi’s betrayed their meanings more clearly. Hans K, had “gone on a long vacation,” and someone nicknamed Veeidt had been “transferred to Berlin.” I did not know then about the new antigay legislation that had been introduced. Soon I began bombarding my father with letters urging him to leave Germany, even if it meant abandoning his patients and his valuable library.

He did not listen to my pleas. My mother had died earlier of cancer; my sister, a musician, had found refuge in Holland- for a while. During my first term at Basel I had looked up distant relatives who lent support in many ways. For my part, I tutored reluctant children in German and Latin and wrote short articles on books and films (under a pseudonym) for the Basler Nationalzeitung. By this time the entire world had heard about the 1935 Nuremburg laws concerning “racial purity,” and about the confiscation of “non-Aryan” properties and the edicts that made Jews into nonpersons. Yet the impact of the state action against gays did not really hit me until much later. Had I looked through the pages of the easily available Volkischer Beobachter, I might have encountered the various announcements of the Fuhrer’s measures to cleanse the brave new Germany of criminal sexual deviants. But neither I nor anyone I knew took the trouble to study the Volkischer Beobachter because its headlines trumpeted a political ideology that I refused to take seriously even in 1935.

One day, in an envelope without a return address, I received a letter from another friend in Frankfurt, Eric Langer. Eric had been my main ally in my school years, and my one true friend. His father had also been a physician, practising in the nearby village of Cronberg. During World War I, both of our fathers had worked in a hospital near Krakow, Poland. Toward the war’s end both were wounded; my father recovered from a splintered kneecap, but Dr Langer died of an infection shortly before the armistice. Hilda Langer, his wife, managed to keep the family going in Cronberg. Small, with dark eyes that seemed to give more compassion than they accepted, Hilda was always in repose; she resembled a Durer woodcut without the harshness that those prints often convey. My parents did whatever they could for her. Eric, a half-year older than I, spent as much time at our house on Reuterweg in Frankfurt as I did at his farm in Cronberg. We attended the same school and considered ourselves cousins. The farm was my haven from the busy Frankfurt house and office where my father practiced, and I did not mind the exercises that Eric insisted I must do to get stronger and overcome my stuttering. I sense now that Hilda secretly furthered the friendship between Eric and me. She was aware that I cared more for him than I could admit. Until I reached puberty I was a loner, and I stuttered with a vengeance. Whenever tension attacked me from within, the words left my mouth crippled, and I expected, and probably invited, my peers to make fun of me. But from early on, Eric never giggled; he tried to persuade me that I was silly to worry about my handicap. In high school, the venerable Goethe Gymnasium, I was nicknamed the Stick because I was undernourished and a poor athlete. Eric’s unruly blond hair earned him the nickname of Lion. I was dimly aware that Eric restrained his urge to protect and dominate me. Essentially, we had liked and understood each other from the day we first met at the Cronberg farm.
At school, Eric excelled in all subjects. I faltered in some –math, physics, chemistry- while in others I had no trouble –history, Greek, Latin. Somehow we managed to keep the class bullies at a distance, and, not surprisingly, developed an aversion to the conservative patriotic clubs that the school promoted among the pupils, in opposition to the supposedly liberal ideas of the post- World War I Weimar democracy. As it was, few of these ideas ever threatened the stuffiness of our institution. Eric was never fooled by false prophets or hyperbolic sloganeers of any denomination. Ge did not feel comfortable with the Rovers and soon quit. I meandered first to a Zionist brotherhood and then devoted most of my time to the film club. And although we talked for hours about sexual riddles, we never crossed a certain unspoken barrier; Eric could not abide Ferdi and his insatiable sexual pursuits. Eric was not in Frankfurt when my world collapsed in January 1933. During a visit to his mother’s family in Holland he had fallen seriously ill, and returned to Frankfurt only after I had escaped to Basel. Later I discovered that all his notes mailed to me before I finally settled at Miss Gaby’s had gone astray.

Before I come to what has happened to some of our acquaintances, here is some news not published by anybody in Frankfurt. Have you heard about the Roehm murders? With that it started, the rounding up, the closing of the bars, and so on. No place is open here in Frankfurt. In return we are blessed with new sex laws. Our old buddy Harold said they can get you if you smile at another boy. This he told me before he went underground – I have no idea where he is. If he is alive. Remember the G.G. brothers? Arrested a week ago, put into Preungesheim jail. Remember Max? Supposedly in Dachau, near Munich. What little contact I had with Ferdi is lost but I’m afraid his SA uniform is no protection with Roehm gone. A few he seduced on his endless expeditions would rat on him quickly. Richard, you could never guess how many told on their former friends when they were thrown in jail and “re-educated” by the bullies. Kurt, the pharmacist, near your house, was dragged out of bed at 5:00 AM. They found his address book – the fool didn’t burn it or throw it in the river. What happened at headquarters I can only guess – I haven’t seen him and don’t have the nerve to ask his mother. Oh, yes, you remember Bert? You will not believe it, he joined the SS gang, displays his elegant penmanship in their main office, and looks the other way when he spots me. By the way, my mother told me to assure you that your father still has a practice but is preparing to leave. She sees him twice a week, at least. Now don’t worry about me. I’m going to enlist in the navy. Yes, I know, I should stay with you in Basel and perhaps latter we could get away from all this, far away, to Australia, Canada, or California. Mother wants me to, but how can I leave her?

There followed some stern warnings. Under no circumstances should I consider visiting Frankfurt. For once, Eric insisted, I should think ahead without worrying. But my situation in Basel was shaky too. The Swiss authorities in Berne were not friendly to émigré students. Not only were they not friendly- they wanted us out and they absolutely did not care to have new ones. By some bureaucratic passport trick, Eric had heard, the Swiss could prevent Germans from entering as “tourists.” Didn’t I have family in the United States? I should start communicating seriously with them. What bothered Eric most was that I would not be able to reach him after he began his naval training. He suspected that all mail would be censored. He promised to send anonymous cards whenever he found a chance. I could mail unsigned messages to his mother, and when- not if – I reached America, I must give an address. He would telephone her regularly; they had already worked out a private code.

For a while Eric sent noncommittal postcards from northern German cities, but beyond the fact that he had joined a mobile naval training unit, they revealed little. I could not call Hilda in Cronbrg. The journalists on the Basel Nationalzeitung reported that people in Germany had been summoned to Gestapo headquarters because they had received calls from outside the Third Reich. When I finally left for New York, I was cut off altogether from Eric and his mother. In an important way it was the memory of Eric that kept urging me on, decades later, to search out that rather little known area of the swastika tyranny, the hounding and slaughter of homosexuals under the Third Reich.

At the end of the last letter I received in the packet, Eric indicated that one of our classmates, someone he identified only by the nickname Loko Buff, would visit me in Basel. Could I put him up? As it happened, Loko Buff, whose real name was Robbi Becker, showed up in the winter of 1936. Miss Gaby rang my bell, shouting that there was someone waiting for me. When I got downstairs, I did not recognise Robbi and couldn’t muster a welcoming smile. Apparently he had lost so much weight that his face had shrivelled. His blond hair had been clipped convict-style. As he climbed the narrow stairs, he appeared old and numb. Miss Gaby knew this visitor could not pay much – he carried only a small leather overnight bag- but she let him have one of the tiny attic rooms and did not ask him to sign the register, as was required by law.

But first we went to my room. When I finally settled Robbi into my best chair – faded red plush from Miss Gundermann’s colouratura days- he began to talk, but at first only of how he managed to slip into Switzerland. His father, the chief of the German Locomotive Workers’ Union, had mobilized some members who worked and lived in Lorrach, the German village facing the Swiss border near Basel. Somehow they had managed to sneak Robbi across the border, and from there he had simply taken a streetcar to my neighbourhood. Exhausted, Robbi fell silent and I decided to take him up to his room, so he could gather himself.

Only after he had been with me for a few days and had made friends with Miss Gaby, who even persuaded him to take some specially prepared food, did Robbi finally tell me what had happened to him. In September 1935 he was arrested and jailed together with his father. At first the Gestapo authorities tried to make him testify that his father had printed anti-Hitler leaflets. Later, when they added charges of “homosexual indecencies,” Robbi suspected that somebody had denounced him. He was sure the police had used the charge of “deviant sexual actions” to obtain further proofs against his father, a staunch Social Democrat. Although Robbi’s alleged sexual sins had taken place before the 1935 injunctions against homosexual activities were issued, this did not make him less guilty; when it suited them, the Nazi legalists declared their laws to be retroactive. Robbi was never allowed to comfort his partner in crime, or to have legal counsel.
After Robbi had spent a few weeks in Preungesheim jail, a high-ranking SS officer in the Frankfurt power structure bribed some lower SS officers and Robbi was dismissed with a stern command never to talk about his stay. Immediately he had someone gather a few of his clothes from home. Every second night he slept in a different place; he never visited his family again. And then, reluctantly, he showed me all the still-visible bruises and burns on his body. Because he would not rat on someone else, a guard had rammed an iron bar into his rectum, damaging his sphincter. Robbi could have saved himself much trouble if he had asked for medical help earlier. But he would not go to a Basel hospital – officials might ask for papers he did not have.
Fortunately, among the Swiss students I had met, there was one who was close to completing his medical finals. From the day I encountered Justus, he had always shown great concern for us foreigners, and I confided in him. Justus promised to look for a surgeon who would not ask questions, and a place where he could operate undisturbed. It was, he added, tougher than getting an abortion. While Justus and his friend worked out the arrangements, Robbi and I talked about what could be done. One of his father’s brothers had emigrated to Sao Paulo and Robbi knew the address by heart- he had had enough sense to get rid of his address book well before he was arrested. After long weeks of waiting, we received a reply from Sao Paulo. The Brazilian uncle wondered why his nephew wished to leave a newly liberated and strong Germany, but nevertheless promised to help.

Justus also came through with a classmate willing to operate and a safe operating room. How they overcame paperwork and avoided keeping records, I do not know. The operation went well, and Robbi recuperated under the care of Miss Gaby, who had grown fond of him, although she never asked the nature of his surgery. Justus next enlisted the aid of another Swiss student, who was going to Frankfurt. After making sure the apartment was not being watched, he visited Robbi’s mother to collect some clothes and, above all, those papers precious to bureaucrats worldwide. He also learned that Robbi’s father was still in jail. As Robbi recovered and lost his air of depression, I heard from him too the details of the Roehm massacre, the new anti-gay rulings, and the subsequent persecution. The Sao Paulo uncle finally mailed the steamship ticket plus some spending money. We waited weeks for the Brazilian consul in Zurich to grant a visitor’s visa. Finally, all was set. Robbi left for Genoa to board an Italian freighter bound for South America. Miss Gaby cried during those last days of preparations, sure that the steamer would sink- and besides, who ever heard of anyone going to such a place as Brazil?

Those four rooms in Miss Gaby’s attic were rarely left empty. Again and again, Jewish, Catholic, gay, and generally anti-Nazi friends and friends of friends would stay there for a while until they could refuge elsewhere. The wealthier ones, or those with sure contacts in Canada, America, Australia, or South America, usually succeeded in obtaining visas – though these were often dubious. In the larger Swiss cities and in France, a black market in passports and visas began to develop, so that, for instance, a Jewish businessman from Frankfurt might find himself traveling to Santo Domingo with a Panamanian passport. Or a gay opera singer with a Paraguayan passport might book a berth on an English steamer bound for Shanghai. To manage all this, to dominate this theatre of the absurd and the blackly comic, demanded patience and a certain grit and toughness not granted to everyone. The Swiss authorities would frequently not permit the refugee to stay longer than three weeks, but it usually took at least six months to negotiate the necessary papers. To my recurring dismay and horror, many friends had no choice but to return to Germany. From there, few managed to keep in touch or survive – I simply lost them.

After Robbi had reached Sao Paulo, I received a few letters from him, but we lost contact when I emigrated to America. Fortunately, I took notes during our talks and remembered well what he wrote in his letters- my first interview, as it were with a gay survivor.