Pierre Seel, Imprisoned for Homosexuality by Nazis

Pierre Seel, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II for homosexuality, died last week in Toulouse, France. Filmmaker Rob Epstein interviewed Seel for his film Paragraph 175, a documentary about the Nazis' treatment of gay men during the Holocaust, and discusses Seel's life.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We learned today of the death of Pierre Seel, one of the last known homosexual survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Mr. Seel was 82. He wrote about his experience in his autobiography, "I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror." He was French, born and raised in Alsace, and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 after German forces overran France. He was 17. He was sent to the Schirmeck-Vorbruck prison camp where he was tortured. Later he was forced to join the German army. Pierre Seel was one of five homosexual survivors who told their stories in the documentary film "Paragraph 175." Rob Epstein co-directed that film and joins us to talk about Mr. Seel's life.

And let's explain briefly, first, the title of your film, "Paragraph 175." That refers to a section of the German penal code.

Mr. ROB EPSTEIN (Co-director, "Paragraph 175"): That's right, which actually pre-existed the Nazis, but the Nazis activated an extreme version of Paragraph 175 so people could be arrested for the mere suspicion of being homosexual.

BLOCK: It's under this Paragraph 175 law that Pierre Seel was sent to prison camp. He apparently was on a police list of people presumed to be homosexuals. What did he tell you in your interviews about what he endured there?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Pierre was part of a roundup of a dozen or so young people in the town that he lived in, and he was interned in a camp for six months and subjected to torture and abuse. He never had the opportunity for a defense and there was never a trial.

BLOCK: There's a moment in the film where it becomes clear that this is excruciating for him to talk about, and he has an outburst, directed at your interviewer. Let's listen to a bit of that section.

(Soundbite of "Paragraph 175")

Mr. PIERRE SEEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Now he's saying, `Do you think I can talk about that, that it is good for me? This is too much for my nerves. I can't do this anymore. I am ashamed for humanity. Ashamed.'

Mr. EPSTEIN: What he's responding to is having to tell the story of being raped by a piece of wood, by guards at the prison camp. And he witnessed other atrocities in the camp. He also tells a story of seeing a friend of his getting attacked by German shepherds and that ended in his death.

BLOCK: He was eaten alive.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Right.

BLOCK: What did Pierre Seel tell you about what his life was like after the war when he went back to his family?

Mr. EPSTEIN: Pierre, like so many of the other men who experienced this, never spoke about what happened to him. He was of a generation where homosexuality was a source of shame, and there was nothing to indicate otherwise. The consequence of that is you keep it to yourself and that's what all of those men did at that time. It was not something that they could find support from from their families, so this is really a very singular and isolated experience that they had to endure and live with. He, toward the end of his life, decided it was time for him to speak up.

BLOCK: He did. Before that he did marry. He had three children; got divorced. And then, as you say, does break his silence; writes his autobiography; is interviewed in your film. And you took him with you to the Berlin Film Festival when the film opened there.

Mr. EPSTEIN: We did. The experience of filming Pierre was a very painful one for him, and the resolution for Pierre really came at the Berlin Film Festival. It was a full house, and at the end of the film there was a five-minute standing ovation for Pierre. He gave a very moving speech in which he said that he never imagined that he would ever set foot on German soil again, and here he was. And it was a beautiful statement of reconciliation.

BLOCK: Rob Epstein, thanks very much.

Mr. EPSTEIN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Filmmaker Rob Epstein, talking with us about Pierre Seel. He was one of the last known homosexual survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Mr. Seel died on November 25th at his home in Toulouse, France. He's survived by his partner, Eric Felieu, his ex-wife and three children.

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