June 30, 1923– Gad Beck:
“My upbringing was marked by this unobtrusive, never explicitly uttered tolerance. Such a devoted, open, and serene form of Christian-Jewish ecumenism, full of good heartedness, could have forged new directions for European culture if Hitler had not destroyed it all.”
His story would not to be believed if it had been invented. But, it is a true story. Beck was a brave pioneering gay activist and an educator in a profoundly homophobic, repressive post-WW II German society. This Beck is not to be confused with the super-talented, Grammy Award winning musician, my second favorite Scientologist.
The 5’ 3’’ Beck was famous for his witty, vigorous speaking style. Once, on a German talk show, he told the interviewer:
“The Americans in NYC called me a great hero. I said no… I’m really a little hero.”
Beck’s wartime effort to rescue his boyfriend is worthy of a Spielberg film treatment. Beck donned a Hitler Youth uniform that was too large for his tiny frame and entered a deportation center to free his Jewish teenage boyfriend Manfred Lewin. 17-year-old Beck was able to free Lewin from the holding camp in Berlin by bluffing some excuse to a baffled commandant. But Lewin decided he couldn’t abandon his family and he voluntarily returned to the camp. The Nazis would later deport the entire Lewin family to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Beck was born in Berlin to an Austrian Jewish father and a German Christian mother. He was labeled a “mischling”, Yiddish for half-breed, a status that brought him temporary protection from the Nazis.
But, in primary school, Beck was prohibited from standing with his fellow students during the morning salute to Hitler’s government. He was forbidden to stand on the podium at his school after he had won a race because he wasn’t Aryan. Denied a German identity, Beck turned to his Jewishness with such verve that it unsettled his family. He wrote about overhearing his mother complaining to his aunt that just when things were getting worse for the Jews, her son chose to emphasize that stigmatized part of his identity.
As each new anti-Jewish law made everything more terrifying, Beck’s Christian relatives came to the rescue. They helped with food, clothing, paid for his Bar Mitzvah, an uncle even set up a secret bunker for his Jewish relatives to hide. With Kristallnacht, his family began to understand the seriousness of their situation. His Christian side of the family developed a motto: “Don’t let the Jews down!”.
In 1943, when Beck, his sister and father were held for days in Rosenstrabe, an internment camp in Berlin, his mother, aunts and uncles, even one in full German army uniform, joined crowds of other Christians shouting and demanding the return of their families. Even in the face of those awful Nazis with machine guns, they refused to abandon their loved ones. Beck was set free after the street protests, a reprieve that only allowed young people to exit the camp for a few days. He immediately joined the Chug Chaluzi, an underground Zionist youth group.
When Beck learned of the mass exterminations at Auschwitz, he began helping many Jews hide or escape to Switzerland. He became responsible for the vast sums of German currency necessary for the bribes and payola.
His life became like a spy-intrigue film with many incidents of cat and mouse with the Gestapo, and with undercover dealings and disguises used in order to save those under threat of death by the Nazis. He had to be constantly on the move, but Beck managed to have a sex life where and when he could manage. Close to his twin sister Margot, the siblings had spent their childhood years with parents that taught them lessons of love and tolerance. As a young teenager, with his special brand of honesty and openness, he told his parents that he was gay. Surprised, yet supportive, Beck quoted them as saying:
“Oh my God, he’s Jewish and he’s homosexual! Either way, he’ll be persecuted. This cannot end well.”
The sheer number of sexual encounters he had, the willingness of his family to accept his homosexuality, and Beck’s ability to find romance even in a Nazi holding cell is simply astounding. In the midst of discrimination and near debilitating uncertainty, his family somehow remained happy when he seemed happy. Later Beck wrote that his most serious love during those years had an understanding about the depth of the dangers that surrounded their every moment and that their situation “brought out an overpowering feeling of attachment between us”.
As the leader of the illegal resistance group, Beck helped to organize the survival of hundreds of Berlin Jews during the last years of WW II. He was still in his late teens at the time.
In spring 1945, Beck and his boyfriend were ratted out by an informant and they were arrested by the SS. They were liberated from prison by the Russian Army a few months later. His parents and Margot also survived the war. After the liberation of Berlin by the USA and USSR, Beck moved to the newly formed Israel, but he returned to Germany in 1979, where he became active in Gay and Jewish life. He felt that his life in The Resistance had not ended. He took a position as director of the Jewish Adult Education Center Of Berlin, where he taught classes about the Jewish Gay Culture before the war.
“I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life, no matter how dire the straits.”
His fascinating story is told in his highly readable memoir An Underground Life: Memoirs Of A Gay Jew In Nazi Berlin (1999), and immortalized in the documentary film The Story Of Gad Beck (2006), and he is a small part in one of those terrific HBO documentaries, Paragraph 175 (2012) about the persecution of gays by those nasty Nazis. I hate Nazis. Beck was a Gay Hero.
Beck left this world in 2012, just six days from his 89th birthday. He is considered to have been the last gay survivor of the Holocaust. He left behind his partner of 35 years, Julius Laufer.
Speaking about his life as a Gay Jew, Beck stated:
“God doesn’t punish for a life of love.”