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Josef Kohout

( January 24, 1915 - March 15, 1994 ) 

Josef was twenty-four years old when he fell in love with Fred. Unfortunately, Fred's father was a Nazi official and had Josef sent to a concentration camp. Josef survived and bravely told his life story in 1972 by publishing a book under the pseudonym Heinz Heger. It was the first to tell the history of the Nazis' gay victims and it inspired queer activists to reclaim the pink triangle as a symbol of activism and pride. 


Read this introductory essay for an overview of the history of the Nazis' persecution of LGBTQ+ people. 

This essay was written by Pink Triangle Legacies Project Intern Grace Shaffer. It is based on Josef Kohout’s memoir as well as Dr. Klaus Mueller’s efforts to secure a donation of Kohout’s important materials to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thank you for your work in preserving queer history. 

Josef Kohout was born in 1915 to a well-off Catholic family in Vienna, Austria. His father worked as a senior civil servant while his mother stayed home to raise Josef and his three older sisters. Josef knew he was gay from the time he was sixteen, and despite his family’s faith, they never treated him differently and loved him all the same. His mother told him,  remember, whatever happens, you are my son and you can always come to me with your problems. 


While studying at university in 1938, he met other young men who felt the same as he did.  It was through this group he met the love of his life, Fred (likely a pseudonym). Their happiness was not to last, however. Fred’s father, a member of the Nazi party, discovered their relationship. In 1939, about one year after the German takeover of Austria, Josef was summoned to the Gestapo headquarters for questioning. Unbeknownst to him, he would not see his family for the next six years.


Upon arrival at the Gestapo building, he was questioned about his relationship with Fred, which Josef claimed was nothing more than a friendship. The Nazi authorities produced as evidence an intercepted love letter that Josef had sent to Fred. After seeing this, Josef signed what amounted to a confession.. Josef was sentenced to six months hard labor under Paragraph 175, the German penal code criminalizing homosexuality between men. Instead of being released at the end of his six month sentence, Josef was transferred to the custody of the SS, which was the organization that ran the concentration camps. Josef believed this was an effort to protect both Fred and Fred’s father’s reputations.


The first camp Josef was sent to was Sachsenhausen. He was brutally beaten upon arrival. Josef was housed in a block made up exclusively of homosexual men, all of whom were forced to wear the dreaded pink triangle badge. He noticed that this triangle was two to three centimeters larger than other triangles, making it easier to spot homosexuals from a distance. Men with the pink triangles were treated with cruelty by both guards and other prisoners. Josef came to realize that there was a clear hierarchy among the camp prisoners and that gay men were at the bottom. He said in his memoir that they were the “damnedest of the damned.”


Eventually, the SS guards conscripted groups of Jews and homosexuals to build a rifle range. To the prisoners’ horror, the guards began shooting at the prisoners building the range, resulting in many deaths. Soon, Josef’s kapo offered him protection in exchange for sex. Josef considered and then agreed, thinking “why shouldn’t I seize this opportunity to save my life, even if it was degrading?” This arrangement helped Josef secure safer work and increased food rations. 

On May 15, 1940, he was suddenly transferred to Flossenbürg, where he was given a new number: 1896. He again established an arrangement with a kapo for food and greater security, thus finding a path toward survival.

In Flossenbürg, Josef witnessed what he initially thought was an SS officer and a well-dressed woman arrive in the camp as prisoners. He came to find out, however, the ‘well-dressed woman’ was in fact a Waffen SS soldier in drag and that the pair had been arrested at the Hamburg Opera. Throughout their time there, they were each kept in solitary confinement, which was meant to conceal the fact that two Nazis were involved in such “indecency.”  


By 1943, Chief of the SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of brothels in concentration camps and required homosexuals to visit as a way to ‘cure’ their condition. Josef was forced to go, but after his first visit, he found himself “shattered” by the experience. Ironically, the torturous practice that was meant to “cure” him ultimately reinforced Josef’s knowledge that he was homosexual. 


Eventually, through his good relationships with both the camp senior and others, Josef was appointed the first and only kapo with a pink triangle. It was during this time he formed a romantic relationship with a fellow homosexual prisoner from Germany. 


By spring 1945, it was clear that the Nazis would lose the war. In an effort to conceal their crimes, they forced concentration camp prisoners on death marches. Josef himself was forced on a march to Dachau but managed to escape alongside a few other Austrian prisoners. After the war, Josef stayed a short time with a sister in Linz, Austria, before making his way back to his mother in Vienna. He learned of his father’s attempts to free him and how this had forced his early retirement. Eventually, the stigma grew to be too much for Josef’s father and he died by suicide in 1942. 


Despite the oppression and violence he had suffered, Josef attempted to return to normalcy and began attending university again. He was plagued by frequent flashbacks and couldn’t complete his studies. Josef found that he and other homosexuals imprisoned by the Nazis were not eligible for the financial compensation offered to other camp survivors since they had been convicted under a law that had existed before the Nazi regime. He deeply felt the burden of this continued stigma, saying that “the progress of humanity had passed us homosexuals by.”


When Josef Kohout’s memoir was published in 1972, homosexuality was still deeply taboo and criminalized in many countries. As such, there were layers of secrecy taken to publish this book. The Men with the Pink Triangle was written in first person, presenting the events as if they had happened to the author, Heinz Heger. However, in the intervening years, it has become clear that Josef told this story to Hanns Neumann, an Austrian journalist, who was also homosexual. Both had to hide their identities beyond the pseudonym Heinz Heger.  


After reading “Heinz Heger’s” book in 1972, gay activists in West Germany decided to reclaim the pink triangle. Whereas it has been forced upon thousands of men like Josef as a dehumanizing badge of shame, this new generation of activists transformed it into a rallying cry of activism to fight for gay rights, pride, and community. It soon spread around the world. 

Josef passed away in 1994 at the age of 79. He was survived by a partner, Wilhelm Kroepfl. Shortly after Josef's death, Dr. Klaus Mueller met with Wilhem in Vienna to help facilitate the donation of Kohout’s personal documents and his pink triangle patch to USHMM. This donation has been immensely helpful to generations of researchers and people as we continue to learn more about the experience of queer individuals during the Holocaust.

Sources & Further Reading

To read Josef Kohout’s full memoir, see Heinz Heger. The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True, Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps. Translated by David Fernbach. Introduction by Klaus Mueller and foreword by Sarah Schulman. Haymarket Books, 2023.


Heger, Heinz Heger. Die Männer mit dem Rosa Winkel: Der Bericht eines Homosexuellen über seine KZ-Haft von 1939-1945. Merlin Verlag, 1972.


Documenting Nazi Persecution of Gays: Josef Kohout/Wilhelm Kroepfl Collection - Curators Corner Video #13, featuring Dr. Klaus Mueller. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. YouTube (Jan. 14, 2013).

W. Jake Newsome, Pink Triangle Legacies: Coming Out in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Cornell University Press, 2022.

More PTL Project Resources on Kohout

Watch the YouTube Video!
Josef Kohout Handout.png
For Citation

Grace Shaffer, "LGBTQ+ Stories from Nazi Germany: Josef Kohout." (2024) 

(Updated January 2024)

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