Stefan (Teofil) Kosinski’s testimony is the only English-language testimony we have in the Visual History Archive from a homosexual survivor, which is also remarkable for the fact that Stefan is not a native English speaker. A New Year’s baby, Stefan was born on January 1, 1925, in the city of Torún, Poland. His father and mother both had studied German in school and would use it as a secret language to speak with each other in front of the children, which frustrated Stefan. However, while in grammar school, he got an opportunity to work with a German gardener, who provided not only fresh vegetables as compensation but also free German lessons, which Stefan quickly picked up. Unbeknownst to Stefan at the time, his new bilingual advantage will prove more than useful in overhearing his parents, especially when the war comes to his town. Stefan later acquired English when after the war the allied forces provide English courses, allowing him to work as a waiter while he was a displaced person in Germany. With three languages at his service to tell his story, I am fascinated that Stefan Kosinski chose English for his interview.
It was paramount when we started the project of recording testimonies that the survivors determine the language they want to use for their interviews. In some cases, survivors would default to the language they spoke during the war, while others chose the language of their adopted country because they had ended up speaking their new language better than their native tongue. Stefan, on the other hand, returned to his native Poland after the war. Considering, also, that his interviewer was a native German speaker, Stefan’s choice of English stands out. Was it because the interview took place in Los Angeles, California? Perhaps he wanted to ensure that his testimony was recorded in the most-spoken second language in the world? It is interesting to note, too, that the novel based on his life, Damned Strong Love (Verdammt Starke Liebe) was first written in German, though Stefan admits that he prefers the English translation. His broken English is charming, and he shows no hesitation in speaking even when he cannot recall certain English words, but I wonder how much more detail an interview in German or Polish would have revealed. Nevertheless, It is hard to not see his interview as a performance of the very skill that helped him survive the war: his quick study of foreign languages.
His facility with German allowed him to navigate Nazi-occupied Torún (Germanized to Thorn during the war) where Poles were barred from schools and German-owned shops and businesses. He was able to speak enough German without a Polish accent to fool the German shop owners that he was German, too, allowing him to buy certain food items for his mother that were inaccessible to other Polish households. His shattered dream of pursuing his vocal studies at his local Gymnasium got a second chance when he noticed an advert posted at a German theater for auditions for the chorus. He got the job, which also included a night pass that allowed him as a Pole to be out after curfew.
One of those nights, November 4, 1941, after leaving the theater and strolling the streets of Torún, Stefan found himself followed by an Austrian soldier in a German uniform who would turn out to become his first big romance: Willi. Stefan and Willi would spend their evenings together in an abandoned shed away from suspicion, making plans for their future while in each other's arm whispering in German, the language of their first meeting.
Their romance, however, was short-lived, lasting from that fall till April 1942, when Willi received his orders that he was to be shipped to the Eastern front, a fate that Stefan feared would be a fatal one. Willi promised him that he will return and that they will live together in Vienna. He also promises Stefan that he will write to him the first chance he gets. However, several months go by without a letter from Willi, moving Stefan to make the fateful decision to write to Willi himself. Should he put his return address on the envelope, he wondered? He eventually did, and that decision would bring him to the attention of the Gestapo when he least expected it. A few weeks after sending the letter, the Gestapo summoned him to their offices where an official confronted Stefan with his letter. Unable to deny his involvement with a German soldier, Stefan was quickly arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in the penitentiary for violating Paragraph 175 under the German penal code that was now the law of the land in occupied Poland; however, not before being severely beaten during a harrowing two weeks of interrogations as they tried to coerce him into identifying other suspected homosexuals. His refusal to cooperate, for no other reason than he did not recognize anyone in the photos, only prolonged his torture.
Thrown into the general population in prison, he was the only homosexual in the group cell, receiving verbal abuse both from the guards and the other inmates. Yet again, his ability to read and write German came to his aid. All prison correspondence in and out of prison had to be conducted in German for surveillance purposes. Stefan became the official scribe for the other inmates who couldn’t speak German, elevating his status in prison. Eventually he was picked by prison staff to work in the office, which affords him certain benefits that made prison life tolerable, including getting his own cell, but he was inevitably transferred to a series of labor camps in Poland and Germany until the end of the war.
Throughout the war, Stefan tried to find any news of Willi, haunted by the likely possibility that they will never see each other again. At best Willi may have been arrested and sentenced to prison because of Stefan’s incriminating letter. At worst, he may have been executed, which was the prescribed punishment for Nazi soldiers convicted of violating Paragraph 175. Perhaps he had already died on the Russian front before Stefan even sent the letter. He will never know. The mystery of Willi’s fate would haunt Stefan for the rest of his life. His eyes well up with tears, even in 1995 during his testimony, as he recalls his magical time with his Austrian soldier and what was lost when Willi left.
It is hard to explain Stefan’s naivety in writing Willi during such a dangerous time. Was it because he was a 17-year old boy in love for the first time and could not see anything else? Did he not suspect that the Gestapo were systematically monitoring all communication in occupied Poland, especially communications with soldiers? In his testimony he recalls the shock of being confronted with his own letter when he thought he was brought in for another matter altogether; and it must have been a real shock to realize that his secret words were read by other eyes. It must have also been earthshattering to contemplate that his simple heartfelt love letter may have sent Willi to his death.
Like the fate of many gay men who survived the Second World War, Stefan would continue to face discrimination after returning home. In communist Poland, Stefan eventually earned a degree in economics but was never able to advance his career as an economist because of his conviction record and the established fact that he was an openly gay man. He was finally able to get his story out with the help of Lutz van Dijk, who worked with him to write Damned Strong Love. Stefan Kosinski died in November 2003 at the age of 78.
You can view his entire interview online at vhaonline.usc.edu. Registration is free.