In my generation, being gay was not acceptable. It took me until my mid-forties, after twenty-odd years of marriage, to even admit it to myself. What must it have been like for earlier generations?
I finally accepted that I am what I am. I was born that way. There must be a genetic reason.
As I got older, I began to wonder about where I came from. As I researched my family tree, I also wanted to find out where the gay genes came from. If I were famous, the story would make a great episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
My great-grandfather, John Key, was born in 1875, the third son of nine children. His father was a practical man, a master joiner, who ran his own carpentry business, and the sons were all expected to follow him. John was different. He became a hat maker and was soon ostracised by the family.
John married in 1896 and by 1900 had two daughters, the youngest of whom would grow up to be my grandmother. He then disappeared, without trace, from the record. I remember my grandmother telling me he had died when she was very young. My great-grandmother married again in 1908, and there had been no divorce – she described herself as a widow. It was only when I tracked down an old great aunt that the mystery became fully apparent. She recalled my grandmother’s wedding in 1923. It had been an interesting affair because both of my great-grandmother’s husbands were present. My aunt remembered John as being a tall, effeminate man with long fingers.
Slowly and painstakingly, I began to put the pieces together. It included tracking down family members, researching at the National Archives, and visiting Poland.
In 1900, John had gone to Germany. He built a business there, making and selling hats. There was no record of him having married or having a family. He spent the entirety of WW1 imprisoned in the civilian internment camp at Ruhleben near Berlin. As a German sympathiser, those years would have been very difficult for him. Nevertheless, he remained in Germany after the war and only escaped back to England by the skin of his teeth in 1939 at the outbreak of WW2.
He arrived back in England with nothing. He left his business, his friends, and any family behind in Germany. Still ostracised by most of his English family, he somehow survived, and after the war he travelled widely in West Germany, working as a translator and, I’m certain, looking for someone he never found. The place he had lived before the war was Glogau, now in Poland. At the end of WW2 the Red Army had razed it to the ground, and the civilians were either killed or dispersed. New settlers were brought in from the East to rebuild the city, and it disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
One other thing I discovered was that in 1938, John had been interrogated and imprisoned by the Gestapo. I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been…
The knock on the door came at two thirty in the morning. It was as unexpected as it was anticipated. John had prepared and rehearsed the drill. His stomach tied in a knot of fear, he rolled away from his naked partner, who he had been spooning, and slipped out of the single bed they shared. He moved sure-footedly through the darkness into the second bedroom, where he grabbed a dressing gown to cover his nakedness and messed up the covers on his single bed. The knocking was louder and more insistent. He descended the stairs and opened the door that led into his hat shop. He could make out the outlines of three men through the shop door, illuminated by bright moonlight.
Trembling, he pulled back the bolts and turned the lock. Before he could open the door it swung outwards, and the three large men pushed their way in. They wore no uniforms, just regular dark street clothes, and they carried heavy black batons that threatened physical harm. He had heard plenty of stories about broken kneecaps, smashed teeth, or worse, and he felt his heart begin to race.
Two of the men were young, barely out of their teens, smooth cheeked and rosy, with blond hair and perfect teeth. They pushed past him at a nod from the third and began to search the premises, unconcerned about any damage they were causing. The third man was older and carried an air of authority that bordered on arrogance. He was perhaps in his thirties, firm-jawed with flashing silver eyes in the moonlight. He stood in silence, forcing John into eye contact, repeatedly slapping the baton in his black-gloved hand, seeming to implore John to make him use it.
The two young men had disappeared up the stairs. Time seemed to stand still. John could feel the sweat running down his sides. He badly needed to go to the bathroom. Then the man stopped his rhythmic slapping and smiled.
“So sorry to awaken you, Herr Key, but we have heard some disturbing stories about your little hat shop.” The smile disappeared as quickly as it had come and was replaced by a deep frown. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. “These are difficult times. I fear that you might be in danger if you stay here. We offer you protective custody.” He held out the paper. “Please sign the Schutzhaftbefehl, and I will make sure you are kept safe.” His expression had now taken on more of a leer.
With shaking hands, John somehow managed to scrawl his signature on the bottom of the document. He gave his consent to their “protective custody,” knowing full well that otherwise he’d be threatened and abused until he did. He imagined that being in “protective custody” would mean torture until he confessed. Damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
The foot soldiers returned, dragging a young man dressed in pyjamas with them. One of them spoke. “Nothing to find, sir, except this man asleep in another bedroom.”
“You are Herr Keller?”
The question from the leader was almost rhetorical. The young man in pyjamas nodded. He looked pallid and was shaking.
“You have nothing to fear from the Gestapo tonight, Herr Keller. We need to take your employer into protective custody. I’m sure you’ll be able to continue to run the business in his absence.”
He nodded to his men, and they released their grips on the man and pushed him away. He fell to the floor sobbing.
“One last thing, Herr Keller. Your father was Manfred Keller, was he not?”
The man managed to splutter an affirmative.
“Like our beloved Führer, he was a great German hero in the war. The people here remember that. You would be advised to think on that too.” He turned on his heels and walked out, barking, “Bring him!”
The interrogation cellar was cold and damp. They had forcibly removed his dressing gown, and he sat naked on an uncomfortable metal chair in front of a table. He had lost the feeling in his feet, and the ends of his fingers had turned purple. He barely had control of his bowels. He had already pissed down his legs, the warmth giving him a temporary respite from the clawing cold. There was one electric light in the cellar. It was very bright, and it was shining directly into his face. Somewhere behind it, on the other side of the table, his ‘protector’ was a dark shape he could barely make out.
“Now, Herr Key, we know your secret,” the man said. His voice was sardonic. “Why don’t you tell me about it? I have heard that confession is good for the soul.” He seemed pleased with his little joke and chuckled to himself.
John said nothing.
“Come, come, Herr Key, we have all night and many more nights ahead of us if necessary. You are not a young man. I could give you a nice warm cell, and something to eat. The cold down here is very biting, is it not?”
Still John did not respond. There was silence for a long time.
His interrogator slapped the table, presumably with his baton. The noise echoed round the cellar like a gunshot. The fright gave John an adrenalin rush, he thought that his heart might pound hard enough to leap from his chest, and he finally lost control of his bowels.
“You English disgust me. When the time comes, victory will be easy. I will be back soon. It would be in your best interests to tell me your secret.”
The minions returned and made him stand up while they hosed him and the area down with icy-cold water. They cursed him, spat on him, and treated him no better than a dog. He sat down again, shivering uncontrollably, and waited.
He knew what they wanted him to say. He didn’t so much care for himself. He had lived a long and interesting life. He had found happiness when he least expected it and didn’t deserve it. He would die tonight, willingly, to protect Kurt. His employee, best friend, and lover still had a great deal of his life to live. He would not give him up to the Gestapo no matter what they did to him. By the time his interrogator returned, he was resolved to withstand the pain of torture and die with some dignity still intact.
“The strudel was very good tonight. It goes well with a cup of tea, don’t you think? You English and your tea.” The man laughed. “Why don’t you tell me about your secret, and then you can get warm again and have a cup of tea.”
The offer was so tempting, but even in his heightened state of anxiety he realised it to be unrealistic. Instead, John thought of Kurt, and a warm feeling flowed from his heart to the rest of his body. He finally spoke for the first time. “I have nothing to say. I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“It’s not as if you can hide it from me, Herr Key. You are naked.”
John was confused. How could one tell just by looking that a man was a homosexual?
“What is between your legs, it tells the story.”
John was none the wiser. How could he know? They had been so careful, but someone must have dobbed them in.
“It all fits. You are a foreigner. You are a shopkeeper. Your prices are too high. You take advantage of fine German citizens. Admit it!”
“Please, I don’t know what you mean.”
The command was barked with authority, and John complied without hesitation or thought.
“Look at your cock!”
The fear and the cold had taken their toll. His balls had retracted into his body, and his cock was barely bigger than a prepubescent boy’s. He removed his hands and cowered, shivering, in his interrogator’s gaze.
“It is a pathetic thing. Almost too tiny to worry about.”
There was laughter from the shadows.
“Nevertheless, it is clearly evident that your genitals have been mutilated.”
The realisation suddenly hit him. He laughed and cried at the same time. The relief was incredible. They didn’t know about his homosexuality. He must have been seen naked while changing at the swimming pool, and someone had put two and two together and made five.
“This is no laughing matter, Herr Key.”
“You think I’m Jewish?” He tried to make his voice sound incredulous.
“Well, are you not?”
“No, I’m not.”
The denial must have thrown the interrogator. John knew that most Jews would never deny their faith, even to save their lives.
After a long silence he spoke again.
“Then explain why you are cut?”
“I had to have the operation as a child because my foreskin was too tight and causing me pain.”
“I see. And what religion are you?”
“I was born and brought up a Christian, a Protestant in the Church of England. These days I have no religion.”
“A wise thing. Can you prove your history?”
“The records would be in England, my birth certificate, my baptism record, and my marriage record.”
“Very well, Herr Key, we shall see. Do you have someone in England who can find these records for you?”
“I have a brother I could write to.”
“Then we shall compose a letter, you and I, in the morning. If you are lying, Herr Key, then I have a special reservation for you in Dachau. Take him to the cells, clothe him, and feed him. After all, he is under our protection.”
On receipt of the evidence from his brother in England, John Key was released. It would seem that even ostracising brothers will provide help in certain circumstances.
On his return to England, John survived by selling some chemical technology he had developed to the hatting industry in Stockport.
I feel very close to the great-grandfather I never met. Perhaps my interest and career in chemical engineering came from him. Perhaps my sexuality came from him. Perhaps my love of travel came from him. He was the black sheep of the family, with many secrets still to be uncovered. I was ostracised from my family too. I am the black sheep of my generation.
Incidentally, John’s mother was Mary Gawkrodger. Gawkrodger is a very rare Yorkshire name. Its derivation is ‘caggy-handed’ or ‘clumsy’ Rodger. It is a derogative name for being left-handed. Left-handedness runs in our family, and usually those who are left-handed are also gay. I have not been able to ascertain whether John was left-handed.
John lived to the age of ninety-seven and died in 1971. Even though our lives overlapped by fifteen years, I never met him. That is the thing that makes me most sad. He would have had such a story to tell.
Yes, I have a lot in common with John Key, though I have never been as brave as he was.
© Christopher Jackson-Ash