The Men with the Pink Triangle: Breaking the Long Silence

German Concentration Camp Chart of Prisoner Markings from the Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo Public Domain.

The word “holocaust” is of Greek origin and means “sacrifice by fire.”  But that is the easy definition.  The Holocaust means many things to many different people.  It is about remembrance of the victims, recognition of the strength of survivors, and acknowledgment of what happens when humans fail to tolerate others’ differences.  In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27, the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to not only to honor the memory of victims, but to educate and raise awareness about genocide worldwide. [1]  While the proportional majority of Holocaust victims were Jews, Nazi policies before and during WWII targeted a wide range of people designated as inferior.  The horrifying breadth of Nazi genocide has lead to many blanket statements such as, “During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma, the disabled, and some of the Slavic peoples.  Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communist, Socialist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.” [2]  So with such a wide range of victim groups, how do we move beyond categories and numbers?

The planners of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were worried about the same thing: “there was concern that the millions of individual deaths that made up the Holocaust would be lost in a story of mass death and overwhelmed by a fascination with the technique of destruction.” [3]  One way to avoid this was the identity-card project, where visitors were given a card identifying them with a victim of the Holocaust.  In Preserving Memory, Edward T. Linenthal brings up how this project served “subtly to extend the boundaries of memory to connect visitors with some oft-overlooked victim groups” such as homosexuals. [4]  Linenthal also mentions that Dr. Klaus Muller, who prepared the identity cards for homosexual victims, had plans for a special exhibit on gay victims for the museum.

Since Linenthal’s book was published in 1995, I wondered what progress had been made since then.  It did not take me long to find a page for the traveling exhibition “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45.” Began in 2003, the exhibition has since travelled coast-to-coast on display at colleges and universities, museums, and community centers.  The exhibition includes reproductions of 250 historic photographs and documents examining “the rationale, means, and impact of the Nazi regime’s attempt to eradicate homosexuality.” [5]  Since I couldn’t experience the exhibit personally, I visited the online exhibition to learn more.

Upon visiting the site I found a substantial amount of content that stood out and provided valuable perspective into the homosexual experience during the Holocaust.  I appreciated the historical context in the write-up and video on Paragraph 175, which was the “legal” means that the Nazis used to suppress homosexuality.  Another section, clearly marked For Teachers, provides identity-cards of homosexuals that faced persecution at the hands of the Nazis.  Unfortunately, the teacher resources expand no further than the cards, including no lesson plans or classroom discussion outlines.  In fact, throughout the whole online exhibition there is a feeling that something is unfinished.  Compared to the meticulous planning and presentation of the live exhibitions at USHMM, this online resource is basically a compilation of links.  It is a nice resource, but not something that “will motivate gays to ‘take responsibility for this part of [their history]’” and break “an unholy tradition of silence.” [6]

My study of Nazi persecution of homosexuals, combined with my reading of Maus by Art Spiegelman, made me wonder if there were any alternative mediums of interpretation of homosexual Holocaust victims.  Spiegelman, a graphic artist, utilizes his craft to help him understand his father and document his family’s past.  While I was unable to find anything quite as “alternative” as Maus, I did come across the trailer for the 2000 award-winning documentary film Paragraph 175, which tells of the story of five of the ten remaining homosexual victims of the Holocaust.  It is very telling that these men’s stories are some of the last “untold” recollections of life in Nazi Germany. A quote from the Baltimore Sun in response to “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” says it well- “[This] new exhibit shows how slow prejudice is to wither, if it ever does.” [7]  The silence surrounding story of homosexuals during the Holocaust seems to be changing.  In coordination with the current LGBTQ movement, this “forgotten” history may gain increased visibility and study in the field of Holocaust scholarship and remembrance.

[1] “International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/focus/ihrd/comment_post.php.

[2] “Introduction to the Holocaust,” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143.

[3] Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 171.

[4] Linenthal, 187.

[5] “Traveling Exhibitions: Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933 1945,” http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/traveling/details/index.php?type=current&content=nazi_persecution_homosexuals.

[6] Linenthal, 188-89.

[7] “Traveling Exhibitions: Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.”

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