Palm Beach Exhibit Explores Nazi Persecution of Gays During Holocaust
More than 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, along with 5 million Poles, Roma (“gypsies”), the mentally and physically handicapped and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But, the Nazis also targeted homosexual men, arresting an estimated 100,000 homosexual men, of whom 50,000 were imprisoned and some 15,000 sent to concentration camps.
A new traveling exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on display in Lake Worth at the Compass Gay and Lesbian Community Center sheds light on the systematic persecution of homosexuals from 1933-1945. The exhibit draws on materials from more than 40 archives and other repositories in eight countries.
The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the more than one million German men who, the state asserted, carried a “degeneracy” that threatened the “disciplined masculinity” of a rapidly militarizing Germany still scathing from the psychological and economic penalties enacted by the allies after World War I, according to Ted Phillips, the exhibit’s curator in Washington.
Forced laborers in the quarry at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The SS-run quarries and brickyards attached to the major concentration camps within the German Reich relied heavily on the manual labor of camp inmates. Homosexual prisoners, usually assigned to the “punishment companies,” were forced to work long hours with few breaks, often on reduced rations. The work claimed many lives, not only from exertion but also in “accidents” caused by sadistic SS guards. Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie, Amsterdam
Not long after Hitler ascended to power, Germany’s homosexual community began to feel the impact.
Under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, male homosexuality was illegal in Nazi Germany. Paragraph 175 drew its origins from an 18th century Prussian law.
“When Germany unified those states in 1871, it became the law of the German Reich,” Phillips said. The law was named Paragraph 175 in 1935 when the Nazis revised it.
Stormtroopers shut down virtually all same-sex bars and clubs and closed public meeting places frequented by gays and lesbians, ending any semblance of public life.
“The exhibition explores why homosexual behavior was identified as a danger to Nazi society and how the Nazi regime attempted to eliminate it,” said Phillips. “The Nazis believed it was possible to ‘cure’ homosexual behavior through labor and ‘re-education.’”
Gay men were subject to castration, institutionalization and deportation to concentration camps. They were easily identified by the pink triangle symbols that became icons of the modern gay rights movement a generation later.
Ironically, in the racist practice of Nazi eugenics, women were valued primarily for their ability to bear children. The state presumed women homosexuals were still capable of reproducing. Lesbians were not systematically persecuted under Nazi rule, but did suffer the loss of their own gathering places and associations.
“There are historic lessons to be learned for sure, but there are present day applications, too. Political currents aimed at denying gays and lesbians employment protections, hate crime legislation, and the denial of equal recognition of marriage illustrate how legislation and law enforcement can be used to forward harmful political and social agendas. It’s difficult to walk away from this (exhibit) and not be moved,” said Tony Plakas, Compass CEO.
The exhibit opened on Dec. 6 with a reception and student program featuring Norman Frajman, a local Holocaust survivor who was in camps with gay prisoners whom he befriended and remains in contact with today. He shared many of his own stories with students touring the exhibition.
A number of special events have been planned to coincide with the exhibit, including several films. On Dec. 13 at 6 p.m., the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival will offer a special screening of Nicky’s Family, as well as a Q&A session with special guests, survivors and family members. The event marks a new, robust collaboration between Compass and the festival. The series will continue on Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. with Paragraph 175, a documentary about the gays sent to German concentration camps. Fewer than 10 are thought to survive today.
Additional educational activities include scholarly lectures and workshops. On Jan. 10 at 7 p.m., Dr. Laurie Marhoefer will present a public lecture on the impact of the Third Reich on lesbians in Germany, and, on Jan. 15 at 4:30 p.m., a special workshop focusing on resources for teaching the LGBT experience will be offered.
Ironically, on Dec. 7, the day after the exhibit opened, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would take up arguments in two groundbreaking marriage equality cases, reinforcing Plakas’ assertion about the timeliness and power of the exhibit.
For more information, www.CompassGLCC.com or 561-533-9699
If you want to go
Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945
Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.,
Saturday 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. through Jan. 25, 2013
Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center of the Palm Beaches
201 N. Dixie Hwy., Lake Worth, Fla. 33460