Hidden From history - The Gay Holocaust
Unlike most holocaust memorials, the awesome US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC refuses to ignore the Nazi persecution of queers.
On entering Washington's Holocaust Museum, you are offered an identification card of someone who was persecuted under the Nazi regime. Each card gives the holocaust a human face. It contains the victim's photograph, family background, the reason they were arrested, and their eventual fate.
By chance, my card was of a gay man, Karl Gorath, who was arrested in 1938 after being betrayed to the Gestapo by a jealous partner. Imprisoned in Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, he survived only because he had some nursing training and this made him useful to the Nazis.
The Holocaust Museum chronicles what is arguably the darkest moment in human history. Simultaneously fascinating and mind numbing, it is quite unique. As I walked through the maze of horrors clutching Gorath's ID card, what was revealed to me was not just the suffering of nameless millions, but also the personal terror experienced by one particular human being during the Third Reich. Learning about the persecution of Gorath added to the emotional intensity of this remarkable museum and the terrible crimes it documents.
The building itself, designed by James Ingo Freed, is full of allusions to the confines of the concentration camps. The post-modern, neo-classical elegance of the exterior conceals a harsher inner architecture. Entering the huge internal courtyard, visitors are immediately struck by the stark, prison-like feel of its steel girder roofing and brick warehouse facades. This brutish symbolism combines with the often odd angles of the structure to give the museum a frisson of disorientation and disturbance, which aptly reflects the ghastly places and events documented by the museum.
This vaguely menacing atmosphere is sustained in the exhibition areas, with several deliberately-created bottlenecks claustrophobically crowding visitors together as if, we too, are about to be herded onto cattle trucks and taken away to the killing camps.
The museum documents the rise and fall of the Hitler regime through archive film, personal photographs and assorted memorabilia, including a threadbare pink triangle badge worn by a gay concentration camp prisoner. These thousands of exhibits collectively chart the when, who, why and how of the greatest evil the world has ever known.
Reminders of the death machine that was Nazism are displayed throughout the museum with chilling frequency, just like it happened in real life under the Third Reich. We see the personal items the SS stripped from the bodies of their victims before they were taken for "disposal": watches, suitcases, coats, jewellery, shoes, glasses - even teeth and hair!.
Although the story of the Nazi persecution of Jews predominates, the war on homosexuals, gypsies, communists and others is also a part of the holocaust narrative.
The Nazis began their crackdown on gay people within a month of Hitler coming to power. Gay erotica and homosexual rights organisations were banned. Then the headquarters of the German gay movement was ransacked and its books publicly burned. A little later, gay bars were closed down. By late 1934, the mass arrest of homosexuals had begun, and the Gestapo started compiling their infamous 'pink list' of homosexuals to be deported to concentration camps.
They found names by seizing the membership lists of gay clubs and magazines, by confiscating the address books and letters of known homosexuals and, of course, by torturing arrested queers until they named others.
Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 homosexuals were arrested. Because the records are incomplete, we will never know how many ended up in the concentration camps. It must have been many thousands.
In the camps, gay prisoners were treated as the lowest of the low, despised by the SS guards - and by fellow inmates too. They were usually put in the special punishment units and given the heaviest work. Many gay men were literally worked to death by a combination of starvation rations and back-breaking labour.
One of the sadistic tasks assigned to gay internees at Sachsenhausen concentration camp was to test the durability of new synthetic soles. This involved being forced to run 40km a day non-stop, driven onwards by beatings and packs of ferocious dogs. They were made to run until they dropped, according to one witness.
Research by Prof Ruediger Lautmann of the University of Bremen shows that of the non-Jewish camp inmates, homosexuals had the highest death rate (53 percent compared to 40.5 percent for political prisoners and 34.7 percent for Jehovah's Witnesses). Three out of four deaths among gay men occurred within the first year of their internment.
Some homosexuals were systematically murdered. Every day at Buchenwald concentration camp, several of the weaker men never returned from the quarry. They were taken aside and shot. For the "entertainment" of the SS guards, and to fulfil liquidation targets, others were given deliberately impossible tasks. Ordered to carry huge rocks, they inevitably collapsed under the immense weight. These men were then marked down for extermination.
Gay prisoners were also subjected to vile medical experiments. At Buchenwald, Nazi doctors claimed to have developed an artificial male sex hormone that would eradicate homosexuality. When it was implanted in gay inmates, however, two died and the rest showed no change in sexual orientation. The doctors nevertheless boasted to the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, that "this implant, known as 3A, is proven to reverse homosexuality to a normal sex drive". After the war, these medical abuses were never cited at the Nuremburg Trials and none of the Nazi doctors involved was ever prosecuted.
The Nazi crimes against queer humanity must never be forgotten. If we don't remember the gay victims of Nazism, who will? Most monuments, books, films and museums don't even mention the round-up, imprisonment and murder of homosexuals. One of the few exceptions is the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Heart-breaking and enraging, it might move you to tears or spur you to action. Either way, it is simply unforgettable!.
SS CHIEF HEINRICH HIMMLER ON HOMOSEXUALITY
"All homosexuals are cowards; they lie just like Jesuits...The homosexual is a traitor to his own people and must be rooted out".
"This imbalance of two million homosexuals...has upset the sexual balance sheet of Germany, and will result in a catastrophe".
"Like stinging nettles we will rip them out (the homosexuals), throw them on a heap, and burn them...(it is the) extermination of abnormal existence".
"If we continue to have this burden (homosexuality) in Germany...then that is the end of Germany, and the end of the Germanic world".
"We must exterminate these people (homosexuals) root and branch...We can't permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated".
A GAY SURVIVOR SPEAKS
Name: Karl Gorath
Date of birth: 12 December 1912
Place of birth: Bad Zwischenahn, Germany
Year of Arrest: 1938
Internment: Neuengamme & Auschwitz
Liberated: May 1945
Karl Gorath was born in the small town of Bad Zwischenahn in northern Germany. When he was two, his parents moved to the port of Bremerhaven. His father was a sailor and his mother worked as a nurse in a local hospital.
Gorath's training for a nursing career was suddenly interrupted: "I was 26 when my jealous lover denounced me and I was arrested at my house under paragraph 175 of the criminal code, which defined homosexuality as an 'unnatural' act. Though this law had been on the books for years, the Nazis had broadened its scope and used it as grounds to make mass arrests of homosexuals. I was imprisoned at Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, where the '175ers' had to wear a pink triangle ", says Gorath.
"Because I'd had some training as a nurse, I was transferred to work at the prisoner hospital at the Wittenberg sub-camp. One day, a guard ordered me to decrease the bread ration for the patients who were Polish war prisoners, but I refused, telling him it was inhuman to treat the Poles in this way. As punishment, I was sent to Auschwitz, and this time, rather than being marked as a '175er', I wore the red triangle of a political prisoner. At Auschwitz, I had a lover who was Polish; his name was Zbigniew".
Gorath was one of the lucky ones. Being reclassified as a political prisoner spared him much of the brutality that was often inflicted on inmates marked with the pink triangle.
In May 1945, Gorath was finally freed when the Allies liberated Auschwitz. However, when his past conviction under paragraph 175 became known, he was ostracised and found great difficulty getting a job. Gorath had survived the holocaust but remained a marked man.
THE MARK OF THE ARSE-FUCKER
"I want men as SA leaders, not ridiculous monkeys". With these words, Adolf Hitler ordered the purging of all homosexuals from Nazi organisations on 1 July 1934. What followed was a rapid escalation in the arrest, torture, imprisonment and murder of gay people.
The film We Were Marked With A Big 'A' tells the story of the gay holocaust through the experiences of three gay survivors, Kurt von Ruffin, Paul Gerhard Vogel and Friedrich-Paul von Groszheim. It is being shown in Britain for the first time on Sunday, 2 November, as part of Queer Remembrance Day. After the memorial ceremony and wreath-laying at the Cenotaph at, OutRage! is to premiere the film at Freedom Bar .
As we hear in this film, before the pink triangle there was the big "A". Embarrassed by the crudity of its meaning, Kurt von Ruffin confides off-camera that the "A" stood for arschficker (arse-fucker). This was the identifying label that many gay men in the concentration camps were forced to wear before the more elaborate system of triangle identification was introduced.
Von Ruffin was a famous 1930s Berlin actor and opera star. He was arrested after being named by another gay man who was tortured by the Nazis. Taken to Gestapo headquarters, he remembers hearing shooting in the courtyard and feared that death by firing squad would be his fate too.
Von Ruffin was "lucky". He was sent to Lichtenburg concentration camp instead. Hundreds of gays were incarcerated there. Von Ruffin remembers how SS guards touched up prisoners and then beat those who got sexually aroused. He recalls how six prisoners escaped but were recaptured and bashed to death: "(They were) tied to tables. We had to watch...You learned to turn off your emotions...otherwise you couldn't survive", says von Ruffin.
After nine months in Lichtenburg, von Ruffin was released thanks to the intervention of the prominent theatre director, Heinz Hilpert. Then, at great personal risk, his lawyers organised the destruction of his Gestapo file.
By keeping out of the limelight for the rest of the war, von Ruffin never again came to the attention of the SS. His theatre career was finished, but at least he survived to tell the tale.
Others paid an even greater price for survival. Friedrich-Paul von Groszheim was one of more than 230 gay men arrested during dawn raids in Lubeck in 1937. He was dragged from his bed "on suspicion" of being gay. Under the Nazi regime, there didn't have to be any proof. Gossip and rumour was enough and the Gestapo was a law unto itself.
"They beat us to a pulp", he recalls. "I couldn't lie down...my whole back (was) bloody". It was unbearable. "You were beaten until you finally named names", says von Groszheim. Despite freezing winter weather, he was held in a cell with no coat and very little food. Without toilet facilities, he had to piss and shit in the corner of his cell.
Von Groszheim was eventually offered the "alternative" of castration or Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He "chose" castration. Terrible as it may seem, it was a decision that probably saved his life.
After serving a five year prison sentence for refusing to be a Hitler Youth flag-bearer, Paul Gerhard Vogel was re-arrested on charges of homosexuality. Sentenced to seven years in Emsland penal camp, he was made to work up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week.
"For half a year, I was kept bent over", he says. "My hands were tied to my ankles". Unable to go to the toilet, he had to piss and shit in his pants. Sometimes he was forced to lick his meals off the urine and excrement soaked floor.
Vogel says that several of the camp guards were sexual sadists. One used to pick out young prisoners and fuck them like a "riding horse". Although not sexually abused himself, Vogel was subjected to repeated violent assaults from homophobic prisoners.
Later, as the war intensified, Vogel was transferred out of Emsland. Together with hundreds of other prisoners, he was shipped to Nazi-occupied Norway as a slave labourer. Many died on the voyage. In Norway, Vogel was set to work clearing snow from roads in the far north. Despite sub-zero temperatures, he was forced to work barefoot in the snow. Even with newspapers stuffed inside his clothes for insulation, he barely survived the blizzard conditions.
Vogel's suffering is not yet over. He has been refused compensation by the German government, following a court ruling in 1957 that gay prisoners were "common criminals" who were legitimately imprisoned. This also affects his pension. While the work of Vogel's SS tormentors is counted towards their pension, the years he spent in the camps are docked from his entitlement.
Thud, 30 October 1997
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