Exhibit filled with reminders of Nazis’ persecution of gays

Tim Engle | Kansas City Star

The gay scene in Berlin in the 1920s and early ’30s wasn’t as hidden as you might suppose. More than 100 nightclubs catered to gay men and women, including the Eldorado, which sported a banner above its entrance declaring (in German) “It’s OK here!”

Berlin and other major German cities boasted “recognized and recognizable” gay communities, says Stuart Hinds, UMKC Libraries’ director of special collections. During Germany’s Weimar Era of 1919 to 1933, Berlin’s estimated 350,000 gay citizens (among a population of 4 million) found a remarkable degree of acceptance.

But then came the Nazis and their vision of a “master Aryan race,” standards that did not include people whose behavior they considered aberrant.

Throughout the Nazis’ 12-year campaign of terror, starting in 1933, Jews had the biggest targets on their backs and suffered in the greatest numbers. By the end of World War II, an estimated 6 million had perished in the Holocaust.

But, as a traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington makes clear, the Nazis had plenty of hate to go around: Besides Jews, German chancellor Adolf Hitler wanted to rid the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, Poles, the party’s political enemies and Germans with mental and physical disabilities.

And gay men. Sixty years before the Nazis took power, Germany already had an antigay law on the books. Known as Paragraph 175, it criminalized “indecencies between men,” punishable by imprisonment.

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is now on view at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, hugging an expanse of white wall in a hallway accessible to everyone, students in particular. The exhibit (which has been in KC once before) is not, in other words, tucked away in a dark gallery somewhere.

This is not a collection of rare artifacts. The display is made up of about 30 panels filled with text and images, such as the 1925 portrait of two well-dressed men titled “Freundespaar” (Couple) or a 1937 photograph of two men and a woman that turns out to represent two couples: the men (longtime partners) … and the in-the-know woman who married one of them so he could pass as straight.

Other images include Nazi propaganda posters, concentration camp records, newspaper and magazine articles.

“Our interest was in getting (the exhibit) in front of the students,” says Hinds at UMKC. “Because young people, this is completely new to them, in large part.” As well as plenty of adults in general.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Kansas CityMuseum also had a hand in bringing the exhibit here. Karen Dace, UMKC’s deputy chancellor for diversity, access and equity, serves on the chorus’s board as well.

The exhibit, Dace says, offers “a great opportunity for us to talk about the Holocaust, to talk about LGBT persecution and to do it in a way that is educational and culturally significant.”

The spring concert of the gay men’s chorus March 23-24, “Falling in Love Again,” will examine through music “the halcyon days” of gay life in prewar Berlin and the subsequent persecution of gays during the Holocaust.

One point the exhibit makes is that the Nazis didn’t intend to exterminate all homosexuals. Instead, they wanted to change gay behavior through forced “re-education” or, failing that, isolation from the rest of society.

And what evidence did German police require to collar someone as a suspected homosexual? It didn’t take much. A wayward glance could do it.

Over the dozen years the Nazis were in power, German police arrested more than 100,000 men for violating Paragraph 175, according to the exhibit. Of those, about half were sent to prison. An unknown number went to mental institutions.

“Fragmentary records” suggest that between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men ended up in concentration camps, where, like Jews and others, many died from starvation, disease, beatings and murder. Gays in particular suffered vicious physical abuse from SS camp guards. They were also assigned the worst jobs.

Some gay camp prisoners, perhaps hundreds, were castrated to suppress their “degenerate” sex drive. Medical experiments were conducted on others.

In the camps, homosexuals were marked by the pink triangle patches on their prison uniforms. Gay men found themselves on the lowest rung of the camp caste systems, shunned by other prisoners, Hinds notes.

Even in 1945, when hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners were liberated by Allied troops, some gay survivors were re-incarcerated because they hadn’t completed their sentences for violating Paragraph 175, which would remain law in West Germany until 1969. And gays would not be offered reparation payments like other victims of the Nazis.

One of the key lessons from the exhibit is how quickly a vibrant community can be wiped out, Hinds says.

“If you’re not vigilant,” he says, “it’s very easy for something like this to happen again.”