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Nazi artifacts reinforce the human cost of political cleansing


As early as the late 1800s, Berlin was a bustling liberal city. It boasted numerous gay clubs and drag bars. Organized gay groups were common. Shows featuring female impersonators had become almost passé.

By 1919, the Institute for Sex Research in Berlin had been founded, which, among other things, provided marriage and sex counseling and called for social acceptance of gays and those who were transgendered.

Prior to the Third Reich, the German city had the world’s largest gay-rights movement. But by 1933, the heyday was over. The Nazi Party moved to rid its country of gay men and, to a lesser degree, lesbians, whom they believed to carry “degeneracy genes.” An estimated 1 million gay men lived in Germany at that time.

Between 1933 and 1945 approximately 100,000 gay men were arrested, half of whom were convicted and imprisoned. An estimated 5,000 to 15,000 gay men were confined in brutal concentration camps because they threatened the country’s “disciplined masculinity” and hindered population growth of the “master Aryan race.” Thousands were murdered.

In addition to the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, an additional 5 million slaughtered were Poles, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, handicapped or Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s not known how many of those killed were gay.

On July 1 the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, in Maitland, opened Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945. The exhibit, featuring more than 250 photographs and documents, aims to show the impact of the regime that devastated countless lives.

“This is one of the aspects of World War II that many people are not aware of,” says Eva Ritt, an administrator at the Holocaust Memorial Center. She says the center’s goal is to highlight groups and people that have been persecuted – Jewish or not.

Ritt notes that the Nazis were meticulous record keepers, easing the burden of determining who was confined because they were believed to be homosexual. Many of the photographs comprise a trio of mug shots, including the profile picture, which was standard at the time of arrest or booking into concentration camps. Treatment was often worse for those viewed as homosexual; at Auschwitz, for example, many of the gays died only months after imprisonment because of the harsh conditions.

Scores of photographs capture concentration-camp prisoners clad in black-striped pants with overalls and the token military-style hats, working as forced laborers in deserted rock quarries.

“The exhibition explores why homosexual behavior was identified as a danger to Nazi society and how the Nazi regime attempted to eliminate it,” wrote exhibition curator Edward Phillips in a press release. “The Nazis believed it was possible to ‘cure’ homosexual behavior through labor and ‘re-education.’ As their efforts to eradicate homosexuality grew more draconian, gay men became subject to castration, institutionalism and deportation to concentration camps.”

Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was unveiled in 2002. It’s the first major exhibition for English-speaking audiences with materials culled from more than 40 agencies in eight countries.

“The overarching idea was that they were doing political hygiene and cleansing. It was an endless spiral to endless purity,” notes Kenneth Hanson, an assistant professor of Judaic studies at the University of Central Florida. “The elements had to be cleansed in the way you get rid of a germ or virus. To them it wasn’t murder.”

Hanson notes that even in his last will and testament, Adolf Hitler vowed to rid the country of “degenerates” such as gays and Jews – even at the expense of losing the war.

Associated events

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Documentary explores the lives of five men caught under the Nazi anti-homosexuality statutes. (7:30 p.m. July 31 at Holocaust center, Maitland; free)

Sexual Politics in Nazi Germany: An Evening With Dr. Geoffrey Giles

Giles, a University of Florida history professor, discusses what led to the incarceration and extermination of German and Austrian gays in concentration camps, the treatment of gays after World War II and the eventual decriminalization of homosexuality.

(7 p.m. Aug. 2 at Jewish Community Center of Greater Orlando, Maitland; free)


Empty Spaces Theatre Co. presents a drama by Martin Sherman, which focuses on two gay men arrested by the Germans and facing death because of their sexual orientation. (Aug. 3-12 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center; times and prices TBA;

Of Ghosts and Glory

Orlando Gay Chorus presents a concert dedicated to the cabaret music of pre-Nazi Europe as well as today’s songs of tolerance. (2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Aug. 19 at JCC, Maitland; $20-$25;
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