When Dr. Edward Phillips set out to create the first English-language exhibit on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, opening Sunday at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, information proved elusive.
Crucial records had vanished when the Allies bombed the Reich's Central Office to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion in the spring of 1945, Phillips said. While Jews flocked to give testimony after the war, the tens of thousands of gay survivors largely remained silent.
"They couldn't talk openly about the victimization they suffered, because they were still considered criminals," said Phillips of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
"Homosexuals were imprisoned [after World War II] under the exact same law the Nazis used," said UCLA's Dr. Todd Presner, who is organizing events related to the Los Angeles show. "The few survivors I met said it wasn't just a one-time oppression but a continued punishment and embarrassment and deep shame. The case of gays is unique, because their persecution continued after the war."
The exhibition, titled, "The Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals: 1933-1945," joins a growing body of work on gays that is emerging after years of intense focus on Jewish victims, including scholarly books, such as Claudia Schoppmann's "Days of Masquerade," and films, such as the documentary, "Paragraph 175."
Because so little first-person testimony exists, the exhibit tells the story largely through news clippings, magazine illustrations, cartoons and photographs, including police mug shots and a chilling picture of an operating table on which gays were castrated at Sachsenhausen.
There are also drawings by the late Bauhaus-trained painter Richard Grune, who was incarcerated in camps from 1937-1945 and created some of the first artistic images of inmates after the war. A diagram depicts the pink triangle that gays were forced to wear on their camp uniforms.
The exhibit --the first of its kind to tour this country -- dodges the titillating "was Hitler gay" question, because "we look at the victims of the Nazi era, not the perpetrators," according to Phillips.
He added that while the show drew considerable media attention when it debuted in Washington last year, there were a handful of vocal complaints. "They came mostly from Orthodox Jews, who felt a Holocaust museum shouldn't be talking about gays, whom they consider [sinners] under Jewish law," Phillips said.
At the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Director Rachel Jagoda was so concerned about the potential for controversy that she agreed to host the show only after two weeks of informally polling visitors and board members.
"I was worried some people might be offended, because we're dealing with a generation where homosexuality was considered taboo," Jagoda, 29, said. "But the survivors blew me away with how progressive they were. The typical response was, 'I saw them being hurt in camp, and I think it's terrible what they endured.'"
The show began some years ago when officials at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum decided to create exhibitions on lesser-known groups targeted by Hitler, including Jehovah's Witnesses and the handicapped. Phillips started researching the project in 2000 by combing documents unearthed for an unprecedented exhibit at the Gay Museum Berlin. Yet locating artifacts to include in the U.S. show proved so difficult, he said, "we had to search for clues about who had what in the footnotes of historical journals."
The resulting exhibit begins with a description of Paragraph 175, the seldom-enforced 1871 anti-gay law that Hitler broadened to include "simple looking" and "simple touching" between men. Lesbians generally weren't included, because the Reich assumed women were natural wives and mothers.
Photographs depict Nazis ransacking the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin, founded by trailblazing gay Jewish physician Magnus Hirschfeld, several months after Hitler seized power in 1933. Authorities looted the building, before parading Hirschfeld's bust on a pike and hurling it into a bonfire with all his books.
A year later, Hitler ordered the murder of his openly gay storm trooper chief Ernst Roehm, whose private life had been tolerated until he began spouting controversial political views. "That opened the door for German society to identify homosexuality with treasonous behavior," Phillips said.
Nevertheless, the Nazis soon found themselves in a conundrum over the gay issue. "Because they described everything in medical terms, they saw homosexuality as a 'contagion' spread by means of seduction, which was the 'carrier,'" Phillips said. "But because most gays were Aryan, they were racially important to propagate the master race.... [Thus] the Reich distinguished between one-time offenders, who had merely been 'tainted' and could be 'cured,' and 'incorrigible homosexuals,' who were perceived to have a biological flaw."
In 1940, Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler ordered repeat offenders be sent to concentration camps, where he allowed officials to castrate gays, starting in 1942. He also approved a Buchenwald experiment in which physicians injected hormones into prisoners' groins to see at what level homosexuals could be "converted" into heterosexuals.
By the end of the war, 100,000 gays had been arrested, 50,000 imprisoned and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps, where many were assigned to "penalty battalions" and an estimated 60 percent perished. "But I wouldn't say there was a Holocaust against gay men," Presner said. "It was a persecution. The Holocaust is a term I'd reserve exclusively for Jews."
Yet he is quick to point out that while Jews were free to rebuild their lives after the war, a number of homosexual survivors were transferred to German prisons. Because the anti-gay law, as revised by the Nazis, remained on the books, an estimated 50,000 men were eventually incarcerated -- as many as had been imprisoned under Hitler.
Paragraph 175 remained law until 1969. The statute was not entirely abolished until 1994, and victims weren't officially pardoned until last year. Until the recent $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement, gays were systematically barred from receiving survivor's reparations, according to Presner.
At a time when 14 U.S. states retain anti-sodomy laws, Presner believes the exhibit is relevant today. "The equation of homosexuality with degeneracy is still alive and well," he said.
The exhibit opens Sunday, May 18, at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, with a VIP brunch reception at 11 a.m., featuring a performance by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, cabaret music by Jeremy Lawrence and more. Tickets are $100 per person (pay at the door). To attend, leave a message at (323) 761-8170. A free community open house immediately follows at 1 p.m.
Thereafter, 12 events related to the exhibit will include a panel discussion, "Masculinity, Fascism and Homosexual Panic" and screenings of "Paragraph 175" and Rosa von Praunheim's 1999 documentary, "The Einstein of Sex," on Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.
For information, call (323) 761-8170. The museum is located at 6006 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.