Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis
(from the New York Times, June 26, 1995)
Personalizing Nazis' Homosexual Victims
By David W. Dunlap
WASHINGTON--Transformed by homosexuals from a mark of Nazi persecution into an emblem of gay liberation, the pink triangle gained great currency but lost its link to personal experience.
Today, after half a century, the symbol can be associated once again with one man's name, with his voice, his story.
Josef Kohout is the name; prisoner No. 1896, Block 6, at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria, near the Czech border. At the age of 24, he was arrested in Vienna as a homosexual outlaw after the Gestapo obtained a photograph he had inscribed to another young man pledging "eternal love." Liberated six years later by American troops, Mr. Kohout returned to Vienna, where he died in 1994.
Among his personal effects was a fragile strip of cloth, two inches 1ong and less than an inch wide, with the numbers 1 8 9 6 on the right and a pink triangle on the left. It is the only one known to have been worn by a prisoner who can be identified; said Dr. Klaus Muller of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here.
Together with Mr. Kohout's journal and the letters his parents wrote to the camp commander in a fruitless effort to visit him, the badge has been given to the museum by Mr. Kohout's companion.
"I find it very important that the pink triangle is connected with the people who were forced to wear it," said Dr. Muller, the museum's project director for Western Europe.
In its mission, the museum embraces not only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but other groups who were persecuted, like the Gypsies, the disabled, Jehovah's Witnesses and Russian prisoners of war.
It has begun a $1.5 million campaign to locate homosexual survivors and document their experiences, fllowing a suggestion from David B. Mixner, a corporate consultant in Los Angeles who is active in gay causes. The campaign coordinator, Debra S. Eliason, said $350,000 has been pledged so far.
Patrons of the museum are given identification cards of victims to personalize the others vast historical narrative, and of the victims identified in the cards, a handful were homosexuals. On his first visit, Representative Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts, one of three openly gay members of Congress, coincidentally received the card of Willem Arondeus, a homosexual Dutch resistance fighter who was killed in 1943. "For me to get that card was just stunning," Mr. Studds said.
"Of the many places we never existed, certainly the Holocaust was one, in most people's minds," Mr. Studds said. "The supreme triumph in the last generation, in terms of the struggle of gay and lesbian people, is recognition of the simple fact that we exist."
Mr. Kohout is not the only homosexual victim of Nazism whose presence is being felt. Gradually, at the twilight of their lives, a handful of survivors are stepping forward to press gingerly their own claims for recognition, having all but given up hope for restitution.
"The world we hoped for did not transpire," said a declaration signed earlier this year by eight survivors now living in Germany, France, Poland and the Netherlands. They called for the memorializing and documenting of Nazi atrocities against homosexuals and others.
They pleaded for "the moral support of the public."
The signers included Kurt von Ruffin, now 93, a popular actor and opera singer in Berlin during the 1930's who was sent to the Lichten- burg camp in Prettin, and Friedrich- Paul von Groszheim, 89, who was arrested, released, rearrested, tortured, castrated, released, rearrested and imprisoned in the Neuengamme camp at Lubeck.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 homosexuals may have been incarcerated in the camps, Dr. Mulller said, out of approximately 100,000 men who were arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which called for the imprisonment of any "male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male." (The law was silent on lesbianism, although individual instances of persecutions of lesbians have been recorded.)
Perhaps 60 percent of those in the camps died, Dr. Muller said, meaning that even in 1945, there may have been only 4,000 survivors. Today, Dr. Mliller knows of fewer than 15.
Their travails did not end at liberation. They were still officially regarded as criminals, rather than as political prisoners, since Paragraph 175 remained in force in West Germany until 1969. They were denied reparations and the years they spent in the camps were deducted from their pensions. Some survivors were even jailed again.
Old enough to be grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the survivors scarcely courted attention as homosexuals, having learned all too well the perils of notoriety. "It is not easy to tell a story you were forced to hide for 50 years," Dr. Mullers said.
One of the first men to break his silence was the anonymous "Prisoner X. Y.," who furnished a vividly detailed account of life as a homosexual inmate in the 1972 book, "The Men With the Pink Triangle," by Heinz Heger, which was reissued last year by Alyson Publications.
By a coincidence that still astonishes him, Dr. Muller said, Prisoner X. Y.--"the best documented homosexual inmate of a camp"--turned out to be Mr. Kohout.
After his arrest in 1939, Mr. Kohout was taken to the Sachsenhausen camp and served at the Klinker brickworks, which he called "the 'Auschwitz' for homosexuals." Prisoners who were not beaten to death could easily be killed by heavy carts barreling down the steep incline of the clay pits.
In 1940, he was transferred to Flossenbug. On Christmas Eve 1941 inmates were made to sing carols in front at a 30-foot-high Christmas tree on the parade ground. Flanking it were gallows from which eight Russian prisoners had been hanging since morning. "Whenever I hear a carol sung--no matter how beautifully-- I remember the Christmas tree at Flossenburg with its grisly 'decorations,' " he wrote.
Mr. Kohout died in March 1994, at the age of 79. A month later, in an apartment in Vienna, his surviving companion submitted to an interview by Dr. Muller, who had tracked him down through a gay group in Austria and pressed him for more and more information.
As Dr. Muller recalled it, the companion finally said: "If you're so interested in all these details, I have some material in two boxes and, honestly, I didn't have the strength to go through it because I'm still struggling with his death. But if you want to, we could look at these."
The first thing the companion unpacked was Mr. Kohout's pink triangle badge. The Hrst thing Dr. Muller thought was, "This is impossible."
"We had searched for a pink triangle for years," he said, "one that would not only document the Nazi marking system but also could be reconstructed as a part of one individual story."
The triangle itself is still in storage, but part of Mr. Kohout's journal is now on display at the museum. It is the page on which he wrote simply of his liberators' arrival on April 24, 1945: "Amerikaner gekommen."
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