A visit to the dark side

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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

More than a quarter center later, I rarely think about my day-long tour of Auschwitz in 1992. But a recent stop to see an exhibit at Artlink in downtown Fort Wayne, brought back scenes of the Nazi’s biggest concentration camp in Poland.

The exhibit here highlighted the Nazi’s persecution of homosexuals. The black and white photos and commentary represent but a small part of what you can see at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. What we saw was one of the museum’s traveling exhibits. It was powerful and sad. My wife Toni and I visited the final day it was in town.

As we were leaving, I picked up three of the brochures on display by the door. Each told a different yet tragic story of an innocent victim caught up in the Nazi madness seeking to “purify” the Germanic race of “undesirables.” That included the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, political subversives and, of course, Jews.

Judging from the brochures, many homosexuals managed to survive their unbelievably brutal treatment to the end of the war. Like so many others, they were locked up in inhumane conditions. They were subject to beatings and torture. How could this happen?

Well, in 1937, Friedrich-Paul Von Groszheim was part of a mass arrest of 230 of his city’s homosexual community.

Oddly, many arrested as homosexual were regarded as unfit for military service. Yet many others were drafted. Karl Lange served eight years in prison. Then he was sent to work in a munitions factory.

Robert Odeman attempted to avoid arrest by taking on a “wife,” a lesbian woman. Like many other gays, this strategy sometimes succeeded in preventing a person’s arrest. But a neighbor informed on Robert. He was arrested. Yet this playwright and poet, managed to escape when he was on a forced march. Sadly, after the war, German authorities refused to exonerate him and expunge the Nazi charges against him.

One thing in the exhibit particularly struck me. Before the rise of the Nazis, German cities like Berlin and Hamburg, featured clubs and cafes that catered to homosexuals. These were public places. For its time, Germany was fairly tolerant for gays. Probably more so than this country.

Yet like Jews, gays became a convenient target for the Nazis. You see prejudices don’t always disappear when more liberal attitudes came to the fore. Which brings me to my takeaway lesson from the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals exhibit. It’s simply this. Every person of conscience must speak out against the first sign of injustice toward people because of their race, their ethnic origin or their sexual orientation.

You’d think such an impulse would be part of our DNA as human beings. It’s obviously not. Just ask those remaining Holocaust surviving Jews and homosexuals who spoke up for them.

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