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Museum curator: Unlikely, but not impossible, that pink-triangle survivors remain from World War II

There's been much discussion today about Gad Beck and whether he is the last living gay Holocaust survivor.

Last week, The New York Times and other news agencies reported the death of Rudolf Brazda, believed to be the last surviving person sent to a Nazi concentration camp because of his homosexuality.

Specifically, Brazda was the last known "pink triangle" detainee. (The Nazis imprisoned gay men and forced them to wear pink triangles as the Jews were forced to wear yellow Stars of David.)

During the weekend, Alice Murray, director of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, told Dallas Voice that another gay survivor still lived: Gad Beck, who wrote an autobiography, An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, and was profiled a decade ago in a documentary about gays and the Holocaust, Paragraph 175.

Ten years ago, I interviewed Beck. He told me that the Nazis never sent him to a concentration camp because his mother wasn't Jewish. His Jewish lover, Manfred Lewin, perished in Auschwitz.

From Gerard Koskovich, curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, who wrote to me this morning:

"Gad Beck was one of the gay heroes of the Nazi era, but he was never a pink triangle internee. As his published autobiography clearly states, he was a member of the Jewish underground who survived in Berlin until near the end of the war, when he was briefly interned in a transit camp because he was Jewish. The Nazis didn’t know he was homosexual, and he was not interned for that reason.

Rudolf Brazda was the last known survivor of the 5,000 to 15,000 pink triangle internees—men who were deported to the concentration camps specifically on charges of homosexuality. We should not confuse individuals whose homosexuality was unknown to the Nazis and who were interned for other reasons with those who were specifically targeted for persecution as homosexuals. ...

Gad Beck initially escaped internment even as a Jew, although shifts in the Nazi policy and practice ultimately made him vulnerable in that regard, as well.

As for gay survivors who were interned for other reasons, in addition to Gad Beck and Jerry Rosenstein (a gay Jewish survivor who told his story in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996), I know of at least one more: a man who lives in Florida who was interned as a Jew when he was a young teen; he already knew he was gay, and he recalls being helped by a pink triangle internee who shared his bread ration.

This man contacted me several years ago when I was working with the Pink Triangle Coalition and was advising the International Organization on Migration (IOM) in its unsuccessful effort to locate any surviving pink triangle internees. He has not authorized me to give his name publicly, but you may share the details of the story, if you wish. His story suggests that there may well be other gay survivors of the Holocaust still living.

The final point worth making: Rudolf Brazda was the last known pink triangle internee, but the key word is "known." Brazda did not come forward during the time when the IOM conducted an international media and advertising campaign to locate pink triangle survivors—indeed, no previously unknown survivors declared themselves at that time.

It's unlikely—but not impossible—that there are any further pink triangle survivors, if only for generational and statistical reasons. Of the 5,000 to 15,000 men interned as homosexuals, an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 survived their time in the camps. Most if not all were at least in their 30s at the time of the Liberation, which means any survivors would now be in their mid-90s at the youngest. Given the average lifespan for men of that generation, few would likely still be alive. When we take into account the physical and psychological harm suffered by the pink triangle cohort, the likelihood that significant numbers survived into their 90s declines even more steeply.

I hope that other pink triangle survivors come forward to tell their stories, but I fear that hope is a vain one. That's why it's all the more precious that Rudolf Brazda decided at the age of 93 to recount his memories."

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You state that between 5,000 and 15,000 people were interred in concentration camps for homosexuality - but most experts estimate the figure to be closer to 50,000 gay men (some even estimate up to half a million) and 10,000 gay women (who were not seen as such a threat to the Nazi regime because they could be raped and forced to have children).

The Nazi persecution of homosexuals has given rise to a variety of misunderstandings and folk beliefs not founded in historical research. The above comment reflects thinking of that sort. Yet there’s no reason to exaggerate the harm created by the Nazi persecution of homosexuals; the appalling reality demonstrated by the historical record does not require overstatement.

The statistic of 5,000 to 15,000 men interned as pink triangles is in fact the consensus of historians in the field, reflecting the meticulous research of a team headed by German sociologist Rüdiger Lautmann. That group examined all the available concentration camp records to arrive at the best estimate — and its work has been supported and confirmed by subsequent researchers. A few popular writers have advanced vastly larger numbers, but on the basis of assertion and speculation not supported by the historical archives.

The figure 50,000 mentioned by the commenter is in fact the statistic for convictions under Paragraph 175, the section of the German penal code that outlawed male homosexual acts. Men convicted under Paragraph 175 during the Nazi regime were, however, almost invariably sent to conventional prisons, not to concentration camps. Those seen as "violators of youth" or as repeat offenders were more likely to be sent to a camp, usually at the end of their prison terms (as was the case with Rudolf Brazda, who was twice imprisoned before being deported to a camp).

With regard to the experience of lesbians under the Nazi regime, they were indeed targeted. The persecution took a somewhat different form from that directed at homosexual men because the Nazis — and German society as a whole — regarded women as both less important and less threatening than men. The Nazis shut down lesbian nightclubs, bars, associations and other spaces of public assembly and banned lesbian publications. At the same time, the penal code in most of the Reich (with the exception of Austria) did not outlaw sexual acts between women. Instead, lesbians were more generally constrained by the oppressive measures the Nazis used to limit the conduct of all women.

I have never before seen the statistic of 10,000 lesbians sent to the camps — but it is clearly erroneous or misconstrued. Extensive research by historian Claudia Schoppman and other scholars has documented only a handful of cases of lesbians interned specifically because they were lesbians. (Certainly there were many other lesbians in the camps, but they were interned for unrelated reasons — as Jews, sex workers, common criminals and so on. Similarly, many more than 15,000 men were interned who were homosexual, but whose sexuality was unknown to the Nazis and who were deported for other reasons, as was the case with Gad Beck.)

The Nazi persecution of both homosexual men and lesbian women represented the apogee of the wave of state-sponsored homophobia that swept most Western countries in the mid-20th century. The reliable historical evidence demonstrates its severity and its lasting consequences for both the individuals and the cultures that were targeted. We best honor the memory of those who suffered this persecution by recognizing legitimate historical research and by taking a critical approach to all claims about the subject.

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