Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pink Triangles at Dachau

It's a little off topic, but I've been wanting to write about my recent visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp, just outside of Munich. I've been thinking a lot about this place both overall and in regards to those who were there branded with pink triangles for being "foreign to the community" and "degenerate".

The Nazi regime is still so much a part of our collective consciousness, with references cropping up everywhere from "Ender's Game" to daily New York Times articles to psychology 101 courses. So I wondered if I would feel desensitized when I visited the Nazi concentration camp that all others were modeled off of, the camp that was open the longest (12 years), the camp where they crammed 400+ plus people in barracks made for 50 and had the prisoners build a new building of ovens because the old ones weren't cutting it with the high volume of cremations. "Work will make you free," read the iron gate where prisoners entered (below).
Being there physically was emotional, disturbing and intense. The guide takes you through the prisoner's path, entering from the railroad tracks, through the gate, with survivors' and liberators' words to listen to as you stand where they stood. The torture and psychological abuse began as soon as the prisoners were awake and made to stand still at roll call for an hour minimum, longer if the guards had a point to make. (It doesn't seem so horrible until you try to stand still for 10 minutes in the same place or until you think about how undernourished and overworked they were, to the extent that using energy to stand for even short periods of time could be a challenge.) I appreciated that the exhibits told personal stories, treating the people there not like animals slaughtered but as people with families, lives and unbelievably arbitrary reasons for being there. Immigrants, jews, homosexuals, political prisoners, and "anti-socials" all had their color to wear.
One part of the exhibit read, "between 1937 and 1939, over 170 homosexuals or people denounced as homosexuals were sent to Dachau. By the end of the war, the total was at least 600. Homosexuals...were especially harassed by the SS." (The Schwules Museum ["schwules" means gay in German] notes that in 1935, homosexuals made up a quarter of all those held in "protective custody" in jails and concentration camps. 25%!!!) The Dachau exhibit explained that gay men were further harassed by fellow prisoners, suffering doubly for their identity (photo below from the Schwules Museum of one of the many sentenced for being gay).
It was heart-wrenching. But what cut still deeper was some of the details surrounding one of the major Dachau memorial sculptures. The memorial site was developed in the mid-60s, unearthing the concentration camp which had been hidden from view with piles of dirt, all of the barracks demolished. Memorial sculptures were commissioned, including the one in the first photo and the one below.
The one directly above was meant to represent the different communities of prisoners, and show that together they were resilient, together they supported each other through their miserable existence at Dachau. But if you look closely, there are no pink triangles. The pink triangles were intentionally left off the memorial (so too were green for "criminals" and black for "anti-socials" meaning lesbians, alcoholics, mentally disabled people, and "gypsies"). My jaw dropped. Even in times of reconciliation and recognizing the dead and the survivors, some groups are not to be memorialized. It took until 1985 for a pink marble triangle to make its way into the memorial room, a much smaller display, and away from the large central memorial sculptures.
I'm still struggling through the meaning of it all.


  1. Related books/articles that popped up in a quick search:
    -Jensen, Erik (2002). "The pink triangle and political consciousness: gays, lesbians, and the memory of Nazi persecution". Journal of the History of Sexuality 11 (1 and 2).
    -Concentration camp survivor Heinz Heger's memoir, "Men with the pink triangle".

  2. Holy crap just found this:
    "After the war, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and reparations were refused. Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 remained in effect in the Federal Republic (West Germany) until 1969, so that well after liberation, homosexuals continued to fear arrest and incarceration."
    -United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Homosexuals: Victims of the Nazi Era"