15 August 2010
Book Review: The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger
A courageous, early, firsthand account of the life (and death) of homosexuals in a Nazi concentration camp.
Heinz Heger was 22 in 1939 when he was sent from his home in Vienna to serve a six month prison sentence for being a homosexual. When he had served his time, however, he wasn't released but was sent to a concentration camp in Germany where he stayed until liberation in 1945. (For homosexuals, the pink triangle was analgous to the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear under the Nazi regime.) Heger's crime was having a boyfriend who happened to be the son of a high ranking SS officer. And much like Oscar Wilde's lover and accuser, Heger's boyfriend never suffered for his own "crimes".
This book is an interesting follow-up to my recent read of Sophie's Choice. Not just because it describes life in a concentration camp, but because like Sophie, Heger, not being a Jew, managed to live through his ordeal. That is not to say that non-Jews always survived, indeed probably hundreds of thousands did not. And like Sophie, Heger was forced into many situations where he traded his humanity for his life.
Heger first told his story in print in 1970, one of the few early accounts to shine a light on an aspect of Nazi crimes that often went overlooked and unreported. Other stories of atrocities that were also slow to come to light were the fate of Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the disabled among others. Being careful not to get into a discussion of who suffered more or less at the hands of the Nazis, one of the poignant aspects of Heger's story is the fact that when he first told it, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in many developed nations and that he and other homosexuals were not eligible for reparations from the German government because their incarceration was still considered to be a criminal punishment.
Much has changed in the 30 years since 1980 when Heger's story was translated and published in English. I remember back in high school in the mid-80s hearing about the fate of gays during the holocaust. Certainly not in school, but rather in the gay press. And of course the pink triangle was used not only by groups like ACT-UP but also as a symbol of solidarity and defiance by gays in general. In college, in the days before the ubiquitous rainbow flag, I wore a button with a pink triangle on it on my backpack. In those days it meant nothing to most who saw it, but it still felt like a daring act. There were times when I was certain everyone was staring it and there were times when I wanted everyone to stare at it. It was always interesting when someone would ask what it meant. Talk about a teaching moment. My trip to Dachau in 1992, already emotional and wrenching, was made even more so when I saw a pink triangle displayed in one of the cases.
Of course since then much has changed in both the understanding and acknowledgment of the fate of homosexuals under the Nazis but also, of course, in the human rights of gays and lesbians. One should not forget, however, the state-sponsored violence still perpetrated against gays around the globe for their "crimes".