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".

11 comments:

  1. I am fascinated by the Holocaust and am so glad you brought this book to my attention. As you say, no particular group necessarily suffered more than another; however, there is so little coverage of how groups other than the Jews suffered. I definitely want to get my hands on this one. Thanks for the review.

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  2. Did you ever see the film "A Special Day" which deals with the fate of gay man in Fascist Rome and stars, surprisingly, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni? It was released in 1977 and I must have seen it in the late 70s, so I don't remember a lot about it, except a general positive impression. And reading the period near-rave NYT review just now, I guess I was right

    http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/45971/Una-Giornata-Particolare/details

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  3. Sad to say but the days of the pink triangle are not over and far from it in some nations. I think I read recently of a gay couple in an African country that were put on trial because their relationship is illegal? I would definitely like to read this book and find out more about this subject. It is one that is far too often neglected in discussions of the Holocaust.

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  4. I want to read this one too and many thanks for the book recommendation about Nazi occupied Haarlem.

    I am off to shop for both now..

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  5. Im glad you reviewed this and Ill add it to my wish list. Of course I know that other people like Gays and Gypsies were also pursecuted by the Nazi's but few of these stories come out and like the first poster said, there is so little coverage.

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  6. Sounds like a fascinating book, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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  7. 'homosexuals were not eligible for reparations from the German government because their incarceration was still considered to be a criminal punishment.' Well isn't that a shining example of legality beating down justice.

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  8. I am going to have to get a copy of this book as it sounds like a book I need to read. I think it sounds like a book many people need to read, especially in the gay community, we forget this era though we all hear about the 80's and the aids epidemic (am not comparing the two) so this does sound like a book I will have to get when I can buy books again.

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  9. Picky girl: The book has a short glossary that defines the ranks of various officers and other camp personnel that was quite enlightening about the how the camps ran.

    Steve: That looks fascinating, I wonder if Netflix has it?

    Kathleen: So true. Africa and the mid-East are particularly dangerous places to be gay.

    Mary: I think you will really like the Mulisch.

    Jessica: I remember when the Holocaust Museum first opened in DC they didn't say much of anything about the gay experience. I am not sure if that has changed since 1993.

    Amy: My pleasure.

    Jodie: I think it may have even been worse than that. I think it wasn't a matter of pencil pushing beaureaucrats, I think it was because mainstream society still found homosexuals abhorrent.

    Simon: Well Amen to that. I was worried that it may be out of print, but it appears to still be available.

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  10. Thanks for reviewing this - sounds interesting, and I've found I agree with the first commenter that accounts of the persecution of non-Jews are much harder to find.

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  11. I've never heard of this one, but I am most definitely interested. Maybe after Sophie's Choice (which is going to have to wait a little while, because I recently started The Zoo Keeper's Wife and also just saw The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and think that's sort of enough Holocaust stuff for the time being -- I can only take it in small doses).

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