Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Branded by the Pink Triangle"

            The world never ceases to amaze me with the amount of things I just don’t know.  I know the Holocaust.  I’ve known about Chelmno, death marches, hidden Jewish children, and what happened to Jews after the Holocaust.  Today, I have come to realize that there is still so much that I don’t know.  I vaguely knew that homosexuals were prosecuted during World War II, but I didn’t know the extent of the persecution.  I just didn’t know.

Ken Setterington’s Branded by the Pink Triangle (published 2013) is an important book.  It is important for the fact that it is the first book I know of made for young readers that tells the story of homosexuals during the Holocaust.  It does this through historical facts and anecdotes.  Starting with homosexuality in Berlin before the war, the reader finds out that Berlin was essentially the gay capital of Europe.  Ken Setterington then moves the reader towards the beginning of persecution during the Holocaust regime, couching it against the backdrop of the rise of Nazi Germany.  Homosexuals who were sent to concentration camps were forced to wear a pink triangle that branded them as different from the rest of the inmates.  The story moves through the Nazi plan for a perfect Aryan race, the concentration camps, homosexuals in occupied territories, Jewish homosexuals, the aftermath, and recognition for the prosecuted after the war.  It ends with a timeline of important events.  It is not a completely linear story, as it interrupts the events going on within the chapters with the stories of different men persecuted during the Holocaust

            I have given a very simple review, but this story is anything but simple.  Written by a
Taken from the book,
 a photograph of an early 1900s gay couple in Berlin.
librarian, Ken Setterington’s research brings to light so many different facts about what happened to homosexuals during the Holocaust.  For example, the reader learns that, “Life for homosexuals in Germany was much easier than it was in the rest of Europe, or indeed in the rest of the world… homosexual culture thrived.  Berlin was recognized as its capital”(p.3).  The pictures of gay culture in the early 1900s that are provided add another dimension to our understanding—I have never seen pictures like that before.  Something else interesting that I found out was that lesbians were not persecuted in the same way that gay men were persecuted.  Although some women were sent to concentration camps, “Lesbians were not considered harmful to the regime, so they were not targeted in the same manner as male homosexuals.  Small numbers of lesbians were arrested and suffered in concentration camps, but they were most often labeled as anti-social members of society”(p.31).  This entire book is full of facts that I have never heard of, or had never really given much thought to, and I believe that is Ken Setterington’s point—to bring awareness

            In my lifetime, I have always been aware that homosexuals were prosecuted by the Nazis, along with Jews, Gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, Jehovah Witnesses, and many other people.  It has not always been like this.  In this story, we find out that once the war was over, homosexuals were still treated as criminals and were not given the same kind of respect or deference that other persecuted groups were given.  Setterington writes, “Many in the years after the war didn’t even consider homosexual prisoners as victims—they viewed the survivors as men with a criminal past.  Nor did gay young men growing up after the war look to the gay victims of the Holocaust as role models”(p.92).   Many gay men hid fact that they were in a concentration camp during the war, because there was still a stigma for gay men.  While some Holocaust victims were given compensation, “these programs did not include homosexuals because they were considered to be criminals”(p.94).  When you think about this in the context of how gays were treated around the world during that time, you realize that this is but another example of how homosexuals were treated as unequal compared to others.  Unfortunately, it matches with the social context of the time.  It was really not until 1972, when Josef Kohout published The Men With the Pink Triangle, that any sort of awareness arose about the horrors that homosexuals experienced during the Third Reich.  In 1984, 39 years after World War II ended, the first official monument dedicated to homosexuals persecuted under the Third Reich was revealed.  It is a pink triangle that contains the words, “’Put to death, Put to silence—for the homosexual victims of National Socialism’”(p.98).  I was saddened by the fact that many homosexual Holocaust victims died before they were ever given any sort of recognition or compensation for the atrocious acts committed against them.

            Setterington did a great job of focusing on homosexuals during this time, but placing it against the larger backdrop of the Third Reich.  For example, Setterington gives the reader some brief information about how Hitler was able to rise to power, including information about World War I and ending with “People wanted jobs and a way out of the miserable lives they were living.  They needed something—or someone—to believe in”(p.9).  The reader is immediately aware that that someone is Hitler.  The reader is also given information about Hitler’s SA and the “Night of the Long Knives,” which ended in SS troops assassinating many members of Hitler’s SA army, including the deputy Ernst Rohm.  By placing other background information, I feel that the reader is able to get a much clearer picture of what transpired during those years.

            After I read this book, I immediately looked to the bibliography.  Because I have been reading so much nonfiction, I find myself looking to the back matter to see the kind of research the author conducted.  When I looked at the bibliography, I was immediately a little bit worried.  There are only 19 different resources listed in the back.  I just finished reading “The President Has Been Shot!” and The Nazi Hunters, both of which had close to 100 different resources listed.  I really loved this book, and I wanted it to be historically accurate.   I found myself going online, looking at reviews, trying to see if reviewers found it accurate.  I discovered that this book was a Kirkus Starred Review.  In July 2013, a “Booklist” reviewer said, “Setterington, a librarian, has written an informative, well-researched, and well-documented history of the brutal treatment of homosexuals at the hands of; the Nazis, humanizing his account with stories of survivors who have written about their experiences.”  After looking at reviews, I began to feel more at ease about the fact that this was historically accurate and we received by the literary community.

            If it is accurate, and the reviewers all agree that it is, then why so few resources?  After all, this book was a 2014 StonewallHonor, given by the American Library Association for, “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.”  As I pondered over the lack of resources, I thought about Ken Setterington’s entire message—these people were not given a voice.  He doesn’t have as many resources about the gay experience because they simply don’t exist.  It took thirty years for anybody to listen to the experiences of these people and not call them criminals.  I did an Amazon search for “Homosexuals and Holocaust” and was returned with 112 results.  I then did an Amazon search for “John F. Kennedy,” the subject of the last book I read.  I was given 86,814 results.  There just does not exist a large cannon of literature about the homosexual experience during the Holocaust.  Because of this, Branded by the Pink Triangle becomes even more important, and not just for its intended young adult audience.  This books is an important one that will hopefully open the gate on research into the experience of these victims.

            I think because there is so little information about this time, Ken Setterington relies heavily on personal testimony.  Personally, I think that it is great, because it gives a voice to individual people who were silenced.  I hope that somehow, despite all the time that has passed, more stories like this come forth.  Each chapter tells the story of a man who was homosexual and was persecuted during that time.  I won’t ruin the book and tell you about every man, but I will summarize one story for you.  Rudolph Brazda was born in Germany and was fully aware of the fact that homosexuality was illegal in his country.  He also knew, though, that it was rarely enforced.  He was able to live in relative freedom, and was able to eventually live with his partner Werner until Hitler rose to power.  Werner joined the military, and both he and Rudolph were eventually arrested.  In 1938, Rudolph was sent to Buchenwald, where he somehow managed to survive until it was liberated in 1945.  He spent 7 years in a concentration camp.  He never saw Werner again.  Rudolph’s story is but one story of many, but it is one that I am glad was told.

            Using these personal histories and the background information about Nazi Germany, Ken Setterington has written an important book for young people to read.  I feel that in the upcoming years, this book will be a part of the cannon of literature used to teach the Holocaust, because it is as close to comprehensive as we will possibly ever have about the homosexual experience.  It is important for all sides of the story to be told, and Ken Setterington has done that.  The awareness that he brings to these events is wonderful.  His conclusion in the chapter entitled “It Gets Better,” reminds us that there are still places were homosexuals can be killed simply for loving someone of the same sex.  He ends hopeful, though, even referencing the “It Gets Better” campaign that is showing support for the LGBT youth today.  I am so thankful that I read this book and brought an awareness to my own mind, and I hope that the trend towards awareness and acceptance grows in our world.
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