Gay Holocaust Memorial Honors Pain, Sacrifice

A memorial in Berlin, Germany was recently unveiled in memory of gay victims of the Holocaust. Volker Beck, a member of the German parliament and supporter of the memorial, explains what the memorial symbolizes for members of the gay holocaust survivors and their families.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. A little later in the program, awarding-winning singer and actress Sheryl Lee Ralph on her other passion, getting women to face the facts about HIV/AIDS. She'll talk about it just in time for National HIV Testing Day, which is tomorrow.

But first, our international briefing. In Berlin, Germany, a new monument to Holocaust victims was dedicated last month in memory of the thousands of gay people, mostly men, persecuted, tortured and killed by the Nazis. As the U.S. celebrates gay pride this month, we wanted to talk more about this monument.

Joining us to talk about this, one of the people who worked to make the monument a reality, Volker Beck. He is a member of the German parliament. Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. VOLKER BECK: (Member, German Parliament): Hello.

MARTIN: Now the monument was commissioned in the year 2003. Do you remember, how did the idea for the monument start?

Mr. BECK: As we decided that we would erect a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe, I introduced in a resolution of the Bundestag that all the other victim groups should be commemorated, as well. And now the monument for the persecuted homosexuals is the second monument which is ready. There will be a third one for the persecuted and murdered Gypsies, which is already begun, but it's not yet ready.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is important, to acknowledge each group distinctly?

Mr. BECK: It's important if we commemorate the national socialism that we commemorate each group who was persecuted and the reasons why, if we want to learn something out of our history.

And we should learn of this history, that every person, homosexual or heterosexual, Christian or Jew, has the same dignity and all the same rights.

MARTIN: I understand that the idea of separate and distinct memorials was controversial, but was it controversial because people objected to the idea of highlighting the persecution of gays, or was it controversial because there are those who would argue that separating out people by groups is exactly what the Nazis did and this replicates their thinking?

Mr. BECK: This was one of the arguments, but I think many people wanted only one monument for all the groups. But if it comes to different groups then the discussion starts, but if you commemorate all victims, you commemorate nobody and you have no lesson learned out of history.

MARTIN: Can you describe, for those who may not be aware, exactly what was the plight of gay people during the Holocaust? How were gay people treated?

Mr. BECK: Gay people were mainly persecuted if they were Germans, not so much in the occupied territories of a foreign country, and it was mainly gay men who were persecuted. There were 50,000 court sentences for consensual sex between adults who came into the jails, and 10 to 15,000 of them were brought to the concentration camps, which most of them didn't survive.

And they were often the bottom of the hierarchy because all their colleagues in the concentration camps had prejudices against them. And so the Nazis tortured them, they made medical experiments with them and so on.

MARTIN: And I think many people are familiar with the pink triangle, which was the badge that the people were forced to wear.

Mr. BECK: The Jews had a yellow star and the gay people had a gay triangle. And if a Jew or a communist was as well a homosexual, then they took the symbol for the communist and the Jew and put in the pink triangle.

MARTIN: And you're saying that gay people were often, sort of, targets of medical experiments. What were these experiments aimed at? At trying to convert them or were they just used as human guinea pigs, in the way a lot of other victims of the Holocaust were?

Mr. BECK: The aim of this medical experiments was to extinguish homosexuality in the human being, and in the German (German spoken). This was the idea of the Nazis because they were unsure what is homosexuality about. And as they were racist, for everything they thought there is an inheritance, biological - it's in the genes or it's in the hormones. And if you cut off the testicles or if you put hormones in the person, then homosexuality will go away.

MARTIN: Tell us about the design of the monument, if you will. And I - we will have a link on our web site to lead people to a site where they can see it for themselves, but if you could describe it, briefly.

Mr. BECK: It's grey and looks like a huge part of stone, and if you look into it you will see a film. And in this film you will see actually two men kissing each other. And this film will be changed over two years, and sometimes it will be two female persons or other gay people. And it shows that if a persecution of homosexuality began with persecuting kisses between men, and that even today a kiss between two men is still a provocation in our society and sometimes the reason for violent attacks.

MARTIN: What, though, is the logic of having persons have to - you have to peer into this sort of, a window, in order to see the film? There are some who believe that this replicates a sense that male sexuality or that homosexuality has to be hidden. You know, it's almost like a peep show. Have you heard this criticism, and what do you make of it?

Mr. BECK: Yes, but if you have an artistic monument, you have always different interpretations of a monument. But this is a - for me, it's a very modern form of communicating and discussing this point.

MARTIN: I understand that you've been active in the gay rights movement for quite some time. You've been a member of the parliament since 1994. Yes?

Mr. BECK: Yes.

MARTIN: If I could ask you, what do you feel the environment is for gay and lesbian people in Germany now?

Mr. BECK: The situation has much changed in Germany in the last years, especially in the seven years of the Social Democrats of the Green Party, my party, governed together. We introduced a registered partnership law, which gives gay and lesbian couples nearly the same rights as marriage, and we are still fighting for the rest for equality. And the attitudes of mainstream society became much more liberal against homosexuals.

MARTIN: Volker Beck is a member of the German parliament. He spoke with us about the new monument to persecuted gay victims of the Holocaust. He spoke to us from his office in Berlin. Mr. Beck, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BECK: Bye-bye, thank you.

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