Broward News

Homocaust: Lake Worth's Compass Center Hosts Exhibit on Nazi Persecution of Gays

It's easy to look at the bizarre and terrible history of Nazi Germany and focus solely on the millions of victims. Or to make a fetish of the perpetrators and inadvertently honor their crimes. But what I found most compelling in the Compass Center exhibit "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945" was an account of the lives and deaths of two who fought back.  

Frieda Belinfante was a cellist and classical conductor, the openly lesbian daughter of a prominent Dutch family of Sephardic Jews. Her friend Willem Arondeus was an openly gay Dutch writer and artist who, after Nazi forces occupied the Netherlands in 1940, took a leading role in the Dutch resistance. Belinfante joined the cause too, forging papers and finding hideouts for Dutch Jews and other Nazi targets. 

The two friends' heroism peaked in their participation in what was possibly the most daring act of the Dutch resistance, the March 27, 1943, bombing of the Amsterdam Population Registry, the central repository of the Nazis' Dutch identity files, without which forged documents could not be exposed. 

In the roundup that followed, Arondeus and others were detained and executed, while Belinfante went into hiding, living as a man for six months and then fleeing into Swiss exile, where she lived out the war. She relocated to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Southern California, where she was artistic director of the Orange County Philharmonic for many years, passing away at age 90.

Arondeus and Belinfante's story is just a small part of the Lake Worth gay and lesbian center's exhibit, a display of reproductions of some 250 photos and documents on loan from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Arranged with texts on a series of wall-sized placards running the length of a dungeon-like corridor lined with faux windows of scrap lumber and barbed wire, the images provoke an immersion in one of history's great nightmares.

While Jews were first among evils in the Nazi's insane cosmology, gay men and women were also considered threats to the nation, anathema to the Nazi ideal of virile aryan manhood and fertile womanhood. In a great irony, the Nazis rose to power just when gay culture flourished in the liberated atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, poignantly illustrated in the exhibit's tokens of gay social life of the time: photos of handsome young men with glistening smiles and pomaded hair, in Berlin night clubs or picnicking in public parks; an admission ticket to the Comradeship Club's "Bad-Boys-Ball" of March 5, 1932.

Not specifically designated for extermination, the regime sought to terrorize those criminalized for "unnatural" acts under "Paragraph 175" of German law, into sexual and social conformity. An estimated 100,000 were arrested, 50,000 convicted, 100s castrated, an unknown number confined to mental hospitals, and as many as 15,000 sent to concentration camps.

The exhibit illustrates the progression of the Homocaust--the underlying ideology, the structure and techniques of police surveillance, the enforcement of the oppression in Occupied Europe, the experience of the camps. Among many revealing nuggets:

-- A deep strain of homoeroticism ran through Nazi culture, specifically in its ideal of "disciplined masculinity." A poster for the Labor Reich Service shows two bare-chested, strapping young men linked arm-in-arm, one with his free arm raised stiffly erect, the other, a shovel resting over his shoulder, gazing longingly at his comrade. A trio of briskly uniformed men stand similarly erect and linked, with legs too interlocked.

Especially striking are the images and story of the SA, the Nazi street brawlers whose leadership included numerous, openly gay men, and who rose to militia status, threatening the power of the German Army itself until their top ranks were slaughtered by Himmler's SS during the Night of the Long Knives

The exhibit includes an amazing photo of SA leader Ernst Rohm, portly, with grasping eyes, seated at his desk, a baby-faced adjutant with perfect cupid lips standing beside him, eyes shut tight as in a dream. Evil oozes.

-- The fate of Henny Schermann of Frankfurt -- and the workings of Operation T4, the Nazi euthanasia program, which took in gays among other "defectives -- is detailed in arrest photos of Schermann from June 1940, then in the early 1942 case notes of T4 physician SS 1st Lt. Friedrich Mennecke. Diagnosed as a "licentious lesbian" and "stateless Jew," Schermann was soon after gassed to death in the Bernburg T4 center.

-- Once in power, the Nazi crackdown on gays extended to the Catholic Church, trampling on Hitler's Concordat with The Vatican. Some 2500 clergy were investigated, 64 were convicted, 46 from a single monastery. The Church too condemned homosexuality but provided legal counsel for accused, active clergy.

-- A surveillance photo of the Cascade Bar, a gay Berlin haunt, comes from the archives of the Reich Central Office for Combatting Homosexuality and Abortion. That the two campaigns were consolidated reveals that Nazi homophobia was, at root, fear of sexual pleasure. Whether same-sex, or opposite sex without procreation, the anarchic character of the erotic impulse threatened the devotion to hierarchy and order. The liberating experience of intimate sensuality, for no purpose of use to the state, would not be tolerated.

The Compass Center is located at 201 N. Dixie Highway, in Lake Worth. The exhibit and associated events run through January 25. 

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected]


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