Remembering Gay Holocaust Victims, As Pope Prepares to Visit Auschwitz

With World Youth Day 2016 taking place in Krakow, Poland, it is only natural that both pilgrims and pope will visit the remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is only a short distance from where events are taking place.

Train tracks leading to Auschwitz concentration camp

I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in 2003, when New Ways Ministry led an LGBT Catholic pilgrimage to Poland.  It was a visit that will stay with me until I die.  The eerie silence of the place is both appropriate and chilling.  Almost all visitors there did not breathe a word while walking around, stunned by the awareness of the reality that took place where they were walking.  If people did speak, it was in hushed whispers.

I have been to dozens of shrines all over the globe, but Auschwitz is probably the most sacred spot I have ever visited.

Pope Francis, who is visiting the camp tomorrow, July 29th, has already said that he anticipates the stop to be primarily a spiritual exercise.  Crux reported on his plans for the visit:

“When Pope Francis goes on a silent pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp this Friday, it will be his first time in the former Nazi concentration camp that stands as the universal symbol of totalitarian horror.

“That is one reason he won’t be giving a speech. He wants to go alone and say nothing. ‘I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds – only the few people necessary,’ he told journalists on the flight back from Armenia.

” ‘Alone, enter, pray,’ he said. ‘And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.’

“The only proper human response – as so many visitors find – to the mystery of such evil is recollection and silent prayer. Francis’ decision to say nothing has been deeply appreciated by the Chief Rabbi of Poland.”

Jewish people were certainly the most victimized group of Nazi atrocities, with up to six million perishing, approximately 1 million of them at Auschwitz.  But among the other groups targeted, gay men were probably the ones next in line to receive such the most vicious treatment, though the number of victims was much smaller.  Even before the camps were established, gay men were arrested in Germany in alarming numbers.  According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s website:

“An estimated 1.2 million men were homosexuals in Germany in 1928. Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals, and of these, some 50,000 officially defined homosexuals were sentenced. Most of these men spent time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of the total sentenced were incarcerated in concentration camps.”

(Curiously, although the Nazis closed some lesbian bars,  lesbian women were not systematically arrested, according to the Museum web page. said that the reason lesbians were not targeted was that they were “considered easier to persuade or force them to comply with accepted heterosexual behavior.)

A concentration camp inmate’s uniform with the pink triangle to identify gay prisoners.

Another Holocaust Museum’s webpage says that gay men were singled out for particularly cruel treatment.   The website states:

“Prisoners marked by pink triangles to signify homosexuality were treated harshly in the camps. According to many survivor accounts, homosexuals were among the most abused groups in the camps.

“Because some Nazis believed homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured, they designed policies to ‘cure’ homosexuals of their ‘disease’ through humiliation and hard work. Guards ridiculed and beat homosexual prisoners upon arrival, often separating them from other inmates. Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that homosexuals were segregated in order to prevent homosexuality from spreading to other inmates and guards. Personnel in charge of work details in the Dora-Mittelbau underground rocket factory or in the stone quarries at Flossenbürgand Buchenwald often gave deadly assignments to homosexuals.”

On yet another web page from the Holocaust Museum, it states:

“Nazis interested in finding a ‘cure’ for homosexuality conducted medical experiments on some gay concentration camp inmates. These experiments caused illness, mutilation, and even death, and yielded no scientific knowledge.” notes that because of ill treatment by both guards and even other prisoners, gay inmates died at a higher rate than other groups:

“A study by Rüdiger Lautmann found that 60% of gay men in concentration camps died, as compared to 41% for political prisoners and 35% for Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Even after the Nazis were defeated and the camps were liberated, gay prisoners continued to be mistreated.  The Holocaust Museum web page states:

“After the war, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and reparations were refused. Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 [the law which criminalized homosexuality] remained in effect in the Federal Republic (West Germany) until 1969, so that well after liberation, homosexuals continued to fear arrest and incarceration.

“Research on Nazi persecution of homosexuals was impeded by the criminalization and social stigmatization of homosexuals in Europe and the United States in the decades following the Holocaust. Most survivors were afraid or ashamed to tell their stories. Recently, especially in Germany, new research findings on these ‘forgotten victims’ have been published, and some survivors have broken their silence to give testimony.”

Pope Francis’ promise to be silent at Auschwitz is an appropriate gesture.  As he prays for the millions of victims there, let’s hope he will include the gay victims of the Holocaust.  I hope, too, that he will pray for the victims of contemporary laws around the globe which criminalize LGBT people and subject them to cruelly harsh punishments.  The Nazi Holocaust is over, but other nations and groups have continued their atrocities in other forms.  In addition to political bodies which criminalize LGBT people, medical authorities continue the Nazi legacy by using destructive “reparative” psychological therapy on LGBT patients.

Let’s hope, too, that someday a pope–or even some other Catholic leader–will visit the site of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, and pray silently there for those victims and all victims of anti-LGBT oppression and violence.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

10 replies
  1. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    ‘As he prays for the millions of victims there, let’s hope he will include the gay victims of the Holocaust. ‘

    The saddest three words in that sentence, ‘let’s hope’, conjure up an image of crossed fingers by a people desperate for acceptance, love and affection as they actually are (as God made them) and not as certain others demand they be.

    Those three words express, in a nutshell, the aspiration of LGBT people down the years so cruelly and wantonly abused by others.

    If Francis does not include gay victims of the Holocaust in his silent prayers, then his ‘prayers” will simply be words that will dissipate in the still, reverent air over that hallowed place.

    FRANTHONY says:

    I visited dachu and perhaps by Divine Design I stopped at one of the foundations, most of the buildings were torn down, and this building had housed the priests. Yes, hushed tones were the way everybody spoke, if at all.

    • John Hilgeman
      John Hilgeman says:

      Yes. It is a very quiet place. I also visited Dachau. My sister and I visited last summer. I wore a Pride tee shirt as a silent rebuke to what had been done – as a symbol that Hitler had not ultimately won when he imprisoned, tortured and exterminated so many millions in his quest for world power.

      It was a very quiet, solemn visit that we made, walking the grounds that had been made sacred by the suffering and blood and deaths and corpses of so many. It felt like walking into hell. A place where such evil had been done. I still have no words adequate for what I felt. No words to even begin to explain the horrors that took place there.

  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    “And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.” If he knows the full history as this article contains, of course he will weep for all including gay victims.

  4. Neil V. Christensen
    Neil V. Christensen says:

    I visited Dachau at 18, While in the Army. (1961) My great Uncle, a Dominican Priest that had survived it, Didn’t want me to go. In fact, he forbid me. I still went. Perhaps if God grants me the time, I will celebrate Mass there, just as Uncle Hans did. (I offer you a book: “Christ in Dachau” to gain knowledge of that experience.) Miracles happen there in the Middist of all that Horror. I won”’t have to use a match Box filled with bread crumbs, and give Communion through fences. at the risk of my life. I won’t be starving but will fast.

    I knew of my gay brothers that had died there; so upon entering the Gas chamber, hearing the doors slam behind our packed in group, I was terrified and began shuttering. We saw the ovens, and the graves.
    People were still living in the Old Barracks, Bright clothes hung out to dry, flowers around the door steps. What a Contrast!

    I have never seen Uncle Has so Mad, as when I returned home, we didn’t talk….. In time he forgave me for disobeying him. Finally one evening he began to ask me questions and sharing about his time in the Clergy Concentration Camp inside Dachau. How a Priest was Ordained, a monstrance made out of a tin fish can. Uncle Hans knew me well, he was my Confessor, and there were Gay Priests in the House, he told me of the Gays in the Concentration Camp.

    Yea, Pope Francis better remember all the Homosexuals Who were murdered; some were his brother Priests. Even the simplest statement/ Prayer for the !,000s of Gays who died, Would be a real first step to apologizing To GLBTQ people, as he said we must.

  5. Paula Mattras
    Paula Mattras says:

    Although years have passed since I visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau, I find myself stricken with a quiet grip around my heart whenever I recall the memory. The horror of it all for all of the prisoners and to think that it was even worse for GLBTQ’s – I can scarcely bear to think about it. How does any sane person arrive at the notion that any human being deserves such treatment – for any reason? Thoughts become words; words become action. Education is key……I do hope that Pope Francis, while remaining respectfully silent at the site, will have something to say afterwards.

  6. Trish
    Trish says:

    Let’s always remember the men of the “pink triangle”; often excluded from survivors’ ceremonies, until recently hidden, forgotten. Nazi policy considered male gayness as infectious, therefore to be obliterated in ethnically German areas, tolerated, to a certain extent in “inferior” “races” – French, Dutch, Belgian, etc. Lesbians – no problem – raped often enough they’d see the light?! Some gay men tried to “pass” as Jewish, for better treatment. Visit Dachau or Buchenwald; and wear a pink triangle next Holocaust Memorial Day, for those despised dead and survivors.


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  1. […] DeBernardo and I had hoped that Pope Francis wouldacknowledge gay Holocaust victimsduring his visit to Auschwitz, or use the week-long program to apologize to LGBT people hurt by the […]

  2. […] DeBernardo and I had hoped that Pope Francis would acknowledge gay Holocaust victims during his visit to Auschwitz, or use the week-long program to apologize to LGBT people hurt by the […]

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