Gays seek remembrance at U.S. Holocaust Museum

If Mark Leno has his way, the words "gay and lesbian" soon will appear on a federal building for the first time.

The target is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. And the museum's national Gay and Lesbian Campaign fund-raising committee is just $350,000 away from the $1.5 million necessary to meet the goal.

The San Francisco fund-raising committee, which Leno co-chairs, recently raised $150,000 toward the effort.

A $1 million gift to the museum ensures that the words "American Gays and Lesbians, Families and Friends," will be etched next to 88 other names on the founders' wall. An additional $500,000 will set up an endowment to continue research of gay and lesbian materials from the Holocaust.

"There are precious few artifacts that relate to the devastation of gays and lesbians during this period," Leno said.

There is no section in the museum's permanent collection that specifically addresses the experiences of gays and lesbians. There are, however, a number of references made to "other groups who suffered" — Gypsies, disabled people, Jehovah's Witnesses, Russian prisoners of war and homosexuals.

The endowment will fund the collecting of gay survivors' oral histories and "find what is [destined] to be found," Leno explained. "The campaign gives voice to what has otherwise been forgotten."

The Holocaust Museum — along with other organizations, including Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation — began recording oral histories of gay Holocaust survivors only recently. Of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 gay men imprisoned under German's Nazi laws, fewer than 15 are known to be alive today.

"There are very few people left to interview. They [gay men] were already adults" upon their imprisonment, said Barbara Goodman, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, who is working with Spielberg's organization to identify gay survivors.

But it was the Holocaust Museum's efforts that led to the 1994 recovery of the first pink triangle — the symbol sewn to gay prisoners' uniforms in concentration camps.

The lover of a gay camp survivor living in Vienna found the pink triangular piece of cloth numbered 1896, along with handwritten notes written on the day of liberation from Flossenberg concentration camp, upon his partner's death. The triangle and the notes are on loan to the museum.

But such artifacts are rare, for gay survivors feared the items would be incriminating.

"Whatever gay survivors had held onto, they had reason to get rid of," Leno said, referring to the law that allowed for the imprisonment of gay German men.

Under Paragraph 175, Section 17 of the German Penal Code, "A male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male or permits himself to be so abused for lewd and lascivious acts, shall be punished by imprisonment."

The law was not repealed until 1969. And at the time of the camps' liberation, many gays were re-arrested for the same so-called crimes for which they had already been imprisoned.

As a result, gay men were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution and were refused reparations.

Some of the few remaining survivors have begun speaking out. Others, like Jerry Rosenstein, have owned up to their dual minority status.

Rosenstein, 68 and a San Francisco resident, was arrested as a Jew in Holland and sent to Auschwitz while in his teens. He arrived in New York with his mother and father in 1946 and moved to the Bay Area in 1949.

But he didn't come out as a gay man until the late 1970s.

"It was almost demanded of me," Rosenstein said, referring to his involvement in both the survivor and gay communities.

Rosenstein is active with the Holocaust Center of Northern California and Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco reaching out to gays and lesbians.

He is adamant, though, in identifying himself as a Jewish survivor "who just happens to be gay. I want that very plain."

Nonetheless, Rosenstein is working with Leno as co-chair of the San Francisco fund-raising effort for the development of the gay and lesbian archives.

"There's a belated interest in homosexual persecution during the Holocaust. I don't think there's been much research on the subject," he said.

Leno hinted that the lack of research may, at least in part, be an effect of a less-than-supportive survivor community.

"There are some people who would prefer this activity of the museum not occur, that it in some way pays less respect to the devastation of the Jewish population," Leno said.

Goodman disagreed.

The Holocaust Center is not a part of the gay and lesbian campaign. But, "we support scholarship and collection of documents wherever and whenever they occur," she said. "We can't take on an international effort like this. But we believe it's important that it is being done."

The Holocaust "is an emotional topic," Leno added. "But the thing which drew me to this project as a gay Jewish man is my clear recognition of the human devastation of unchecked human intolerance. We all have the same enemy of prejudice."