IN WHOM CAN I STILL TRUST? An exhibition of archival photographs, testimonies and video clips which explore the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, at the Cape Holocaust Centre in Hatfield Street. Curated by Dr Klaus Mueller and designed by Linda Bester. The exhibition is accompanied by a film programme at the Labia Cinema and Cape Town Holocaust Auditorium. Until March 22. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews
THERE is a defining moment in the film Paragraph 175 (titled after the original German anti-sodomy law), a film initiated by the curator of the exhibition In Whom Can I Still Trust?, Dr Klaus Mueller. It happens when one of the homosexual concentration camp survivors, Heinz F, responds to Mueller’s question, “Did anyone speak to you of
your time in prison and the concentration camps?”
Heinz was one of the 10 men interviewed for the film, none of whom are alive today. Heinz pauses and slowly raises his finger.
“Not a word,” he says. And for the first time in the interview of this dignified, 93-year-old survivor you have an inkling of his anger.
No one wanted to talk about it. It was considered the past. So is it any wonder that many people, including Mueller and Professor Pierre de Vos who made the opening speech at the exhibition, were unaware of the fate of homosexuals during the Third Reich until well into adulthood?
One can only wonder at the trauma of never being able to speak of what happened after surviving eight years first in prison and then a concentration camp just because of your sexual orientation.
The background to the exhibition In Whom Can I Still Trust? is this. After World War II, homosexual survivors were still considered criminals and there was no compensation for them, unlike other survivors.
It was only in the 21st century that they were finally recognised as survivors of Nazi atrocities. And in the form of an internalised homophobia, they sometimes blamed themselves for atrocities perpetrated against them.
It must be pointed out that before the rise of Nazism, most homosexuals considered themselves Germans first and homosexual second, in the same way that many German Jews felt. Nazism grew in stark contrast to the enlightened Weimar Republic where women could vote and homosexual society flourished. Berlin was considered the gay capital of the world – think Christopher Isherwood’s perspicacious and decadent Berlin stories.
The Nazis considered homosexuality a contagious disease to be corrected in concentration camps as it deprived the German nation of children. And although they were never put into gas chambers, homosexuals were systematically destroyed, worked to death, experimented on and castrated. Of the 100 000 homosexuals arrested, between 10 000 and 15 000 died in camps. And paragraph 175 was revoked a mere 44 years ago.
On a more positive note, Mueller explains that the outcome of World War II greatly strengthened the rights of homosexuals as a “reaction to the Nazi persecution”.
The idea for an exhibition grew out of the film Paragraph 175. Its title comes from the story of a Dutch cellist, Frieda Belinfante, the first female conductor in the Netherlands. Belinfante needed to sell her instrument to facilitate her escape. When the buyer asked “Why do you trust me?” She replied “I go by faces”.
The exhibition has been redesigned for a local audience and includes archival photographs, personal testimonies and video clips.
The stylish, tonal panels which make up the bulk of the exhibition are thematically arranged into trust, love, identity and death.
There’s also a collection of short videos for LGBT youth directed by Andrew Barry titled It Gets Better – part of a global campaign – which discourages homophobic bullying and provides messages of hope.
In Whom Can I Still Trust? raises pertinent rhetorical questions such as: “Why did so many co-operate, voluntarily by reporting their friends or colleagues to the police? Were they aware of the consequences, or did they not care?”
And what of lesbians? They play a smaller role in the exhibition because they were considered less of a threat to Nazism. They could be forced to marry and made to produce children. In South Africa, despite a constitution that protects homosexuals, there has been a
rise in crimes against lesbians. In the last eight years there have been 25 known cases of crimes against lesbians, including murder, rape and assault.
Although never to be forgotten, the camps are gone and the old form of Nazism has died down. But the persecution of homosexuals is still far from over.
Currently 80 countries have laws against sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Mauritania, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia impose the death penalty for “homosexual acts”. And Uganda is seeking to introduce the death penalty and even considers prosecuting those who know of homosexuals and do not report them.
In his opening speech De Vos succinctly pointed out the difference between equality and uniformity. “Equality should not be confused with uniformity.” In fact he said that “uniformity can be the enemy of equality”.
“At the very least, it affirms that difference should not be the basis for exclusion, marginalisation, stigma and punishment. At best, it celebrates the vitality that difference brings to any society,” he said.
This exhibition may appear to be specifically about homosexuals, but it is really about otherness and our tolerance of the Other. And the Holocaust Centre provides a safe place to unpack hot, thorny issues.
It is a great tool for teaching about our shared humanity. It reminds us that while the past has gone, whether we acknowledge it or not, it informs the future.