Telling the stories of persecution

Posted on 14 Jul 2011 at 10:13pm

Curator calls the exhibit in Dallas the most personal of all the Holocaust stories he’s told

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Of all the exhibits Ted Phillips has worked on in his 17 years as director of exhibitions and resources at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945 is “nearest and dearest to my heart,” he said in a a recent interview.

The traveling show is currently on display at the Dallas Holocaust Museum. On a visit to Dallas for the opening of the exhibit, the curator said he spent two years of his life researching the topic.

“My friends thought I was doing it 24/7,” he said. “It was all I talked about.”

Phillips said that at times he had to stop looking at the pictures of men who were so similar to him — gay and around his age — who were tortured to death by the Nazis. Sometimes he had to put the pictures aside to write the script, he said.

Phillips was an unlikely candidate for his current position. With no museum experience, he said that if he applied for the job today, he would never be considered for it.

“I fell into it,” Phillips said.

With a Ph.D. in Russian history, he had been teaching at the University of Maryland. In 1994, the museum was still looking for staff and a colleague suggested, “How about a nice historian.”

Phillips, who has been with the museum for 17 years, has been part of every exhibit the museum has created since then. That includes the one currently on display at the Dallas Holocaust Museum.

“When the museum [in Washington] was putting itself together in the late ’80s, early ’90s, they wanted to tell more than the core story of the persecution and murder of six million Jews,” he said.

He said that after the museum was up and running, ideas that were originally brochures, such as the treatment of gay men, were developed into full-blown exhibits.

The museum opened to the public the same weekend that the 1993 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place. Many people who were in town for the LGBT rights demonstration visited the museum.

“So we knew we had strong audience interest in the subject from the beginning,” Phillips said.

But work on the show now in Dallas didn’t begin until about 10 years later.

While assembling the exhibit, Phillips made two trips to Germany to work with the Schwule (Gay) Museum in Berlin. A contract researcher in the city also sent information back.

“So much of what we were working with were police files,” Phillips said.

He said that drawers of files and documents in German back up the story as told in the exhibit. However, little personal testimony exists.

Phillips speculates that since Nazi-era laws regarding homosexuality remained on the books until 1969 in West Germany, few gay people came forward to talk about the persecution they suffered. Some who sought reparations in the 1970s were rebuffed and told that gays were not persecuted and not entitled to compensation, Phillips said.

In East Germany, the Nazi version of Paragraph 175, the anti-homosexuality law, reverted to that of the Weimar Republic, he said. That law had fewer generalities under which so many men were arrested.

But discrimination continued and East German gays had other reasons to not tell their stories.

Phillips said that he worries about the first section of his exhibit. That portion details how it was possible to go from acceptance of gays in Berlin to thousands of people put in concentration camps.

But while most people who visit the Holocaust Museum are horrified by the inhumanity, Phillips said he wonders what some people have gotten from the exhibits.

“Obama is Hitler,” he said, is one comment that he sees visitors enter in the guest book, and he calls that utter ignorance of history. But that is why he worries about the introductory panels in Nazi Treatment of Homosexuals.

“Is the beginning a how-to?” he asked.

During his study of the subject, Phillips learned about the difference between the Nazis’ ultimate goal with Jews and with gays.

The objective was to rid society of Jews so Jews from every place under Nazi control were sent to concentration camps and death camps.

But the goal with gays was to change their behavior so they would help build the Aryan population. Gays — other than those who were also Jewish — were still considered Aryans. With hard work, they could be changed to produce more Aryan children.

So only German gays were arrested.

“Being forced to work hard would correct their behavior,” Phillips said of the Nazi mentality about gays.

Except for about 2 percent who were considered incorrigible, Nazis considered gays’ behavior something that could be unlearned. Generally the sentences given were relatively short — about 18 months. But gays were often assigned to punishment battalions.

“They got the hardest work, longest hours, least food and quickest death,” Phillips said. “The mortality rate was extraordinary, but they weren’t sent to the gas chambers.”

Lesbians were generally not arrested because they could still produce children. Those who were detained were often taken for political reasons or for being “asocial.”

Phillips said there was, oddly, no record of gay Jews. The pink triangle with an overlaid yellow triangle (pink indicating gay and yellow Jewish) was listed in a Nazi chart of prisoner markings. But the usually meticulous record keepers did not chronicle any examples of its use that Phillips could find.

“So it was established, but there’s no evidence that it was put into use,” he said.

Phillips said he used the term “homosexual” in the title of the exhibit because it reflected the connection and importance of sex and reproduction to the reason for the arrests.

He said that “gay” as known it today is something quite different.

The exhibit remains in Dallas through Sept. 5.

Dallas Holocaust Museum, 211 Record Street at West End Station. Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $8. 214-741-7500.

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