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Exhibit on Nazi persecution of gay men opens at Buffalo’s Central Library

Roughly 1 million homosexual men lived in Germany in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler began his reign of killing and persecution.

The Nazis feared that those men might develop their own state-within-the-state, and that their failure to father children would put a dent in Germany’s birthrate and weaken the prospects of a greater Reich, according to experts on the issue.

So the Nazi regime targeted homosexual men, as seen in Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal 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,” that paragraph states in part.

The actions and attitudes toward homosexual men are the subject of the exhibition “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945,” now on display at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit opened Sunday and will remain on the main floor of the downtown library through July 16.

The opening reception for the traveling exhibit will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“We want the public to be aware that the Holocaust was not just about Jews,” said Pieter Weinrieb, co-president of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo. “It was also about other races, creeds, political dissidents and sexual orientation ... They were all considered degenerates in Nazi Germany.”

The most-cited atrocity of Hitler’s Nazi regime was the close to 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust. But other victims included Poles, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals.

Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality, about half of them were sentenced to prison, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, where an unknown number died, experts say.

The exhibit includes dozens of panels of photos, sketches, written material, lithographs, mug shots and other documentation telling the story of the Nazi persecution. It also focuses on individual stories, including the saga of Richard Grune, an artist who at various times was arrested, held in protective custody, convicted, imprisoned and sent to a concentration camp after admitting he was homosexual.

“It’s a timeline that shows the development, the implementation and the impact of Nazi persecution against homosexuals,” said Mara Koven-Gelman, executive director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo.

That persecution included the humiliation, imprisonment, medical experimentation and even castration of some homosexual men.

“It was a whole range of dehumanization of people,” Koven-Gelman said.

She had an interesting reaction in seeing the exhibit.

“What about the women?” Koven-Gelman remembered asking herself. But the Nazis regime apparently didn’t consider lesbians much of a threat.

“The Nazi regime was focused on the men,” she explained. “Women were less important to them. The idea was that if they could incarcerate, humiliate and re-educate the men, they could ‘cure’ their sexuality.”

This international traveling exhibit usually goes to larger cities, so bringing it to Buffalo is considered a major “get” for the resource center and the library, an attempt to bring more people into the downtown library and to teach more local residents about the wide-ranging atrocities of the Holocaust.

Grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo and embrace Western New York helped bring the exhibit here for eight weeks, including LGBT Pride Month in June.

While the exhibit obviously focuses on the history from a previous century, Weinrieb cited the relevance today.

“What lessons can we learn from 70 years ago and apply them so they don’t happen again?” he asked. “This isn’t about politics. It’s about tolerance – and humanity.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com