UND exhibit details Nazi attacks on gay prisoners in concentration camps

"Solidarity," a lithograph of one prisoner supporting another, by German artist Richard Grune, who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps after being convicted for homosexuality.

'Solidarity' by Richard Grune
"Solidarity," an etching by Richard Grune, an artist who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps after being convicted for homosexuality. His work is part of the exhibit "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945," which opens Thursday at UND. (Courtesty Schwules Museum, Berlin)

"Solidarity," a lithograph of one prisoner supporting another, by German artist Richard Grune, who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps after being convicted for homosexuality.

A black and white photograph of workers in a quarry in the Mauthausen camp, where prisoners, including homosexuals, perished in the Nazi's "extermination through work" program.

An operating room in the Sachsenhausen camp, where, as in all concentration camps, commanders could order the castration of homosexual prisoners.

All are among images from "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, 1933-1945," a traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that will open with a 7 p.m. reception Thursday at the UND Memorial Union ballroom.

The exhibit features photos, artwork, a memorial to victims, films, speakers and more. It is free to the public and will run through March 25.


"This is an historic occasion because it's the first time in history that an exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Museum is coming to North Dakota and it's an honor that UND will host it," said Greg Gordon of the UND Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, one of the main exhibit sponsors.

World War II ended more than 60 years ago, but the exhibit remains relevant, he said. Organizers hope the exhibit and cultural events will promote awareness and tolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in the community.

"We don't feel the community for LGBT community members is as welcoming and hospitable as it should be," he said. "The story of Nazi persecution is a poignant reminder of what happens when intolerance is the norm."


In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler assumed power, an estimated 1 million homosexual men lived in Germany. Homosexuality, although illegal in Germany at that time, was generally tolerated especially in urban areas such as Berlin.

Between 1933 and 1947, the Nazis tried to rid German territory of people who didn't fit its vision of a "master Aryan race," primarily Jews. But the list of undesirables grew to include people with mental and physical disabilities, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies, Poles and Soviet prisoners of war, according to the Holocaust museum.

The Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted the men who, the state asserted, carried a "degeneracy" that threatened the "disciplined masculinity" of Germany. Male homosexuals were believed to form self-serving groups that could disrupt social harmony. Their perceived failure to father children was cited as a reason for declining German birth rates, thus robbing the nation of future sons and daughters who could fight for and work toward a greater Reich.

"The Nazis believed it was possible to 'cure' homosexual behavior through labor and 're-education,'" exhibit Curator Edward Phillips said in a news release. "As their efforts to eradicate homosexuality grew more draconian, gay men became subject to castration, institutionalization and deportation to concentration camps."


More than 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality, about half of whom served prison terms. Many were sent to mental hospitals and others, perhaps hundreds, were castrated under court order or coercion.

Fragmentary records suggest that between 5,000 and 15,000 homosexual men were imprisoned in concentration camps, where many died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings and murder.

Why weren't lesbians similarly imprisoned? Nazis valued women primarily for their ability to bear children, presuming that women homosexuals were still capable of reproducing. Lesbians were not systematically persecuted, but did suffer the loss of their own gathering places and associations.

Prisoner Grune

Grune was one of the men arrested and sentenced under Paragraph 175, the law that made male homosexuality illegal in Germany. He moved to Berlin in 1933, about the time police and Storm Troopers began shutting same-sex bars and clubs. Grune was arrested in December 1934.

Under interrogation, he admitted to being homosexual. He was held in "protective custody" for five months, convicted and sentenced to prison for one year and three months, minus time already served.

At his release, the Gestapo returned him to protective custody, asserting the sentence had been too lenient.

In early October 1937, Grune was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained until being transferred to the Flossenberg camp in 1940.


In 1945, as American forces approached, Grune escaped and joined his sister in Kiel. He spent much of the rest of his life in Spain, but later returned to Kiel, where he died in 1983.

In 1947, Grune published a limited-edition portfolio of lithographs, work that generally reflects what he experienced at the concentration camps. The portfolio is among the most important visual recordings of the daily nightmare of the Nazi concentration camps, according to the Holocaust museum.

Some of the images are part of the exhibit at UND.

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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