With World Youth Day 2016 taking place in Krakow, Poland, it is only natural that both pilgrims and pope will visit the remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is only a short distance from where events are taking place.
I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in 2003, when New Ways Ministry led an LGBT Catholic pilgrimage to Poland. It was a visit that will stay with me until I die. The eerie silence of the place is both appropriate and chilling. Almost all visitors there did not breathe a word while walking around, stunned by the awareness of the reality that took place where they were walking. If people did speak, it was in hushed whispers.
I have been to dozens of shrines all over the globe, but Auschwitz is probably the most sacred spot I have ever visited.
Pope Francis, who is visiting the camp tomorrow, July 29th, has already said that he anticipates the stop to be primarily a spiritual exercise. Crux reported on his plans for the visit:
“When Pope Francis goes on a silent pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp this Friday, it will be his first time in the former Nazi concentration camp that stands as the universal symbol of totalitarian horror.
“That is one reason he won’t be giving a speech. He wants to go alone and say nothing. ‘I would like to go to that place of horror without speeches, without crowds – only the few people necessary,’ he told journalists on the flight back from Armenia.
” ‘Alone, enter, pray,’ he said. ‘And may the Lord give me the grace to cry.’
“The only proper human response – as so many visitors find – to the mystery of such evil is recollection and silent prayer. Francis’ decision to say nothing has been deeply appreciated by the Chief Rabbi of Poland.”
Jewish people were certainly the most victimized group of Nazi atrocities, with up to six million perishing, approximately 1 million of them at Auschwitz. But among the other groups targeted, gay men were probably the ones next in line to receive such the most vicious treatment, though the number of victims was much smaller. Even before the camps were established, gay men were arrested in Germany in alarming numbers. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s website:
“An estimated 1.2 million men were homosexuals in Germany in 1928. Between 1933-45, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals, and of these, some 50,000 officially defined homosexuals were sentenced. Most of these men spent time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 of the total sentenced were incarcerated in concentration camps.”
(Curiously, although the Nazis closed some lesbian bars, lesbian women were not systematically arrested, according to the Museum web page. Wikipedia.org said that the reason lesbians were not targeted was that they were “considered easier to persuade or force them to comply with accepted heterosexual behavior.)
Another Holocaust Museum’s webpage says that gay men were singled out for particularly cruel treatment. The website states:
“Prisoners marked by pink triangles to signify homosexuality were treated harshly in the camps. According to many survivor accounts, homosexuals were among the most abused groups in the camps.
“Because some Nazis believed homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured, they designed policies to ‘cure’ homosexuals of their ‘disease’ through humiliation and hard work. Guards ridiculed and beat homosexual prisoners upon arrival, often separating them from other inmates. Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that homosexuals were segregated in order to prevent homosexuality from spreading to other inmates and guards. Personnel in charge of work details in the Dora-Mittelbau underground rocket factory or in the stone quarries at Flossenbürgand Buchenwald often gave deadly assignments to homosexuals.”
On yet another web page from the Holocaust Museum, it states:
“Nazis interested in finding a ‘cure’ for homosexuality conducted medical experiments on some gay concentration camp inmates. These experiments caused illness, mutilation, and even death, and yielded no scientific knowledge.”
Wikipedia.org notes that because of ill treatment by both guards and even other prisoners, gay inmates died at a higher rate than other groups:
Even after the Nazis were defeated and the camps were liberated, gay prisoners continued to be mistreated. The Holocaust Museum web page states:
“After the war, homosexual concentration camp prisoners were not acknowledged as victims of Nazi persecution, and reparations were refused. Under the Allied Military Government of Germany, some homosexuals were forced to serve out their terms of imprisonment, regardless of the time spent in concentration camps. The 1935 version of Paragraph 175 [the law which criminalized homosexuality] remained in effect in the Federal Republic (West Germany) until 1969, so that well after liberation, homosexuals continued to fear arrest and incarceration.
“Research on Nazi persecution of homosexuals was impeded by the criminalization and social stigmatization of homosexuals in Europe and the United States in the decades following the Holocaust. Most survivors were afraid or ashamed to tell their stories. Recently, especially in Germany, new research findings on these ‘forgotten victims’ have been published, and some survivors have broken their silence to give testimony.”
Pope Francis’ promise to be silent at Auschwitz is an appropriate gesture. As he prays for the millions of victims there, let’s hope he will include the gay victims of the Holocaust. I hope, too, that he will pray for the victims of contemporary laws around the globe which criminalize LGBT people and subject them to cruelly harsh punishments. The Nazi Holocaust is over, but other nations and groups have continued their atrocities in other forms. In addition to political bodies which criminalize LGBT people, medical authorities continue the Nazi legacy by using destructive “reparative” psychological therapy on LGBT patients.
Let’s hope, too, that someday a pope–or even some other Catholic leader–will visit the site of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, and pray silently there for those victims and all victims of anti-LGBT oppression and violence.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry