I’m half-Jewish, and ever since I found out what the Holocaust was, I started having very vivid nightmares about it. I know this to be true for two of my family members, as well.For this reason, I try and steer clear of Holocaust-related books and movies. I have always figured that a) it was best to not traumatize myself and b) I knew enough about the Holocaust to feel confident about not doing further research on the subject.
This year, though, I’m on the Rainbow List, which means I have to read some books that I might otherwise avoid. One such book was Ken Setterington‘s Branded by the Pink Triangle, a Young Adult non-fiction title about the treatment of male homosexuals during Nazi rule and the Holocaust. Though tentative about starting a title such as this, I was immediately struck by the book’s readability (Some teen non-fiction can be very dry. This read seamlessly). Despite the fact that I felt that I didn’t have much more to learn about the Holocaust, I quickly realized that I was wrong about this assumption. Though I knew that gays were persecuted by the Nazis, I was unaware of the reasoning for this (It wasn’t for as simple a reason as you’d think; While gay men were aggressively targeted, Nazis largely left the lesbian population alone). I was appalled at the treatment of persecuted gays during the war and afterwards as well. While the suffering of Jewish people was recognized and given a voice, that of gays was often ignored.
As I read Branded by the Pink Triangle, I couldn’t help but think how well researched and organized the book was. I got to the last page of the book to realize, of course! The author is a librarian. It all made perfect sense.
I am honored that Ken Setterington allowed me to interview him for this blog. I am in awe of his abilities as a writer, a librarian, and a voice for a community that we all need to do a better job of remembering and honoring.
Ingrid Abrams: The story of homosexuals during the Holocaust is one that’s often left untold, despite the fact that the pink triangle that they were forced to wear has become such a huge symbol for gay rights. But, there are many untold stories in this world. Why was this particular story so important for you to tell?
Ken Setterington: This was an important story on a number of levels. I grew up knowing about the holocaust. At least I knew about the Jews and the holocaust, but I didn’t have any idea about what happened to homosexual men. When I was 17 discovering my own sexuality I would go downtown and visit the places where I knew gay people were. I was careful never to use my real name – I wanted to be totally anonymous. I just didn’t want to be “outed”. Around the same time I was discovering about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and realized that they were facing possible death if they were discovered. It was clear to me that I was living a privileged life as a gay man in Toronto in comparison to those men in Germany, but I still didn’t admit to my homosexuality.
I was asked to write this book by a publisher who wanted to add a book about the pink triangle to their holocaust education series. I wondered if there really was a need for another book about the holocaust. I was working at the Toronto Public Library at the time as the Children and Youth Advocate so I asked some of the younger staff members about their understanding of gays in the holocaust and the pink triangle. I was shocked to learn that some of people had NO knowledge that homosexuals were targeted during the holocaust and even more surprised to learn that young gay men didn’t know that the pink triangle was even a symbol of gay pride. It was clear that this part of our history was being lost. I wanted to be sure that gay history is recorded and remembered and taught in our schools and available in the library. It really can’t be remembered if there aren’t materials available.
When researching the topic I discovered so many pictures (arrest photos that I could not obtain the rights to use in the book) of men who were unknown. In so many cases families simply didn’t want to be associated with homosexual sons, brothers or possibly fathers. The men have all but been forgotten, except for nameless photos. I found that profoundly sad.
Also while working on the topic, I became of the great difficulties men had to endure trying to get some recognition of their suffering after the war. It appalled me that it took so long for any recognition of the persecution of homosexuals during the war. I was so pleased to see the monuments to gays in Amsterdam and in Berlin when I visited and realized that the story was also about recognizing past suffering and moving towards a more accepting society.
IA: In Branded by the Pink Triangle, you talk a bit about lesbians during Nazi occupation, and how they were perceived as less of a threat to society than gay men. In your personal opinion, why do you think this was?
KS: In my opinion it wasn’t that lesbians were regarded as less of a threat, it was that women were regarded as less of a threat. Within the Nazi beliefs men were important and women were seen simply as vessels to produce children. A woman, even a lesbian could be still a mother. There has been some research done on lesbians during the Nazi period and for the most part I think it is clear that the lesbian lifestyle ended during the Nazi regime, but lesbians could still live without fear of arrest as long as they were willing live as a typical German woman. This was not the case for a homosexual man – he was targeted for arrest and most likely death.
IA: I know that during your research, you visited parts of Europe. Can you talk about what the trip was like for you?
KS: Going to Europe was more than a little stressful. To be honest, I planned the trip to just have a chance to visit the Homomonument in Amsterdam and then visit the camp just oustide Berlin. It was a severely cold trip and I wasn’t dressed warmly enough which made everything just a little bit bleaker. I was moved by the monument in Amsterdam and so pleased to see that there has been recognition of the sufferings of gay men and women. Because it was so cold in Amsterdam, I was lucky to visit the Anne Frank house without others in attendance. I was able to really feel the atmosphere in the secret annex. Likewise, when I went to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp it was a bitterly cold day and it was snowing. It made me aware of just how horrific the conditions in the camps were. Unless one has visited the camps it is hard to imagine just how powerful the trip can be. The trip was harrowing, because it made me really think about the horrors that had taken place there. The worst thing was finding in a stall in a washroom – a swastika marked on the door. It almost made me want to throw up.
I was grateful to have been able to visit Berlin and see how the Eldorado night club is once again a thriving club and how gay culture is once again thriving in the city.
IA: Before the Holocaust, gay men and lesbians were experiencing sort of a Golden Era in Berlin, as well as other parts of Europe. While life wasn’t perfect as there were still anti-homosexual laws, gay culture was allowed to thrive. Do you think LGBTQ culture has had a Golden Era since then? Are we moving towards one right now?
KS: I would say we have reached beyond where we have ever been before. Perhaps we have reached a platinum age.
IA: This book was meticulously researched. How did your skills as a librarian help you meet your goals? What sources were the most helpful?
I was never a research librarian and to be honest, I never thought of myself as a researcher – more of a librarian who promoted reading. Having said that, I know how to conduct research and I know when to ask for help. I was so fortunate in Amsterdam to be there when a spectacular librarian was working at the reference desk at the gay collection. Connie Van Gies was especially useful in finding materials and searching through the collection in Amsterdam to make me aware of articles, books, and items fro their collection that would help me. Ultimately, I would have to say that my training as a librarian was useful as it made me know to ask for help when there were experts around.
As a librarian I was also aware of how to keep looking for more – and more and more.
IA: What can people do to honor the memory of these men who died or suffered at the hands of Nazi rule?
KS: What people can do is both simple and varied. First of all, I just think we all need to remember and do what we can to keep these stories alive. Teachers can ensure that the stories are part of discussions. Librarians can include the stories when displaying books about the holocaust. Each of us can remember the suffering of others around the world and do what we can, even if it is just holding their stories in our hearts or telling others.
While at the pride parade in Chicago I was struck by the air of celebration, but wondered how many people in the crowd had an idea of the troubles facing gay men and women around the world in places where homosexuality is illegal. We are right to celebrate and be proud, but we can’t forget our past or the suffering of that still exists. While writing these comments I was reminded of the line from the story, The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, “You tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery.”
IA: What do you hope your book will accomplish?
KS: I just want youth gay and straight to realize what horrors can happen when one group believes that their sexuality or other beliefs are superior to another. We have to understand the horrors and brutality in our past if we are going to move ahead with a more caring society.
I also believe that we need gay youth to know that they have a history a history that is just as important as any other.
Branded by the Pink Triangle deeply moved me. As I bore witness to the stories of these men, I was simultaneously filled with rage and hope. Then, as I interviewed Mr. Setterington, I was again reminded of the importance of this book. If you have a collection of LGBTQ literature or Holocaust-related titles, this book is a necessary addition to your library. If you work with teens in a public or high school library, your collection will not be complete without Branded by the Pink Triangle. Setterington has made this book highly readable for young adults and more mature readers alike.