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Recognizing the queer face of the Holocaust

Austrian activists fought for acknowledgement and restitution

FIGHTING FOR A PLACE. Kurt Krickler wouldn't stop advocating until the Austrian government recognized gay and lesbian victims of the Holocaust

In 2005, 60 years after liberation, Austria officially recognized the gay and lesbian victims of the Holocaust and granted them access to compensation.

The fact that Austria, a very Roman Catholic and politically conservative country, did it at all is largely due to the work of Kurt Krickler and HOSI Wien, the gay and lesbian organization he cofounded in 1979.

Krickler has made serving the lesbian and gay population of Vienna his life’s work. HOSI Wien, where Krickler continues as a board member and secretary-general, runs a community centre, theatre group, Pride Vienna and publishes a monthly magazine.

In the early days, they received negative reaction.

“People would come up to us and say, “What are you doing? How do you dare? People like you would be gassed by Hitler,'” says Krickler, 46, who is in Toronto in November as part of Holocaust Education Week.

There have been risks and costs for Krickler along the way. He has been on trial more than once for libel and has been sued by politicians, although he’s never been convicted.

While it was part of the public consciousness that gay men and lesbians were persecuted by the Nazis, there was little public, and no government, condemnation of it. The July 2005 vote by Austria’s parliament finally granted gay and lesbian survivors official status and gave them access to compensation funds.

“The official treatment of survivors was so appalling, so awful,” says Krickler. “That it made me fight.”

“Sexual relations with persons of the same sex” was forbidden in Austria under the penal code that was in effect between 1852 and 1971. Those arrested during Nazi rule — Hitler’s Germany occupied the country in 1938 — were usually sent to concentration camps after they completed their prison sentences. After the war homosexuals were still considered criminals and most were unable to reestablish their lives.

“The government’s attitude was that this [their convictions] was based on a crime under Austrian law; homosexuality was forbidden before the Nazi era and it was forbidden after. It was forbidden by a democratic society and these men were criminals.”

Even after the Second World War was over, criminal convictions under the Nazis remained in force. Men lost the right to vote, academic degrees were revoked and state pensions were reduced.

“In the ’50s and ’60s there was a very hostile conservative attitude toward homosexuals in Austria,” says Krickler. “The same gay men were arrested by the same policemen and sentenced by the same judges as they had been under the Nazis, so most didn’t dare to come forward to seek compensation.” Those who did were denigrated by the government and excluded from official victim groups.

“As a homosexual you were always a criminal and as a criminal, your victim status was taken away.”

In 1985 Krickler started organizing “pink triangle” presences at Holocaust memorials.

At first survivor groups were angry but things started to change at an early ’90s memorial at Mauthausen concentration camp.

“It’s like the Olympics, groups walk through the gates of the camp with their banners,” recalls Krickler. “We walked through and we got applause. One woman came up to us, and said, ‘It’s great that you are here.’ She took off her Mauthausen survivor’s scarf and gave it to us in recognition.” It wasn’t until the end of the ’90s that they started being announced officially like all the other groups.

In 2001 as part of EuroPride HOSI Wien mounted an exhibition entitled Lost Lives. Fourteen large pink pillars described the treatment of gay survivors during and after the war. One of them included a letter from the Ministry For Social Affairs withdrawing all entitlements granted to an individual under the Nazi Victims Compensation Act after it had found out that the person concerned had not worn the red triangle of those persecuted for political reasons, but the homosexuals’ pink triangle. The last pillar remained empty as “a symbol of the Republic Of Austria’s refusal to recognize Nazi victims persecuted on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

While it is symbolic that that entitlement was eventually granted, it’s too late for most survivors. HOSI Wien contacted as many survivors as possible to assist them in applying for individual compensation and to collect their stories. The city of Vienna currently has a tender out to create a large monument to memorialize lesbian and gay victims. The monument will be placed in a central downtown square.