Analysis: Shared Sorrows and The Men with the Pink Triangle
Most of Holocaust literature depicts Jewish victimhood. One will imagine images of Auschwitz, gas chambers, and furnaces. Images of the countless dead thrown into vast pits come to mind. However, there was more to the Holocaust than the extermination of European Jewry. Hitler planned the extermination of all “Undesirables” from Germany. This group included not only Jews, but Gypsies and homosexuals. Books like Shared Sorrows and The Men with the Pink Triangle describe the plight of these little mentioned groups during the Holocaust.
In Shared Sorrows, the author is an outsider not only to the survivors she interviews but also to the whole Sinti Gypsy community. But the mutual affection between Toby and the Mettbach and Hollenreiner families is evident as she is told memories that are rarely shared. For example, Rosa Mettbach speaks of horrors. She makes four failed escape attempts, each time punished more harshly. Yet, she survives several concentration camps. Sonneman relays detailed memories of the camps; the smells of burning flesh, the ashen air, the lice crawling about one’s head.
Toby Sonneman is given a glimpse into a society that is not understood by the outside world. Instead of giving the usual lecture on what happened, what they suffered through, Toby gives the events and characters a humanity—a face. The author writes about the pastries she and Rosa Mettbach eat during the interviews. Rosa is mentioned as a chain-smoking grandmother who indulges in her own prejudices. The Sinti were (and still are) victims of prejudice, but they have their own prejudice. Some of this prejudice rubs off on Toby. The author struggles at how to view the Germans she comes across, were they all compliant or did some stand up and help the helpless? Toby examines this question when visiting the home her family was forced to leave and meeting Germans who stayed. The people of Dachau must have heard or smelled the atrocities at the edge of town. I also pondered over Sonneman’s question. I found Shared Sorrows to be more than a collection of testimonies, but rather a study in human nature itself.
One can admire the author’s conscience in listening and recording the testimonies, but Sonneman keeps a journalist’s voice. I believe this is what lets the reader understand all that she heard. She brings her readers into a universe of unspeakable memories we must all remember.
There were others who suffered under Nazi cruelty. The Men with the Pink Triangle is one man's account of the harshness and cruelty faced by gay men at the hands of the SS, as well as by the other prisoners—criminals and political prisoners—who viewed "filthy queers" as scum. They were distinguished by the large, pink triangles sown onto their prison outfits, making them targets of denigration. Also, homosexuals labored through the worst of the forced work details and were forced into deadly medical experimentation.
Heinz Hegel's book brings the harsh facts surrounding the persecution of gays under the Third Reich’s Section 175 anti-homosexuality laws. We are given the shocking historical context which few of us know, that people even suspected of same gender love relationships were tortured and killed by the Nazi regime.
This is testament of survival against all odds, mixed with humor, not overbearing in tone or content. However, I found the book not essentially about the “men with the pink triangle”. It was more of a personal memoir. The other characters in it were at the edge of his horrific story.
While we can appreciate that Hegel survived six years of extermination camps, he ends the book by reminding us that "the progress of humanity" has largely ignored his minority group. When Hegel's book was written (1970), homosexual / lesbian relationships were still illegal in his native Austria. As if that wasn’t enough, we learn that homosexuals remain the only minority persecuted in Nazi camps omitted from compensation by the new German government.
I believe we need more books like this one. We need more testimonies from the homosexual survivors. But as Hegel explains that many of those gays who survived the camps are still unwilling to speak, and that is in part of how they were treated after the camps were "liberated." The Nazis were brutal in their treatment, but their reign of terror would not last. The new German government’s bureaucrats, however, were much more sinister. One could explain that the Third Reich’s Section 175 is still in effect.