"NAZI PERSECUTION of Homosexuals 1933-1945," which opened last month at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is a Web site masquerading as an exhibition. While its content is powerful and disturbing, its awkward and user-unfriendly physical presentation as a series of free-standing kiosks devoid of any actual artifacts scarcely justifies its inclusion in a museum setting. Without so much as an original pink triangle patch -- the badge of dishonor forced upon homosexual male prisoners by the Nazis -- the show is little more than glorified signage.
Part of that, to be sure, is a function of the fact that the show has been designed to travel, and can therefore ill afford to haul around a bunch of valuable historical objects.
The central subject of the exhibition is something called Paragraph 175, a section of the German criminal code that had been in effect since the days of Kaiser Wilhelm I in the late 19th century and whose language outlawed "unnatural indecency" between men (lesbianism, it seems, was less of a threat to the fatherland). Revised in 1935 to eliminate some vagueness and to include such offenses as "simple looking" and "simple touching," the law became the chief tool of the Nazis in a systematic campaign that included the harassment, persecution, institutionalization in mental hospitals, incarceration, castration and murder of gays. In the 12 years that the Nazis were in power, as the exhibition points out, more than 100,000 men were arrested, half of whom served prison terms and an untold number of whom suffered other -- sometimes worse -- fates.
Perhaps most interestingly, the persecution did not end with the war's conclusion. As the exhibition script surprisingly notes, Paragraph 175 stayed on the books through 1969. Despite the repeal of many other laws instituted by the Nazis, some gays served out the remainder of their sentences under Allied occupation.
While the subject of the show and its raft of statistics are undeniably horrific, what "Nazi Persecution" sorely needs is a human face, some kind of video reminiscence, even, that would drive the emotional impact home. No amount of reading can do that.
Your time might be better spent, say, renting the 1999 documentary film "Paragraph 175" for its interviews with survivors. Or at least attending one of the exhibition's public programs listed at right. Despite some printed handouts in the gallery addressing, at least theoretically, "One Person's Story," and despite many reproductions of criminal mug shots, the show fails to lift the persecution of homosexuals out of the realm of an idea -- admittedly a heinous one -- into the realm of moral outrage.
As Joseph Stalin is alleged to have said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
NAZI PERSECUTION OF HOMOSEXUALS 1933-1945 -- Through March 16 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place (15th Street) SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-488-0400. www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/hsx. Open 10 to 5:30 daily, except Christmas. No tickets are required for the special exhibition; same-day passes to the permanent Holocaust exhibit are available at the museum; advance passes available by calling 800-400-9373 or Tickets.com (service charge added).
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Jan. 23 from 7 to 9 -- "Lavender Songs." Alan Lareau, associate professor of German at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and author of "The Wild Stage: Literary Cabaret of the Weimar Republic," presents a slide lecture on the Berlin cabaret culture of the pre-Nazi era, with songs performed by actor and singer Jeremy Lawrence. Free, but reservations are required. Call 202-488-0407 after Sunday.
Jan. 30 from 7 to 9 -- "Coming into Focus." James D. Steakley, professor of German at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, presents clips from selected documentaries and feature films recording and dramatizing the stories of homosexuals' resistance and survival in Nazi Germany. Free, but reservations are required. Call 202-488-0407 after Sunday.
Feb. 2 from 3 to 5 -- "Homosexual Survivors." Klaus Muller, the museum's program coordinator for Western Europe, gives a multimedia presentation featuring videos, photos, and other materials that explore the effects of recent research, film documentaries, and exhibitions on the public's recognition of the victimization faced by homosexuals under the Third Reich. Free, but reservations are required. Call 202-488-0407 after Sunday.