Modern Heroes 1: The Priest With the Pink Triangle.

For the first post in my “queer modern heroes” series, I begin with someone most people have never heard of. (I’m not sure anyone even knows his name.) I begin with him because he represents a double martyrdom, martyred for his orientation, and also martyred for his faith. I choose him also precisely because he is anonymous,  reminding us that in our own way, we are all called to our own  heroism in the face of persecution, all called to be “martyrs” in the true, original sense – as witnesses to truth. I read this story in John McNeill’s “Taking a Chance on God“: McNeill got the story from Heinz Heger.  These are McNeill’s words:

“I would like to end this reflection on the mature life of faith with the eyewitness account of a gay priest who was beaten to death in a German concentration camp during World War II because he refused to stop praying or to express contempt for himself. The story is recounted by Heinz Heger in his book “The Men With the Pink Triangle“, in which he he recalls what took place in the special concentration camp for gay men in Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen was a “level 3” camp where prisoners were deliberately worked to death):


“Homosexual” prisoners in Sachsenhausen

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Toward the end of February, 1940, a priest arrived in our block, a man some 60 years of age, tall and with distinguished features.  We alter discovered that he came from Sudetenland, from an aristocratic German family.

He found the torment of the arrival procedure especially trying, particularly the long wait naked and barefoot outside the block. When his tonsure was discovered after the shower, the SS corporal in charge took up a razor and said “I’ll go to work on this one myself, and extend his tonsure a bit.” And he saved the priest’s head with the razor, taking little trouble to avoid cutting the scalp.  quite the contrary.

The priest returned to the day-room of our lock with his head cut open and blood streaming down.  His face was ashen and his eyes stared uncomprehendingly into the distance.  He sat down on a bench, folded his hands in his lap and said softly, more to himself than to anyone else:  “And yet man is good, he is a creature of God!”

I was sitting beside him, and said softly but firmly: “Not all men; there are also beasts in human form, whom the devil must have made.”

The priest paid no attention to my words, he just prayed silently, merely moving his lips.  I was deeply moved, even though I was by then already numbed by all the suffering I had see, and indeed experienced myself. But I had always had a great respect for priests, so that his silent prayer, this mute appeal to God, whom he called upon for help and strength in his bodily pain and mental torment, went straight to my heart.

Our block Capo, however, a repulsive and brutal “green”, must have reported the priest’s praying to the SS, for our block-sergeant suddenly burst into the day-room accompanied by a second NCO, seizing the terrified priest from the bench and punching and insulting him. The priest bore the beating and abuse without complaint, and just stared at te two SS men with wide, astonished eyes. This must simply have made them angrier, for they now took one of the benches and tied the priest to it.

They started to beat him indiscriminately with their sticks, on his stomach, his belly and his sexual organs.  They seemed to get more and more ecstatic, and gloated: “We’ll drive the praying out of you! You bum-fucker! bum-fucker!”

The priest collapsed into unconsciousness, was shaken awake and then fell unconscious again.

Finally the two SS sadists ceased their blows and left the day-room, though not without scornfully calling back to the man they had now destroyed.: “OK, you randy old rat-bag, you can piss with your arse-hole in future.”

The priest just rattled and groaned. We released him and laid him on his bed. He tried to raise his hand in thanks, but he hadn’t the strength, and his voice gave out when he tried to say “thank you.” He just lay without stirring, his eyes open, each movement contorting his face with pain.

I felt I was witnessing the crucifixion of of Christ in modern guise.Instead of Roman soldiers, Hitler’s SS thugs, and a bench instead of a cross. The torment of the Saviour, however, was scarcely greater than that inflicted on one of his representatives nineteen hundred years later here in Sachsenhausen.

The next morning, when we marched to the parade ground, we had almost to carry the priest, who seemed about to collapse again from pain and weakness. When our block senior reported to the SS block sergeant, the latter came over to the priest and shouted “You filthy queer, you filthy swine, say what you are!” The priest was supposed to repeat the insults, but no sound came from the lips of  the broken man.The SS man angrily fell on him and was about to start beating him once again.

Suddenly the unimaginable happened, something that is still inexplicable to me and that I cold only see as a miracle, the finger of God.

From the overcast sky, a sudden ray of sunshine that illumined the priest’s battered face.

Out of the thousands of assembled prisoners, only him, and at the very moment when he was going to be beaten again.  There was a remarkable silence, and all present stared up fixedly at the sky, astonished by what had happened.The SS sergeant himself looked up at the clouds in wonder for a few seconds, then let his hand, raised for a beating, sink slowly to his side, and walked wordlessly away to take up his position at the end of his ranks.

The priest bowed his head and murmured with a dying voice:”Thank you Lord……..I know that my time has come.”

He was still with us for the evening parade.  But we no loner needed to carry him, we laid him down at the end of the line with the other dead of the day, so that our numbers should be complete for the roll-call – no matter whether living or dead.

It is a constant theme running through “Taking a Chance on God” that it is not possible to separate sound theology from sound psychology – and that self-hatred cannot be sound psychology.  It follows that to see ourselves as  “dirty”, “filthy swine”, or somehow “disordered”, no matter what some church spokesmen might say, cannot be sound theology. A second theme, made explicit in the title, is that in the face of persecution (by Church or by state), it is important to remember that this is not God speaking, but man. It is unlikely that we will ourselves ever have to face the extremity that befell the priest with the pink triangle.  However, in facing our own lesser trials, we would still do well to follow his example.  Hold fast to the recognition that we are all created by God, who does not make mistakes:  and develop through an active prayer life, our own direct experience of God. Once that has been attained, as Karl Rahner has pointed out, nothing said by the Church can harm us.

McNeill concludes his chapter on developing a mature faith life with these important words and a prayer:

We gays and lesbians have a model and a patron in this anonymous priest who was martyred because he dared to be both gay and a man of prayer.

Almighty God, help us, your lesbian daughters and gay sons, to  grow and mature in our faith. Free us from the spirit of fear and cowardice. Grant that all the suffering and pain experienced in the past by those who were persecuted because they were gay or lesbian will not have been in vain, but will help win for us and for all our people in the future the grace of true liberation.  Fill our hearts with a deep awareness of your love for us so that we may be free to love one another in a spirit of gratitude.





7 Responses to “Modern Heroes 1: The Priest With the Pink Triangle.”

  1. Mark from PA Says:

    Perhaps, someone should send this story to Pope Benedict XVI. How sad that he had to be raised in such a society. I wonder if he were raised in a society where gay people were seen as equal in dignity and humanity to others, if he would have different opinions on gay people. When he was growing up, gay people were “untermenschen” no better than Jew, Gypsies and others so I suppose that we can’t be surprised at some of his statements.

  2. Jack McNulty Says:

    Very beautifully written .

  3. colkoch Says:

    This is just brilliant and heart breaking at the same time. Thank you Terence.

    The point about sound psychology and sound theology is just critical. Mark’s observations about Benedict are undoubtedly true.

  4. Frank D Says:

    Unfortunately McNeill is a persona non grata when it comes to theologians. B16 won’t give him the time of day. Thanks, however for reminding me of this story and “The Men With the Pink Triangle”. We must not forget our history.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      You’re right, Mark, that he is not welcomed by the theologians of the Vatican and the institutional church. However, there are today a far wider range of theologians that matter, and many of these are entirely prepared to take McNeill seriously: see for instance the impressive “festschrifte” that accompanies his latest book, “Sex as God Intended”.

      However traditional theologians might view John McNeill, his writing is vitally important as a source of inspiration and guidance for lesbian and gay Catholics. We would do well to digest his ideas, even if (especially if?) the institutional church disapproves.

  5. KittKatt Says:

    What a powerful way to begin your series on queer modern heroes! This is an important story well told… although the details of the torture are unbearable to read. Thank you for sharing the story of the anonymous priest who became a martyr, model and patron for us. I look forward to seeing more of this series.
    This is the first time I’ve ever seen a photo of prisoners wearing the pink triangle in Sachsenhausen. Sobering, and unforgettable!

  6. Sebastian Says:

    A moving and noble story. I am troubled by the cowardice of so many at this time, including myself. The bravery and heroic virtue of this nameless priest indict me, and so many others.

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