Josef Kohout was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Vienna in 1915. When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, he was twenty-three years old. The following spring, he was ordered to report to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna. Kohout soon discovered that the Gestapo had been investigating him for his romantic relationship with another young man.1 The Nazi regime excluded many people from the so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") for not conforming to Nazi social expectations.2
Kohout was immediately arrested and then sentenced to several months’ imprisonment under Paragraph 129—the Austrian statute criminalizing sexual relations between people of the same sex.3 Like many other men convicted for sexual relations with other men, Kohout was imprisoned indefinitely after he had served out his initial sentence.4 In 1940, he became a so-called “Schutzhäftling” (“protective custody prisoner”) at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was assigned prisoner number 1896.5
This identification badge was worn by Kohout in the Flossenbürg camp. Because sexual relations between men remained criminalized after the war ended, few people kept such objects. This is the only known example of a badge worn by somebody imprisoned in the Nazi camp system for being gay.6 Camp authorities classified prisoners with a series of colored triangles, which were used on camp documents and sewn onto camp uniforms. Those imprisoned for sexual relations with other men were typically identified by pink triangles. These sometimes appeared similar to the red triangles worn by political prisoners. For example, compare the pink and red triangles in this list of symbols created in 1941 to guide the classification of prisoners in Buchenwald.
During the time that he was imprisoned, camp guards and his fellow prisoners targeted Kohout for being gay. In his memoirs, Kohout describes an incident in which a camp guard used the question of whether his triangle was pink or “very pale red” as an excuse to harass him.7 Guards regularly insulted and beat him. They assigned some of the camp’s most difficult and dangerous work to Kohout and his fellow “pink-triangle prisoners.”8 Other prisoners also regularly abused Kohout and those with pink-triangle badges. Kohout endured insults, beatings, and sexual assaults from other prisoners because he was gay.
Prisoners in positions of authority within the camp—known as kapos—often sexually abused and exploited lower-ranking prisoners at Flossenbürg. Sexual assaults and coercive same-sex relationships were common, and “pink-triangle prisoners” were often targeted. In his memoirs, Kohout describes how he agreed to enter into sexual relationships with kapos in order to survive. These relationships helped shield him from other prisoners’ beatings and provided better food and work assignments.9 In exchange, he was expected “to be lover and bed partner at any time when my protector had the desire.” He explains that “there was no other choice,” because rejecting their proposals would have meant “persecution that would surely have led to my death."10
Kohout survived for six years before his liberation by US forces during a death march toward Dachau in April 1945. Kohout chose to keep his prisoner identification badge.11 He kept it until his death in 1994, when his partner donated the badge to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Why might he have chosen to keep an object that represented his persecution and suffering under Nazi rule?12