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Unspeakable Circumstances

flowerAt the Philadelphia Fringe Arts Festival this week, Truth Be Told Productions is reviving Bent, a powerful 1979 play by Martin Sherman that is more relevant than ever. After the Sunday performance, I had the honor of participating on a discussion panel.

Sherman broke new ground 35 years ago by highlighting the persecution of homosexual men by the Nazis. There had been virtually no prior acknowledgement of gay suffering during the Holocaust. In fact, 100,000 men were arrested for the crime of homosexuality. 50,000 were officially sentenced for that crime. Between 5,000 and 15,000 ended up in concentration camps, where their 60% death rate there was significantly higher than that of other non-Jewish people.

Sherman’s play, which was nominated for a Tony Award and made into a motion picture a decade later, portrays the horrific ways in which men accused of homosexuality were tortured and killed by the Nazis. As we continue to learn all too frequently in our own time, when a group is dehumanized, the consequences are often violent and sometimes genocidal.

Bent also highlights the power and importance of accepting and integrating one’s own queer identity. Max, the main character, is determined to survive the multi-year ordeal at all costs. He denies his sexual orientation and denies that he knows his lover Rudy. He chooses the yellow star over the pink triangle, because he believes that gays are treated more cruelly at Dachau than Jews. In the end, however, his connection with Horst, a proud gay inmate, is what sustains him in the barracks and the quarries.

Before his arrest in 1934, Max is an upper class pleasure seeker who does not believe that love is something that homosexual men feel for each other. He is offended and angered by Horst’s declaration of love, despite their deep and intimate nonphysical connection. In the end, however, he acknowledges the love he feels and ultimately cannot survive without it.

The play raises profound questions about what it means to survive. If the cost of survival is abandoning one’s lover and denying one’s own identity, is that really survival? If being murdered is the price of affirming one’s identity, what is survival worth? There are no correct answers to these questions. When camp inmates were able to make choices (and they were rarely able to do so), it is not for us to judge choices made in unspeakable circumstances.

Finally, the play reminded me of the correlation between the Nazi genocide of six million Jews and the extraordinary embrace of queer people by the Jewish community over the last half century. The collective experience of being dehumanized and gassed just for being who you are really does inoculate you against thoughtlessly dehumanizing other groups. Often enough, Jewish Holocaust survivors and their children express exactly this point when someone comes out to them as lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender: “Who am I to condemn you as unnatural or immoral for a sexual orientation of gender identity with which you were born? I know exactly what that feels like and to what consequences that intolerance can lead.”

With new productions of Bent, Martin Sherman continues to affirm and support the full humanity of all people and the paramount importance of loving relationships.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at

Image: “Silk Curtain Morning Glory?” by Bill Gracey via Flickr.

Type: Essay

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