A chance meeting during a childhood holiday in the former Yugoslavia was the catalyst for a powerful play that sheds light on a dark chapter in 20th century history.
Many years later, Richard Stride, the artistic director at Groundlings Theatre, wrote Pink Triangle after being given a box of old holiday snaps by his mother.
It reminded him of the conversation he had with ‘Luca’, back in the early 1980s, when he was about 12 on what was an otherwise miserable trip, staying in a rundown hotel.
Luca told the young Richard how he had been imprisoned in Dachau Concentration Camp by the Nazis during the Second World War for being a homosexual. Like Jews had to wear a yellow star, prisoners identified as gay had to wear a pink triangle, and those wearing the triangle were treated as the lowest of the low.
This man – his name has been changed in the play – also told Richard how he made a particularly grisly escape from Dachau, killing a guard in the process.
Recalling the chat Richard tells The Guide: ‘His wife knew there was a very dark past there, but he never talk about – she’d never heard this before. Being a young a lad and fascinated about it, I probed him like mad with all of these questions, because I’d met someone who was actually in the Second World War.’
Luca eventually met and fell in love with an English nurse and moved with her back to Yorkshire.
‘This was first trip back to his country of origin,’ says Richard. ‘This hotel was in the village where he grew up.
‘In those days it was a crime, so he repressed his homosexual side, as so many did, but he did fall in love with a young man.’
Richard admits he was sceptical at the time about what he was being told.
It sounds horrific, to tell this 12/13-year-old kid - but it didn’t shock me, I don’t know why. It shocked me to a degree, but it didn’t freak me out. A lot of it, I didn’t think it was possible.
‘There was a little bit of me thought he was embellishing the truth, but I did some research and I did find his name in Dachau, and that he wasn’t actually there at the end of the war.
There’s difficulty in tracking certain things, like prisoners would often lie about their ages. (if too young or too old they would be killed)
Luca told him about the punishments they would receive and the barbaric way they were treated.
‘He said we were even bullied and hit upon by the other prisoners. They were absolutely thought of as the bottom of the pile – he said that the pink triangle was basically a target. One day his friend was shot dead in front of him – for no reason, the guards were just playing a game.’
As Richard looked into the subject, the full horror their plight hit him.
‘I started researching it and the bit I never knew and shocked me most was that when The Allies liberated the camps, most of the homosexuals were reincarcerated, many back into the same camps and treated the same way by The Allies, or put back into other prisons to finish their sentences.’
With some staying in prison until the 1960s, it was only decades later that any official apologies were made – which was too late for many who had already died.
‘It’s a story about this man who escaped, but it’s also like a forgotten history about the treatment they continued to get from The Allies – the Americans, the British, the Russians – they continued to torture them and to experiment on them, and these people weren’t ever liberated.’
Richard wrote the play to highlight the plight of these forgotten people. ‘It wasn’t documented properly because they were still considered criminals at the end of the war, and there’s very little information out there.
‘You always had that idea, and you were taught in school, that the camps were liberated – not that they carried on being operated in the same way for the homosexuals.’
Groundlings Theatre, Portsmouth