Ian McKellen as Max in an early production of Martin Sherman’s Bent.

Bent and Broken

Samuel J. Aronson
6 min readMar 21, 2018


Earlier this month Theatre Cedar Rapids opened a production of Martin Sherman’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, Bent, which tells the story of Max, a gay man living in Nazi Germany, and his persecution at the hands of the government, and society at large. This production makes a grave mistake which necessitiates a careful analysis of how we remember the Holocaust.

Upon entering the theatre the audience is invited to select from an assortment of fabric swatches representing the badges worn by victims of the Holocaust. Most famously, during the time of the Holocaust, Jews were frequently forced to wear a yellow Star of David, often with the word “Jew” stitched inside. Other well-known badges include a pink triangle for male homosexuals, a purple triangle for Jehovah’s Witnesses, or red triangle for political prisoners such as communists. Encouraging the audience to select a badge is not only ahistorical, but is insulting to the memory of victims of the Holocaust, and will leave audience members with a dangerously inaccurate perception of the experience of the victims, which presumably is diametrically opposed to the desired intention of the director.

After they selected their badge the audience was encourage to wear it for the duration of the play for the purpose of… I cannot honestly say. Every aspect of this practice is deeply concerning and serves no purpose except diminishing Holocaust history. Permitting the audience to select from an assortment of badges is where the mistakes begin. The victims of the Holocaust never had such an option, though in an ironic twist of fate, a character in Bent does explore why so many would have done nearly anything to have the choice given to the Cedar Rapids audience.

From the outside, the experience of one concentration camp victim may appear indistinguishable from another, but inside a camp that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The badges so capriciously handed out to the Theatre Cedar Rapids audience were carefully assigned by the Nazis to their victims. Even within the same camp at the same time, sometimes a differently colored badge could be the difference between life and death.

Within concentration camps, a hierarchy often developed among camp prisoners, and a victim like Bent’s Max would be near the bottom. Male homosexuals were often singled out for the harshest treatment in a Nazi concentration camp, a place where the “best treatment” for a prisoner was unimaginably horrific by any standard. Nazi ideology viewed homosexuality as a disease which could be cured through humiliation and hard work. In the concentration camps of Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbürg, and Buchenwald, the most deadly work details were often assigned to homosexuals. While other groups were able to band together to form support networks which mitigated Nazi brutality, that was not an option for homosexuals who were unlikely to survive long in the camps. This particular brutality was doled out to homosexual victims by both Nazis and other prisoners, an experience nearly unique in the history of the Holocaust.

In Bent, Max, who is not a Jew, temporarily assumes a Jewish identity at Dachau and remains in the closet in order to avoid being further persecuted, since he understood homosexuals were considered to be the lowest of the low among inmates. At Auschwitz the guards were known to bring male homosexuals to the brothel in the camp and force them to have intercourse with the prostitutes, who were other camp inmates. If they couldn’t perform sexually they were frequently subject to beatings and sometimes death. Max understood what this production of Bent does not: badges are life and death and not to be taken lightly.

The very idea of encouraging the audience to willingly don a badge for an evening of theater is especially distasteful when the purpose of the badges is honestly considered. Ostensibly the Nazis claimed the purpose of the badging was public safety; identifying those who posed a threat allowed “innocent citizens” to protect themselves. In reality the badge was a form of slow torture.

The yellow star badge worn by Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Nazi occupied territories was meant to dehumanize and stigmatize its bearer. Individuals wearing the badge were ripe for exploitation, easily identified for public ridicule or assault, and eventually deportation. A century before the Holocaust, Nathaniel Hawthorne understood the power of publically marking someone with a scarlet letter; the Nazis did, too.

The wedding of Salomon Schrijver and Flora Mendels in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.

The badge had to be worn; the victims had no choice. They wore it on their wedding day, to the grocery store, and every time in between. The badge signified an immutable characteristic detested by the Nazis, characteristics like your religion, disability, sexual orientation, or nationality to name but a few. The presence of the badge on the victim was to be as permanent as the characteristic they were highlighting. Nothing could be further from the reality of the Holocaust than sitting in a climate controlled theatre where you have the option to choose one badge over another, or no badge at all. The world of the Holocaust was a world where choice was ultimately a meaningless concept; to imply otherwise is inaccurate and insulting.

Creating a space where an entire audience participates in a Holocaust costume party shifts from bad taste to dangerous when the question of the future is raised. Even in theatre, the most cathartic medium, an event like the Holocaust cannot be wholly transferred from actor to audience member, let alone victim to playwright. In his brilliant analysis of theatre about the Holocaust, Stages of Annihilation, Edward Isser tell us “[a]n event like the Holocaust defies the possible and the probable. There can be no ego transference into the unimaginable world of the concentration camp universe: There can be no catharsis in the enactment of mass murder.” Putting it more bluntly, Nora Levin berates artists who use the Holocaust as a symbol or metaphor, saying they “pander to the craving for the sadistic, the pornographic, sentimental, grotesque, even the comic, in the abuse of…history.”

When the survivors who actually were forced to wear these badges are nothing more than ghosts, the Holocaust will continue to live in its art. However, if that art includes tacky simulations where audience members are led to believe they can better understand the experience of Holocaust victims by wearing a badge for an hour or two before they leave the matinée and head to Baskin Robbins or Target, in short order people will start to wonder if it was really all that bad. When describing places like Auschwitz, Holocaust victims have an expression:

If you’ve never been there then you can’t get in, and once you are inside, you can never leave.

None of us who were lucky enough to be born after the terror of the Third Reich can ever begin to understand what life was like in a concentration camp, but if we lead people to believe that they can though a prop or piece of swag what could they possibly think besides “that wasn’t so bad.” After all, they “experienced” the Holocaust and are now off to dinner!

Elie Wiesel warned that we are “living though a period of general…Holocaust… de-sanctification.” In a time when it is possible for both perpetrator and victim to be present in the audience we must hold our artists to a higher standard. When it is no longer possible for either to be in the audience, the highest standard may not even be high enough.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this practice comes at the very end of the evening, after the audience gives the actors what I’m sure is a much-deserved standing ovation, after the theatre is completely empty. Gathering their coats and hats, their Playbill resting in the recycling bin downstairs, the audience member makes the choice to take off the badge, the one thing a victim wanted almost more then any other.

The power of the badges cannot, and must not, be understated. In Night, Elie Wiesel recalled his thoughts after his father, Shlomo, who died at Buchenwald, attempted to comfort his family when they were ordered for the first time to put on their badge:

Shlomo: “The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it…”

Elie: “Poor Father! Of what then did you die?”

Samuel J. Aronson is an Assistant Dean in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. He studies the role of science and technology in the Holocaust.



Samuel J. Aronson

Holocaust Historian and Georgetown University Associate Dean