Yom Hashoah and the Pink Triangle

By Halley Cohen
Director, GLOE – GLBT Outreach & Engagement

credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

This Thursday, we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, but for decades, LGBT people were not recognized among the groups of victims, and omitted from the Day’s observances. This erasure is why, when we now say, “never forget,” it needs to specifically include those who wore the pink triangle in the camps, the designation of “homosexual.”

The colors were not just for sorting, but rather, each functioned as a quick visual cue of your ranking in the hierarchy of the camps. The ranking had implications for your treatment and the likelihood of your survival. Homosexuals ranked at the bottom with Jews, both receiving the worst treatment and a mortality rate estimated at 50-60%.

However, unlike the Jewish prisoners, at the end of the war homosexuals were not released from the camps.

We never want to weigh suffering among groups to create some kind of hierarchy of pain. Still, for those of us who fall into both of these “worst treatment” categories, Yom Hashoah is particularly resonant, knowing that after the war, as the world “discovered” what had been happening to the Jews in the camps, that the horrors were not yet over for LGBT people.

Still seen as deviants or criminals or ill, gay prisoners often were either not released, or immediately put into prisons for the crime of homosexuality.

These “criminals” were not pardoned by German lawmakers until 2002.

That is, if they managed to survive the war in the first place. Not only were they a favorite of the German soldiers for target practice, for the hardest work details, and for surgical experiments (similar to the Jewish experience), gay men were also routinely beaten to death by fellow prisoners.

It is little surprise that we know much less about their experiences than those of others in the camps:

“Reading the many reports and asking the prisoners’ committees (which still exist today) about the prisoners with the pink triangles, one repeatedly learns that they were there, but nobody can tell you anything about them. Quantitative analysis offers a sad explanation for the extraordinary lack of visibility: the individual pink-triangle prisoner was likely to live for only a short time in the camp and then to disappear from the scene.” -Ruediger Lautmann, in his sociological research

We can only imagine how long those of us who would’ve worn a pink and yellow star would’ve lasted.

In their memory, we can all learn about – and make part of any Holocaust remembrance conversation – what happened to all of those who had another color triangle sewn to their yellow one.

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Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part II

(Read Part I: On Connection here.)

Part II: On Action

Young professionals and college students are taking a deep interest in connecting to our remaining Holocaust survivors.

For example, in New York City, hundreds of volunteers team up with the iVolunteer organization to visit often-lonely Holocaust survivors and become like family.

According to the 2009 Claims Conference, survivors are “more likely than other elderly to be socially isolated, and as a result, are more likely to live in poverty and be in poorer health.”

While health and financial needs plague today’s survivor population, the worst poverty is loneliness. These feelings are greatly alleviated through volunteer visits. But honestly, I feel like the volunteers get more out of these visits than they could ever give.

However, while Jews across the world remember the Shoah this week, there is a large number of people who are unaware of the critical need for basic safety net services for many of the frail and aging Holocaust survivors who live right here in our own community.

According to the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), DC’s community safety net organization, there are hundreds of survivors in the DC-area in need of critical homecare and medical support services.  In fact, JSSA is reporting a dramatic increase this year in the number of survivors requesting care. As a result, JSSA is now facing critical shortfalls as the need is outpacing available funding.  (Learn more about the issue here.)

In light of all these issues, EntryPointDC partnered with JSSA to create an Inter-generational Passover Program with Silver Spring-area Holocaust survivors on Good Deeds Day. This was a memorable event not only for the Holocaust survivors, who were elated to have the opportunity to tell their personal stories and socialize with each other, but also for the young professionals who got to connect with them.

For one participant, it was his first time meeting a survivor, never having had the opportunity first hand. For a young woman, who is an Iraqi Jew , it was important to her to come because her own family had been persecuted in Iraq. Another came to connect with his Jewish heritage for the first time since the passing of his father.

Others came as proud representatives of their own survivor grandparents. After the event, one shared, “I just wanted to thank you for organizing this event; it really was so special.”

These connections are so important to our community. This June, we’re trying to make more of these inter-generational exchanges happen.

Service for SurvivorsWe want to connect survivors and young professionals with our Service For Survivors Trip – a Service Learning Trip to Miami Beach, Florida. Participants from EntryPointDC, GLOE, Community Services, and other partners will be joining us. Truly, we welcome anyone in their 20s & 30s to join us  in this mitzvah.

One of my favorite things about this project is the chance I’ll get to interact and connect with individual survivors, knowing that this is a population deeply in need, AND that there is something we can do about it. (The fact we’ll all be hanging out in Miami Beach doesn’t hurt either.)

As the last generational link, we are almost out of time to hear their stories.

And then, when the time comes, we’ll pass those stories on.

Recognizing Current Issues this Yom Hashoah – Part I

Part I: On Connection

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a time for commemoration and reflection about the Holocaust and the six million men, women, and children who lost their lives because they were Jewish.

Yom Hashoah, which falls on Thursday April 19th, is also a day to honor the survivors and listen to their stories. I love working at a place where we get to look at these stories in multiple ways, knowing that everyone connects to it in different ways – whether it’s through film (Nicky’s Family) or art (Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland), or through conversations.

The important part is that the connection happens.

My own interest in Holocaust studies began in my eighth grade Holocaust course with my teacher Mrs. Silverman. Unlike other projects in the past, the research projects in her class did not feel like homework, but rather like an opportunity for meaningful exploration – not something that junior high students often get to experience.

That eighth-grade project on survivors impacted the rest of my life: I’ve been studying and teaching the Yom Shoah ever since in some way or another – the power of having an amazing teacher!

My goal is to help others have similarly resonant experiences with this survivor community.

In Jacksonville, Florida, I brought my public school students to a Yom Hashoah program at the Jewish Community Center there. The majority of them were Muslim Bosnians whose parents were subjected to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. These students really responded to class lessons on the history of the Holocaust, and asked to volunteer at the ceremony.

At the program, they were in awe because for the first time, they were able to put a face with the  Shoah history, and could personally connect to another group that understood genocide, first-hand.

The Passover seder, which talks about freedom from oppression, is often used as a time for Holocaust reflection. In fact, many Haggadot include passages about the relationship between the Holocaust and Egypt. Some Haggadot even explain how victims observed the holiday in Nazi occupied Europe.

A few weeks ago, just before Passover, one of my best friends, a 27 year old young professional working in Finance, discovered her own family’s experience in the Holocaust. It had a huge impact on her and inspired her to lead the seder at her home for the first time, and to intertwine the two histories.

She wrote me:
‘After lighting the candles and saying a prayer, the first thing I said to initiate our Passover 2012 was: “These are the traditions our grandparents celebrated with their families before the war, and it is important to preserve these traditions and honor all of those we have lost.”

I then passed around a framed photograph (that came into my possession only a few days before), with a picture of my grandfather’s immediate family. Being able to see six individuals who did not survive enabled everyone else at our seder to truly feel the importance of this night.’

These are the vital connections we need to make with our survivors – teaching lessons to young people and within our own families – so that no future generation has to have first-hand experience with genocide again.


Read Part II: On Action Here

Shabbat Surfing–Media Consolidation Edition

This week brought evidence that even alterna-indie Jewish publications are not immune to the forces of globalization and media conglomeration. We’re speaking of course, of the “merger” (although that probably isn’t the right word) between Jewcy and Zeek. It is a slightly odd marriage between a hip, snarky cultural comment blog-cum-purveyor of equally snarky baby-doll tee-shirts; and a high minded literary journal that dares to publish poetry along with short fiction and brainy essays on literature, art and music. I’m a fan of both and understand that it is just an online collaboration–Zeek will continue to publish its bricks and mortar journal. I just hope one doesn’t get lost inside the other. This week, Zeek has a great interview with Joseph Cedar, the Israeli director of Beaufort which was nominated for an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Jewcy uses the occassions of Yom HaShoah and the Anniversary of Hitler’s death for a hilarious (to me anyway) exposition of Godwin’s Law: in which all three major candidates, a celebrity chef, Santa Claus and the student body of Columbia University are all compared to Hitler. Very funny stuff.Ayelet Zurer

Elsewhere, our favorite Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (The Treatment, Nina’s Tragedies, Florentene) is about to go totally Audrey Tautou in a prequel to the DaVinci Code.

Finally, the media synergy between Jewlicious and Shemspeed records continues with this DJ Balagan re-mix in honor of Israel @ 60.

Yom HaShoah–Making Memory Meaningful

This week marks Yom HaShoah, the day set aside for remembering the victims of the Holocaust. It is around this time every year that I receive an email from some well-meaning friend or acquaintance that goes something along the lines of, “keep forwarding this email remembering the six million until it has reached six million Jews and we’ll have had our revenge on Hitler.” I may be getting the details wrong, it may be the goal to send it not to six million Jews but to sixty million people. It may not say anything about having “our revenge on Hitler,” it may be a tad less dramatic, something about, “keeping memory eternally alive.”

I don’t forward these emails. Hitting forward may fulfill a desire for active memory for some, but not for me. No thanks. Then again, I can’t quite bring myself to hit delete either. Who am I to tell people how they should remember? Is it worse that they should remember through chain emails than not remember at all? Is deleting one of these emails, over-wrought though I find them, akin to aiding and abetting a creeping complacency in historical amnesia?

We’re showing a film tonight, The Last Fighters about the living remnant of a moment in history at once tragic and heroic. It won’t grant us some sort of revenge on the many evil and many more complicit people who conspired to make a place like the Warsaw Ghetto a reality. It certainly will not lessen the burden of finding ways to remember the genocide of the Holocaust without becoming enslaved to that memory. And in the years since Warsaw, we’ve witnessed Cambodia, Darfur and Bosnia, so we know that our memory alone cannot prevent future genocides from taking place.

What we can do is draw on the memory of those who were lost, those who fought and those who survived in the unending work of repairing a badly broken world. An email can’t do that alone. Neither can a film. But it’s a start. As long as it’s not the end.

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