Earlier this week there were two events observed in the Jewish Calendar: Tu B’Shevat on 25th January and Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th, the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Berkenau.
Tu B’Shevat is the day on which young trees are planted to mark the New Year for Trees. It is also a time when we try to do our bit towards repairing the world, known as Tikkun Olam. Many organisations, in recent years, have been planting new olive trees in Palestine in order to try and replace the 300 year-old olive groves which have been ripped up, destroyed and burnt by settlers in their land. More than ever in this troubled world there is a need to try to repair damage done not only to land and property, but to people whose lives have been disrupted by war.
There is a tenuous connection or correlation between the two events – the definition of “Holocaust” itself derives from the notion of burning, or being consumed by fire (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt”), although it is also known as the Shoah (Hebrew: השואה, HaShoah, “the catastrophe”)
Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is a day when we remember all those people who perished in the Nazis’ extermination programme in Europe – men, women and children: not only the six million Jews but others whom the Nazi regime deemed to be “unfit” or “unsuitable” as citizens of the Third Reich. These included those with mental and physical disabilities, Romani, Gypsies, Serbs, Soviet POWs, Ethnic Poles, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Spanish Republicans and all Homosexuals, whether gay or lesbians (in the terminology of that day) or transgender people. These other groups amounted to more than five million people bringing the total of murdered victims to over eleven million. These killings took place throughout Nazi Germany and all the German-occupied territories, particularly in Poland where the Auschwitz-Berkenau concentration camp was sited.
The slaughter of the Jews supposedly took place between 1941 and 1945 but in truth the Holocaust began much earlier than that. Persecution of the Jews began as early as 1938 (if not sooner) – Jewish businesses were attacked, Jewish academics were not allowed to work in the universities, Jewish professionals such as doctors and dentists were not allowed to practise and all Jewish books were burnt, a literal destruction of “all things Jewish”.
One event of significant note was “Kristallnacht” (often known as the Night of Broken Glass). The History Place recalls:
“A massive, coordinated attack on Jews throughout the German Reich on the night of November 9, 1938…The attack came after Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Jew living in Paris, shot and killed a member of the German Embassy staff there in retaliation for the poor treatment his father and his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis in Germany.
“On October 27, Grynszpan’s family and over 15,000 other Jews, originally from Poland, had been expelled from Germany without any warning. They were forcibly transported by train in boxcars then dumped at the Polish border.
“For Adolf Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, the shooting in Paris provided an opportunity to incite Germans to ‘rise in bloody vengeance against the Jews.’ “
The Nazis were particularly harsh towards the gay community, regarding gay people as being of no use to the Third Reich because they would not be able to increase the German birth rate by producing children. The Nazis also believed that homosexual men were weak and effeminate, therefore being unable to fight for the German cause. Heinrich Himmler had already begun the persecution of homosexuals as early as 1936 (and possibly sooner) – more than one million gay Germans were targeted under the existing laws against homosexuality: 100,000 of these were arrested and 50,000 imprisoned under both existing and new anti-gay laws. Many hundreds living in German occupied European countries were chemically castrated and thousands of others were incarcerated in mental institutions or sent to concentration camps. There they were forced to wear the infamous “Pink Triangle” on their shirts, much like the equally infamous Jewish Yellow Star.
The Nazis conducted a reign of terror amongst the homosexual community; many were persecuted continually, even after the end of the war. In all cases their lives had been devastated and destroyed.
According to Austrian survivor Heinz Heger, gay men “suffered a higher mortality rate than other relatively small victim groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners”.
Heger went on to write a book, entitled “Men with the Pink Triangle“, which is the best-known testimony of a homosexual survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. It is available from Gay Men’s Press and on Amazon, as are other books such as “The pink triangle: The Nazi war against homosexuals” by Richard Plant and “Branded by the Pink Triangle” by Ken Setterington. This latter book was supposedly intended for the junior non-fiction section of libraries but it has been described as “highly unsuitable for junior reading”.
While all these books have generally received good reviews they have also occasionally received criticism; however, they are certainly well worth reading and without them very little would be known about life of homosexual people under Nazism. If nothing else, they will give an insight into the history of the LGBTQI community in terms of the persecution of homosexuals in German-occupied Europe.
Tu B’Shevat and Holocaust Memorial Day mean many different things to the Jewish community, but ultimately they both point to the need for respect for all our fellow human beings of any nation, race, creed, belief or gender. Such respect is of paramount importance today, and these events continue to enable us to both remember and move on from the horrors of the past while also reminding us of the importance to respect human diversity.
We will remember them all!