“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel
There is a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. That memorial is why we began this series, and that memorial is where it will end. The memorial is the subject of frequent vandalism, and that is what our final article in the World War 2 series is going to be about. Every queer person was in danger during World War 2. Queer people were sent to concentration camps, queer people were killed, queer people suffered. Any community would suffer from the loss of so many people, but the difference is that we were not allowed to mourn our loss. There is controversy over having one memorial site for the queer lives lost while at the same time there are hundreds for the other groups who suffered; there is little record of our existence. The experiences of people during the Holocaust differ in extremes, of course, and there is no way to properly compare pain like that, and saying that any group had it worse than another is a gross and irresponsible simplification of a complex situation. So when we look at two different experiences of the Holocaust - that of the queer community versus that of everyone else, it is not intended to diminish either. Both are important stories to be told, and both deserve equal weight, but one of them gets the attention it deserves, and one of them doesn’t.
While the persecution of queer people was by far in a smaller scale than many other groups during that time, there are many differences between the way the queer people experienced concentration camps than any other group. One important factor to acknowledge when looking at the numbers is that the numbers are incredibly unreliable in this case. It is hard to calculate the number of people affected for many reasons, but one that is particularly pertinent to this situation is the amount of survivors who still live in hiding. While most of the people who were in the concentration camps were released as soon as it was possible to safely do so, it was a different situation when someone was branded with the pink triangle that represented queer people (though not all queer people: queer women and AFAB people were under a different marker). They would often go straight from the concentration camp to a prison in their own country, and while the conditions were undoubtedly more humane, they were still forced to continue suffering. Because of this, many people hid their identity as an attempt to avoid being imprisoned, and others who didn’t hide their identity learned to do so. This forced self-denial makes it hard to get an accurate count of how many queer individuals were imprisoned. What we do have is an estimation of how many queer individuals died in the camps themselves. Sixty percent of the queer individuals who were imprisoned died before the war came to an end.
This high number can be attributed to many different factors. There was a large difference in the way other victims in the camps treated queer people than how they treated other groups. The pink triangle was a mark that led many people in the camp to be particularly brutal with other inmates, and that can account for a percentage of the high rate of deaths. Another thing that can account for it is the common tests on queer prisoners, as doctors tried to find a “cure”. This is not meant to say anyone’s pain is more important or more hurtful than other groups, no one’s experiences deserves to be minimized.
What we need to look at is in a memorial site in Germany, where one pillar stands to represent the homosexual victims, and the controversy over its existence, and after that the vandalization of the structure itself. It is important to note that the laws from Nazi-era Germany against homosexuals was not fully removed until 1969. It is important to note the fact that the stories of the queer survivors are not told the same way other survivors are, if they are told at all. It is important to look at the fact that many survived through concentration camps to later die in a prison in their home country. It is important to look at their stories, not to compare, but to share, to listen, to acknowledge, to give the base of human dignity they have been denied so long.
Rudolph Brazda the man believed to be the last queer survivor died in 2011. The chance to tell accurate stories about what occurred in the camps, and about how the queer community suffered, was missed. It would be comforting to say that the missed chance could be fixed by telling his story now. But that is not the truth, and it would be insulting to tell anything but the truth about such a situation. Brazda died. He can no longer see if his story affected people or changed people’s minds. He was never allowed to marry his partner. His story is not told in schools. He died, and humanity lost something that cannot be regained. There are things that cannot be fixed, all one can do is acknowledge the loss.
Yet we are not even allowed to do that. We are not given the space, the time, or the legitimacy to mourn what our community lost. Queer women and AFAB people are not even given acknowledgement of their suffering in the queer community; their suffering is dismissed as “not as important” as the suffering of queer men and AMAB people because the suffering of queer men and AMAB people was more obvious. And again, we are not meaning to compare the pain people went through, because measuring something like that is wrong, and not what this project was made to do. We are not here to compare stories. We are here to share them, to share them while others work so hard to silence them. To fight against the silence. But how can we fight against it when it has infected our own communities? How can we fight against it when in every aspect of our culture we are constantly being pressured into being quieter? How are we meant to fight against something so massive?
We wish there was an easy answer to give, a three step plan that would solve this, but we have always preached honesty in this project and we can’t abandon that now when it is convenient to do so. The honest answer is that there is no one way to fix everything. There is no one solution to this problem, or to any problem that has been growing for as long as this one has. The only way to fix it is a thousand different ways. The only way to fix it is for thousands of different people decide to try and help a thousand different ways. We have been silenced from a thousand different angles so the only way to combat that is to shout from a thousand different angles. We cannot tell you what way you in particular should go about it, because it is something that you must discover for yourself. I have fought it by doing the thing I love most, writing. Spreading stories and information, and that has done more for the community than any of the other ways I have tried, because it is mine. It is something no one else could have provided because it is a part of me, and no one else. And my way is not going to be applicable for everyone else, not everyone is going to write. Some people are going to picket, or give speeches, or sign petitions, or talk to their friend, or any of the thousands of other options, because the only way to honour queer history is to make queer history.