Shoes and Triangles: How we should remember the LGBT victims of the Holocaust

shoes

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27th January each year. It’s a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust and prior Nazi persecution. University of Birmingham shall be hosting its own vigil 27th January, 5pm in Mermaid Square at the Guild of Students and I am very honoured to be invited and say a few words in memorial for the LGBT victims who are often largely neglected not only from history books but from memorials themselves. However, the Guild of Students is hosting a very inclusive memorial and the invitation includes J-Soc (Jewish society), BEMA (Black and Ethnic Minority Association), DAMSA (Disabled and Mentally ill Student’s Association) and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* and Queer Association) along with any other students who wish to attend. I intend to take the ideas mentioned in this blog to form a short speech at the event itself.

I visited Auschwitz myself about four years ago now thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the support of my then History teacher, the images I saw there were so horrific that there is not a day when they are not somewhere within my consciousness. This blog and the subsequent speech is an attempt to take those images and turn what is a glimpse into the horrific darkness, pain and suffering human beings can cause into something which can capture the humanity of those LGBT lives that were lost and allow us to reclaim some of the symbols for the future of the LGBT fight for equality.

“What were their names? Where was their hometown? What were their families like? Who did they love?”

Nobody knows in total how many lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender victims there were of the Nazi Holocaust (1933 – 1945) never mind those who died from persecution before the opening of the concentration and work camps. Historians can only estimate and indeed these estimates do not capture the full scale of LGBT persecution as they note only the homosexual male figures of deaths ranging from 5,000 to 25,000 or more, but there are no figures for lesbians or gay women, no figures for the murder of people we now understand to be transgender, and no figures for bisexual victims who would of course have been invisible in the statistics for homosexual deaths. What is lost in these figures then is not only the true orientation of these victims but also the humanity of these people which was stolen when they were killed in such a mechanistic and dehumanising way. What were their names? Where was their hometown? What were their families like? Who did they love? What were their hopes for the future? Or did fear so eat into them that they had no hope? It is all these questions that are lost forever, they were lost when they were taken from their families, or taken with their families and murdered, all these answers and humanity behind their lives destroyed when their bodies were. How do we remember them then? And how do we remember them as precious individual human lives, every single one of them, who walked and spoke and were multifaceted and complex individuals.

“One of the biggest symbols, therefore of the Holocaust, the millions of shoes left behind undermines entirely everything that the Nazi regime intended about dividing people and categorising them”

There are two things they left behind after their deaths, two symbols and it is these I wish to show you. The first is their shoes. If you visit Auschwitz II-Birkenau today, you will see that it has been partly turned into a museum and one of the most upsetting exhibits is a room, a large room, entirely full of shoes, children’s shoes and adult’s shoes, piled up taller than you can imagine, worn out and decaying shoes that were not destroyed with the bodies. It’s a well known metaphor – to walk around in someone’s shoes – and by it when mean to speak of the unique perspective, the individual view point and life of an individual, the shoes remind us of all of these perspectives that were lost. But more importantly when we look at that room full of shoes, we do not stand and say ‘here are the shoes of a homosexual’, ‘here are the shoes of a gay woman’, ‘here are the shoes of someone who was transgendered.’ Why is this? Because you cannot tell the difference between human beings from their shoes, from their property that was stolen from them, once the bodies have gone you are left with reminders of their lives and those reminders are just the same because human beings are just the same. Neither can we look at the room full of shoes and know which belonged to Black victims or Jewish victims. One of the biggest symbols, therefore of the Holocaust, the millions of shoes left behind undermines entirely everything that the Nazi regime intended about dividing people and categorising them for the sake of the creation of a ‘pure race’, just as we are left with shoes of no distinction between them so the regime failed to see the humanity of all those people and tried to place distinction were there are none and it is every single pair of shoes that we are left with which gives more humanity to those victims than the figures we read in history books do.

“Therefore these symbols no longer mean that LGBT people should live in fear but rather that people should fear us because we are the people who will organise and fight for our rights.”

Secondly, there are two symbols which are very important to us today – that is the Pink Triangle and the Black Triangle. The Pink Triangle was worn on the clothes of men who were in the camps due to homosexuality, whilst the Black Triangle was for “a-social” or work-shy inmates but it is a symbol that has now been adopted by lesbians in our liberation and pride movements. Both symbols, that must have originally instilled fear in the wearer, have been reclaimed by our liberation movements from the 1970s onwards and a long hard fight was involved in reclaiming those symbols to become one of solidarity and of pride. Therefore these symbols no longer mean that LGBT people should live in fear but rather that people should fear us because we are the people who will organise and fight for our rights. They too are a reminder whilst we work for liberation that this must not happen again, we cannot allow such persecution, we cannot allow any persecution to develop, I say this and I turn to the centres of LGBT international campaigning at present and think of Russia, think of Uganda, think of India. Where does discrimination start and persecution begin? This is what I think more than anything those victims would have wanted – for us to remember the humanity with each individual we lost, remember all those pairs of shoes left behind, and remember that we can learn from this, we can carry those people in our hearts when we wear the Pink and Black Triangles on our chests with pride and say that we are no longer afraid to fight for our rights, for this must not happen again.

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