Advocates in S.F. speak out for Holocausts other victims

The phrase "6 million" — the horrifying number of Jews that perished in the Holocaust — resonates deeply in world Jewry's collective consciousness.

What may not resonate, however, are the atrocities that occurred to hundreds of thousands of others, perhaps millions, of non-Jews during the war.

Gay men, lesbians, people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti people (formerly referred to as Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses and those who held non-traditional political beliefs — namely communists — were also imprisoned, tortured, experimented on and executed en masse.

In conjunction with the screening of "Paragraph 175," — a documentary on the fate and suffering of gay men under Nazism — four experts on the experiences of non-Jewish victims broke the silence and engaged in a dialogue at a free panel Sept. 26. Held at San Francisco's Castro Theater, the well-attended "Too Little, Too Late? Acknowledging the Nazi Holocaust's 'Other' Victims" was sponsored by the Goethe-Institut, a S.F.-based German cultural center, and the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

According to Jim Lichti, a German historian formerly of the Shoah Foundation, the "first target of Nazi mass murder" was the mentally and physically disabled. Subjected to mandatory sterilization, often without anesthesia, at least 200,000 people did not survive this campaign designed to "cure" their "hereditary crime," he said. Those who did live, he added, were mostly incarcerated, only to die in the camps.

Shawna Parks, an attorney and founder of the Disability Holocaust Project, agreed that the German medical community's forced sterilization program began "as early as 1933." She added that under Hitler's rule, disabled people "were the experimental guinea pigs, to learn how to kill mass numbers of people…[gas] showers were developed through institutional experiments."

Parks, who is currently involved in a reparations lawsuit against Swiss banks on behalf of 16 disabled-rights organizations, said there are very few survivors or descendants of this group. Part of the DHP's goal, therefore, is "to raise awareness of disabled victims of the Nazis, and to relate what happened during the war to this community's current marginalized status."

Like disabled people, gay men were viewed as "degenerates" and "deviants" who were unable to advance the Aryan population. "Nazism was very concerned with the decline in German birth rate," Lichti noted.

Expanding upon the themes of the featured prize-winning film — directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, both gay and Jewish — Julie Dorf, former executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, delved into Paragraph 175's implications.

The German anti-sodomy statute criminalized "unnatural sex acts between males," targeting known homosexuals as well as outlawing any same-sex behavior between men. According to Dorf, this law led to several hundred thousand homosexuals being subjected to interrogation, imprisonment and death.

And, Lichti added, at a time when German homosexual bars and speakeasies were first beginning to publicly emerge as a subculture, "all forms of collective gay life ended."

In terms of Germany's postwar rehabilitation efforts, said Dorf, gay men were excluded from reparation claims because, until 1969, Paragraph 175 remained on the books.

"They weren't acknowledged as victims, because they were still criminals," she said.

Interestingly, Dorf pointed out, homosexuals are the only group of people oppressed by the Nazis whose modern descendants — the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — have reclaimed a forced Nazi emblem. The pink triangle — an identifier much like the yellow star Jews were made to wear — is now used as a symbol of their movement for equality.

Dorf's current project utilizes that badge for its namesake.

The Pink Triangle Coalition, an alliance of eight "GLBT" community groups, seeks restitution for gay survivors. Often this comes in the form of nominal amounts — "$1,300 was the first reparation," she said — but for the coalition, this number still translates to "recognition."

Dorf said many coalition members are reluctant to use the phrase "Holocaust victims" to describe gay men's experience in Nazi Germany. Although homosexuals were certainly tortured and exterminated in the camps, Dorf said many survivors think "Holocaust" is a word solely applicable to Jews, who were the main object of the genocide.

"A gay group in Berlin told me, 'We don't really want a memorial, we just want to keep this alive,'" she said.

Likewise, "Paragraph 175" producer Michael Ehrenzweig — who is Jewish, part-German, Austrian-born and gay — explained to the audience, "German Television told me, 'This is not the Holocaust, this is another story,'" when he approached them about airing the film.

He also said the immediate reaction toward the documentary by viewers at two Israeli film festivals was, "Don't take the Holocaust away from us."

After participating in similar panels in Tel Aviv and Haifa, Ehrenzweig said that initial attitude evolved into one of profound realization.

"Many Jews had no idea there were non-Jews involved in Nazi persecution… People realized they were in the same boat; it's the same lack of humanity."

However, Parks and Dorf both relayed they had been confronted by Jewish leaders and groups who felt their work on behalf of non-Jewish survivors was "negating" the fact that, as Lichti put it, "the central demonizing character for the Nazis was the Jew."

Dorf's coalition was even refused entrance to two major conferences on restitution in London and Washington.