Thursday, November 01, 2012

Holocaust Education Week Begins

I remember seeing a pink triangle for the first time. It was worn on the lapel of a young man on a streetcar in Toronto. I had just moved to the city. I was looking for a place of refuge. As a young gay man who grew up in very small towns, I wanted to bury myself in the anonymity of the big city. I wanted to be able to live, hidden, undetected. Joe and I went to bars in basements and always looked carefully and warily when heading out to go home. We didn't think about the 'gay community' as such in those days. In fact, in those days, we were still homosexuals, poofs and faggots.

The pick triangle on the shoulder of a stranger led to questions that taught me about history, about the incredible power of hatred, about the need for a community - not to hide in, but to fight with. In truth, I was also angered. Angered by the fact that I never knew. I'd never been told. No one ever, in all those years spent at school, reading history books that were as dusty as they deserved to be, mentioned the fact that the Holocaust, as big and bad as I understood it to be, was bigger and badder than people wanted to mention. Speaking about crimes against gay people would mean mentioning gay people, it was as if we were inconvenient to the historical marketing of the past.

Later, much later, I would learn about the mass slaughter of people with disabilities. I would learn about how doctors and scientists experimented on ways of mass murder with the lives of people with disabilities. I would learn about blue check marks and red 'x's and how many of each meant life, how many of each meant death. I would read about how doctors worked hand in hand, complicit in the deaths of those they said they served. I would learn about this and rage at the fact that I did not know. I had not been told.

As a gay man. as a disabled man, I wanted to somehow ensure that others knew, that the silence be broken. I wanted, in my own small, and very greedy way, to 'own' part of the Holocaust. To be able to speak of it with the horror of someone who belonged to a group oft targeted, oft victimised, who's face is almost always the first slapped.

But I was younger then.

And the Holocaust meant something different to me.

I was not a popular child. I never felt 'in' or, oddly, enough 'out' to be 'in'. I grabbed moments of social inclusion and acceptance with the fervour of the desperate. I remember a moment, when one of the few lower down the ladder than me, need me. Needed my solidarity as one of the 'less thans'. I had a choice to make. I could join the rabble and revel in the moment of inclusion, I could join, I was given entry. I could reject that offer, knowing as I did, knowing for certain, that it was temporary. I could reject that offer because it was wrong to do what they did. I had been in the position that she was in now. I knew. I fully knew. And I made a choice. The wrong one. I joined in with the rabble. I cast the first stone. I did all that I knew as wrong.

There are other moments. Moments when I not only backed down but joined in - knowing that it was wrong but wanting the approval, wanting the acceptance, wanting to feel, even momentarily, less alone. I remember these moments. I carry them with me. Or, rather, they leap on my shoulders and travel with me. Even if I crept out under the cover of darkness, they would find their way back to me. They are part of my history. They are the reminders.

The reminders.

That I need to think about the Holocaust, I need to learn about the Holocaust. It's easy to learn what others did. It's more important to learn about what I am capable of ... the weakness that is in me ... the fear of rejection, the need for acceptance and the cowardice that comes from a wish for approval. It's easy to claim victim status and refuse to notice. Refuse to notice that history doesn't forgive what's done in the present. Refuse to notice that decisions now will become decisions then. Refuse to notice that I have the power to hurt - and that sometimes, sometimes, Oh God, I use it.

Holocaust Education Week, for me, is about looking back but it's also about looking in. It's about understanding the capacity we each have ... to bully ... to hurt ... to victimise ... others. Other others.

I am other.

Yes, that's true, and as 'other' I have history.

But there are other others and they have history too ... but with me.


Anonymous said...

Powerful stuff Dave. Thanks. And I learned something - I didn't know about the pink triangles. And I didn't know that you were disabled when you were young. I had thought it was a later in life experience. Keep up the good work of educating and touching us.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

the pink triangle (German: Rosa Winkel) was one of the Nazi concentration camp badges, used to identify male prisoners who were sent there because of their homosexuality.


Dave Hingsbirger said...

Anon i was 'different' but not disabled when young. I became a wheelchair user 6 years ago.

Anonymous said...

"As a gay man. as a disabled man, I wanted to somehow ensure that others knew, that the silence be broken. I wanted, in my own small, and very greedy way, to 'own' part of the Holocaust. To be able to speak of it with the horror of someone who belonged to a group oft targeted, oft victimised, who's face is almost always the first slapped."

Sorry Dave - this is where I picked up on the disabled when young idea. Thanks for clearing that up.

You have led an amazing life - and led others from the dark pit you visited.

But I was younger then.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dave.
I'm Jewish and I also hold some of the other identities that I'm about to list.
The Jewish history, account, remembrance of the Holocaust is really important to me.
It's also really important to me that there are histories and accounts that remember the other identities who were systematically targeted with attempted wipe out:
people with disabilities and in particular, people with what we now call learning disabilities, Gypseys, gay men, lesbians (who were made to wear black triangle markers) and people of colour.
There are many accounts of Jewish people's experiences of that time and they are so important.
It's heartbreaking to me the paucity of information about the experiences of the other identities. But there are some. They did not extinguish us. They did not extinguish the generation they killed. We remember.

Anonymous said...

Dave, did you ever rediscover the documentary that you had seen briefly, which included a scene of a disabled child (a child with Down Syndrome) being liberated from one of the camps? After reading the post whereby you were trying to find this documentary, so you could view it again, I looked for hours on the internet for the documentary and came up empty handed.

If you did find it, would you let us know. If you didn't find it, would you be able to give us more information, so we can help find this documentary.

Elizabeth & Andrew

Anonymous said...

Thanks Julia. Does the horror never stop. (Anon still learning)

Utter Randomness said...

What struck me about this post was how much the LGBTQ* community has come full circle. I've been out for about 10 years, but I was familiar with the community for a few years before that, and we all knew our history. We knew about the pink (and black) triangles in the holocaust, we knew about the raids and the arrests, we knew about stonewall and Matthew Shepherd and Brandon Teena. We knew why Harvey Milk was considered so brave. We passed that history to each other and we lived though homophobia and threats of violence. I lived through terrible, horrific bullying while the teachers stood and watched, even participated, but my being out made others come to me and we built a little community in the hell that was our highschool, and we shared our history. But I'm astonished to hear people, even people who have been out for years, profess ignorance of our history. Some of them have never even needed the encouragement of knowing that people fought for things to get better, because they are better for them. My concern is that this, while fantastic and everything I fought for, erases the history and the experience of people who are still living that history. So thank you, Dave, for posting this, and talking about our history.