TODAY is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland where around 1.5 million people died because they were different.
In September 2009, I accompanied ten young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from Merseyside on a five-day cultural exchange trip to Auschwitz and Warsaw working with a group of young Polish LGBT people from the Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).
The exchange enabled the group to understand the Holocaust and the fate of many LGBT people at that time, its impact on European and LGBT social history, as well as challenging past and present issues around hate crime.
They learned that the Nazis deported an estimated 10-15,000 people to concentration camps because they were gay, under anti-homosexuality German legislation, Paragraph 175. Many wore pink triangles to show the reason for their imprisonment was because of their sexuality. Most died in the camps, either from exhaustion or from medical experiments. After liberation, neither the Allies, nor the new German states, nor Austria, would recognise these prisoners as victims of the Holocaust, which meant they were unable to claim compensation offered to other affected groups. Many gay men went from concentration camps to prison to continue to serve their sentences. For more on this often unreported history click here. Twenty years ago, gay survivors of the Holocaust made a declaration to the next generation. You can read it here.
The young people took part in making this 60 minute film documenting their experiences and thoughts around the themes of the project, along with their ideas and aspirations for the future:
Liverpool’s LGBT arts project Homotopia supported the young people to develop the film into into a free educational resource pack for schools and colleges, enabling teachers to tackle homophobia and all forms of hate crime in schools.
The pack has received high profile endorsements from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), gay actor and LGBT rights campaigner Sir Ian McKellen, and the Chief Constable of Merseyside Police.
Moved and inspired by what they saw, the young people returned to Merseyside to provide hate crime awareness workshops for teachers, pupils, youth workers, young people, housing associations and other employers.
In summer 2010 they produced their own film Sex, Drags & Rock ‘n’ Roll documenting their efforts to raise awareness of homophobia and hate crime and promote equality and diversity. Directed by 19 year old Jess Wignall, the film was chosen for the 2010 BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. You can watch it here:
The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is commemorated internationally each year as Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). This year’s theme is Keep the memory alive. As British and European politics see the rise of extreme parties at the expense of minority groups once again, let’s not forget where rhetoric dehumanising those who are different can lead.