President Obama explicitly addressed the plight gay men faced during the Holocaust in a speech Monday urging that the atrocities of the genocide “never again” occur.
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C., Obama included gays as part of the groups of people who were among the estimated 6 million victims during the genocide.
“We must tell our children about a crime unique in human history,” Obama said. “The one and only Holocaust — six million innocent people — men, women, children, babies — sent to their deaths just for being different, just for being Jewish. We tell them, our children, about the millions of Poles and Catholics and Roma and gay people and so many others who also must never be forgotten.”
Obama’s speech, delivered to an estimated 250 people, took place days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, which began Wednesday evening and ended in the evening Thursday.
The audience consisted of Holocaust survivors, Jewish community leaders, and organizations that work on atrocity prevention. It’s unclear if any representatives of the LGBT community were in the audience.
“We must tell our children,” Obama said. “But more than that, we must teach them. Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all — to pause and to look within.”
“Never again” was a refrain that Obama used repeatedly throughout the speech as he called for the rejection of hatred in all forms and the right for free states to exist, including Israel.
During the speech, Obama unveiled the executive order he signed earlier in the day authorizing sanctions on Syrian and Iranian companies using internet technology to track dissidents.
The president also announced he would award the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — to Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic who witnessed Jews being taken away to concentration camps and personally reported about the genocide to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Prior to the speech, Obama was led on a tour of the museum by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Museum Director Sara Bloomfield. After the tour, the president and Wiesel lit a candle and observed a moment of silence in the Hall of Remembrance.
Obama’s inclusion of gays in his speech is significant because gay men were persecuted under Nazi control of Germany, although the state didn’t seek to kill all gay men as it did with the Jews as part of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
The president addressed the atrocities of the Holocaust before in 2010 during a speech observing the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — but didn’t explicitly mention the plight that gays faced during the genocide at that time.
Edward Phillips, director of exhibition at the museum, said he thinks Obama was working off a phrase in Wiesel’s speech prior to Obama’s remarks in which the Holocaust survivor said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
“I think it’s incredibly important that the understanding of what took place in Nazi Germany was not just about the persecution of Jews,” Phillips said. “There were a range of groups that were persecuted, including gay Germans. So, I think inclusion is the correct way of interpreting the history of the period.”
According to the Holocaust Museum’s website, gay men were denounced as parasites and “enemies of the state.” Storm troopers closed down gay bars and other places where gay men gathered in addition to stopping the sale of publications with sexual content.
More than 100,000 men were arrested under laws against homosexuality and around 50,000 served prison terms as convicted homosexuals. Perhaps hundreds were castrated under court order or coercion.
Gay men were among those who were sent to concentration camps. Between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men were imprisoned there. Many died there from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings and murder.
Lesbians didn’t suffer the same fate in Nazi Germany because they were deemed still capable of reproducing. However, they did suffer the loss of their own gathering places and associations.
A significant portion of the Holocaust Museum is dedicated to the persecution that gay men faced in Nazi Germany. Activists David Mixner, Roberta Bennett and Rabbi Denise Eger raised more than $1 million to ensure the Holocaust museum addressed gay victims of the genocide.
About three or four different places of the permanent exhibition of the museum address gay persecution. A chart showing the various badges worn by prisoners of concentration camps reveals that gay men were forced to wear pink triangles — a symbol that has since been adopted by the LGBT community as a sign of gay liberation.