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The following article was written in 2007.
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ARTICLE THREE:
WHAT LESSONS OF THE HOLOCAUST HAVE WE LEARNED?
& WHY DIDN'T MORE JEWS FLEE NAZI GERMANY IN 1933?

essay #3

Living in the aftermath of the Holocaust for over sixty years, we all can learn several lessons from what happened so that it does not occur again. Hitler’s basic strategy consisted of creating scapegoats, sub-humans or perpetual enemies, then escalating the discrimination to murder. For the past two millenniums, when Christians and Muslims weren’t killing each other, they took turns in killing their Jewish neighbors, mostly in the name of their religion. Jews have been the scapegoat of choice throughout western civilization. But the Nazis perfected the art of scapegoating into a science. By disseminating vicious propaganda, passing discriminatory laws, spiraling down freedoms with increasing terrorism, the Nazis succeeded in turning a civilized democratic German state into a mass killing machine.

The larger question is however, how did Hitler get away with it? The Nazis started off gradually, first by de-humanizing a small “fringe” or defenseless elements of society. Prior to passing the notorious 1935 Nuremberg laws, the Nazis formed the Committee to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion. They murdered the disabled, who they considered parasites not worthy of living, and treated homosexuality as a crime worthy of a capital offense. The Nazis began their deconstruction of Western civilization by picking off those groups they knew the mainstream citizenry would not fight to defend. We can only wonder what would have happened if the world started boycotting Nazi Germany in 1933 and not waited until the appeasement talks of 1938?

The famous poem by Martin Niemoller (1892-1984), the noted anti-Nazi theologian, is as relevant today as it was during Hitler’s time, even if he left out many of the other victim groups.

“They came for the Communists, but I didn't speak up because I was none of those. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I didn't practice a trade. Then they came for the Catholics, and I was a Protestant so I didn't speak up. Then they came for me... by that time there was no one left to speak up."


The Nazis first started off by killing thousands of disabled people with carbon monoxide bus rides (and later on with Zyclon B gas), followed by arrests and concentration camp internment of homosexuals, Communists, political opponents, Jehovah Witnesses and Gypsies. On the Night of the Long Knives he used homosexuality as a cover for the murder of the thugs that he no longer needed. He saw that it was possible to kill hundreds of soldiers and get away with it. Years later, Kristallnacht was Hitler’s way of testing this process to see if he could escalate Jewish discrimination into random killing and finally a planned genocide. He wanted to see if the world would react negatively to the arrest of 20,000 Jewish men, random murders of Jews, the destruction of hundreds of Synagogues and thousands of Jewish businesses. He got his answer; the world sat by in silence. Hitler then permitted 936 Jews to leave Germany on the S.S. St. Louis’s “Voyage of the Damned” to test the waters to see if any country wanted them. Sadly, the Fuhrer was right again. In the summer of 1939 the Jewish passengers of the St. Louis returned to Europe, and many were doomed to their death after the Nazis conquest expanded.

Politicians often attribute the world war and the Holocaust to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler’s annexation of former German speaking regions. But what if the world had adamantly protested 5 years before Kristallnacht or if several countries had given sanctuary to the refugees on the St. Louis? Possibly the Germans would have had second thoughts about how launching their Final Solution.

When I was younger I would ask myself why didn’t the German Jews start leaving Germany en masse in 1933? As I got older some of the answers became more evident. Firstly, where could they go when countries (like the U.S.) were granted so few visas under strict quotas. Secondly, the German Jews became accustomed to the history of granting and removing civil rights for Jews ever since the French Revolution. In a way, today’s struggle for total equal rights for America’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community reminds me of the same pattern. When I was younger all 50 states criminalized same sex love making. Then it was a state by state struggle until in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized same sex relations in all 50 states. Then the struggle continued with gaining civil rights in housing, employment, public accommodations, the military and marriage/immigration/taxation became the next goal. Every year we win some, we lose some and we then regain some progress towards the American declaration that “all men are created equal”. So the German Jews, like today’s American LGBT community, stay put and hope for the day when all of their rights will be guaranteed by the government.

Then I also wondered why America didn’t boycott Germany as soon as the Nazis started removing civil rights from Jews, political opponents, disabled people and homosexuals in 1933? Most people would say that Americans didn’t know what was going on either in the early years or when the extermination began in 1939. But I have read New York Times articles refuting these excuses. I tend to believe that America was not in a position to criticize Hitler when he curtailed civil rights because our national policy towards segregation was similar to the early Nazi restrictions placed on Jews and homosexuals. German Jews and homosexuals had more civil rights than their American counterparts during the Weimar Republic. In addition, the official and unofficial policies towards our African American population gave Hitler even more cover to force segregation in housing, employment and public accommodations, let alone the similar practices of the S.A. and the K.K.K. towards their respective minorities.

We complain that the Nazis closed the gay bars in Berlin in 1933; but how many openly gay bars even existed in America at that time? The repeal of the German Sodomy laws passed the Law Committee of the Reichstag at the end of the Weimar Republic, but these laws remained on the books in all states of America until the 1970’s and was finally declared unconstitutional in 2003. Jews in America were restricted from living in certain areas and couldn’t go to certain hotels or Universities or even apply for jobs that were listed as “For Christians Only”. All of this was legal after the 1896 Supreme Court case of “Plessy v. Ferguson” legalized “separate but equal treatment” as being acceptable under our concept of “all men being created equal”. It was sort of another “Talmudic” approach to sidestepping the actual words of our Constitution. The Nazis were not the only political group that twisted the plain meaning of words.

Earlier in America, we fought England for our freedoms and then found legal ways to legalize slavery. On the one hand our Declaration of Independence stated that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and then we used spin to determine who was included in the definition of “men”. Women were excluded and citizens of African descent voted as 3/5 of a man.

When German Jewish refugees fled to America, their new life was more restricted than what they were used to during the Weimar Republic. Many American Universities would not hire German Jewish professors, so many went down South to work in the Black Colleges. When my own father was released from Dachau and made his way to America and enlist in the U.S. Army he had to go to the deep South for basic training. He would see treatment of blacks that resembled life as he recalled in Nazi Germany.

Maybe if American society was less segregated and truly treated all its citizens equally, then maybe our public outrage could have started a boycott or early condemnation of Nazi Germany. It is hard to complain when you are doing the same thing. I feel that this twisting of “equal rights” is still in affect when you look at today’s LGBT Community. Although all people are to have “equal protection under the law”, we spin the issue and treat this community differently when it comes to fundamental rights of marriage, or taxation or immigration. Once again, we are letting right wing forces to create second class citizens.

Once a regime turns totalitarian, it’s too late to stop scapegoating. Scapegoating must be exposed as soon as the first defenseless group is attacked. When Hitler orchestrated the murders during the “Night of the Long Knives” at the end of June 1934, there was no outrage when he killed Ernst Roehm and many of the S.A. thugs saying they were homosexuals. While most of the men killed that night were evil thugs who forcefully promoted Nazism, but the mere charge of homosexuality was enough of an excuse to rationalize the killings. Even my 14 year old father at that time knew that Roehm was homosexual from a dirty poem he learned at the time.

“Der ist der Stabschef Roehm, sein Leben war nicht schoen. Denn zum foegeln sind die Madchen da und nicht die Tochess der S.A.” {Loose translation: Here is Roehm whose life was not nice; he should have hit on women and not the SA’s behinds.]


The reason he was told that Roehm was killed was that he was a homosexual. I am not memorializing these early Nazis, just noticing how homophobia can be used as a cover for murders. We could have learned to speak up immediately when people are killed for the reason of being gay, but unfortunately it is still going on in the Middle East on a regular basis. I guess the lesson of countries demanding an end to killings for sexual orientation differences hasn’t been learned.

Another lesson we can learn is that totalitarianism can break out in a democratic state, such as the Weimar Republic, where leaders are duly elected. We should look at the rise of Nazism to try to prevent history from repeating itself.

Hitler was appointed to the position of Chancellor after a much contested election in January 1933, with the strong support from the Southern States and the Vatican. After a “terrorist attack” on the Reichstag early in the Nazi administration, Hitler asked for a temporary relaxation of civil rights so that he could protect the German people from future attacks. That temporary relaxation lasted until his death in 1945. In the interim, Hitler concentrated under his power all branches of the government, including the judiciary, culminating in his March 1933 appointment as Fuehrer. With the assistance of his goon squads, the S.A. and later the S.S., he continued to reduce the civil rights of victims. The Nazis then picked on the most vulnerable or fringed minorities and started to pick up disabled people and quietly sent them to their death. Homosexuals were also an early target of discrimination and arrests. Then there was a focus on reducing homosexuality and abortion for Germans. In their case it was for ideological and military reasons and not religious ones. That was followed by a tightening of the laws for marriage, ensuring that traditional marriage between only Aryans would be sanctioned. Then when the society was terrified and broken, the Nazis could escalate the discrimination into outright confiscation and murder. The Final Solution was brought into being.

What better argument can one make for maintaining a system of checks and balances in government in the face of politicians who strive to dominate legislative branch and intimidate the judiciary. America seemed to learn this lesson of the Holocaust and Bush II and his advisors could not use the same play book. Eventually the opposition was able to balance any misuses of power.

In recent times, America has turned away from using Jews as scapegoats. I think that the Christian Evangelical movement’s love of Israel for their Messianic prophesy to be fulfilled has served to reduce traditional anti-Semitism in our country. A prophesy by the way, that doesn’t end well for those Jews who don’t believe that Jesus is a divinity. But now undocumented immigrants, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people have become the new scapegoats of choice of the American Right.

Fortunately, the Right Wing has so far failed to incorporate this new form of legal discrimination into all State Constitutions. They have used their Biblical prowess to harm many LGBT families, just as former anti-Semites used their Biblical interpretations to kill Jews. You can no longer use the Bible to justify slavery, or polygamy or restrictions on women, colonizing other people, or killing Sabbath violators; but some on the Religious Right can still pull out their Bibles to rationalize discrimination against gays. Thank God most rational people stop short of the literal commandment of murdering men lying with men, even though that passage is often quoted in order to terrorize the LGBT community. Can you imagine how each LGBT child feels the first time they read that line in Leviticus and sees Reverend Phelps’s clan holding signs proclaiming the death penalty? It is just as scary as when Jews would read Hitler’s views in “Mein Kampf”. Again, Biblical scholars have interpreted away most of the death penalties in the Bible for over 1,200 years, but it still leaves you with the thought that some crazy fanatic will take this line literally and kill you. Isn’t that terrorism?

The Religious Right worked with the Republican Party’s right wing to help create the new American scapegoat for election purposes. Homophobia is still a very strong fear and the Right plays on it to get votes. Even African Americans and Hispanics followed their priests and preachers in condemning the LGBT community. They would place this hatred even above their own economic interests or political advancement in order to see homosexuals marginalized and stigmatized.

As a Jew, it didn’t sound like a very Christian thing to do, but somehow Jesus has been transformed from a 1960’s loving, peaceful, inclusive God who cared for the lepers and prostitutes into a war-loving Crusader who hates gay couples. Propaganda was such a powerful tool of the Nazis, that it must be considered even when it comes to today’s religious politicians.

By manipulating the small group of voters in the 50%-50% electorate with these wedge issues, the social conservatives were able to tip the national elections in 2000 and 2004. But just as the Germans woke up in 1945 questioning why they spent so much time, effort, money and energy on hating and killing their fellow Jews, I think that even some social conservatives are questioning why they are making life so much harder for their LGBT neighbors and relatives.

Again, this is a lesson that we learned from the Holocaust. At every occasion Hitler used his bully pulpit to attack Jews and turn them into a group of people not deserving full civil rights and passed laws to make sure that they would remain second class citizens. In today’s world, the Religious Right and their cable television and talk radio stars considers it judicial activism to interpret that same sex couples have equal protection defenses in our Constitutions as Justice O’Connor found in Lawrence v. Texas. Instead they want to actually write discrimination into our Constitution by officially limiting the rights of LGBT families. Even those politicians who are in favor of civil unions for same sex couples are actually creating a separate and unequal second class status for our community. I am sure that it is not just coincidental that the Massachusetts Supreme Courts passed their “Gay Marriage Law” exactly 50 years to the day after Brown v. Board of Education made “separate by equal” schools unconstitutional. Thank God for our activist judges when it comes to protecting our equal rights.

Just as bells should have gone off in the early Hitler years when Hitler started the Committee to Combat Homosexuality and Abortion and when the disabled and homosexuals were being persecuted or gassed, Americans should have been leery of Heinrich Himmler’s “family values” campaign being used to marginalize and dehumanize the LGBT community.

In our country some people are quick to condemn Islamic religious extremism, but look the other way when Jews and Christians go off the deep end. Just as America is seeking “friendly Muslim” nations to condemn extremists who use the Koran to justify violence and “terrorism”; it is imperative for moderate Christians and Jews to condemn extremists in their own religions who misinterpret or “cherry pick” passages from the Bible in order to incite hatred towards free choice advocates or the LGBT community.

It is not just a coincidence, that so much of right wing Nazi ideology is reflected in the hatred being spewed by extreme Muslims, Christians and even some right wing Jews. The Nazis denigrated the modern world and its culture considering it degenerate. They suppressed the homosexual community and thought that a woman’s place was in the home and maternity ward. Abortions of Aryans were illegal and against the furtherance of the Fatherland’s ability to create more soldiers. They didn’t believe in free thinking and expected that the masses should trust in authority figures that would do the thinking for them. All personal freedoms were squashed including sexual and reproductive freedoms for their notion of the common good.

The simple fact is that the Nazis, Al Qeada, Heredi Ultra Orthodox Jews, the Catholic Church, and social conservative Evangelists all view homosexuality, abortions, sexual freedoms and modernity as evil. Thank God that only a few Christian, Muslim and Jewish extremists have turned to violence or terrorism to achieve their regressive agendas. The bombing of abortion clinics and gay bars and youth centers, and attacking or killing people like Marsha P. Johnson or Mathew Shepard are also a form of terrorism that must be condemned by the mainstream. As someone who has been “fag-bashed” on two occasions, I can attest that it is a form of terrorism.

What we now call “Hate Crimes” are basically the tools that the Nazis used in the early years to intimidate entire groups of people. These are not like most criminal acts where the perpetrator either knows the victim or wants to do harm, or is seeking material gain and wants to rob to obtain it. Hate Crimes are designed to spread fear and terror into a certain part of society where the perpetrator doesn’t know the victim and is not seeking any material gain. That is why a lesson from the Holocaust is to support Hate Crime Laws that try to nip the dehumanizing process in the bud. Is it any surprise that the conservative forces in our society are opposed to Hate Crime Bills that protect the LGBT community? I think that deep inside they fear increased punishment for homophobic acts that they have done or secretly supported in the past.

As a Jew, it is doubling embarrassing for me to see ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, America or Europe supporting right wing fundamentalist religious fanatics in their condemnation of LGBT Rights. You would think that they would have learned the lessons from the Holocaust to not get into bed with people with a tradition of creating scapegoats and persecuting them. Just look at the historical patterns of who these people tried to suppress in the past. You will see the same pattern used against women, African Americans, Native Americans, Jews, foreigners, etc.

Another lesson that I learned from the Holocaust was that we Jews should not fight over the concept of “Who is a Jew”? Hitler considered all Jews to be Jews. He didn’t care if someone was Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox or Conservative or Secular. All those who stood naked and shaved in the camps were just Jews. Why can’t we learn from that experience and stop all this internal arguments and agree that we are all Jews, but practice our religion is different ways. Some groups follow Orthodox interpretations while other groups follow Reform interpretations; but we all share a common history, culture and basic view of one God. Jews are now almost as diverse and wide spread around the world as gay and lesbian people. But this is not a new phenomenon. The slogan “we are everywhere” really applies to both groups.

Strangely, I feel more distant from some ultra Orthodox Jews than from progressive Christians or Muslims and Buddhists. Where wars used to be fought between religions, now the battle grounds are between progressive religions and ultra-fundamentalists religions.

Although my family was comprised of both Orthodox and Reform (Liberal) Jews, the Nazis deported all of them to their deaths. We were all Jews no matter if Sephardic or Ashkenazi or Reform or Orthodox. Now that the persecution is gone, so is the notion that we are all Jews and should help each other to survive and even thrive. Why can’t we just respect that we follow different rabbinical teachings and respect that our different rabbis have the right to make their interpretations? I am more scared that some are using governmental power to force one group’s religious values on the rest of society, while still hiding behind a notion of a separation of Church and State.

Why can’t we try to have a secular government that protects all of our rights; which I think is closer to the original intent of our founders? No one is forcing a socially fundamentalist Jew, Christian or Muslim to marry a same-sex partner, or have to have an abortion. But the fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims are trying to use the government’s laws (or terrorism) to force the rest of society to adhere to their beliefs and disappear from the media.

Another lesson of the Holocaust is that we must avoid the tendency to say that all views or values are morally equivalent. Nazi views that dehumanize and diminish other people’s rights are morally wrong. So I believe that if a Biblical interpretation wants to dehumanize others or restrict their rights, it is morally wrong and should be legally wrong. That means that using Biblical interpretations to justify killing people is morally wrong. If fringe groups say that their Biblical interpretation states that Arabs should be removed from Israeli lands because God sanctioned earlier conquests, in today’s world it is wrong. The views of the perpetrators and victims are not the same and one should be legally protected and the other should be prohibited. Most civilized nations (and religious interpretations) have long rejected the literal words in the Bibles about capital punishment for Sabbath violators, adulterers, or even gay men.

Some socially conservatives may not like to hear it, but since they are not on the side of those protecting people’s civil rights, they are sharing the views of those who dehumanized the rights of others. Just as some conservatives used the Bible to justify slavery or the denial of women’s rights, some are now using the Bible to justify discrimination against the LGBT community and their families.

It is wrong to remove civil rights from people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, just as it is wrong to discriminate on religion, race, and sex. In addition, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, private sex acts between consenting adults who are not related should not be criminalized, and therefore people who engage in these non-criminal sex acts should not be discriminated against.

This is why the social conservatives are so opposed to the current United States Supreme Court’s view that Americans have privacy rights which permit women to have an abortion, and also permits consensual adult sexual relations done in private. Americans should be more vigilant on protecting these privacy rights and I believe that we should consider adding a constitutional amendment that clearly protects our right to privacy in order to counter the Right’s campaign to limits everyone’s reproductive rights and to prevent them from adding anti-LGBT provisions to the Constitution.

A final lesson that I learned from the Holocaust deals with sacred space, and how to mourn loved ones who have no graves. This issue became very poignant after attending so many meetings listening to the families of victims of 9/11. There was a clamoring to turn the World Trade Center site into a cemetery or sacred space, because people’s loved ones died in that proximity. I was thinking of how my father must have felt not even knowing where his 17 relatives were killed during the Holocaust.

It is a trying question. In New York City, a Holocaust Memorial Park was created so that people could write names on markers that resemble tombstones so that they would have a place to go to remember loved ones killed in the Holocaust. There is no nexus between Auschwitz and New York City, but it does give one the ability to see a name on a monument.

The Science Building at NYU once was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where 146 young female immigrants died in 1911. While there is a plaque on the building and an annual ceremony given by the Fire Department, there was no sacred space notion given to the building. When the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11 and immediately rebuilt, again there was no sacred space attached to the offices.

But some of the families of the World Trade Center attack are still grieving and want to add sacredness to the memorial planned for the site. They might be able to learn from the survivors or the children of Holocaust Survivors on how to keep memories of loved ones alive. I never even met my relatives who died in the Holocaust since they perished before I was born, yet I can tell you some stories about each one. The way to memorialize people is just not with tombstones or demanding that certain spaces become sacred, but to pass on the stories of their lives to future generations to learn. Many of my relatives were murdered in Auschwitz, yet no one from my family has ever been there to visit them. Memorials are important for their educational and emotional impact, but do not have to be turned into religious sacred spaces in order to show respect.

These are the lessons that I have learned as a gay son of Holocaust Survivors.

Rick Landman
Copyright 2007

Copyright 2007. Do not publish without written permission from the author.


You may be interested in this blog piece that I wrote
after the Steuben Parade in 2013.


Steuben Parade 2013

Is It Too Soon For a Jewish Contingent in the Steuben Parade?

By Rick Landman (9/21/2013)

For the 4th time, there was a Jewish Contingent walking in the Steuben Parade to commemorate German Jewish Contributions to America. When I had the idea, I wondered if this mere act could be considered insensitive for some Jews. I remember my own mixed emotions the first time I walked in the Parade. While I think most Americans today can separate the Nazi period from the rest of German History, there still seems to be some difficulty for some in the Jewish Community to publicly display pride of their German roots.

My paternal grandparents came to America as sole survivors; losing their siblings, parents and relatives to the Holocaust. Seventeen immediate family members were murdered. And while I cannot forget or forgive the actual perpetrators or collaborators; I no longer blame today’s Germans for the past atrocities. This is not only unfair to them, but it also negates the hundreds of years of deep Jewish history in Germany and the re-emergence of Jewish life since the end of the war. There is much Jewish-German history to be proud of in both America and Germany as well. There were also dark periods in our country’s history; yet I am still a proud American.

Maybe my personal life is rather unique, since I not only heard of first-hand horrors; but I also heard stories of my family’s lives in Germany before the Nazi period. Like other first generation Americans, I heard the foreign language at home, and ate the foods of my ancestral home. Unlike Jews in Eastern European countries, where they were always segregated, discriminated and attacked; Jews in Germany had full citizenship and considered themselves German from 1871-1933. So I understand why Jews might not want to march in a Polish Parade or Ukrainian Parade. But Jews in Germany had more civil rights than Jews did in America from 1896-1933. Almost every country in Europe killed Jews in their past and many participated in the Final Solution without much of a fight. The real enemy is dehumanizing and exterminating minorities word-wide; not hating today’s Germans.

Many German Jews in1933 didn’t want to come to New York because of American prevailing national segregation and discrimination laws. All minorities (including African Americans, Irish, Jews, Catholics, Native Americans, Asians, etc.) were legally excluded from various “white-Christian” neighborhoods, resorts, country clubs, colleges, and jobs. Hitler’s SA learned a lot about terror from our KKK. If only America could have spoken out with one unified strong voice against Hitler’s Anti-Jewish policies in 1933 then maybe the Holocaust would never have happened. But each test that Hitler tried including the 1936 Olympic cover-up, Kristallnacht (1938) and the ill-fated St. Louis Voyage (1939) gave him the conviction to go into Poland and start the Final Solution. America couldn’t strongly protest against the Anti-Jewish policies because a large segment of our country agreed with Hitler’s “Separate but Equal” segregation/discrimination policies at the time.

When I asked German Jewish Institutions if they wanted to join in, the typical official response was that the Parade was on a Saturday (Shabbos). {Note: the date of the Steuben Parade was voluntarily moved twice so it wouldn’t conflict with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur’s traffic pattern for Fifth Avenue.} When asked if individuals from these institutions could join in, the answer was either yes, followed by an excuse; or just a no thank you. Each year at its peak about 12 people said they would walk with me, before the amount of cancellations would come. In 2011 we did have 4 walkers.

So that is why I think this endeavor is important, and why I walked again this year even though about a dozen others cancelled out on me. I was expressing my emotional growth by using my feet in public. Today the LGBT Community marches with pride in their Pride Parade each year, but in 1970 it was an act of courage to run up 6th Avenue in a demonstration called by the Gay Liberation Front. I know; I was there.

That is why I don’t think it is too soon to ask the question why the descendants of German Jews (especially those who recently obtained dual citizenship) and the institutions who support German Jewish culture are not participating in the Parade. Reform Judaism started in Germany and many NYC Jews travel on the Shabbos. If anyone wants more information about joining in next year’s Jewish Contingent in the 2014 Steuben Parade, go to www.infotrue.com/vonsteuben.html or contact me directly at infotrue@yahoo.com.



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