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When a Kiss Means Death

July 12, 2010 – 10:31 pm85 Comments

The uniform of a gay inmate of a Nazi concentration camp

By Mark Baker

In the centre of Berlin not far from the Brandenburg gates there is a memorial to the Holocaust made up of thousands of slab tombstones. The group of students I am guiding through Europe on a study tour of the Holocaust disperse inside this abstract cemetery, lost in the labyrinthine structure of stones and questions.

One of the questions leads us to an adjacent park where a solitary tombstone has been erected. It wasn’t there the last time I visited Berlin, in which an invisible city of memory has rapidly sprung up, of plaques, signposts and stumbling blocks that ambush you at every corner with a personalised story of terror.

The isolated tombstone on the margins of Eisenmann’s Denkmal has a window slit built into its surface. It lures you to look into the stone, like a voyeur at a peep show. The image that is projected into the void of the stone is unexpected. It is of two young men, locked in a passionate kiss in the park where we ourselves stand.

I ask one of the students in our group to read the inscription near the tombstone. His voice quivers as he reads about the laws that prohibited same sex contact. A kiss between two men was a ticket to Auschwitz. In another time, this student would have had two triangles stitched onto his uniform, a pink and a yellow one, both core elements of his identity today.

The story of the persecution and gassing of gays in Auschwitz is part of the Holocaust. Yet where it differs is that the legislation that allowed for gays to be incarcerated was not a Nazi law but based on a criminal code that extend back a century. Paragraph 175, which forbad homosexual contact, survived the murder of about 15,000 gays in Auschwitz. It remained on the statue books of Germany and other European countries, including many states in Australia, for decades after the genocidal actions against homosexuals.

When I was a student at the University of Melbourne in the late 70s, my teacher John Foster, who published his memoir before his death, faced the class at the end of a lecture on the persecution of homosexuals and with stern eyes challenged us: Is the world of Auschwitz totally disconnected from our own world?

I thought of my teacher and also my student when I learned that our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is opposed to legalising same sex marriage. My reaction is perhaps inflationary given my current journey in the footsteps of the Holocaust but I would like to take her to that marginalised tombstone and ask her to peer inside the stone and face the questions it asks of us.  Whether it is for electoral gain or a personal opinion, the message she is communicating to the Australian public says something about gays, their loves and their identities that carry on the remaining vestiges of Paragraph 175.

I would like to come away from this journey by teaching my students that to commemorate means to take the stones of our invisible cities and transfer them to our contemporary lives. Many of the monuments demonstrate the power of a single individual to redirect the seemingly inexorable path of history before it has been written.  For this reason, we must speak out on behalf of those growing number of people who are privileged to live in a time when they, and their relationships, are no longer prohibited, yet suspicions about the sanctity of their love persist .The questions must be asked not only of the state, but of our own faith systems – our churches, synagogues and mosques. In my own Jewish religion, a respected Orthodox gay rabbi, Steven Greenberg, has written about how the prohibitive texts in Leviticus should be understood against the grain of its own historical context in which gay behaviour was associated with pagan worship. Today, our sexualised culture of homo- and hetero- sexuality has pagan elements, but the act of love between two people is nothing more than love. It is not for us to legislate on how these commitments should be expressed. Our religions and states would honour those who were murdered in Auschwitz by thinking about the ruptures and continuities between the past and present, and how our thoughts continue to incarcerate gays in a world of our own prejudices. It is time to eradicate the legacy of Paragraph 175, and to narrow the space that separates that solitary tombstone from all the others.

Mark Baker is Director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.

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