The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum ( USHMM ) Midwest regional office hosted a talk featuring Northwestern University and Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies professor, Unsilence founder, human rights artist and novelist Danny M. Cohen Nov. 2 at Sidetrack.
Cohen's historical fiction novel, "Train," focuses on the voices of unheard victims of Nazism including homosexuals, Roma and disabled people, intermarried Jews and political dissidents. He teaches about the Holocaust, other genocides across history, human rights issues, homophobic and transphobic bullying and depression and suicide among LGBTQ youth.
Ahead of Cohen's talk, Event Chair Alex Entratter ( USHMM volunteer and donor ) spoke to the approximately 75 people in attendance about the museum's efforts to further research and education on the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. This was the second LGBTQ focused event the museum has held in the Chicago area over the past year and there are plans for future programming and exhibitions on the subject matter.
Cohen ( who is gay and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor ) opened with a story that, until recently, he has kept a secret. The story, Cohen said, involves a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp that he, and other scholars, went on. Cohen noted that the tours includes an official tour guide who tells the story of what happened there via a channel on the headphones everyone wears. He said that at the end of the tour the guide asked if there were any questions and one person asked about the sex slavery in the camps while another person asked about the gay men who were imprisoned there. Cohen explained that the tour guide would not answer either of these questions and abruptly ended the tour.
What Cohen learned from the tour guide after the official tour was over and the headphones were turned off is the supervisors listen in to what they say during the tours and the Polish authorities ( they operate all the concentration camp memorial sites in the country ) censor what the tour guides can say about what happened in the camps. This enraged Cohen because he said everyone should be entitled to the whole truth.
Cohen explained that this experience set him on a course of educating people about the groups of people who are omitted from the common narrative about the Holocaust, including founding Unsilence and writing "Train." He said the book has been banned by some schools in the United States because it includes a story of a gay couple trying to escape Nazi arrest.
The Holocaust has been seen as primarily a Jewish narrative, Cohen noted, because, until recently, the 20-plus other groups have been erased from the official narrative and history books.
Germany did not recognize homosexual Holocaust survivors until 2002, said Cohen.
Cohen explained that, due to various German, American and British anti-LGBTQ laws, gay men were re-incarcerated by Germany on the recommendation of the Allied authorities after being released from the concentration camps. Many gay men took the pink triangles off their clothes or put on the shirts of other prisoner groups to hide the fact that they were gay from the Allies. Cohen also said that officially there were only a very small number lesbians who were intentionally arrested.
"There is a fight to pardon these gay men even today," said Cohen.
See www.unsilence.org/ and www.ushmm.org/ for more information .