Rev. Irene Monroe: Remembering the African American Holocaust survivors
This week, April 8- 12, marks the 27th annual observance of Holocaust Memorial Week. The week is about remembering not only the 6 million Jews murdered but also remembering the millions of allies, martyrs and victims who survived Nazi Germany’s reign of brutality.
The enormity of the mass slaughtering of Jews that took place— in ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps, prisoner-of-war camps, brothels filled with sex slaves and killing factories— is still being discovered as documents are unearthed. New scholarship revealed that, from 1933 to 1945, there were at least 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe. This represents a staggering increase, far exceeding the original guesstimate.
Thank goodness the stories of the millions of allies, martyrs and victims who survived Nazi Germany continue to be told.
On April 11th, City of Cambridge Annual Commemoration of the Holocaust guest speaker is Holocaust survivor Edgar Krása. Krása will be telling his remarkable story of survival. Krása who ran the Veronique restaurant at Longwood in Brookline, MA. was born in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, and moved to Prague in 1933 with his family.
In 1941, Krása was on the first train to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Terezín, now known as the Czech Republic, to help set up the garrison city into a concentration camp. Under Nazi control Krása was ordered to set up the kitchen that fed prisoners-of-war, and he worked there until 1944 when he was deported to Auschwitz. At Auschwitz, Krása walked in the notorious Death March and survived it by feigning death after being shot.
Missing, however, from the annals of history are the documented stories and struggles of African Americans, straight and “queer.” Valaida Snow, captured in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen and interned in a concentration camp for nearly two years, is one such story forgotten.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Valaida Snow came from a family of musicians and was famous for playing the trumpet. Named “Little Louis” after Louis Armstrong (who called her the world’s second best jazz trumpet player, besides himself, of course), Snow played concerts throughout the U.S., Europe and China. On a return trip to Denmark after headlining at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Snow, the conductor of an all-women’s band, was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs and sent to an Axis internment camp for alien nationals in Wester-Faengle.
In pre-Hitler Germany, all-female orchestras were de rigueur in many avant-garde entertainment clubs. These homo-social all-women’s bands created tremendous outrage during Hitler’s regime. Snow was sent to a concentration camp—not only because she was black and in the wrong place at the wrong time—but also because of her “friendships” with German women musicians. These friendships implied lesbianism.
Although laws against lesbianism had not been codified, and lesbians were not criminalized for their sexual orientations as gay men were, German women were nonetheless viewed as threat to the Nazi state and were fair game during SS raids on lesbian bars, sentenced by the Gestapo, sent to concentration camps, and branded with a black triangle. In fact, any German woman, lesbian, prostitute or heterosexual, not upholding her primary gender role — “to be a mother of as many Aryan babies as possible” — was deemed anti-social and hostile to the German state.
Because Nazis could not discern between the sexual affection and social friendship between straight and lesbian women, over time they dismissed lesbianism as a state and social problem, as long as both straight and lesbian women carried out the state’s mandate to procreate.
Nazi Germany’s extermination plan of gay men is a classic example of how politics informed their science. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code differentiated between the types of persecution non-German gay men received from German gay men because of a quasi-scientific and racist ideology of racial purity. “The polices of persecution carried out toward non-German homosexuals in the occupied territories differed significantly from those directed against Germans gays,” wrote Richard Plant in “The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals.” “The Aryan race was to be freed of contagion; the demise of degenerate subjects peoples was to be hastened.”
Hans J. Massaquoi, former Ebony Magazine editor, and the son of an African diplomat and white German mother, in his memoir “Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany,” depicts a life of privilege until his father returned to his native Liberia. Like all non-Aryans, Massaquoi faced constant dehumanization and the threat of death by Gestapo executioners. “Racist in Nazi Germany did their dirty work openly and brazenly with the full protection, cooperation, and encouragement of the government, which had declared the pollution of Aryan blood with ‘inferior’ non-Aryan blood the nation’s cardinal sin,” he wrote. Consequently, the Gestapo rounded up and forcibly sterilized and subjected many non-Aryans to medical experiments, while other just simply mysteriously disappeared.
There was no systematic program for elimination of people of African descent in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 because their number were few, but their abuses in German-occupied territories, like the one in which Snow was captured, were great and far-reaching.
After 18 months of imprisonment, Snow was one of the more fortunate blacks to make it out of Nazi Germany, released as an exchange prisoner. She was, however, both psychologically and physically scarred from the ordeal and never fully recovered. Snow attempted to return to performing but her spark, tragically, was gone.