I begin this statement on the HMDT ceremony by a recollection of my 19-year-old self. I worked in Cambodia in an office in Phnom Penh in 2014 and 2015. One thing that has changed me since is an anonymous message left in a visitor’s book at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, about a 30-minute drive out of the city. The memorial stupa and museum stands in the middle of a field of craters and bulging mounds; if you look closely teeth and bones poke out of the mass graves. The entry in the visitor’s book read, “we promised the Cambodian people that we would never let such atrocities happen again, so far we have failed them.”
Yesterday marked the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. On Thursday, I was invited by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to attend a commemoration ceremony in Westminster, London. The horrors of the Holocaust stretched across the whole of Europe and saw the extermination of Jews, Roma, Sinti, people of colour, the disabled, and the homosexuals.
This year’s ceremony included a dedicated memorial to the thousands of gay men and women murdered by the Nazi regime in Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and so many other factories of death. The testimony came from a young French man, Pierre Seel, who was tortured and sexually abused by the Gestapo shortly after the invasion of France. I focus on this aspect as it is from the LGBT viewpoint I now write. The crude physical and psychological torture endured by Pierre was typical to those who found themselves persecuted by the Nazi regime; but it serves as a chilling fact that such horrors befell the French gay community many years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in France. This latter point struck me, that no matter how sure we are in our liberty, there may also come a time when persecution and extermination can come to threaten our very existence.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day was the power of words. Words often fail to describe the horrors faced by Jews, Roma, homosexuals and so many others. When words fail us, it is often down to action to convey our recognition and commemoration to our murdered forebears. For the gay people who suffered in the concentration camps of Europe, we owe them to speak out against injustice and discrimination against LGBT+ people all over the world, and on our doorstep. For those who we were murdered alongside, we owe it to the Jews, the Roma, the disabled, and all other who found themselves on the brink of obliteration to speak out against antisemitism, anti-Romanyism, ableism, and all forms of injustice against the marginalised in society. To start, we need to bear and remind ourselves of the experiences of those like Pierre who suffered unimaginable evils and I end this reflection with a Biblical verse I saw at the Yad Vashem which has been etched in my heart ever since.
Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to theirs, and their children to the next generation. Joel 1.2-3
An extract of this blog was originally written for Liberate and can be read here