Remembering the African American Holocaust Survivors

April 12, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

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. “Racists 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.

Rev. Irene Monroe

Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim.
Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”

The views expressed are those of the author.

An Open Letter to Boston’s Black Leadership

April 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Dear Leaders:

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s decision to not seek re-election presents a profoundly unique and opportunistic occasion for the city’s black community. Not since the mayoral candidacy of Mel King in 1983 has the black community been strategically positioned to substantively sway the policy direction of the city.

Because Boston’s black community—which includes African-Americans, and blacks from the Caribbean and Africa–is burdened by disproportionate suffering, misery and social dislocation it has the most to gain in the election outcome for mayor.

Consider the alarming realities confronting black Boston:

·      A 2012 Boston Foundation report states that the highest concentration of children in poverty across the state live in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan

·      According to a 2011 Urban League of Massachusetts State of Black Boston Report, black unemployment rates are the highest of any groups in Boston and black median household income ($33,420) is $30,000 lower than that of the white median household income ($63,980).  A persistent racial gap between blacks and whites in terms of median income remains regardless of the type of family structure or the education attained by blacks.

·      The same report states that black home-ownership remains relatively low when compared to white home-ownership, and the black community has experienced a very high number and concentration of foreclosures. Almost two-thirds (63.1 percent) of all black homeowners pay more than 30 percent of their household income for mortgage costs.

·      Boston police records report that while the Boston homicide rate has dropped during the Menino administration (as it has across the nation, notably in New York City), the victims of murder in the city’s streets are overwhelming poor and black.

Two distinct leadership approaches must immediately emerge from within the black community in order to respond to the multiple crises confronted by poor and vulnerable citizens of the city who happen to be black.

First, Boston’s black leadership class–including elected and appointed officials, activists, clergy, non-profit directors, policy advocates, business leaders and its media–must publicly articulate the unfortunate suffering transpiring in its communities.  These leaders must feel compelled to summon the moral and political courage necessary to inject into the mayor’s race meaningful discussion, debate and dialogue about the persistent racial disparity that exist in the city.  Ironically, many black leaders in Boston are acutely aware of existing racial inequality because they live in proximity to it.  Yet, in the three decades since King’s run for mayor, black leadership has failed to proffer comprehensive and ameliorating policy responses that effectively alleviate structural and race-based disparity.

Second, Boston’s black leadership must quickly formulate consensus about policy priorities for the next mayor.  These policies must be pragmatic, specific and ready to be implemented at the outset of the next mayor’s first term.  These policies ought to also be associated with a commitment from the next mayor that their administration reflect the diversity of the city, including blacks, Asians and Latinos.

Infant mortality, neighborhood segregation and uneven educational attainment remain as monumental impediments that prevent blacks from competing on an even playing field in Boston.  Black leaders can offer solutions to these problems through planning, coordination and consensus.  They must also engage mayoral candidates to take sober assessment of the many challenges confronting black people in Boston and urge them to pledge their commitment to these issues upon being elected.

Menino, the so-called urban mechanic, presided masterfully over a city that grew and prospered during his tenure.  In demonstrably clear ways, Boston has emerged as a world-class city because of Menino’s tireless efforts.

Unfortunately, the residue of racism persists.  Against this backdrop, black leadership must responsibly act in the interest of closing the painful gap that exist between blacks and whites in Boston.  If they fail to capture the unique opportunities that the present mayoral election provides, significant numbers of black families and individuals will continue to suffer on the margins and in the shadows of the city.

Kevin C. Peterson
Director, New Democracy Coalition
Democracy Activist

Kevin Peterson

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.

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