Monday 27 January 2014

Holocaust Memorial Day - Some Holocaust Heroes

In recent years many gay victims and survivors of the Holocaust have become known to us. The last few of these survivors seem to have passed away now, and unless there are some who wish to live private lives away from “publicity” we have entered a new era when Nazi persecution of gay men moves from “living testimony” to “historical record”.

Among the many thousands of gay men imprisoned by the Nazis are those whose names are not as well-known as Gad Beck or Rudolf Brazda. I want to mention a handful of lgbt men – and women - whose stories are almost forgotten. They can be considered among the Holocaust Heroes because they resisted the Nazis, and some of them paid the ultimate price for doing so.

Robert Oelbermann (1896-1941) was, with his twin brother Karl, a co-founder of one of the many all-male youth groups in pre-Nazi Germany. Called the Nerother Bund the group centred their activities on outdoor pursuits such as camping and hiking. These youth groups were often places where close emotional and physical relationships were common among the boys. The Nerother Bund were known to accept these close relationships, mainly because Robert was himself almost certainly gay.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933 all youth groups were required by law to disband and their young members were “encouraged” to join the Hitler Youth. Robert was on a world tour at the time, and on his return to Germany attempted to set up his group again. In 1936 Hitler cracked down on the remaining pockets of independent youth groups and Robert Oelbermann was arrested.

Robert’s arrest wasn’t enough to keep him in custody for long, so forced confessions from members of the Nerother Bund led to him being convicted of homosexuality, a charge he always denied, perhaps knowing he would end up in a concentration camp. In 1941 he was interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and later Dachau, where he died later that year. A small memorial plaque to him is located at Waldeck Castle, the meeting place of the Nerother Bund.

Lesbian couple Henrica “Ru” ParĂ© (1896-1972) and Theodora “Do” Vesteegh (1889-1970) became heroes of the Dutch resistance movement. Ru was an artist and through her artistic connection with members and other artists in the resistance provided fake papers and passports for over 50 Jewish children and adults. She found temporary foster parents for some children, aided by many local priests.

“Do” Vesteegh was trained as a classical singer. She produced concerts during the war to secretly raise funds for help keep the escape routes open. The money would pay for the fake passports and transport costs.

Nicknamed “Aunt Zus”, perhaps originally her code name within the resistance, Ru ParĂ© kept in touch with many of the children she and Do rescued from the Nazis, and some of these children were instrumental in getting streets and schools named after the couple in the Netherlands.

Count Albrecht von Bernstorff (1890-1945) was from an influential German family of diplomats and soldiers. True, his blue blood and diplomatic connections protected him from much of the Nazi persecution, but in the end he was branded a traitor.

The Count was a diplomat in London when Hitler came to power, and he immediately went back to Germany to protect his family estates. Albrecht was a vocal opponent of Hitler, and he flaunted his position as a well-connected man by deliberately joining the board of the main Jewish bank in Berlin (he wasn’t Jewish).

On the outside Count Albrecht was a spoilt aristo – renowned in London for his partying, drinking, and his flirting and propositioning of waiters in cafes. Yet this foppish exterior masked a Scarlet Pimpernel interior. In Berlin he used his good connections to smuggle many Jews out of Germany.

He also belonged to a group of conspirators who plotted to overthrow Hitler. He was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp where he was tortured. Bernstorff's influential and aristocratic connections led to his release but the Gestapo kept an eye on him. In 1943 he was rearrested and held in various prisons, warehouse basements and Ravensbruck concentration camp accused of sedition. Bernstorff was shot without trial by the SS in April 1943.

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