Hitler took power in Germany in January 1933. From the very beginning, Jews were targeted with policies and local, regional, and federal laws to restrict their rights in every sphere of life. They were denied access to schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public services; to the practice of their professions; to having any items of value but especially radios, the link to the outside world; to sitting on park benches, riding on trams and bicycles, shopping at stores for food, and owning property.
In 1935 Jews in Germany were stripped of their German citizenship, their last hope for legal protection of their rights.
And then came Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, a brutal turning point. Paramilitary troops and ordinary people took to the streets in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in unprecedented violence against Jews. The actions were organized by the Nazi leadership, Hitler Youth, and by the SA, the Stormtroopers. Members of the various units wore civilian clothes to operate under the fiction that this was a spontaneous expression of public outrage.
The rioters burned hundreds of synagogues – and the synagogues burned in full view of firefighters, who had orders to intervene only if the flames spread to nearby buildings. Rioters shattered shop windows and looted more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses. The shards of glass that filled the streets gave the devastation the name Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and women were raped.
And more than 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and incarcerated in Dachau, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps.
This wave of terror was covered by newspapers all over the globe. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “No other story about the persecution of the Jews received such widespread and sustained attention from the American press at any other time during the Nazi era.”
Yet nobody intervened. Nobody looked at the maelstrom of hate that was building against the Jews and cried STOP! There were no military, political, diplomatic, or economic actions against Germany.
Nazi leadership gathered in 1942 at Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, and planned the “final solution to the Jewish question.” The goal was to create a Europe that was Judenfrei, free of Jews, to be achieved by rounding up and deporting Jews to ghettos and then transporting them to their deaths at extermination sites.
Beginning in 1938, cities and regions throughout German-occupied Europe proudly and publicly announced when they became Judenfrei.
- Gelnhausen, Germany – reported Judenfrei, November 1938
- Bydgoszcz, Poland – reported Judenfrei, December 1939
- Alsace – reported Judenrein, July 1940
- Banat, Serbia – reported Judenfrei, August 1941
- Luxembourg – reported Judenfrei, October 1941
- Estonia – reported Judenfrei at the Wannsee Conference, January 1942
- Vienna – reported Judenfrei, October 1942
- Berlin – reported Judenfrei, May 1943
We know the ending of the story: 6 million Jews were exterminated, simply because of who they were.
A shocking designation
A few months ago, I read with horror that cities in Poland were posting signs declaring that they were “Gay-free.” Nearly 100 Polish municipalities now boast that designation, a newspaper distributed stickers with the same slogan and a crossed-out Pride flag, and participants at a Pride march in the city of Białystok were pelted with stones and bottles by nationalists and far-right groups.
This is shocking on two counts. First, the six concentration camps used exclusively for extermination during the Holocaust, including Auschwitz, were all located in German-occupied Poland. That a country with a history that includes the presence of the Holocaust’s worst horrors is again the site of hatred against a vulnerable group is almost unimaginable.
Second, the slogan of ‘Gay-free’ and its resonance to Judenfrei is terrifying, given our awareness of the historical consequences of the hate and dehumanization in making cities free of Jews.
Attacking the LGBTQ community played a major role in Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, July re-election to a second five-year term. He has demonized that population, claiming that they are “worse than communism,” which Poland endured from 1945-1989.
Duda has co-opted the Polish judiciary and has brought it increasingly under his control. He has widened his executive powers. He vetoed a gender recognition bill that Parliament passed which would have given legal recognition to transgender identities. He went on to campaign with rhetoric declaring that LGBTQ individuals are “not people,” claiming that like communism, they are a foreign import and he would protect Poland and its people from being under attack by this evil influence. He is fully supported by the Catholic Church, which wields great power in Poland.
What has been the global response to “Gay-free cities”?
Like the United States, Poland is a deeply divided country; 49% of the population voted against Duda in the July election. The homophobia and hate have energized the LGBTQ community and its supporters throughout Poland and abroad.
The European Union has cut off funding to six of the “gay-free” municipalities. The “twinning” city of Fermoy, Ireland, has canceled its connection to Nowa Dęba in southeast Poland.
But this hasn’t stopped the hate from spreading. Duda has capitalized on a right-wing movement that supports a Poland with no Jews, no Muslims, and no gays.
Antisemitism is seeing a resurgence. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently conducted a survey of Poles’ attitudes towards Jews. Fully 48% of Poles, or 15 million people, hold antisemitic views. At least 79% of Poles believe that the Holocaust did not happen. Among the 21% who do believe that the Holocaust was, in fact, an actual occurrence, they maintain that the number of Jews who died is greatly exaggerated.
Duda did not win only on an anti-LGBTQ platform; he rallied people with appeals to antisemitism.
Fully 10% of Poland’s pre-war population was Jewish, or nearly 3.5 million Jews. More than 90% were murdered in the Holocaust. The Nazis seized their property, which was later nationalized by the Polish communists after the war. The Polish economy has benefited significantly.
Poland is the only EU country that has not legislated on and supported property restitution. Duda’s opponent promised to address this issue, and Duda claimed that his opponent would sell Poland out to the international Jewish community and take money from Polish families to pay “Jewish interests.”
This is the rhetoric in Poland today: gay-free in a place that, 75 years ago, nearly became completely Jew-free.
Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Jew.
Who will be next?
World Without Genocide will host a webinar on Tuesday, Nov. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m. CST, “From the Nazis’ Jew-Free Cities to Poland’s Gay-Free Cities Today: The Spread of Hate.” The program is open to the public. Fred Amram, Holocaust survivor and author, is the featured speaker. Registration is required by Nov. 15. It is $10 general public, $5 seniors and students, free to Mitchell Hamline students, $25 for Minnesota lawyers for 2 CLE ‘Elimination of Bias’ credits. Clock hours for teachers, nurses, and social workers.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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