In the summer of 2017, a member of an open Facebook group of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors asked the group, “What have you done in your lifetime that would redeem your parents’ memory and all the family members they lost?” While perhaps crudely stated, the question is a poignant one that received a variety of responses. One recurring theme among the children and grandchildren of survivors was the insistence on marrying another Jewish person in order to have as many children as possible and raise them to be Jewish. Having Jewish children and grandchildren is viewed as a means of denying Hitler and the Nazis a posthumous victory. Many of those commenting on the post agreed that having Jewish children and raising them in a Jewish family is one of the best ways to resist. While I am not by any means against these acts of resistance, I have come to question who is (un)able to participate in the rebuilding of the Jewish community in this way. For instance, LGBTQ children of Holocaust survivors were not always able to participate in the same way as their fellow heterosexual children of survivors. The experience of LGBTQ children of Jewish survivors remains remarkably understudied and acknowledged within the histories of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. I will be taking up these questions within my larger dissertation project entitled, “Queer(ing) Post-Holocaust Experience: An Oral History of LGBTQ Children of Holocaust Survivors.”
Academic fields such as History, Psychology, and Transitional Justice have largely ignored this group of individuals, even though they have been speaking and writing about their experiences as well as organizing themselves for decades. For instance, in the 1990s the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Children of Holocaust Survivors was created in New York. At its peak, the association had over 150 members from eleven different countries. There was clearly a need among LGBTQ children of survivors to find each other to discuss and work through issues that they specifically were facing, such as experiences of homophobia from within their families and/or communities. While the organization has since disbanded, their website remains active and provides a snapshot of some of the colliding histories of LGBTQ persecution by the Nazis, the Holocaust, the rise of the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States, and the experiences of children of survivors.
Along with groups such as the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Children of Holocaust Survivors, there exists a small collection of writings from LGBTQ children of Holocaust survivors. The genres of writing include theatre, fictional short stories, autobiographical short stories and memoirs, poetry, and some academic texts. The small collection of authors includes Lev Raphael, Lisa Kron, Rick Landman, and Susan Knabe.
All of these authors in some way discuss their experiences as LGBTQ children of Holocaust survivors, in ways that reveal how they are similar and different from those of heterosexual children of survivors. One issue in particular that has stood out is marriage. Marriage was often out of the question for LGBTQ children of survivors when in their 20s and 30s, as same-sex marriage was not legalized in Canada until 2005 and in all fifty states in the United States until 2015. Lev Raphael discusses his experiences and feelings surrounding his brother’s engagement in his autobiographical work Journeys and Arrivals: On Being Gay and Jewish (Faber and Faber, 1996).
When Raphael’s brother announced his engagement to a first-generation Polish Catholic immigrant woman, Raphael’s family had a difficult time accepting his choice of partner. For Raphael, the engagement also made him question his own emerging Jewish identity. “I wished my brother hadn’t taken something away from the family by marrying a non-Jew,” Raphael writes, “But the experience was odd for me. I was too uncertain in my own Jewish identity to condemn what my brother was doing—or to feel comfortable with it” (13–14). Raphael had been struggling to reconcile his Jewish faith and identity with his growing awareness of his own homosexuality. Struggling with finding his Jewish identity along heteronormative definitions, Raphael felt that his brother had undermined the same normative definers by marrying someone outside the Jewish faith. Alongside this feeling was the realization that even if his brother married a non-Jewish woman, his brother would still always be considered “normal” compared to Raphael because his brother had entered into a heterosexual relationship. “I also felt bested by him,” Raphael writes, “out-maneuvered in our unspoken rivalry. I couldn’t count on marrying even a Jewish woman, and so even though my brother had dropped out of college, he was normal, and had just proven it in the most obvious way” (13–14). His brother’s engagement and subsequent wedding forced Raphael to face the realization that he would never be considered “normal” within his family. His homosexuality dislodged him from the path expected of him and Raphael viewed this as a betrayal to his family, their history, and the Jewish community.
The engagement of his brother and Raphael’s feelings of this event highlight only a small aspect of how LGBTQ children of Holocaust survivors have different experiences from their straight counterparts. In many ways, the experiences of LGBTQ children of Holocaust survivors are unique and demand further study and acknowledgement. LGBTQ children of survivors have also contributed to the rebuilding of the worldwide Jewish community and have worked tirelessly to preserve their families’ histories and memories. These efforts need to be acknowledged and highlighted in academic studies of Holocaust survivors, and also within the larger Jewish and LGBTQ communities.