The persecution of gay men during the Holocaust took center stage during a panel discussion at the Center for Civil and Human Rights on Wednesday, March 14, that focused on Holocaust education and the effects of Paragraph 175, a provision of the German criminal code initiated in 1871 that criminalized homosexual acts between men.
Also known as Section 175, it was used against more than 100,000 men, including Jews, and often led to their execution.
The impetus for the discussion was the Atlanta premiere April 5 of the chamber opera “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer. It’s about two Holocaust survivors, one of them gay, who are visited by ghosts of people they knew during the Nazi terror.
“Here’s something that struck me when I got into this: I never heard anything while growing up in Israel about the persecution of gays during the Holocaust,” said Tomer Zvulun, the director of “Out of Darkness” and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, which is staging the piece in collaboration with Theatrical Outfit. “As a kid, I was surrounded by Holocaust survivors, and to us — what did we know — they were just people with accents and numbers on their arms. This subject matter is profoundly topical and deserves to be told.”
Another panelist, SOJOURN Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax, said, “The Holocaust was 70 years ago, so why are we still telling this story? Because it’s still happening today. It is systemic. But now, with the MeToo movement and TimesUp, people are not silenced anymore. We are hearing very high-profile experiences of assault or discrimination and from folks who have been denied professional progress because they must cower to someone else’s power.”
Andrea Videlefsky, the president of Am Yisrael Chai and founder of the Daffodil Project, said time is running out for Holocaust survivors to tell their stories. She called it an “urgent situation” and said part of her job is giving “voice to people’s stories around the world.”
Tom Key, who plays the speaking role of survivor Gad Beck in the second act of “Out of Darkness,” is Theatrical Outfit’s artistic director. “Our trademark is we tell stories that stir the soul,” he said, “and it’s not for nothing that this season we have two such plays: ‘Boy,’ a drama about gender identity, and the other, a comedy running now called ‘Perfect Arrangement,’ about the Red Scare.”
Theatrical Outfit lost many supporters who refused to give those two plays a chance, and the company “received some pretty harsh emails from some who did come,” Key said, “but we’ve heard from many more new attendees with the most moving reactions, all through the power of listening to one another’s stories.”
Moderator Ryan Roemerman, the executive director of the LGBT Institute, asked the panel if this was the right time for a production such as “Out of Darkness” and whether it could have been done 20 years ago.
“It’s always the right time to tell stories that matter. In a time like this, there is more of a group consciousness and willingness and hunger for meaning. Understanding what it is to be free and to live is never a completed task in the human condition,” Key said. “And I think art is one of the most effective and sustainable ways for humans of all backgrounds and persuasions and differences to understand what it is that we have in common. That’s more important than what divides us. It matters to be part of the whole.”
Videlefsky added, “We can’t always wait till the time is right. We need to challenge ourselves, stand up, not be bystanders. Even when it’s not easy, we need to do the right thing.”