As a Brit who travels to and from mainland Europe on a regular basis, there’s something of a sobering reminder to be found beneath your feet as you walk around European towns and cities. Every now and then you’ll see a small brass plaque in the pavement, with a name, some dates, and sometimes a place name on it. These are the so-called stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, memorials for the victims of the Holocaust in front of their former homes, and each one bears the name of a Jew or other victim.
Brits and Americans are taught about the Holocaust, in schools, through the testimonies of survivors, and through television and film. Many of us had grandparents who fought or otherwise served in the second world war, and among those were a significant number who saw its effects for themselves. But it didn’t happen at home in the UK or America, so for those of us born long after it happened it still remains difficult to comprehend.
In considering the people whose names appear on those stumbling stones, the horror of it all becomes far more immediate than it does when watching a historical documentary. It happened here on this quiet street in a prosperous town, this is not the place of horror far to the east which we’ve been taught to associate with the Holocaust. By the time the Nazis rounded up their victims it was far too late for anybody in Germany or the occupied countries to protest, and of those courageous people who did take action to save Jews from capture, many were themselves caught and sent to their deaths.
The question that’s probably in the minds of most people when struggling to comprehend the Holocaust is this: How could it have happened? The answer doesn’t come in the final act of the victims being rounded up and exterminated, but years earlier. In the relentless Nazi propaganda which polarised an entire population to see Jews as subhuman, but also in the refusal of so many people to understand what was happening. The message from the numbers of Jewish refugees sounding the alarm bells throughout the 1930s was largely ignored, because people preferred instead to believe that it couldn’t be that bad. You are left wondering, how many of the victims of the Holocaust could have been saved, had the countries outside Germany done more about the plight of German Jews in the 1930s?
Given the above it’s not difficult to draw parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the actions of the right wing of US politics here in the 2020s. The demonisation of transgender people in right-wing American media has been ceaseless, and the legislative programme of Republican state lawmakers has demonstrated their resolve to wipe us out in their territories. They are chillingly open about their plans for us under a future Republican presidency, in which near-dictatorial powers would be seized at a federal level to override lawmakers in Democratic so-called safe states. Meanwhile, as in the 1930s, those not directly involved either within America or in other countries choose to ignore the plight of American transgender people, either because they don’t believe it will happen that way, or because they simply don’t care.
So this is why we’re sounding the alarm for trans Americans. There is no magic time machine with which we can go back to 1931 and warn about the Holocaust, but there is still time for transgender Americans to get out. When this is all over, we would prefer not to carry the guilt of having stood idly by while it was happening.
Header image: John Snape, CC BY-SA 3.0.