Stroll through any library shelf dedicated to housing books on the Holocaust and you will see a vast collection of published testimony from Holocaust survivors. Although each testimony offers a unique story and perspective of the Holocaust collectively they overwhelmingly portray a Jewish perspective. Naturally most would seem this was logical, after all, the Holocaust was a crime against Jews. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the Holocaust as ‘the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-1945’. To many the term Holocaust is replaced in favour of the השואה or shoah which is the Hebrew word for catastrophe. However this statement is not true, the Holocaust was not just a Jewish Holocaust, Jews were not the sole group to be persecuted by the Reich. I understand the use of the word shoah from a Jewish perspective as the word Holocaust has seen to be very negative connotations as it is a term that was originally meant for animal sacrificing, and was later adopted as a term to denote massacres. Many Jews believe it to be a word representing a Greek pagan custom and thus is a theological insult. I do not believe the word shoah fully encompasses the non-Jewish element of the Holocaust, however I do not feel the definition of the Holocaust (at least by Oxford English Dictionary standards) does that either.
The Oxford English Dictionary adds an afterthought stating that the Holocaust as a term can be transferred and used to describe ‘the similar fate of other groups’, but it does not explicitly state that the Holocaust of 1939-1945 was anything other than a Jewish Holocaust. For example, the Atlantic slave trade which saw the mass deportation of Africans to the Americans has been labelled as an African or Enslavement Holocaust. Yet the Holocaust of 1939-1945 was a Holocaust widespread attack at anyone the Nazis deemed to be unworthy of life, they were considered ‘Aliens’ of the Reich.
The exact figures for the total number of victims within the Holocaust will never conclusively be established but it is estimated that six million Jews died as a result of the Nazi attempt to provide the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. This is a horrific figure, but estimates for the total number of non-Jewish deaths during the Holocaust is estimated to range from fifteen million to twenty million. This means that the figure of six million Jews is actually a minority in the overall figures for the Holocaust. The Jews were the biggest single group to be persecuted and removed as a result of the Nazi desire to build a national community for their superior Aryan race. This fact alone warrants the fast amount of time that has been dedicated to the research and understanding of what happened to Jews during the Reich. The other groups that the Nazi’s persecuted were significantly smaller in number, does that mean they deserve less attention because of the fact their numbers were smaller?
In 1941 the Reich developed a labelling system within the camps to help differentiate the inmates. The SS guards controlling the camps were keen to avoid creating solidity amongst inmates within the camps so they designed a system of triangles to stitch onto an inmate’s striped uniform. The Nazi’s hoped that this system would create fractions so inmates would disassociate from a national label of ‘prosecuted’ and subdivide into a mentality of them and us, so that SS guards could better control the prisoners.
These different triangles were:
Δ ✡ Inverted Yellow triangle or star
Δ Inverted Black triangle
Δ Inverted Blue triangle
Δ Inverted Brown triangle
Δ Inverted Green triangle
Δ Inverted Pink triangle
Δ Inverted Purple triangle
Δ Inverted Red triangle
Δ Red triangle
Each triangle represented a different group. The subdivision could even continue further by the inclusion of an initial of a country so it could these larger triangle groups further down into nationalities. They were all persecuted by the Nazis, yet the vast majority of these triangles fall into the category of the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. For example, can you identify which triangle represents which group? Can you identify all of them? The answers appear further down.
In 1994 a historian stated that only one in four adult Americans realised that Homosexuals had been targeted during the Holocaust. You might even be aware that you have struggled to identify all the triangles. You may even wonder why this matters. I think it matters for a very important reason. A very common mantra in Holocaust studies is that in order to spot the early signs of a Holocaust and in order to prevent them all together, one has to examine and investigate the Holocaust, to fully understand what happened. Only once we have fully understood what has happened can the task of preventing future a Holocaust happen.
However there is one group in particularly that are almost completely denied a right to be represented in the Holocaust and they are the ranks of ordinary criminals. They tend to straddle two categories, either being labelled a professional criminal (green triangle) which would include murderers and thieves or an asocial (black triangle) which would contain prostitutes. The role of the criminal within the Holocaust is a difficult role to incorporate because in portraying the Holocaust victim as a victim, it implies an element of innocence. It is suggested that the only crime a Holocaust victim committed was to be an ‘alien’ of the Reich. The Criminal, the Asocial and even at the time the Homosexual broke the law, and as a result they were criminals not just in Nazi Germany, but in the contemporary world as well. Homosexuality was not decriminalised in England and Wales until 1967 and in the two Germanies until 1968-9.
Some historians have even argued that the criminal does not deserve a place in the Holocaust, but I completely disagree. Anyone who has studied the Holocaust will know about the horrific nature of the Holocaust and personally I believe that no one, not even criminals deserved to be imprisoned in a camp, therefore I belief anyone who spent time within a camp deserve the right to be acknowledged within the literature. I also believe that if criminals are excluded from Holocaust literature, we fail to understand a significant portion of inmates, they may have not been one of the largest groups, in fact in terms of numbers they were probably one of the smallest groups, but they were one of the first groups to enter into a concentration camp system, they were also some of the people who survived the longest within the camps. By excluding them from the literature, historians have excluded vital testimony of people who survived within the camps for years, who could demonstrate the growth of the camps and the long term developments of the camps. But in also failing to study them, history is also denying them a right to be remembered.
A few weeks ago a posted a picture of twitter of Dachau’s memorial to the Holocaust. I really like the memorial, I love the triangles that show different groups, and I like that it shows that there were other non-Jewish groups within the Holocaust. In addition to posting the picture I asked the question: What’s missing? When I look at the memorial I am pleased to see the inclusion of some groups, but disappointed to see the absence of others. I got two replies on twitter, the first was to answer my question with ‘pink triangle?’, and someone replied to the comment with ‘full marks’, only it is not full marks. Because more than one triangle is absent.
I think Holocaust studies needs to begin to redress the imbalance towards non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust but I do not believe that the shift towards looking at non-Jewish victims should in anyway diminish a Jewish perspective of the Holocaust. I firmly believe that if Holocaust studies begins to intergrate a non-Jewish narrative of the Holocaust with a Jewish narrative, we will not only have a greater perspective of the Holocaust, but we will have a deeper understanding of a Jewish contextualised perspective within Holocaust literature.
Δ ✡ Jews (Yellow)
Δ Asocials or Antisocials (Inverted Black)
Δ Emigrants or people without a nationality (Inverted Blue)
Δ Roma or Gypsies (Inverted Brown)
Δ Criminals (Inverted Green)
Δ Homosexuals (Inverted Pink)
Δ Jehovah’s Witnesses (Inverted Purple)
Δ Political opponents (Inverted Red)
Δ Prisoners of War, Spys or Deserters (Red)