By Karen Ocamb
Gad Beck, believed to be the last gay Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, died in Berlin on Sunday, June 24, JTA reported. He was 88.
Gad’s story is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—thanks in large part to David Mixner and Roberta Bennett and LGBT checkbook and religious activists such as Rabbi Denise Eger, leader of Congregation Kol Ami, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. During the 1993 March on Washington, L.A.-based Mixner and Bennett and some friends toured the just-opened National Memorial Holocaust Museum on the National Mall and came away determined to support the Museum’s scholarship by raising money to include LGBT victims of the Holocaust. Eger and Bennett held LA fundraisers where straight Holocaust survivors or children of survivors also spoke—and there was rarely a person who didn’t weep.
But these events were being held in 1993-1995—before HIV/AIDS became a “manageable” disease—and there was an unspoken undercurrent of history repeating itself: just as Jews and gays were targeted and killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, so, too, it seemed had the right wing U.S. government in the 1980s/early 1990s intentionally ignored how AIDS was ravaging the gay community. It was amazing to watch the older generation set aside awkward anti-gay sentiments and come together with the newer generation of brave activists to ensure that the Museum was truly inclusive of all those impacted by Hitler and the Holocaust.
By 1996, Mixner, Bennett, friends and allies had raised $1.7 million to give the Holocaust Museum for scholarly research—with the names of the gay donors etched on the Museum’s wall, as the Museum did with other contributors. Gad Beck flew in from Berlin to participate in the formal check-presenting ceremony. I remember him as a small, affable man with a big smile and riveting story. Here’s some of what Mixner remembers:
Just when we thought there were no more tears [at the ceremony], Gad Beck stood to share his story with a dignity and pride rarely seen by any of us. His story of courage and love was riveting.
Most dramatic was the story of the great love of his life, Manfred Lewin. Beck had mixed heritage with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother (known as “Mischling” by the Nazis) and was not immediately sent to the camps. However Manfred and his family were sent to Auschwitz. Beck entered the camp in the guise of a Hitler Youth uniform and actually escorted Manfred out. Once out Manfred realized he could not leave his family and returned to the camp. Beck’s story of the two of them saying ‘good-bye’ was heartbreaking to hear. Tragically, Manfred and his entire family died in the Holocaust.
Gad emotionally told us how he used his ties to members of the homosexual community, who already were in the closet and knew how to live an ‘underground life’, to help other Jews escape into Switzerland. Finally he was betrayed, arrested and in a transit camp when the allies liberated him. Beck reminded us in the audience that the allies took many of the gay prisoners of the camps and held them in prison until 1949 because of their homosexuality.
Because of that Allied policy, many homosexual prisoners trusted no one when they finally were released from prison and refused to share their experiences. Because of Gad Beck, his courage, capacity to love and his willing to inspire future generations, we know a lot of the truth. For that, Mr. Beck, we will always be grateful.