Amsterdam ‘stumbling stones’ commemorate gay victims of Nazis

By Jennifer Rankin

More than 75 years after they were murdered in the gas chambers or shot, gay victims of Nazi persecution were remembered with “stumbling stones” laid in Amsterdam this week.

The Netherlands has about 8,500 Stolpersteine, (stumbling stones), the brass memorial plaques embedded in the street that call on passers-by to remember individual victims of the Nazi genocide and oppression, a mental “stumbling” that forces pedestrians to reckon with the past.

Four stones laid this week are the first in the Netherlands to commemorate Jews and resistance fighters who were known to be gay, according to the Dutch historian Judith Schuyf, who played a leading role in the project.

“There was always a discussion in the Netherlands that gays and lesbians hadn’t been really persecuted in the war,” she said. She knew otherwise, having identified several Jews and resistance fighters, who were identified as gay or lesbian in police files.

“They were arrested because they were gay; they were sent to the camps because they were Jewish,” she said. “They died earlier and they didn’t have the opportunity that many Jews had to go into hiding. It is complicated but I am quite sure they were arrested because they were gay.”

Sexuality was also cited in the trial of non-Jewish resistance workers, including Karel Pekelharing, who was commemorated with a Stolperstein this week. He was an artist who joined the resistance and worked to sabotage the persecution of the Jews by forging ID papers and helping Jews in hiding. In March 1944, Pekelharing took part in a daring raid on the Weteringschans prison with the aim of freeing resistance fighters. The attack failed. A week later he was arrested and tortured. In June 1944 he and six fellow fighters were shot in dunes by the North Sea.

Another stone remembers Mina Sluijter, a seamstress who was arrested in July 1942, as the deportation of Dutch Jews was starting. Her police file states she was “in detention for homosexuality … also Jewish”. She was murdered at Auschwitz two months after her arrest.

Altogether, nine gay victims of Nazi persecution are being remembered. A further five brass handmade plaques will be laid in the street in early October. Six of the nine were Jewish and four were resistance workers. One of the nine, orchestra conductor and cellist Frieda Belinfante was a Jewish resistance worker. She was the only one of the nine who survived the war, after escaping to Switzerland.

The chances of survival for Dutch Jews were lower than in neighbouring Belgium and France. Three-quarters of the Jewish population of the Netherlands were killed. About 102,000 were murdered in death camps and 2,000 committed suicide or died attempting to escape.

Local activists believe gay victims have been overlooked. “We thought it was very sad that these people, who often didn’t have any children or partners or relatives who could request a Stolperstein for them just disappeared. We wanted to give them a name,” said Philip Tijsma, a spokesman for COC Netherlands, which organised the pavement memorials.

COC Netherlands is an LGBTQ+ rights group, which was founded in 1946 by former resistance workers, who said “never again to oppression”.

Seeing the first four Stolpersteine laid on Tuesday was “quite an emotional moment,” Tijsma said. “Because you are standing in front of the houses were they lived until just the day before they were either transported to Auschwitz or Sobibor to be destroyed, or were shot … That’s the thing about the Stolperstein; it brings history very close, it makes it almost tangible, this is where they walked, on this very sidewalk.”