Memorial to LGBT Shoah victims unveiled in the Castro

Memorials to the 6 million killed by the Nazis have become commonplace in American cities, but on Monday, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to permanently recognize another group targeted by the Nazis: the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

"John Ashcroft be damned," cracked Tom Ammiano, San Francisco supervisor of District 9.

Pink Triangle Park, a memorial to the 15,000 killed in the Holocaust, was dedicated in a noontime ceremony in the Castro, just off Harvey Milk Plaza at the intersection of Market and Castro streets.

Nazis assigned the pink triangle to LGBT inmates of the concentration camps, and they had to wear it on their uniforms as Jews had to wear the yellow star. It has since become a symbol of gay pride and liberation.

On Dec. 10, 2001 ground was broken for the park, which features a garden, plaques in English and braille, a triangle of light pink stones in the ground and 15 triangular columns (representing the 15,000) formed in a triangle.

That day was also a celebration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly.

The design, by Robert Bruce and Susan Martin, was chosen after submissions came from around the world.

Gustavo Serina, president of the Eureka Valley Promotion Association, welcomed those assembled, and the San Francisco Chorale performed.

District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty thanked those present for bearing witness.

Wendy Nelder, director of the Neighborhood Beautification Fund, said working on Pink Triangle Park was the most gratifying thing she had done while in her current position.

Robert B. Jobe, a lawyer who has fought for political asylum for persecuted gay and lesbian clients from around the world, told some of their stories.

Then, while waiting for Mayor Willie Brown to arrive (who was late), Nelder, who acted as emcee, stalled for time, introducing the various VIPs in attendance, such as the World War II veterans.

But then an elegant, perfectly coifed woman with strawberry-blonde hair and a cane slowly approached the podium. Nelder promptly stepped aside.

"I never come forward without having been invited, but especially since the mayor is not here," she began.

Gloria Hollander Lyon, a co-founder of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, said she came to represent Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. And then she pulled up her leopard-print sleeve to reveal the numbered tattoo on her forearm.

Lyon, a Czech Jew who was 14 when she arrived at Auschwitz, was interned there for 7-1/2 months.

Though she had to wear the yellow star, like all Jews, she spoke of the different labels of the others, like those that signified members of the underground and political prisoners.

"I remember the pink triangle," she said. "We saw them working hard, abused and deprived of their rights, as we all were." She continued, "I'm so glad to be among you," and "thank you very much for making this possible."

The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Nelder asked Lyon how she got out of Auschwitz, and the survivor was in the middle of her harrowing story when the mayor finally arrived.

"I apologize for interrupting her story, and we all should hear more," began Brown.

After emphasizing that "there should never be any form of discrimination of any category, either in San Francisco or the United States," Brown unveiled the two plaques commemorating the park.

When the ceremony was over, Lyon, the only Holocaust survivor in attendance, was mobbed by well-wishers.

Ruven Hannah, an Israeli-born performance artist who has lived in San Francisco for the past 20 years, told Lyon his grandparents, who were killed at Auschwitz, were also from Czechoslovakia. As soon as she introduced herself, he told her, he burst into tears.

"Can I give you a hug?" he asked her. After they embraced, he told the Jewish Bulletin that he came to the dedication because he was a friend of the landscape architect, Jason Rowe, but he didn't even know it had anything to do with the Holocaust. But once he arrived, he was glad to be present.

"This is really good to have in my gay neighborhood," he said. "I'm really glad to know that it's here."

Rabbi Camille Angel commended the neighborhood association, of which she is a part, for building the park, and said she hoped many visitors to San Francisco would come there to meditate about intolerance. But she would have liked to have seen a greater Jewish presence at its dedication. She also thought that with her synagogue, the queer-identified Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in the neighborhood, she should have been invited to speak.

"I was so grateful that Mrs. Lyon stood up and took the initiative to speak and lend such a tremendous witnessing to the event," said Angel. "I wish someone had the sechel [wisdom] to be more pointed about the Jewish loss and the presence of gay Jews in our community, as that was so absent."

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."