Hamburg Plans Memorial to Commemorate Persecuted Sex Workers Under Hitler

Hamburg Plans Memorial to Commemorate Persecuted Sex Workers Under Hitler

In Hamburg’s bustling red-light district of St Pauli, a poignant initiative is underway to commemorate the sex workers who faced persecution under the tyrannical regime of Adolf Hitler. The historic Herbertstraße, notorious for its row of "houses of pleasure," will soon bear witness to a memorial dedicated to these forgotten victims of Nazi oppression.

Few are aware that it was the Nazis who erected the now-famous gates around Herbertstraße, intending to shame sex workers while clandestinely facilitating their business. Now, decades later, the St Pauli district council, in collaboration with church leaders, community activists, and local sex workers, is answering the call for a more inclusive historical remembrance.

The brainchild of Sieghard Wilm, pastor of the Lutheran church in the neighborhood, this initiative aims to provide a dignified remembrance for women like Sophie Gotthardt, who barely survived Auschwitz after being detained for "perversion" by the Nazis. Wilm emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the historical plight of these women, lifting the stigma surrounding them, and making their stories visible to all.

Scheduled for inauguration by November, the memorial will take inspiration from the "stumbling stones" scattered throughout Europe, honoring individual Holocaust victims. Situated at the entrance of Herbertstraße, the marker will include QR codes linking to the stories of the women of St Pauli whose fates are known, ensuring their legacies are not forgotten.

The significance of Herbertstraße stretches back to the 19th century when it emerged as a lively destination for local men and sailors seeking entertainment. Despite its seedy reputation, its 60-meter haven for debauchery remains a fixture of pub crawls and stag weekends.

However, the opaque metal gates that now define Herbertstraße were not always part of its landscape. Erected by the Hamburg Gauleiter in 1933, these barriers were a manifestation of the Nazi regime's disdain for the sex-for-cash trade, which they deemed a "sin and disgrace for the community." In the following years, Nazi officers arrested thousands of "fornicating women" in Hamburg, many of whom were imprisoned, deported, or subjected to forced sterilization.

Frauke Steinhäuser, a historian, notes the difficulty in tracing individual stories due to societal taboos surrounding the sex trade. Nevertheless, she highlights the harrowing tale of Sophie Gotthardt, who endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Nazis before being released after the war, only to find her lover deceased.

With cross-party support secured, the approved measure in Hamburg allocates €5,000 for the memorial, QR codes, and an inaugural ceremony. Wilm and his collaborators aim to raise an additional €15,000 to complete the project, including further historical research.

Today, Herbertstraße continues to draw visitors from near and far, its gates a stark reminder of a dark chapter in history. While an estimated 250 individuals now offer sexual services for money on the street, prostitution itself is legal in Germany. However, concerns persist about the rampant trafficking and exploitation that have accompanied the liberalization of the trade since 2002, leading some to dub Germany "Europe's biggest brothel."

As the memorial takes shape, it serves as a testament to the resilience and strength of those who endured persecution and oppression. Through the act of remembrance, their voices are heard, their stories told, and their sacrifices honored. In a world often plagued by forgetfulness, this memorial stands as a beacon of remembrance, ensuring that the lessons of the past are not lost to history.

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