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The image is a little jarring. On the left, a bearded, shirtless guy in sunglasses stands on a beach, the Israeli flag reflected in his mirrored aviators. On the right, a pink Star of David hovers over an ancient building in Prague.
But for Jayson Littman, the pictures make perfect sense. As the founder of Hebro Travel, a new tour company serving “gay Jews and those who love us,” he’s serving up trips that blend historical exploration, cultural discovery — and some serious partying.
The travel venture is an outgrowth of Hebro, Littman’s hugely successful party promotion and social-networking outfit, which hosts events with names like High Homodays, Jewbilee, and Sederlicious. “A lot of organizations exist to help gay people feel comfortable in Jewish spaces,” he told the Forward. “I exist to help Jews feel comfortable in gay spaces.”
An Israel trip timed for Tel Aviv Pride in June will take travelers to a famously gay-friendly environment. But it’s Littman’s latest tour offering that’s generating attention — and raising eyebrows.
The history-making Poland & Prague Pride Trip, August 8-16, includes a Jewish heritage tour of the Kazimierz District and Schindler’s List route; visits to historic synagogues; and stops at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. It ends with parties and a parade — Prague’s Gay Pride festivities take place the final Saturday of the trip.
“Some people did say, ‘How can you go from touring concentration camps to celebrating Pride?’” he said. “I look at it the same way as Jewish trips that go from the camps to Israel to celebrate continuity.”
For Littman, the trip cuts deep: He’s the grandchild of Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz. “My father was born in Budapest,” he said. “After Auschwitz, my grandparents went back to Budapest, and only made it to New York after the Hungarian Revolution around 1956. It always amazed me — why did they return?” Littman retains Hungarian citizenship along with his U.S. passport.
Though gay and LGBT synagogues have long led members on visits to Holocaust sites in Europe, Hebro’s Poland & Prague tour is the first of its kind from a package-tour operator, Littman said. “I knew I was touching on uncharted territory,” he said. “I kept hearing, ‘Who wants to go on a trip like that?’ But many more people said it’s a wonderful idea. And surprisingly few people realize how many gay people were murdered in the Holocaust.”
According to a permanent online exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazi campaign against homosexuality targeted German men who carried a “degeneracy” that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity.” Propaganda denounced them as “enemies of the state”; more than 100,000 men were arrested under vague laws against homosexuality.
Approximately 50,000 convicted men served prison terms, while many were institutionalized or castrated. And it’s believed that as many as 15,000 gay men were imprisoned in concentration camps, the vast preponderance German men in German camps (Littman’s tour will not visit Germany). The Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals, a traveling exhibition based on the Holocaust Museum’s research, will open at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in May.
Littman’s trip, meanwhile, is still taking shape. “We’re working out details on the actual visits to the camps. It’ll probably involve laying a wreath, having a rabbi there from the local community, and inviting someone from the local LGBT population to speak as well,” he said. “What’s been interesting is that every tour operator, Jewish or not, knows the Jewish stuff in these destinations. We’re having to fill in the blanks ourselves on some of the gay stuff.”
Littman had wanted the group to attend Warsaw Pride, but “the city’s conservative. Pride gets fought out in the government, and it’s more of a rally than a celebration. So we’re focusing on Jewish elements, and Jewish leaders I’ve spoken to think it’s a wonderful idea. Their main concern was that I didn’t make Poland out to be a Jewish morgue.”
Instead, “we’re showcasing how, after 70 years, Jewish life has blossomed, and gay life has gone through so many changes,” he said. “An important part of this tour is appreciating the evolution of both communities, their contributions to society, and how governments around the world now welcome both minorities,” he said. “Going to those places helps make that happen.”