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For Larry Kramer, AIDS was the second Holocaust

For people of their time, appreciating a biblical prophet of doom such as Jeremiah or the Roman satirist Juvenal depended on whether things were really seen as dire. The 1985 play “The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer, who died on May 27 at age the age of 84, combines Jeremiah and Juvenal in ways that make for uncomfortable watching and reading. Adapted for the award-winning TV film,, the play makes blunt and literal equivalences between the silence and apathy surrounding the outbreak of the AIDS pandemic and anti-Semitic persecution in Europe 70-80 years ago. One character in “Normal Heart” declares, referring to AIDS, “All analogies to the Holocaust are tired, overworked, boring, probably insulting, possibly true, and a major turnoff,” to which Ned Weeks, a character representing Kramer himself asks, “Are they?”

A 2013 article, by Lawrence D. Mass, editor of “We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer” points out how Kramer, in gathering ideological weaponry against AIDS, espoused the controversial, accusatory approach of philosopher Hannah Arendt, who blamed European Jewry for not protesting in a more visible and systematic way against persecution. Mass admits that while at first he “wondered if there weren’t elements of internalized anti-Semitism in [Kramer’s] Arendt-inspired assertions that gays must not go silently to our own slaughter the ways Jews did in WWII.” Yet ultimately, despite the hyperbolic or misplaced rhetoric of Kramer’s book titles such as “Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist”, Mass concludes that “in greater perspective, Larry was right… By standing up, acting up, acting out, by screaming bloody murder, by using every tactic we could muster, including character assassination, we had a chance.” Mass wistfully adds that Jews could have used as verbally aggressive a defender as Kramer during the dark years of European fascism.

Of course, there were some escapees who early on warned the Allies about the Holocaust. These survivors were dismissed by the majority, including many Jews, as shrill, even deranged; given the magnitude of the tragedy that was unfolding, some indeed may have been unsettled and disturbed, which does not lessen the truth of their message. Decades later, however heavy-handedly, Kramer focused on the Jewish duty of remembrance, even years before he himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive. His truculent, obstreperous interventions which put off even close friends and allies echoed those heard generations before. In 1981, Kramer cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and in 1987, the protest organization ACT-UP. Between these two dates, in 1983, on a trip to Germany he visited Dachau and learned that the concentration camp opened for business in 1933, to no decisive protests from the U.S. government or American Jews. In “Normal Heart,” Ned Weeks roars: “Do you know that when Hitler’s Final Solution … was first mentioned in The Times it was on page 28, and on page six of the Washington Post. And The Times and the Post were owned by Jews. What causes silence like that?! … Everything was downplayed and stifled.” Simon Levy, who directed a 2013 production of “Normal Heart” in Los Angeles, told the Jewish Journal that Ned Weeks is a “quintessential Jewish hero. It’s his knowledge of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that gives him his awareness of the possibility of extinction, and that drives his politics.”

Yet even Kramer’s pre-AIDS novel “Faggots” (1978) accusing the Fire Island gay community of hedonism, is imbued with Jewish metaphor, suggesting that had the AIDs pandemic never happened, Kramer might have pursued the artistic path of a Bernard Malamud rather than the political firebrand he became. The playwright Tony Kushner, whose own literary approach has been more poetic and philosophical, not to mention less “bulvan” than Kramer’s, told “The Washington Post” in 2005: “There’s a grimness in Larry’s politics – it’s not a sort of politics of feel-good exhortation. In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry’s generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry.”

It is possible to share concern about his incendiary subject matter without reacting exactly as Kramer did. The same article reports on a reading by Kramer at a Washington, D.C. bookstore, where the then-septuagenarian American Jewish gay activist Frank Kameny interrupts a typical Kramer jeremiad about the state of gay people in America today, arguing that undeniable progress has been made in recent decades. Kameny states: “There will be backlashes, we’re going through one now, and we’ll pass it fine and we’ll proceed and we’ll declare victory.” To which Kramer remarks: “I guess I just don’t agree with that,” and Kameny concludes: “Then you’re wrong.” If on political and societal issues, Kramer could be mistaken in his approach – not to mention his conclusions about the sexuality of past American presidents – on the AIDS epidemic, as Lawrence Mass rightly stated, Kramer was emphatically correct.

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