AS I WRITE, covid-19 is racing through the U.S. population, with the number of infected climbing exponentially. News about the pandemic is all-consuming, as is its impact on everyday life.
That said, I don’t think I’m stretching the logic of synchronicity to remark that this issue’s theme, which was announced many months ago, seems tailor-made for the current whirl of events. No doubt there will be many “unsung heroes” during this crisis—people who step forward and risk their own well-being for the good of others. Indeed it is in times of crisis that heroism is called for and when, with any luck, a few people rise to the occasion, such as those profiled here.
A state of crisis certainly existed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s, especially if you were Jewish or gay or otherwise “non-Aryan.” Two pieces in this issue focus on individuals who stood up to a regime that tolerated no dissent. Hans Scholl was a member of Hitler Youth when he fell in love with another boy, who later turned him in to the authorities. Radicalized by prison, he became a leading figure in the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany. Gad Beck was both Jewish and gay and still a teenager when he resolved to go underground to survive and subvert the Reich, which he did in Artful Dodger fashion, helping to rescue several dozen German Jews along the way.
In the decade before the War, the U.S. was going through the worst economic crisis in its history. Annemarie Schwarzenbach was a Swiss journalist and photographer, and a lesbian, who came to the U.S. to document the Great Depression for Swiss magazines. She and her girlfriend drove deep into the American South, into those rarely seen backwaters of poverty where the people are not always welcoming toward strangers with cameras—and two women, at that.
Different crises seem to call for different kinds of heroes. During the brutal junta of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s and ’80s, the person who emerged as the right hero for the times was a poet named Pedro Lemebel. Through his writing and performance, often in drag, Lemebel managed to lampoon and lambaste the Pinochet regime, even becoming something of a Chilean folk hero.
Two American figures support the idea that heroes come in many shapes and sizes. Martin Duberman tells the life story of Barbara Deming, a lesbian activist who wasn’t afraid to take personal risks in the pursuit of social justice for African-Americans, women, LGBT people, and other minorities. Writer John Rechy is perhaps not “unsung” inasmuch as his novels are widely read and admired, but far from being an armchair writer, Rechy really was a sexual outlaw who threw himself into a dangerous, nocturnal world, risking arrest or bodily harm, before committing these experiences to the page.