Urgently Seeking Survivors of Sexual Violence During the Holocaust
We at Remember the Women Institute have been seeking for years to place the issue of sexual violence against Jewish women (and men) during the Holocaust in the narrative of Holocaust history. We believe that we have made some inroads, especially with our recent symposium in cooperation with USC Shoah Foundation. This gathering of 20 invited academics and other experts, including several mental health professionals, took place November 7-8, 2012, at the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. One of the main topics we considered was whether we can actually still find primary testimony so that victims’ and witnesses’ voices can be heard and preserved for the future.
We know that time is running out, but we believe there is still time to find and record testimonies about sexual violence. Our best allies in this effort can be mental health professionals and caretakers. Those who are working with the now elderly Holocaust survivors should be “alert to the possibility that the aging former hidden children, men, and women were molested in hiding and have never spoken about it” (Lessing 2011). There are certainly other instances of violation besides those against survivors in hiding. For example, there was sexual abuse in ghettos, during the entrance process into camps, in concentration and work camps, as forced providers of sex in brothels or private dwellings, and in exchange for food or other requirements for survival. There is even documentation that sometimes a ghetto Judenrat would provide the Nazis with “pretty young girls” so that the rest of the ghetto would be temporarily spared.
The November 2012 symposium was historic, because it was the first international meeting to focus specifically on sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust. It was prompted by the publication of the book “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust” (Hedgepeth and Saidel 2010), which broke new ground in exploring the evidence that had been overlooked or ignored by mainstream Holocaust scholars for more than 65 years. This unprecedented anthology, with contributions from historians, social scientists, literary and film critics and psychologists, opens a window into a world that had been virtually unknown, or at least unspoken. Chapter authors range from seasoned scholars to Ph.D. candidates, coming from countries including the United States, Israel, Germany, Austria, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. The book’s 16 chapters cover different forms of sexual violence from various perspectives. As the chapter authors detail, not only the Nazis and their allies, but Jews, Kapos, non-Jewish prisoners, and even liberators violated women, both Jewish and not. The volume examines forced abortion and sterilization as forms of sexual abuse, in connection with pregnancy and motherhood. Literature and film about sexual violence – including memoirs and fiction, feature films and documentaries – give readers insights into the transformation of historical facts into imaginative works. The shame that sexually violated women feel for their entire lives, as well as its effect on their children, is presented from a psychological perspective. (The book was designated a finalist for the 2011 Jewish Book Award in the Women’s Studies category and chosen as the February 2012 book of the month by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.)
While this groundbreaking book raised awareness about the issue, direct testimony in the voice of survivors of sexual violence is not the focus and is mostly absent. Therefore, we decided to use the book as a cornerstone for further investigation and better understanding of women’s Holocaust experiences. In general, there is a lack of public awareness, even denial, about this aspect of the Holocaust, and we wanted to find survivor voices to testify before it is too late. We at Remember the Women Institute have now created The Witness Project, to identify Holocaust survivors and witnesses of sexual violence who are willing to provide testimony, and we urge you to help us. This project is being coordinated by Jessica Neuwirth, an attorney, founder of the international women’s rights organization Equality Now, and a United Nations expert on sexual violence. She is assisted by Karen Shulman, an education consultant with experience working on the Holocaust and in Rwanda. We received funding to begin the project from the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, as well as The Ruth Turner Fund.
While many victims of sexual violence were murdered by the Nazis to ensure their silence, some are still living and able to testify. Remember the Women Institute believes it is not too late for the world to hear firsthand what happened to them. Rape and sexual violence in connection with later genocides have been well documented, and in these cases women have come forward. Some activists who have supported our work, such as Gloria Steinem, have been motivated by the idea that the international community might have prevented sexual violence in later genocides if the issue had been better understood in the context of the Holocaust. However, this theory can also be reversed. Now that these atrocities during later genocides have been widely exposed, analyzed, publicized, and in some cases brought to justice, perhaps this can motivate Holocaust victims to come forward.
The use of rape and sexual violence as tools of ethnic cleansing and genocide has been well documented in many conflicts since World War II, including in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia and Sudan. Women have come forward. Their abuse is known to the world, and they have found solidarity in each other and those who support them. The sexual enslavement during World War II of “comfort women” by the Japanese military was exposed only fifty years after the war. In the early 1990s, Kim Hak Soon was the first to speak out, at the age of 67, and her testimony inspired other women to do so. Within one year more than 200 other Korean women who had been enslaved as “comfort women” came forward. They have joined together, supported each other and shared their experience. The Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP), through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, is currently seeking witnesses to testify in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In a similar manner, our aim is for the world to hear firsthand what happened to women (and some men) during the Holocaust. The ultimate goals are to bring the issue of sexual violence during the Holocaust to public attention and to validate it as an integral part of Holocaust history.
Mental health professionals know that the issue of shame, or shanda in Yiddish, is a big factor in the denial and silence that we have encountered regarding sexual violence. We need to break through this barrier or an important part of Holocaust history will be lost. No victim need feel shame; it is the perpetrators who have behaved shamefully. How is it possible for otherwise intelligent and informed academics and others who have worked on the Holocaust for their entire careers to deny the fact of sexual abuse? I have had one such expert tell me to “forget about it,” as he turned his back on me. Another interrupted a workshop I was presenting to basically call me a liar. And others have simply remained silent, not responding to inquiries, which is another form of denial.
One reason these deniers offer is Rassenschande – the fact that sexual relations between Germans and Jews were prohibited at the time. However, the Rassenschande law was not about rape, but about consensual sex. (And as we know from daily reports in newspapers and on television, even laws that do prohibit rape in our own society today certainly do not prevent it.) Therefore, the existence of the Rassenschande law cannot be used as a reason that forced sexual relations supposedly did not happen. And such violation was only facilitated by the coercive environment in which German men had complete control and Jewish women were completely vulnerable.
While it seems there is no evidence that Germans or others were ordered to rape (unlike other contexts such as the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s), it does not follow that rape and sexual abuse were not widespread during the Holocaust. Nor does it follow that rape and other forms of sexual abuse were not used as weapons of war and destruction to humiliate and break women and girls. Although all but ignored during the Nuremberg war criminal trials, today rape would fall within the definition of crimes against humanity. Based on witness reports we have heard, a Nazi guard’s perceived fear of being accused of Rassenschande more likely resulted in the immediate murder of Jewish women and girls after being raped, rather than the hindrance of rape. As in other genocidal contexts, during the Holocaust, the persecution of Jewish women was marked by sexual violence. As one survivor told us, “I think it happened everywhere, and I think they just did it to do it, because we were Jews.” We had anticipated some apprehension from organizations and individuals that we sought out for help in finding witnesses, knowing that this topic is sensitive and in some circles denied altogether. We were nevertheless surprised and disappointed by the level of disinterest in and non-responsiveness to our inquiries in connection with outreach efforts. And although some Holocaust memorial institutions did express willingness to help, they have sometimes instead acted as gatekeepers to survivors we are trying to reach, opening few of the gates we have identified, after long delays and many reminders. This was especially troubling for us, since when we did have the limited chance to speak with several survivors, they were the ones telling us how important it was to reach out and have survivors speak about this issue.
The reluctance of the gatekeepers has made it extremely difficult for us to discuss the issue of sexual violence with survivors. We have interviewed some victims of sexual abuse during the Holocaust, but we believe there may be a significant number of other living survivors. It is clear that some do not wish to talk about what happened to them, and we have no intention of trying to force them to do so. We understand that there is a strong sense of shame, reinforced by the community, as well as the pain of reviving traumatic memories of horrific events. With this in mind, we urgently seek the cooperation of the readers of this article to help us find those who are willing to speak with us.
Based in New York City, Remember the Women Institute has since 1997 been conducting and encouraging research and cultural activities that contribute to including women in history. Special emphasis is on women in the context of the Holocaust, with current projects focusing on sexual violence during the Holocaust. Remember the Women Institute has organized panels, conference sessions and symposiums on women and the Holocaust, and specifically on sexual violence. The groundbreaking symposium in cooperation with the USC Shoah Foundation in November 2012, which brought together scholars and activists to specifically examine the issue of sexual violence during the Holocaust, is the most recent. In March 2011 the Institute worked with feminist activist Gloria Steinem and others to hold a panel discussion on sexual violence during the Holocaust and other genocides, held before an audience of more than 300 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Other workshops, panels and conference sessions organized by Remember the Women Institute include “Beyond Anne Frank: Teaching about Women and the Holocaust,” at a Conference on Teaching the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, in 2006. It was as a result of an incident on this occasion that we decided to publish a book specifically about sexual violence.
We at Remember the Women Institute consider it a big step forward to now be partnering with the USC Shoah Foundation, which houses nearly 52,000 life history interviews, some of which are potential agents of societal change. More than 1,700 of their testimonies refer to sexual assaults in all stages of the Holocaust – from ghettos to camps, and from forced marches to displaced persons camps. Much of this still needs to be explored and indexed in detail, and some testimonies still need to be translated into English. However, we have also uncovered important first-person testimony in the Shoah Foundation archive. We used one such testimony to jointly produce a clip reel for a public evening program as part of the November symposium. A survivor named Manya not only spoke of her rape at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but she also stressed how important it is for other survivors to testify. The clip reel was introduced by Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda, an activist for human and women’s rights. Ms. Fonda also read excerpts from “And the Rat Laughed,” a novel by acclaimed Israeli writer Nava Semel, herself a child of Holocaust survivors. Published in English in 2008, the novel takes place in the past, present and future, and tells the fictional story of a 5-year-old Jewish girl who was sexually abused by Stefan, the son of Polish farmers who were hiding her from the Nazis.
Following Ms. Fonda’s presentation, I participated in a panel discussion, along with Dr. Stephen Smith, executive director of USC Shoah Foundation, and Jessica Neuwirth, president of Equality Now, who heads our project to find witness testimonies. Two responses by survivors in the audience pointed to the urgency of hearing from survivors on the subject of sexual violence during the Holocaust. Now, before it is too late, we can still hear their voices and record their experiences with empathy and understanding. Their testimonies regarding sexual violence will help give us a complete picture of the horrors that Jews endured during the Holocaust, and we ask you to be our partners in identifying those who are willing to speak out.