Gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict zones around the world is a subject of continual research and education through witness testimonials,
podcasts and information presented by the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
But this year the museum took a look back, delving into a topic from history that, surprisingly, is entirely new pivotal research about the rape of Jewish women during the Holocaust, described in a new book by two female scholars.
“Rape does not just happen,” said Bridget Conley-Zilkic, director of research and projects for the division that guides the museum’s genocide prevention programs, at a special event in Manhattan, N.Y., about the new book. “It is a tool that perpetrators use to reach their ends. We honor the history of those who suffered and those who died in the Holocaust by changing our world today.”
The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women in the Holocaust has been a subject that is so taboo that it has taken 65 years for the first English language book on the subject to make its way to the public.
“One question we get a lot is, ‘Why did it take so long?’ And, for that you have to understand how it came about,” said Rochelle G. Saidel, co-editor with Sonja M. Hedgepeth of “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust,” a multidisciplinary anthology released by Brandeis University Press in December 2010.
In 2006, during a rare seminar about women and the Holocaust at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial, Saidel and Hedgepeth, both accomplished historians, mentioned, in passing, sexual abuse.
Saidel said, “This very illustrious Holocaust scholar raised his hand and said, ‘There were no Jewish women who were raped during the Holocaust. How can you say such a thing? Where are the documents? Where is the proof?’ ”
His voice was not alone. For decades, a myth held sway that the Nazis didn’t rape Jewish women because it violated German rules on “race” mixing. Others asserted that Jewish women who were raped must have colluded with the Nazis for food and that women, especially attractive ones, who survived the death camps voluntarily engaged in sexual barter.
Saidel and Hedgepeth knew rape was not documented in the same way as the number of trains that traveled to a concentration camp, but they sought out scholars from seven countries and collected 16 essays, drawing upon oral histories, literature, psychoanalysis, eyewitness reports and diaries.
The stories of rape and sexual abuse began to emerge as if they were old photographic film waiting for the right chemicals, and long-erased pictures of Jewish women who had suffered sexual abuse began to emerge.
Jewish women were raped and sexually abused by Nazi guards, but also by liberators, people who hid them, aid givers, partisans and even fellow prisoners. Judy Weiszenberg Cohen, an Auschwitz survivor living in Canada, told the editors that the “fear of rape” was omnipresent in the concentration camp.
“The exact number of women who experienced sexual molestation during the Holocaust cannot be determined and the rapists by and large did not leave documents testifying to their actions,” writes Nomi Levenkron, a human rights attorney in Israel, in an essay in the book. Most women who survived preferred silence, she said, fearing that they would be stigmatized in their communities.
“This is about all of our humanity. After I read the manuscript, I became kind of obsessed with it,” said Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist writer and advocate, who sponsored two events in New York this year to draw attention to the publication. “I thought, ‘It’s 70 years later. Why didn’t we know this?’ For all of the people to whom it happened, to be victimized is one thing — to be shamed, as if it was your fault, is another profound and deep oppression.”
Many sexually abused women were raped and then simply killed.
Author Moinka J. Faschka of Kent State University in Ohio, one of the contributors to the book, cites survivor Harry Koltun, who said in an interview: “[T]he Gestapo SS came in and took out a few Jewish girls, they took them into a forest and they never came back. They did what they had to do sexually, and they killed them. Nice, nice-looking girls.”
At a presentation at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, the book’s authors said that previously the barriers to telling the stories of sexual abuse have been tremendous. Some Holocaust scholars believed that segmenting out rape stories — and even women’s stories unrelated to sexual violence — would sever women from the community by focusing on one group when all Jews, regardless of gender, were targeted for persecution. Rape was not included in the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi officials were charged with war crimes.
In other cases, women feared they would be considered “impure” or be ostracized by their families.
“I have been interviewing Holocaust survivors in Israel since ’78, but it didn’t even occur to me to ask about sexual assault,” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist in New York City. “These people had lost so much of their dignity and privacy. I didn’t want to take that last bit of privacy away from them.”
For this book, Fogelman identified 1,040 testimonies of the 52,000 in the Shoah Foundation collection at the University of Southern California that mention rape or fear of rape.
“What you have is women who were raped talk about it in bits or pieces. Or, ‘I know a woman, and this happened to her,’ a way of indicating this happened, but not implicating themselves,” Fogelman said.
This book, said co-editor Hedgepeth, is only the beginning of the exploration of this sensitive topic.
“I’m starting to feel from conversations that there will be more that comes out of this,” she said.
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who frequently writes about reproductive rights.