At the end of their workshop about women in the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in 2006, scholars Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel encountered some dissent. The presentation, “Beyond Anne Frank: Teaching About Women and the Holocaust,” looked at the ways in which women experienced the Holocaust differently than men did, and included a discussion on sexual violence at Ravensbrük. Afterward, a few of the conference attendees, including a pre-eminent Holocaust scholar, said there was no evidence on this subject and questioned whether sexual violence had really occurred.
As an answer, Hedgepeth and Saidel got working on the recently published “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During The Holocaust” (Brandeis, 2010), the first book on the topic in English, which comprises 16 essays examining the rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced abortion and sterilization that took place during the war.
While the Holocaust has been examined from myriad perspectives in both academia and popular culture, sexual violence, which was largely directed against women, has received little attention. Hedgepeth and Saidel, along with a small group of academics and writers, are fighting to change that.
“This has been totally neglected in the history of the Holocaust,” Saidel said, explaining that there has been a resistance overall to looking at survivors’ experiences in terms of gender. “For some historians, focusing on women means that you are taking away from the totality of the Holocaust experience.”
“For some,” Hedgepeth added, “there is a false perception that looking at sexual violence is asking the question of who suffered more.”
Saidel, a political scientist who is the director of the Remember the Women Institute, and Hedgepeth, a professor of German language at Middle Tennessee State University, said that another cause for this omission was the general absence of dialogue on sexual violence during earlier periods of scholarship. Survivors who were victims of this type of abuse often didn’t know how to bring it up, nor were researchers comfortable asking.
Following the Holocaust there was also a widespread feeling of shame among men for not being able to protect women, they added.
But sexual violence did indeed occur. It is mentioned in testimonies collected by institutions like Yad Vashem, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute, where there are over a 1,000 references to sexual abuse. And while the Nazis had a race defilement law that prohibited sex with Jews, this ultimately did not prevent sexual violence.
Nevertheless, rape was not among the charges against Nazi war criminals during Nuremberg and other trials. In fact, rape was not considered a crime of genocide by the United Nations until 1998, when it was made so through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The essays in “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust” are written by a wide range of scholars, including historians, social scientists, psychologists, literary and film critics, and legal scholars, and they rely largely on first-hand accounts.
The first half takes a close look at how women were raped not only in the camps, but also in the ghettos and in hiding, where they were often vulnerable to the people protecting them. There were also reported incidences of rape by other Jews and liberators. Also, while Jewish women were not legally supposed to work in brothels on the camps, they often did. Other essays look into the more indirect forms of sexual abuse, including forced public nakedness, lack of sanitary napkins, shearing of all body hair and rubbing of the genitals with gasoline.
The second half of the book looks at assaults on motherhood, including forced sterilization and forced abortion, as well as representations of sexual violence in literature and cinema, and the psychological ramifications of this type of abuse on the women who survived it.
Also discussed in the anthology is Nava Semel, whose 1985 novel “And the Rat Laughed” (Hybrid Publishers) tells the story of a girl who is raped while hiding in Poland. Semel is one of a small group of writers who has addressed this topic in fiction. Semel said that when she first presented the book to publishers in Israel, they told her nobody would read it. The book ended up becoming a best-seller and was turned into a successful opera, and Semel is now considering an offer to turn it into a movie.
“Over the years, I’ve met survivors who told me that they had gone through a horrific experience in hiding, alluding to sexual abuse, but felt like they couldn’t talk about it,” Semel told the Forward. “Although it is fiction, I expected people would approach me with similar stories following publication, and 10 people did. They thanked me for being the voice for their untold hidden story.”
There is still resistance, however, to including sexual violence in mainstream narratives about the Holocaust. Tours of Auschwitz include graphic details about the mass genocide, but fail to mention what went on in block 24a, the site of the camp brothel. Yad Vashem makes no mention of rape or prostitution in its permanent exhibit, and the theme of this year’s U.N. International Holocaust Remembrance Day was “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion,” yet there was no mention of sexual violence.
Gloria Steinem, who will be moderating a panel on sexual violence during genocide with the book’s editors at the Brooklyn Museum on March 20, said the work’s focus is important for getting not only a fuller picture of the past, but also as a way to better understand the role that sexual violence plays in present times.
“This revelatory anthology would be crucial as long-overdue truth even if it were unique, but the suppression of its truth probably left us even less prepared for sexual abuse in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo — and more,” Steinem said. “Rochelle and Sonja have given us the greatest gift: a truth of history that can keep us from repeating its suffering.”
Elissa Strauss is a frequent contributor to the Forward.