Over the past few months, more and more women have been opening up about horrible stories of sexual harassment, assault and abuse. The #MeToo movement is a long overdue corrective to our culture. And yet the stories of one group of women have yet to crest into the mainstream and get the recognition they deserve: Holocaust survivors.
Holocaust museums, educational institutions and film archives are full of robust programs. But the stories of survivors who experienced sexual abuse are treated as taboo, or of secondary importance. They are never part of a museum’s permanent exhibition. And yet, we are becoming increasingly aware that sexual violence, whether through experiments, terror, coercion, rape or routine practices meant to humiliate and defile, was rampant during the Holocaust.
The reasons these stories remain hidden are complex. But one can’t ignore the simple fact that few women survivors have shared them.
My own mother denied being a Holocaust survivor. Her identity was forged through her experiences as a “freedom fighter” in the Israeli underground and army. Those were the stories she told me, the stories she was proud of.
And it’s no small wonder. What would she have gained by telling me that she and 5,000 other mainly teenage Jewish girls from Upper Silesia were trafficked as Nazi slaves to a remote town in Sudetenland, where they were imprisoned for more than four years?
Nearly eight years ago, after an elderly relative accidentally told me my mother had been a love child, I traveled to Poland to see if I could uncover her birth records and get to the bottom of her true identity.
The records revealed the name Alta Hendla (or Hela) Hocherman, which was nothing like Tamar Fromer, the name my mother went by.
With help from genealogists at JRI-Poland and the International Tracing Service at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I learned that my mother had been a prisoner of one of the Nazis’ women’s slave labor camps called Gabersdorf in Sudetenland.
They also led me to a hidden camp diary, found by a survivor’s daughter and subsequently donated to Yad Vashem. Seeing the page my mother had written nearly 70 years prior shook me to my core. I realized how little I knew about her past, and I had to come to grips with the fact that my mother felt obliged to shoulder all that pain, trauma and shame on her own.
Though I held her hand as she passed, she died alone.
This tragic reality compelled me to mine the depths of all she had tried to suppress. And that’s when I learned that my mother’s secret was far from unique. Her camp was part of a vast, underground network of some 200 camps, where girls as young as 12 were exploited to fuel the Wehrmacht and “the whims of our oppressor,” as my mother cryptically wrote in a hidden camp diary that bears witness to the abuses they endured.
Over the past few years, mounting evidence has emerged that Jewish women were abused in far more ways than previously thought. During the Holocaust, sexual violence was routine. Despite Nazi race laws forbidding relations with Jews, sexual violence was woven into the fabric of their atrocities.
Recently declassified files found at United Nations War Crimes Commission Archives attest that rape and sexual violence — including forced prostitution, sterilization, nudity and corporal shaming — were so commonplace that there were postwar sex-crime tribunals set up to prosecute perpetrators.
But as the Nuremberg Trials lawyers honed in on their cases, rape was deemed secondary in importance. Subsequently, its perpetrators were never indicted; the victims were left to fend for themselves. Their traumas went undiagnosed in a world that didn’t classify sex crimes as war crimes until the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda in 1994.
To this day, who has heard of these camps, these women, their stories? Women’s experiences remain mere footnotes in Holocaust history, add-ons at memorials that never validate what women experienced.
It’s time for the Holocaust to have its #MeToo moment.
The first time Elizabeth Anthony, the International Tracing Service and Partnerships Program Manager at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, decided to research sexual violence during the Holocaust, she input the German word for brothel, Bordell, into their database. She got 92 matches.
“It wasn’t just Auschwitz that had one,” she told me. “There were sex slaves also in Dachau, Mauthausen and Buchenwald, to name a few; in something like 10 camps altogether.”
The records of the Nazis’ sex slaves contain only Polish and German non-Jewish names. “It was totally against Nazi ideology and policy for a non-Jew to have sex with a Jew, so they wouldn’t have documented if a Jewish woman or a Roma woman, too, slipped into the ‘brothel’ ranks,” Anthony said.
According to personal testimony, one can surmise a few Jewish women were “slipped in.” But the proof is elusive. Nevertheless, the files show the Nazis were meticulous about recording whether their sex slaves had venereal disease and even the medical treatments they received.
“It was a sobering discovery,” Anthony said. “I can understand why this sort of information was concealed from families after the war. But without naming anyone, shouldn’t we try to get the truth out there?”
Telling these stories has been my mission for the past seven years. I’ve interviewed dozens of women survivors, trying to understand what they went through, and why my own mother denied being a Holocaust survivor.
Throughout the interviews I’ve conducted, what always astounds me is how sexual violence was incorporated in almost every aspect of a woman or girl’s experience during the Shoah.
Perhaps most shocking was learning that it didn’t end when the war ended. Sexual violence against survivors persisted after the liberation, and often at the hands of supposed allies and rescuers.
One survivor of the women’s camp Ober-Alstadt told me that the Russians who liberated their camp raped survivors with such abandon that she and her roommates put up a sign that read “typhus” on their door to keep the Russians at bay. It worked.
Another woman from my mother’s camp, Gabersdorf, told me the Russians were driving a truckload of recently freed inmates to a nearby village when suddenly the car stopped. The girls saw they were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees.
“We looked at each other, realizing what the Russians had in mind,” she said. “I yelled, ‘Run!’ We all jumped off and scattered through the forest.”
What happened next?
She stopped the story cold.
But it’s not all so cut and dry. There are the gray zones, stories of women who were coerced into sex and had complex narratives to share. Fanya Gottsefeld Heller, who died last November, had such a story.
“She couldn’t tell her story until her husband had died,” said Atina Grossmann, professor of history at The Cooper Union, a historian of gender, sexuality, the Holocaust and its aftermath. “Her memoir detailed her relationship with a Ukrainian peasant, who she was pushed to have sex with by her father in order to rescue the family.”
Fania describes it all very tenderly, however shocking it seemed at first. “So we have to be careful to allow all the gray zones in, the sex, money, power, ‘good looks’” — the ability to pass as a non-Jew — “as a currency for survival, the whole gamut of sexuality that got expressed during the Holocaust,” Grossman said. “There were the stories of extreme terror and brutality, but also relationships that were genuinely affectionate, for example with rescuers, albeit within a terrifyingly coercive context that may have started out as a forced situation.”
Thanks in large part to feminist academic scholarship, more of these stories are emerging. Last December, Anna Hájková, professor of history at the University of Warwick, England, hosted a conference in Berlin titled “Sexuality, Holocaust, Stigma: Taking Stock,” as well as a dramatic presentation at the Gorki Theater, which she says was a sold-out event.
There are also a growing number of exhibitions in Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Ravensbrück, and new panels, exhibits and pamphlets at the USHMM and at smaller, regional museums like the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. An upcoming art exhibit at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, curated by the Remember the Women Institute, highlights rape as a part of genocide from the Shoah until today.
Still, sexual violence in the Holocaust has yet to enter the mainstream conversation.
Perhaps some of the fault lies in the way Holocaust history is recorded, a way that is still largely shaped by men. A few years ago, while researching at Auschwitz, I asked its research director why their tours never mention Block 24, the infamous brothel immortalized in the novella “House of Dolls”, by Ka-tzetnik 135633.
“Another journalist fishing for a sexy angle?” He said with a smirk.
But sexism aside, some of the ommission of these stories has to do with the survivors themselves. Testimonies were often taken in front of family members, prompting survivors to censor themselves; who wants to admit in front of children and grandchildren to being raped, or forced into prostitution? It’s why the 1,700 references to sexual assault included in the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation’s 52,000 testimonies are believed to be grossly under-representative.
The USHMM’s Anthony, who first worked as a social worker with survivors before moving to the ITS department, recalls how guarded many of the women were when giving testimony.
“Sometimes when I would drive the women home after speaking to a school or community group, they would reveal things in the car, then say, ‘I could never share that in public’ or ‘I would never tell that to my family.’”
More and more, we are realizing just how much self-censoring has gone on. One woman told me a story that happened to her after liberation, on a train to a displaced person’s camp. She was held down by a man who was forcing himself on her. “I screamed,” she said. “Someone helped me.”
Other women have shared similar narratives: They’re about to be raped when, out of nowhere, a brother appears, or someone comes to the rescue.
Almost none will say they were personally raped. It’s always someone else they’ve witnessed.
Northeastern University journalism professor Laurel Leff also recently learned that a relative who had survived the Holocaust had altered her story. The author of “Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper,” Leff learned from archival records that her cousin, who had always maintained that she had been liberated from Bergen-Belsen, had actually been liberated from Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s camp in Germany.
Leff was confused by her cousin’s choice to misrepresent her time during the war. And then she found out why she had done it.
“I learned that all the women at her sub-camp were raped by their Russian liberators, if you want to call them liberators,” Leff recently said at a U.N. Holocaust Remembrance event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, her voice cracking.
The experience had lasting damage. “My cousin Vilma Heda Kaufmann never could have kids,” Leff told me. “I suspect the sexual violence she experienced had something to do with it.”
It broke Leff’s heart, not only because of what her cousin had suffered, but also because she had suffered it alone. They are feelings I know all too well.
“Why couldn’t she tell us?” Leff now wondered. “Why is sexual violence still treated differently than any other abuse Jews suffered during the Holocaust?”
And yet, it is, especially by the survivors themselves. Last week I interviewed a survivor who had never before given testimony. When I asked her why, she told me something I’ve often heard doing these interviews.
“I didn’t have it so bad,” she said. “We were good girls.”
I explained to her being raped or forced into sex work didn’t make her a “bad girl.” But she wouldn’t budge.
“That didn’t happen to us,” she insisted. “I told you, we were good girls. Nazi propaganda depicted us as whores. Why would I discuss anything that would give credence to that?”
Couple that with the shame women survivors experienced after the war in the United States and Israel, where many were routinely asked if they survived the Holocaust by being “a Nazi whore,” and you begin to understand why women steered clear of this Pandora’s box.
“You don’t understand how we were looked down on,” a neighbor, a Ravensbrück survivor, once told me. “We were considered damaged goods — by our fellow Jews.”
Another survivor I met with last week was one of the first I ever interviewed who was forthcoming about the sexual barter she witnessed taking place in the latrines of her camp. She told me a story she had repressed all these decades.
She recalled a British POW offering her a cookie if he could pet her hair.
Starving and all of about 12 years old, she agreed.
“I can still remember what the cookie looked like,” she said. “It had an angel on it.”
And what about the rest of the experience?
“It was over with fast,” she said. “It was fine.”
Later on, her daughter and I talked at length about her story. Had he otouched only her hair? Or was that how she remembered it for her own self-preservation? We’ll never know.
As a second-generation Holocaust survivor who never knew I was one because my mother had never admitted it, I think about the question of agency a lot, especially in terms of how you tell your story. I think a lot about how vital it was for my mother, at least in the Shoah’s aftermath, to construct her own narrative as one that cast her as a victor, not a victim. It was essential for her self-preservation.
I would never want to take that away from her, or force a woman to tell a story that undermines her self-preservation. But discovering my mother’s true past makes me admire her all the more for having triumphed over Nazi oppression to build a Jewish homeland, which must have seemed an unattainable dream when she signed her name in Hebrew in that hidden camp diary.
I can’t say with certainty she would have wanted to open up about the sexual trauma she endured. And yet, I feel it’s crucial that we come to terms with this horrific aspect of the Holocaust, and that we open up spaces for women who want to tell these stories, including us, their daughters and granddaughters, prompting some long-overdue intergenerational healing.
If we can’t air these stories now, when we’re blessed to have Shoah survivors still in our midst, when victims of sexual harassment and abuse are finally being believed and freed from the age-old stigma women like my mother encountered, then when?
These are the last years to relieve these women of the burden they’ve been carrying alone. It’s time.
Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York-based journalist who is writing and directing her first documentary, “By a Thread,” about her search for her mother’s hidden Holocaust past. Follow her on Twitter, @byathreadfilm