They used to tell young Orthodox Jewish girls a story – they may still – about 93 Bais Yaakov girls who were selected by the Nazis to be their sex slaves and put in an apartment full of beds. And when the Nazis arrived to claim their plunder, they found 93 corpses. 93 Bais Yaakov girls had chosen death rather than sexual violation; their teacher had provided them with cyanide.
The story isn’t true; some enterprising academics cast doubt on the letter on which it’s based. And yet this macabre myth, which so eloquently clothed the Holocaust in a “seductive aura of female martyrdom,” as Berkeley professor of Jewish culture Naomi Seidman put it, is the closest anyone ever came to speaking of rape in the Holocaust when I was growing up.
It wasn’t just me. Women’s experiences have been never been part of the Holocaust narrative. Rape during the Holocaust in particular has had about it the flavor of a taboo. And it’s this state of affairs that a revolutionary, international art exhibition called “VIOLATED: Women in Holocaust and Genocide” at the Ronald Feldman Gallery seeks to ameliorate.
Opinion | Can We Talk About Rape In The Holocaust Yet?
VIOLATED contains 47 pieces of art from 30 different artists, all depicting sexual violence during the Holocaust or in later genocides and ethnic cleansings in Bosnia, Darfur, Eritrea, Guatemala, Iraq, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The exhibit also includes two works of art created in Nazi concentration camps during the war.
The first, by Zeev Porath, was drawn secretly while he was a slave laborer. His workshop overlooked a women’s camp, and the ink on paper drawing depicts the women he observed there in three stages: lined up, naked; in a pile, dead; and, in relief in the front, one woman is being tortured by a Nazi guard.
It’s a horrific image. Almost naïve in its simplicity, it leaves the viewer with nowhere to hide, the pen strokes as stark and unambiguous as the torture they depict.
The second, by Halina Olomucki, was drawn in 1945, while Olomucki was imprisoned in Birkenau. Drawn in soft pencil on a scrap of paper, it depicts a starving woman in a striped uniform, her face a mask of suffering and despair. Skeletal but also so human, the woman depicted in the sketch conveys the liminal space – between life and death, shame and existence – that women endured throughout the Holocaust.
It is a uniquely female suffering that Olomucki managed to convey. Looking at it, I felt acutely female, acutely Jewish, an epigenetic shock of recognition shuddering through me.
It’s these stories that we have to begin to tell, the exhibition’s curator, Batya Brutin, told me as we stood before the Olomucki drawing. Unlike most people, Brutin grew up knowing about the particular horrors women experienced. “My mother was hidden by a family, and the son molested her,” she told me. “She was 13, 14 years old.”
“We need to stand up and say, excuse me, we were there,” Brutin went on. “We are second generation Holocaust survivors; we know that something happened. We know it.”
Brutin is one of three women who have dedicated their lives to exposing the truth about what Jewish women experienced in the Holocaust: Rochelle G. Saidel, the founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute; Brutin, the director of the Holocaust Teaching Program at Beit Berl College; and Sonja Hedgepeth, with whom Saidel co-edited “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust,” the first book about sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust.
For years, these three women have fought a Holocaust orthodoxy that doesn’t admit the unique suffering of women during those dark years.
The reasons that sexual violation in the Holocaust have been taboo are complex. For starters, there was no documentation. “There was no such thing as a Nazi rape certificate,” Saidel told me. And it’s only in recent years that testimony has come to be accepted in lieu of documents.
Then there’s the fact that the survivors themselves had shame about it, “especially if they had traded sexual favors for survival — which to me is a form of rape,” Saidel said. Society was different, too. “Almost no one talked about this. Women were afraid to say anything, because they could be shunned by family or considered ‘not fit’ for marriage. And the way to survive was to move forward and start a new life.”
Furthermore, many historians and institutions chose to focus on the murder of six million Jews, not brooking any deviation from this narrative, says Saidel. Talking about sexual violence, or even things like altruism, has been seen as “taking away from this main focus, and thus not allowed to enter the discussion,” Saidel explained.
Finally, nearly all of the historians used to be male.
Saidel first became interested in women’s experiences during the Holocaust in 1977, when the first Nazi war criminal hearing in the United States took place in Albany, where she was living. The United States government brought a number of witnesses from Israel to testify against Vilis Hazners, an officer in the Latvian Waffen SS, but they hadn’t provided any kind of support for them.
“They brought 13 people who were Holocaust survivors from Israel and they plopped them in a motel in Albany, like on Mars, you know?” Saidel recalled.
Together with a friend, Saidel organized home hospitality for the witnesses, and a few joined Saidel and her family for a Shabbat meal. It was then that one of the women told Saidel and the other guests, “I saw this man, Vilis Hazners, beat my sister-in-law bloody in the ghetto. And she was carrying her baby. And I never saw either of them after that.”
Saidel never forgot it. “I could make the case that that was when I got interested subconsciously in women in the Holocaust,” Saidel recalled. “Because it was very moving and upsetting to hear this.”
Three years later, in 1980, Saidel visited Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp in northern Germany, for the first time.
“No one had heard of a women’s concentration camp,” she recalled. And there was no evidence that there had been Jewish women at the camp. The East Germans in charge at the time kept insisting it was only for political prisoners.
But Saidel thought they were wrong; it was the Holocaust, after all. So she did research, going through archives and speaking to survivors. She discovered that 20% of the women who passed through the camp were indeed Jewish. It would take longer for her to understand the extent of the sexual violence that went on, not least because it wasn’t the practice to discuss it.
“We did not ask them,” Saidel says. “You didn’t do that then. And they did not volunteer it except maybe once in a while by accident. In the early years, we had too much compassion to ask them.”
And even when a younger generation of researchers did start asking, rape and sexual violence seemed haphazard, and rare. But now, Saidel knows better.
“I really believe that almost every Jewish woman who went through the Holocaust was to some degree at least sexually humiliated, and going all the way to rape,” she says.
Every woman who entered a concentration camp was subjected to forced nudity as well as medical examinations, head shaving, and hair shaving all over their bodies.
“This is sexual violence,” Saidel said. “This is sexual humiliation. All the way to different kinds of rape, medical experiments, it was just there. And nobody wanted to talk about it.”
One year, Saidel and Hedgepeth were doing a workshop at Yad Vashem about women in the Holocaust. Saidel’s talk was about Ravensbrück. And among the horrors she mentioned, Saidel talked about rape.
And as soon as she said the word, a very important Holocaust scholar interrupted her, and started to yell. “He stood up while I was giving my talk in a room full of people and he went, ‘Jewish women were not raped during the Holocaust. Where are the documents?’ After that Sonia and I looked at each and said, ‘Must be time to write this book.’”
Things are better now, Saidel says. “Some of the male historians of late are coming around and admitting that this needs to be addressed,” she said.
But it’s still fairly new, the last frontier of Holocaust history. And it’s Saidel who’s dragged them kicking and screaming to recognize what women went through.
She laughed when I asked if this was true. “You can say that if you want,” she finally allowed.
Part of what’s important about VIOLATED is the way that it connects the Holocaust narratives to later genocides.
“Tying it together with the later genocides is also historic because there are still some people around who want to keep the Holocaust in a holy box and not tie it to other things,” Saidel told me.
She’s against such thinking. “If we’re not going to put the Holocaust on some continuum, where’s it going to be in the future when I’m not here anymore?” She asked. “You can’t just isolate something in history.”
Granted, the later genocides are not the same as the Holocaust, and they are not like each other, either. “The Nazis did not use sexual violence as a tool of war the way it was used in for example Rwanda,” Saidel said. “However, at the end of the day, you have all these shamed and raped and humiliated and dead women, so I think you can compare it.”
Her comments were echoed by Manasse Shingiro, a Rwandan genocide survivor, whose painting, Immortal, is part of the exhibition. “The first book I read about the Holocaust was five years ago,” Shingiro told me. On the one hand, he felt comforted, thinking, “Oh, this happened to other people, so I’m not alone.” But at the same time, he was dismayed. “I can’t believe there is evil everywhere,” he remembers thinking. “So it was kind of mixed emotion.”
Immortal is a gorgeous pastel and ink pen rendering of a terrified woman, its title meant to suggest the immortality of female overcoming. The fear in her eyes is so palpable that it turns the viewer into a perpetrator.
But not everyone believes these issues should be brought to light. A few months ago, we ran a piece in these pages about a woman who learned her mother had been a slave during the Holocaust, though her mother had never told her.
I sent the article to my own mother, thinking she would find it interesting. But she was very upset.
“By what right did she expose her mother?” She asked me. “By what right did she publicize her secrets?”
When I asked my mother if I could include her response in this article, she texted me back, “There is a new haredi Holocaust museum. NO NUDE PICS OF WOMEN ABOUT TO BE MURDERED. I wouldn’t want a nude pic of me in a museum.”
I thought about this as I walked around the gallery looking at the artworks in VIOLATED. The exhibition also included nude photos of women about to be killed, including the famous photo of a woman running from club-wielding youths during a pogrom in 1941. It’s a horrific image. One of her breasts is exposed, and she has been beaten about the face. Her terror and anguish are so vivid that it’s difficult to look at her, but also difficult to look away.
One of the artworks in the exhibition is a giant tapestry of this photo. Another depicted a group of women huddled together, naked, about to die.
I thought of my mother’s concerns for privacy as I stood before these artworks, and I posed her question to Saidel.
By way of answer, she told me about a social worker in Toronto who worked at a nursing home for Holocaust survivors. This social worker told Saidel that so often, a dying woman would say to her, “I need to tell you something. I was raped but don’t tell my family.”
“She had to get it off her chest,” Saidel said. “This unwarranted shame is a terrible thing.” To this day, women feel shame about being raped, “so you can imagine these women, some of them were religious and they were young and they were from a different era.”
“I think we have a responsibility to talk about it, especially in light of later genocides, when this is still going on,” Saidel went on. “I think you need to know women’s history and women’s stories and this is part of it.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.