There's no question that the Nazis committed horrific crimes against Jews during World War II. They were rounded up in ghettos, starved, beaten, shot, gassed, tortured in medical experiments -- the list is endless. But one crime that's never mentioned is rape. Common sense tells us that rape and sexual assault must have occurred; after all, in every society that breaks down, rape is just another form of violence. Within the body of Holocaust narratives and documents, however, rape is almost never mentioned.
Yet when historians Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel discussed sexual violence during a workshop on women and the Holocaust at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial, they were met with the same disbelief Holocaust deniers express at the large-scale extermination of Jews. Women's eNews spoke with Saidel, a political scientist who is the director of the Remember the Women Institute, about the reaction:
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?'"
Along with Hedgepeth, a professor of German language at Middle Tennessee State University, Saidel attempted to correct this misconception by compiling the first English language book on the rape and sexual assault of women during the Holocaust, Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. The anthology includes 16 essays and the observations of scholars from seven countries.
At Forward.com, the website of the Jewish Daily Forward, Elissa Strauss discusses the focus of the book and the many ways in which Jewish women were sexually abused:
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.
Strauss notes that there is scant mention of rape and sexual assault in Holocaust narratives, pointing out several disturbing omissions: tours of Auschwitz do not mention that the camp brothel was located in block 24a; the permanent exhibit at Yad Vashem does not touch upon the rape or prostitution of Jewish women during the Holocaust; and the theme of this year's U.N. International Holocaust Remembrance Day -- "Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion" -- completely ignores the topic of sexual violence.
One leading voice in the feminist movement is attempting to redress the situation. After reading the manuscript, Gloria Steinem describes becoming "obsessed" with the subject and sponsored two events to promote the book. "This is all about our humanity," she told Women's eNews, adding:
"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."
Steinem cites how the suppression of this truth has "probably left us even less prepared for sexual abuse in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo -- and more," and that the book's co-editors "have given us the greatest gift: a truth of history that can keep us from repeating its suffering."