By Rochelle G. Saidel
Thursday, April 26, 2012
The founder of Remember the Women Institute finds the president's remarks significant given the context. That's because the sexual violence that occurred during the Holocaust is still not widely recognized.
(WOMENSENEWS)--On April 23, President Barack Obama delivered an address at a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., intended both to commemorate the Holocaust and to outline his administration's efforts to honor the pledge of "never again" by developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities.
Regarding sexual violence and genocide, he said: "We're doing more to protect women and girls from the horror of wartime sexual violence." He added that, "for the first time, we explicitly barred entry into the United States of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity." Such crimes now include rape and sexual violence, according to the United Nations.
Remember the Women Institute, which has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness about sexual violence against women during the Holocaust, believes it's significant that Obama chose this occasion and this location to make his statement about "the horror of wartime sexual violence."
Even today, some scholars don't want to acknowledge that various forms of sexual violence occurred during the Holocaust. The shame that sexually violated women feel for their entire lives has silenced many survivors, and the Nazis and their collaborators permanently silenced other victims by murdering them immediately after violating them.
"Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust," an anthology I co-edited along with Sonja M. Hedgepeth that was released in 2010 (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England), was the first book to address this issue.
I'm still surprised that such a book did not appear until 65 years after the end of the Holocaust. Our 16 chapters cover different forms of sexual violence from various perspectives, including contributions from an international group of historians, social scientists, literary and film critics and psychologists.
As the chapter authors detail, not only the Nazis and their collaborators, but some Jews, non-Jewish prisoners, rescuers and even liberators violated Jewish and other women.
Feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem has called the book a well-documented warning that sexual violence is a keystone of genocide and cites it as inspiration for Women Under Siege, a new website she created with the Women's Media Center.
While we still need to know more about what Obama and the United States are specifically doing to "protect women and girls from the horror of wartime sexual violence," we at Remember the Women Institute applaud both his statement and the conscious or unconscious connection that he made between sexual violation during the Holocaust and in more recent genocides.
Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel is founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute in New York City, which carries out and encourages research and cultural projects that integrate women into history. She is co-editor of "Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust," as well as author of "The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp." Her newest book is "Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp."
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Join Rochelle G. Saidel and other panelists at a screening of "I Came to Testify," the lead documentary in the Women, War and Peace series, in New York City on May 23: