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Holocaust Women's Rape Breaks Decades of Taboo

Monday, May 30, 2011

The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women during the Holocaust have been long overlooked. But when researchers probed, stories began to emerge as if they were old photographic film waiting for the right chemicals.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict zones around the world is a subject of continual research and education through witness testimonials, podcasts and information presented by the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

But this year the museum took a look back, delving into a topic from history that, surprisingly, is entirely new–pivotal research about the rape of Jewish women during the Holocaust, described in a new book by two female scholars.

"Rape does not just happen," said Bridget Conley-Zilkic, director of research and projects for the division that guides the museum's genocide prevention programs, at a special event in Manhattan, N.Y., about the new book. "It is a tool that perpetrators use to reach their ends. We honor the history of those who suffered and those who died in the Holocaust by changing our world today."

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The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women in the Holocaust has been a subject that is so taboo that it has taken 65 years for the first English language book on the subject to make its way to the public.

"One question we get a lot is: 'Why did it take so long?' And, for that you have to understand how it came about," said Rochelle G. Saidel, co-editor with Sonja M. Hedgepeth of "Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust," a multidisciplinary anthology released by Brandeis University Press in December 2010.

In 2006, during a rare seminar about women and the Holocaust at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial, Saidel and Hedgepeth, both accomplished historians, mentioned, in passing, sexual abuse.

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?'"

Not a Lone Voice

His voice was not alone. For decades, a myth held sway that the Nazis didn't rape Jewish women because it violated German rules on "race" mixing. Others asserted that Jewish women who were raped must have colluded with the Nazis for food and that women, especially attractive ones, who survived the death camps voluntarily engaged in sexual barter.

Saidel and Hedgepeth knew rape was not documented in the same way as the number of trains that traveled to a concentration camp, but they sought out scholars from seven countries and collected 16 essays, drawing upon oral histories, literature, psychoanalysis, eyewitness reports and diaries.

The stories of rape and sexual abuse began to emerge as if they were old photographic film waiting for the right chemicals, and long-erased pictures of Jewish women who had suffered sexual abuse began to emerge.

Jewish women were raped and sexually abused by Nazi guards, but also by liberators, people who hid them, aid givers, partisans and even fellow prisoners. Judy Weiszenberg Cohen, an Auschwitz survivor living in Canada, told the editors that the "fear of rape" was omnipresent in the concentration camp.

"The exact number of women who experienced sexual molestation during the Holocaust cannot be determined … and the rapists by and large did not leave documents testifying to their actions," writes Nomi Levenkron, a human rights attorney in Israel, in an essay in the book. Most women who survived preferred silence, she said, fearing that they would be stigmatized in their communities.

"This is about all of our humanity. After I read the manuscript, I became kind of obsessed with it," said Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist writer and advocate, who sponsored two events in New York this year to draw attention to the publication. "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."

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Many people even today stay silent about the sexual abuse they have suffered. We at the Let Go Let Peace Come In Foundation believe in the power of speaking up and showing solidarity with other survivors. We are seeking adult survivors who would be willing to post a childhood photo and caption, their story, or their creative expressions to our website letgoletpeacecomein.org. By uniting survivors from across the globe we can help provide a stronger and more powerful voice to those survivors who have not yet found the courage to speak out. Together we can; together we should; together we NEED to stand up and be counted. Please visit our site for more details

If this had occurred today, there would not have been this silence for 50 years. It is interesting to really delve into why silence was the norm, as it includes both protection of the perpetrator and the victim, while it is only the victim who still suffers from the experience, and the silence prevents the perpetrator from being punished.