WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Holocaust (2012)
Virtually unexplored until recently, sexualized violence in the Holocaust took many forms, faces, and insidious paths. Among the more than 6 million Jews killed were an unknown number of women, probably thousands, who were raped—in camps, in hiding, in ghettos. The perpetrators were Nazis, fellow Jews, and those who hid Jews. There are few records of this particular form of suffering for many reasons, including no records being kept of rape, that few women survived, and that Nazis were specifically forbidden from sexually touching Jewish women because of race defilement laws called Rassenchande—hence, some scholars have been loath to believe sexualized violence was extensive.
But individuals didn’t always follow the higher ranks, secretly raping Jewish women against policy—in camps, in private slavery in their homes, and in brothels set up for fellow prisoners. And we know this form of violence was rampant from testimonies of survivors and their relatives, as told in the 2010 book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel (referred to below as Sexual Violence).
With the launch of their book, Hedgepeth and Saidel experienced much pushback from scholars. As in any other conflict, survivors of sexualized violence and their family members often experience shame, keeping their stories with them to the grave. Faced with horrors on a scale not experienced by humanity before, Holocaust rape survivors have specifically said they felt that what they’d suffered was too small to mention in that context.
It’s not just the women who downplayed their sexual exploitation—scholars have often relegated these stories to footnotes, choosing to tone down these experiences, whether because of shame that their mothers, grandmothers, or whoever close to them were raped, or because they chose instead to focus on stories of triumph and hope. Some scholars have been reluctant to use victim testimonies in their construction of Holocaust history, favoring “official documents.” This is problematic because Nazi documentation on rape is scarce or nonexistent. Also, the shame of Jews raping Jewish women in the camps or ghettos may have been a difficult truth to accept within the community.
Another way that women suffering sexualized violence during the Holocaust has been erased is through a “heroic” retelling of events: Historians have been eager to emphasize the ways in which women resisted rape and “held onto their dignity”—exhibiting “moral, heroic, or noble behavior.” Survivors may feel pressured to present their experiences through the lens of heroism.
With the information gleaned from thousands of testimonies from the Shoah Foundation and elsewhere of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors in one book, the evidence is clear: As in nearly all conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, women suffered sexualized violence in horrific, complex ways in the Holocaust.
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