WMC Women Under Siege

Art exhibit explores global violence against women during genocide

It takes just a few steps inside the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City’s SoHo to feel unsettled. Nearly every corner of the gallery’s current show evokes terror and pain. In “Violated! Women in Holocaust and Genocide,” more than 40 works by victims, their relatives, witnesses, and others explore violence and degradation suffered by women worldwide. Spanning Iraq, GuatemalaDarfur, and Nazi concentration camps in Poland, to name just a few places, the works feel startlingly disparate at times. But they coalesce thanks to the alarming timelessness of their common thread: enduring violence against women.  

"Daesh Molested the Girls," painted by Rostam Aghala in 2015. "I have fought violent Islamic ideologies, and I have fought ISIS by painting ideas and beauty," says Aghala. (Collection of the artist, Iraq, and Phantastiche Bibliothek, Wetzlar, Germany)

“It was going on, it is going on, and it will continue to go on,” says Rochelle Saidel, exhibition coordinator and expert on women in the Holocaust, of this violence. “It’s very moving to me how we’ve managed to bring these things together.”

Two of the most notable pieces in the exhibit were made by imprisoned artists in Nazi concentration camps during the war. A pencil drawing by Holocaust survivor Halina Olomucki depicts a shadowy image of women prisoners in striped uniforms, the most visible of them cowering in an almost fetal position, her fingers skeletal. Olomucki, who was born in Warsaw in 1919, drew the piece secretly in 1945 while in Birkenau Camp. After being freed later that year, she went on to make many drawings and paintings reflecting her time as a prisoner.

"Women in Birkenau Camp," drawn by Halina Olomucki while imprisoned in 1945. (Collection of The Ghetto Fighters' House, Israel)

Another work, by the Ukrainian artist and Holocaust survivor Wilhelm Ochs, later Zeev Porath, was drawn in secret while he was imprisoned in the Janowska concentration camp as a slave laborer. The scene depicts Jewish women being undressed, tortured, and killed by Nazis.  

"Tortures," drawn secretly by Zeev Porath (Wilhelm Ochs) while imprisoned during the Holocaust. (Collection of the Ghetto Fighters' House, Israel)

The extensive sexualized violence endured by likely thousands of women during the Holocaust went largely undocumented or researched for decades. During the conflict, the rape of Jewish women was perpetrated by Nazis, fellow Jews, and those who hid Jews, in and out of camps, as WMC Women Under Siege has reported. In 2010, Saidel and coauthor Sonja M. Hedgepeth collected testimonies of this violence from survivors and their relatives in a groundbreaking book. Prior to the book’s publication, most stories of survivors’ experiences were silenced by shame, or relegated to footnotes.

The show, curated by Saidel and art historian and author Batya Brutin, will close this Saturday, May 12.  

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