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Silence lifted: The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
  • Rape stories out of the Congo, Bosnia and Sudan became part of these conflict narratives
  • Sexual violence during the Holocaust, though, has not been widely discussed
  • It wasn't part of Nazi policy, but some say stories -- no matter how rare -- need to be heard
  • But the issue raises concerns among others who'd rather leave the subject alone

Editor's Note: This is the second of two stories focusing on rape as a tool of war. The first story looked at the role of interviewers of rape victims. Both stories contain graphic language; discretion is advised.

(CNN) -- The soldiers came for her at night. They took the girl to a barrack and forced her to watch a woman get raped.

The drunken men then set loose a dog to rip off the raped woman's breasts. Blood was everywhere. The woman passed out.

The young witness was next. Five soldiers held her down and took turns raping and sodomizing her. They spilled alcohol on her. They laughed. They said they'd kill her. She didn't yet have breasts for the dog to attack.

Later, her sister cleaned her up, but they didn't speak about what had happened. No one talked about such things. They didn't have to. Or maybe they couldn't.

The Congo? The former Yugoslavia? Libya? These allegations might have emerged from conflicts in any of these places.

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But this brutal testimony reaches back more than 65 years to the Holocaust -- more than half a century before the United Nations declared rape a war crime.

Stories like this have the power to shock even those who think they know Holocaust history. The reason: They haven't been widely discussed.

Is that because victims didn't share these accounts? Did interviewers not ask the right questions? Or have influences -- both within academia and the Jewish community -- served to sweep such accounts under the historical rug?

A growing movement wants to peel back that rug. Scholars are revisiting old testimonies and documents -- and seeking new ones. Authors have published works to inspire conversation. Psychologists want to help survivors heal from their secrets. Activists, including feminist writer and organizer Gloria Steinem, hope these victims of the distant past can help shape a better future.

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But the topic of sexual violence during the Holocaust is fraught with controversy. Some observers believe it's a subject not sufficiently widespread or proven to warrant broad attention. Others fear it's driven by a microscopic view that deflects focus from what needs to be remembered. And still others feel that by pushing the issue, it may harm survivors who've suffered enough.

What everyone can agree on is this: When it comes to learning from those who lived through the Holocaust, time is running out.

Discussion and interruption

A spotlight on this dark subject was switched on with the late 2010 publication of a landmark book bearing a straightforward but telling title, "Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust."

The interdisciplinary anthology touches on everything from rape, forced prostitution and sterilizations to psychological trauma, gender identity issues and depictions of violence in the arts. Co-edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, it is believed to be the first book in English to focus exclusively on this subject.

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Hedgepeth is a professor of foreign languages and literature at Middle Tennessee State University. Saidel is a political scientist, author, and the founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute in New York City.

From left to right, are Rochelle Saidel, Nava Semel, Sonja Hedgepeth and Gloria Steinem in Brooklyn, New York.
From left to right, are Rochelle Saidel, Nava Semel, Sonja Hedgepeth and Gloria Steinem in Brooklyn, New York.

These two women hope their book will spark serious discussion and exploration. But it resulted, at least in part, from an effort to keep them silent.

While running a workshop for teachers five years ago at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, the pair raised the subject of sexual violence against Jewish women. When Saidel -- author of the book "The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp" -- mentioned rape at that camp, a leading Holocaust scholar interrupted her.

"You can't say that. ... Where's the proof?" Saidel remembers the man saying. "He continued to repeat this every time I ran into him." Saidel declined to name him.

She and Hedgepeth had been meeting younger scholars tackling this issue around the world, in the United States, Israel, Austria and Germany. They knew rape testimonies were on record. They thought if some scholars objected to their work, there likely were reasons they should continue.

When it comes to the Holocaust, what's acceptable for study has been "institutionalized," Hedgepeth says. "Certain topics are sanctioned and some are not."

Fitting into a narrative

Yellow stars. Ghettos. Cattle cars.

Concentration camps. Gas chambers. Crematoriums.

These are the images that typically come to mind when we think of the Holocaust.

Of the estimated 15 million civilians murdered by the Nazi regime during World War II, only Jews were targeted for systematic extermination. This doesn't mean others -- including Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti and Roma ("Gypsies") and homosexuals -- weren't victims, but the "Final Solution" was devised to annihilate Jews.

By the end of the war, 6 million of them were gone -- or about two-thirds of European Jewry and a third of the world's Jewish population. This is what became widely known as the Holocaust or, in Hebrew, the Shoah.

In the years since, fueled by the oft-heard mantra "Never Again," historians have dedicated their lives to Holocaust studies. Museums and memorials sprouted up across the globe. Documentaries and feature films about the Shoah have earned accolades. Best-selling memoirs and diaries became assigned school reading.

With all that's been learned and discussed, the degree to which sexual violence fits into the Holocaust story remains a point of debate.

To make rape a significant part of the narrative, the numbers would have to be in the thousands or tens of thousands. We will never know how often it happened.
--Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer

"I have no doubt that some women were raped," says Lawrence L. Langer, a preeminent Holocaust scholar.

But while rape is undoubtedly significant for those who are victimized, "the historical significance is very small in the context of the Holocaust experience," Langer says. "To make rape a significant part of the narrative, the numbers would have to be in the thousands or tens of thousands. We will never know how often it happened."

Myrna Goldenberg, another scholar and author, agrees that stories of rape need to be contextualized and that their scope shouldn't be exaggerated.

"We have to keep saying that this was still not the norm. This was not the Holocaust. It was the murder of Jews that was the Holocaust," she says. "But to assume the subject is untouchable is wrong. Women were tortured and raped. Breasts were cut off. How do you not talk about that? How do you not acknowledge that?"

Emerging voices

The path to this discussion has been paved by developments only seen with the passage of time.

Men made up the bulk of those who interviewed survivors in the first 40 years after the war, Goldenberg says, and they may have been reluctant to raise the question of rape. But after mass rapes during the Bosnian War of the 1990s came to light, she says some Holocaust survivors began, when she asked them, to share their own stories -- in whispers and out of earshot from their husbands.

Other accounts surfaced over the years in writings.

Even if rape wasn't the norm, it shouldn't be ignored, says Holocaust scholar Myrna Goldenberg.
Even if rape wasn't the norm, it shouldn't be ignored, says Holocaust scholar Myrna Goldenberg.

Diaries emerged in which soldiers and eyewitnesses documented rapes during pogroms. Details of Nazi actions against Jews were chronicled in books by Soviet writers -- before being suppressed by Joseph Stalin and rediscovered decades later.

Included in these long-hidden publications were tales of women being singled out to dance naked before being raped and murdered. Soldiers stormed homes and victimized girls in front of parents, wives in front of husbands. Mass graves were opened to reveal women with removed breasts.

Then, around the time when the world was learning about the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, the Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" was released. Making this movie inspired director Steven Spielberg to create a foundation to gather stories of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

Now, under the auspices of the University of Southern California, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education houses about 52,000 video testimonies recorded in 32 languages and 56 countries.

More than 1,700 testimonies include references to sexual assaults, an umbrella term that includes sexual harassment, abuse, molestation and rape, explained Crispin Brooks, curator of the institute's archive. Without revisiting each of the testimonies, Brooks said, he cannot say how many specifically mentioned rapes.

But he was able to break down many of the testimonies to show where or how the incidents occurred. Among them: 265 in camps, 21 during deportations, 272 in ghettos, 512 by liberators (often Soviet soldiers, he said), 12 during forced marches, 39 by those giving aid, 33 in hiding, 7 in refugee camps.

One camp survivor spoke of a pregnant woman who was raped in view of others before being tossed on a cart, never to be seen again. Another showed scars from beatings an officer doled out when he took her to clean his living quarters and raped her. A third saw her cousin taken away; the girl returned to the barrack bleeding, with a piece of bread clenched in her hand and a secret she'd never share.

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Confronting concerns

Saidel, Hedgepeth and others who share their passion know they face obstacles in bringing attention to sexual assaults during the Holocaust.

Co-editors Rochelle Saidel, left, and Sonja Hedgepeth sign copies of their book at a Brandeis University event.
Co-editors Rochelle Saidel, left, and Sonja Hedgepeth sign copies of their book at a Brandeis University event.

They say some people believe that focusing on gender-specific experiences takes away from the overall human and Jewish experience. Others have suggested that sexual violence against Jews wasn't a real issue because racial purity laws prohibited intercourse between Germans and Jews. And then there are those, they say, who are uncomfortable accepting testimonies as proof of occurrences.

But Saidel wants to know this: If historians are willing to look at how the Holocaust experience differed from country to country and camp to camp, why shouldn't they also examine how experiences differed between men and women?

As for the argument that racial purity laws protected Jewish women, she says, "That's absurd. That's like saying there are laws against rape so people don't get raped."

Such laws, she and others add, certainly didn't influence the actions of Nazi collaborators who weren't Aryan.

What this prohibition did do, they say, is prompt Nazi perpetrators to murder most victims after attacks. It also kept rape from being part of the official genocidal policy, a fact that distinguishes the Holocaust from what unfolded in places like Rwanda, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia.

And Helene Sinnreich, a contributor to Hedgepeth and Saidel's book, has a theory as to why testimonies aren't enough for some scholars. She is the director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies and associate professor of history at Ohio's Youngstown State University.

"Some historians' reluctance to utilize victim testimony in their construction of Holocaust history may be a result of a prejudice among them to utilize only 'official documents' or to combat accusations of Holocaust deniers by being able to demonstrate the facts through the words of the Nazis themselves," Sinnreich wrote.

'Branded by something that did not happen'

Some scholars would like to hit the pause button and force everyone to take a deep breath before continuing the rape conversation. Lawrence L. Langer is one of them.

He points out that the major camps had brothels staffed by prostitutes brought in from the outside to serve officers and guards. He also says that in death camps, women prisoners dropped to as little as 60 pounds and suffered from infectious diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis -- and that the SS would have been careful to stay away from them.

"In the context of the Holocaust," the significance of rape is small, says Holocast scholar Lawrence L. Langer.
"In the context of the Holocaust," the significance of rape is small, says Holocast scholar Lawrence L. Langer.

But more significant, he's been interviewing survivors for 25 years, and he says none of them have ever spoken to him about rape. He also says rape didn't come up in the five years he spent screening Holocaust testimonies in Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive, which now houses about 4,000 interviews conducted as far back as 1979.

Langer doesn't buy the argument made by some that his being male might have kept women from telling him such stories. He says he hasn't directly asked the question, but he trusts survivors to share what they need to share. He's heard the accounts of women who strangled their own babies, and in his mind talking about rape wouldn't be any more difficult.

"I always ask, 'What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?' No one has ever said, 'I was raped,'" he says. "This doesn't mean no one was."

Both Langer and Myrna Goldenberg contributed to a ground-breaking book co-edited by Lenore Weitzman. "Women in the Holocaust," published in 1998, is said to be the first book of original Holocaust scholarship dedicated to women.

First and foremost, Weitzman shares Langer and Goldenberg's angst that people will get the wrong idea about the extent of rape during the Holocaust. She stood up last month at a Washington event centered on the new anthology by Hedgepeth and Saidel to share her concerns.

She estimates that "less than a fraction of 1% of Jewish women" were raped, and says, "This book -- and the publicity around it -- give one the impression that it was common."

But she also worries that this focus on rape inappropriately sexualizes and stigmatizes female survivors. She's interviewed hundreds of them, and she says she arrived at the Washington event having just met with women who were upset about the attention given to this book.

Assuming rape was common "taints all women survivors," Weitzman says. "It is not that they don't want to discuss something that was painful, it is that they do not want to be branded by something that did not happen -- not to them or to their sisters or to their mothers or to their daughters. The real horrors they experienced were horrible enough."

It's a 'shanda'

Like other scholars, it's not that Weitzman doesn't believe rape occurred on occasion: "Of course it happened," she says. "If you have 6 million people murdered, everything happened. Anything in the world we might imagine could happen to a person probably did."

It is not that they don't want to discuss something that was painful, it is that they do not want to be branded... The real horrors they experienced were horrible enough.
--Lenore Weitzman, co-editor of "Women in the Holocaust"

But is it necessary to talk about rape? Maybe women don't want it discussed. Maybe victims, no matter how rare or prevalent they were, haven't shared their stories for a reason.

It isn't hard to imagine why a woman raped during the Holocaust might stay silent. Irrespective of circumstances, when it comes to sexual victimization, there's fear, shame and concern about being blamed or viewed as "damaged goods."

In Yiddish, there's a word, "shanda" (pronounced shonda, like Honda) which means shame or pity -- the sort that, if revealed, might cast one's family or even the entire Jewish people in a bad light. Especially for older generations, it's considered a shanda to talk about certain things. Rape, molestation or sexual relations that kept women alive, whether they were forced or chosen, would be among the stories many might say would be better kept to oneself.

Add to this, survivor guilt: the anguish many carried of having lived while millions perished. Still alive, some might wonder, what right would a raped survivor have to complain?

Plus, the mere title "survivor" carries with it a weight, responsibility and expectation. It means being part of a club that emerged from ashes to defy Hitler's Final Solution. What does it suggest if one also attaches "rape victim" to the label? Isn't being a survivor already heavy enough?

Bringing back 'ghosts'

Perhaps nowhere has Holocaust discourse been more loaded than in Israel.

A daughter of survivors, author Nava Semel was among a generation of Jews raised by parents who didn't talk about the war, or even the years before it. They were strong, lived in a Jewish nation and were nobody's victim. They didn't look back. They rushed to learn Hebrew, so they could stop using their native tongues. They focused on building new families, not remembering the ones they'd lost.

"The Holocaust was part of our calendar and our collective memory, but it was never mentioned in the private sphere," Semel says from her Tel Aviv home. "Parents didn't want to share the horrific experiences. They were trying to protect their children from the threat of the past."

Semel would be in her 20s before she heard stories. She found out her mother survived thanks to a "front whore" -- a camp inmate in her barrack who became an SS guard's "kept woman" and thereby saved the others. As if that wasn't surprising enough, there was a twist: The SS guard was a woman.

She fictionalized her mother's story in "A Hat of Glass," which Semel included in a collection of short stories of the same name. She says this book, published 40 years after the war, represented the first Hebrew prose to focus on the experience of children of survivors -- and to use the term "second generation" to describe them. Her protagonists were all sons and daughters who sought out the truth in order to grow. It forced open doors that were blocking conversations.

Survivors thanked her for giving them an entrée to talk. Many in her own generation, though, initially lashed out. They worried that she was "undermining the Israeli image," Semel says, by bringing back "ghosts" from the Diaspora.

Some ghosts, though, stayed hidden in the shadows, stashed away with memories people weren't ready to confront.

Nava Semel reads from her novel, "And the Rat Laughed," which touched on sexual abuse of hidden children.
Nava Semel reads from her novel, "And the Rat Laughed," which touched on sexual abuse of hidden children.

More than 15 years after this conversation-starter came out, Semel published her novel, "And the Rat Laughed." It tells the story of a 5-year-old Jewish girl who was hidden on a Polish farm. In the potato pit where the family kept her, she was raped. Repeatedly.

But the girl grew up to be strong, a woman who survived her early-life horrors to become remarkable. Semel's 2001 book, which was adapted for the stage and may soon become a movie, let survivors who had been sexually abused -- both women and men -- know theirs was a secret others had, too.

Following the novel's publication, about a dozen survivors reached out to tell her she'd written their story.

One call came early, about 7 a.m. The sobs on the other end told Semel this was yet another survivor.

The woman on the line had never shared this part of her past -- not with her therapist or her husband -- but now allowed herself to feel. With the relief that comes from letting go, she unlocked the memory that had haunted her and was free to face it.

"Memory is an evasive entity; it's threatening," Semel said. "The memory will always be a part of them. But if I can voice whatever they cannot, if I can be their corridor to liberating them, they feel -- and can die -- less lonely."

Stories that slip out

For more than 20 years, Paula David worked full time with Holocaust survivors as they entered their final years.

The now-professor of gerontology at the University of Toronto was a social worker who coordinated Holocaust survivor groups, counseling and programs at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care -- a facility she says had the largest population of Holocaust survivors living in one place.

She's made it her mission to study the impact of early-life trauma on aging.

In working with women survivors, she knew there were unnatural reasons why some had never been able to bear children. She surmised there were memories that left others cowering when they visited doctors, especially gynecologists. She realized there was a history that prompted some to lash out and hit people when they were touched.

Maybe they didn't talk about the past because they didn't have the tools, the language. Many women David worked with grew up in shtetls, small villages, and in sheltered religious homes. Perhaps they lost their parents before they'd learned about sexuality.

For more than two decades, Paula David was a full-time social worker for Holocaust survivors in their final years.
For more than two decades, Paula David was a full-time social worker for Holocaust survivors in their final years.

She built relationships with these women. She loved them. She didn't judge them if they told her they slept with men for food. "It wasn't sex, it was bread," she explains. She understood if they said they only tolerated sex with their husbands to create families. She tried not to flinch when one woman, who'd been saved by and fought alongside partisan soldiers, said she'd been raped multiple times every day for four years.

"What's there to say?" she remembers the woman answering dismissively, when David invited her to speak further. "You think they saved me because I was a Jew?"

She knew things these women didn't want their own children to know.

"I never had anyone at 85 or 90 say, 'I want to tell my kids,' " even if their kids were 70, David says.

But as the women aged, and in some cases dementia set in, there were those who lost their ability to self-censor or to consciously choose what they shared. In the facility where she and others looked out for these survivors, she heard and saw stories of sexual violence slip through their lips, without control and in the presence of loved ones. She devised ways to divert attention from what was being said, not only to protect the survivors but to protect those who were present and not able to get answers to their questions.

"Perhaps (these women) never wanted to be sitting in a chair in a nursing home, giving a blow by blow of rapes they experienced -- while their grandchildren are sitting there," David says. "And it's so painful for a family member to hear. It's exquisitely painful."

If survivors choose to share their stories, with clarity of mind and because it will help them, then wonderful. But she says they shouldn't feel pressure to open up. If they prefer to take their stories with them to the grave, so be it.

"How they've managed to live is by compartmentalizing," David says. "We all self-edit our life narratives."

Shaping the future

In the background a clock doesn't tick, it pounds. More than 65 years after World War II, the untold stories of Holocaust survivors -- the dwindling numbers that remain -- will soon be buried forever.

So if there are victims of sexual violence who want to talk -- to family members, therapists or in public -- now is the time.

Psychologist Eva Fogelman hopes survivors who were raped will speak up so they can be helped in their healing.
Psychologist Eva Fogelman hopes survivors who were raped will speak up so they can be helped in their healing.

Eva Fogelman, a New York City psychologist who has worked with survivors and children of survivors for more than 30 years, hopes for their own sake that survivors with secrets will open up. She contributed to Hedgepeth and Saidel's anthology and says the book -- as well as the events and discussions around it -- can help validate the feelings of those who were raped and offer them permission to voice their stories and seek professional help.

"They need the validation for that particular pain and suffering ... to help them in their healing process," Fogelman says. And barring documentation, testimonies can provide "a more authentic sense of history."

Others say speaking up or examining stories of rape during the Holocaust is not just about personal healing or filling out history books. And it's certainly not meant to take away from the overall horrors that were the Holocaust.

It is, they say, about the greater good.

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"Perhaps we would have been better able to prevent the rapes in the former Yugoslavia and the Congo if we had not had to wait more than 60 years to hear the truths that are anthologized in 'Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust,' " Gloria Steinem, pioneering feminist writer and organizer, wrote about the book.

Steinem stepped forward to moderate a book event this spring in Brooklyn that drew a packed audience. At the event were people like the Israeli author Semel, contributors to the book and activists working on behalf of women and girls.

At one point during the evening, a Rwandan woman stood and shared publicly, for the first time, the story of her rape at 14.

One person on the panel was Jessica Neuwirth, a women's rights lawyer.

Jessica Neuwirth is among those who believe sharing rape stories from the Holocaust may help women worldwide.
Jessica Neuwirth is among those who believe sharing rape stories from the Holocaust may help women worldwide.

She's worked with the United Nations and served as an expert consultant on issues of sexual violence and rape as a tool of genocide. She's been a policy adviser for Amnesty International and is a founder and current chair of Equality Now, an international human rights organization established to end violence and discrimination against women.


Neuwirth envisions a day when Holocaust survivors will testify in front of the U.N., sharing their stories alongside women and girls from different generations, races, lands and conflicts.

But she fears it may be too late, that the victims who might have come forward are already gone. And of those who are still around, she worries such a time may never come.

"We usually have people dying to talk, and no one will listen," she says. "Now we have people dying to listen, but no one will talk."

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