Holocaust Memorial Day: remembering survivors of sexual violence

Today, January 27th, marks the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. On this day 77 years ago, the Nazi Concentration Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. A lot of the atrocities that took place here, in other camps and during this period more generally, are now known and have been widely documented by historians, made into books or films, shared in exhibitions and museums, or commemorated during ceremonies. There are, however, also aspects that remain hidden, unspoken, and stigmatised. Sexual violence belongs to this category.

Already in the 1970’s, feminist scholars did, in fact, attempt to broach the subject of women’s experiences of sexual violence during the Holocaust. However, they were met with resistance; many historians believed that a discussion of this topic would divert attention away from the overall horrors of the genocide. Others maintained that sexual violence was not widespread or was not sufficiently proven. Which topics were deemed acceptable for study and which were not was institutionalised. But in recent years, a growing movement has emerged that seeks to uncover the truth and make the topic less taboo and more openly discussed. A first step was achieved in 2010, by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, who co-published the book “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust,” hoping to spark a conversation about this. There were still obstacles though; there were for instance still people who believed that studying gender-specific experiences takes away from the overall human and Jewish experience, or that sexual violence against Jews was not an issue since racial purity laws were in place, prohibiting intercourse between Germans and Jews. The authors refute these arguments, putting forward that if Holocaust experiences can be examined and compared between countries or camps, it should also be possible to examine differences between male and female experiences. Regarding the second point, Saidel compares it to the current existence of laws against rape. While these laws should prevent it from happening, they often do not, and the same was true in the case of the Nazis.

A final argument that is made by some scholars is that survivors do not want to tell their story, do not want to hear these stories, and want to leave what happened in the past. But this can be seen as part of a wider societal issue. Sexual violence is connected to fear, shame, and concerns about being blamed. To this day, these remain as reasons for survivors not to share their stories. Especially within older generations of Jewish women, sexual abuse is not talked about; to do so is considered shameful. This does not necessarily mean that survivors do not want to talk about their experiences – it can also mean that they are not able to or do not feel comfortable to do so in the circumstances.

Nava Semel, an Israeli writer and daughter of Holocaust survivors, published a novel that tells the story of a young Jewish girl that was subjected to sexual violence while in hiding. Semel received many calls or written forms of contact from survivors who had experienced this themselves. Many had never been able to speak about it, but the memories remained with them, hidden away without an outlet. This story shows the importance of making sexual violence a topic that can be spoken and written about, instead of something that remains forever stigmatised. Survivors must have at least the opportunity to speak up, and the choice is then theirs to do this or to not do this. For many, opening up to a therapist or family member can be part of, or the start of, their healing process. In addition, by overlooking the stories of survivors of sexual violence, their experiences are being written out of history, which is dangerous, as being able to voice such experiences means it might enable us to prevent such atrocities from happening again. 

Written by WAVE Intern India Stotesbury

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