24 June, 2011

Rape in the Holocaust

CNN recently ran this article on the untold stories of rape during the Holocaust.

... (T)his 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. ...

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? ...

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. …

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 (Lawrence L. Langer, a preeminent Holocaust scholar) 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?"

(Lenore Weitzman) estimates that "less than a fraction of 1% of Jewish women" were raped.” … 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." ...

"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…  (link)

1% isn’t worth talking about? Let’s say, of the 6,000,000 people who were killed in the Holocaust – half were women. One percent of 3,000,000 is 30,000 and that doesn’t include the women (and girls and boys) who survived. Also, most times rapes are vastly underreported. And even more so in the Holocaust (like any other war), so you could move that up a few percentages.

So, the sexual assault of 30,000+ people isn’t worth talking about?

At one point Langer goes on to say that in the 25 years he has been doing interviews no one has mentioned rape.

Well there are a lot of reasons for that. The Jewish culture is one of deep shame. Often times rape is seen a disgracing the entire family. Also most rapes are not reported, even in the general population. Langer asked survivors, “What is the worst thing that happened to you?” And no one mentioned rape. Well, in light of the Holocaust, I think losing your family, your culture, living in the camps, etc. would all compound into something too hard to discuss. Most rape victims won’t come forward with their stories. They want to forget. If we look at the culture of rape in general – we can see why this hasn’t be discussed until now.
Many rape victims feel deep shames and guilt, often times thinking they did something. They want to move on and forget. That is why they don’t seek help and legal avenues, it’s too hard, they want to suppress. With the Holocaust I think there is a lot of just wanting to forget, having survivor’s guilt, and there might not have been words for what happened
Also, we’re talking about the 1940’s – a very quiet, conservative time in our world. It wasn’t appropriate to talk about “such things” and for that generation, it’s still not.

I think acknowledging and discussing what happened for the 30,000+ girls, women and boys who lived it is worth it.

The idea that people are going to assume every Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust was raped is absurd! Most people don’t assume every woman in the Congo is raped, or Rwanda, or Libya – but for the ones who were it is worth discussing and getting out there. Handle it was care, preserve the survivor’s dignity, but get the truth out there.

Here are some other stories the article linked to:

Listening to victims of rape in wartime -- another very well written article on the topic, and also why rape is not something survivors of genocide/war talk about.