The tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which is December 23 this year, is designated as the yartzeit (memorial anniversary) for Holocaust victims whose date of death is unknown. Since many victims of sexual violence were subsequently murdered on indeterminable dates, this is an appropriate time to talk about rape and other forms of sexual abuse during the Holocaust. As in other genocides, during the Holocaust the persecution of women and girls (and some men and boys) included sexual violence. Even though we cannot ever know the exact numbers, it is an indisputable fact that Jewish women and girls were sexually violated.
Rape and sexual violence in connection with later genocides have been well documented, and in these cases victims have come forward. Some experts even believe that an open discussion about sexual violence during the Holocaust might have alerted us to its recurrence in later genocides. Likewise, now that these atrocities during later genocides have been widely exposed, analyzed, publicized, and in some cases brought to justice, perhaps Holocaust victims will be motivated to come forward.
There are victim and witness testimonies about rape during the Holocaust, in roundups, in ghettos, in resistance movements, in concentration camps, death camps, and slave labor camps. Virtually all woman inducted into camps were sexually abused by being forced to stand naked in front of men, and by having their vaginas poked, prodded, and smeared with caustic disinfectant. Sometimes soldiers in the Einsatzgruppen who shot Jews into pits in the East first raped young women. Others were forced into prostitution in bordellos or the private homes of soldiers or guards. Some women were murdered and their bodies then sexually violated. And girls and women saved in hiding by non-Jewish “rescuers” sometimes had to pay with their bodies. In other settings, women were forced to provide sex for food and their means of survival, also a form of rape. Occasionally a Nazi-appointed Jewish governing council in a ghetto (Judenrat) had to furnish Nazis with pretty young women to (temporarily) prevent the general population’s deportation.
With all of this evidence, it seems that an accounting of sexual violence would be part of the general history of the Holocaust. Instead, the subject has hardly been discussed. While included in some memoirs, especially early ones, sexual abuse is almost never mentioned in historians’ accounts. Holocaust memorial museums have also avoided the subject. One cited excuse for dismissing the rape of Jewish women is the Nazi Rassenschande law. But this law, which prohibited sexual relations between so-called Aryans and Jews, was about consensual sex. And even if it had been about rape, do today’s laws prevent rape?
One real but unwarranted reason for the silence is shame, or shanda in Yiddish (with the same root as that of the second half of the German Rassenschande – here, literally shaming the race). Some victims who broke their silence have asked that their violation remain a secret. However, no victim of rape (or her family) should be ashamed. The shame always belongs to the perpetrator, despite some cultures’ inclination to blame the victim. Is it because of the shame factor that most Holocaust institutions and scholars have chosen to ignore or at best marginalize the issue of sexual violence?
Another baseless reason for excising sexual violation from Holocaust history is that including it would detract from the narrative of the totality of the Holocaust. However, sexual abuse was a significant component, and we can more fully understand the Holocaust only by examining all components. Scholars study what happened in every individual country, city, ghetto, or camp, and, unfortunately, sexual violation is also a component of the comprehensive history of the Holocaust.
While Nazis and their collaborators were not officially ordered to rape, it does not follow that rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women and girls did not take place. Nor does it follow that sexual abuse was not used to humiliate them. Based on witness reports, rapes often resulted in the murder of the victims. Although not considered a war crime during the Nuremberg war criminal trials, today rape during the Holocaust would fall within the definition of crimes against humanity.
In November 2012, a historic symposium was convened by the USC Shoah Foundation and Remember the Women Institute. This groundbreaking international meeting of scholars and human rights experts, focusing specifically on sexual violence during the Holocaust, was prompted by the publication of Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust (eds. Hedgepeth and Saidel 2010). One result of the symposium is the participants’ decision to heighten efforts to find victims and witnesses willing to talk about their experiences. Time is running out, but we believe it is still possible to find and record testimonies about sexual violence during the Holocaust.
Anyone willing to give testimony about sexual abuse during the Holocaust can contact firstname.lastname@example.org