Shattering shame and silence

The violence against women and girls during the Holocaust and other genocides.

January 26, 2011 23:00
3 minute read.
An image from the Holocaust

women holocaust 311. (photo credit: German Federal Archive)


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As the United Nations observes Holocaust Remembrance Day today, we should be mindful to include the history of sexual violence against Jewish women during that genocide. Especially because this year’s theme is “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion,” it is appropriate to call attention to that neglected aspect of Holocaust history.

Jewish women were among those subjected to sexual abuse during the Holocaust and World War II. However, this issue has always been hidden in plain view. Eyewitness accounts can be found in the archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany. This type of brutality is included in some memoirs and reports, as well as in documentary films and literature.

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In addition, more than 1,000 testimonies housed in the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education mention rape and “coerced sexual activities” by Nazis and their collaborators, as well as by other Jews, non-Jews and liberators. These assaults took place in ghettos, in hiding and in concentration camps. Nevertheless, the subject has been swept under the rug, ignored or denied for more than 65 years.

DURING THE Nuremberg and lesser-known Nazi war criminal trials, rape was not among the charges as a crime against humanity or a component of genocide. Rape was not defined as such under international law until 1998, by a decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established by the UN. Based on this definition, verdicts have been passed against the perpetrators – Bosnian Serbs accused of systematic sexual violence against Muslim women during the Bosnian war, and Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of the Taba township, in connection with the mass raping of Tutsi women by Hutu men in Rwanda.

Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the subject of Lynn Nottage’s powerful off- Broadway play Ruined, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2009. Nottage poignantly exposes the horrors of the Congolese war and the bravery of the women subjected to its brutality. “Ruined” is a euphemism for raped, with mutilation of genitalia, as well as psychological ruin and rejection by society. In Congo, as in Rwanda, women were raped and then excluded from their own communities – considered defiled because they had been raped.

When it comes to sexual violence, there are similarities and differences between what happened to women during the Holocaust and in later genocides. The similarities stem from the fact that violence against women has been universal and timeless, especially when accompanied by genocide. Rape involves subjugation and humiliation of a vulnerable victim. In all cases, women were doubly defiled – as females, and as members of a perceived lower class of human beings. For example, the Hutu called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches,” just as the Nazis called their Jewish compatriots “untermenschen” (subhumans) and “vermin.”

Unlike later genocides that encouraged sexual violence against the perceived enemy, the Nazis had a race defilement law that prohibited sexual relations between Germans and Jews. But this law did not necessarily protect Jewish women, just as anti-rape laws today do not prevent rape. Sexual abuse of Jewish women may not have been part of German genocidal policy, but rape by Nazis nevertheless occurred, and was an intrinsic part of Jewish women’s experiences during the Holocaust. Subsequent murder of the victim was the most expedient way to deny that the act had taken place.

The UN, born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and World War II, is striving to combat the atrocities that women are suffering during current genocidal situations, and to prevent recurrences. We commend it for choosing the topic of “Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion” as the theme for this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and hope that the issue of sexual violence will be given proper attention.

The writers are coeditors of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2010).

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