AND THE RAT CRIED: REMEMBERING NAVA SEMEL Z"L
By Rochelle G. Saidel
Nava Semel died on December 2, 2017, and her loss is deeply felt by all of us who loved and worked with her. I first met Nava quite a few years ago--I don't remember how many--at a planning meeting in Israel for the International Women and the Holocaust conference. She was wearing one pink and one purple Croc, and two different earrings. I didn't know much about her or her work then, but I immediately knew I liked her. We kept in touch by email and phone and we saw each other in Tel Aviv and New York over the years. I think the last time we were actually together was when she spoke at Van Leer institute in Jerusalem in January 2017, as part of their series, "Opening the Week -- Human Beings and Their Environment." Nava's topic for the Torah portion Va’yechi was "Father Gives his Blessing and Mother." We were supposed to have coffee and visit afterward, but it was a cold night in Jerusalem and she decided to flee back to the relative warmth of Tel Aviv. I don’t know if she was already ill or not. A friend said she told me in June that Nava had cancer, but I swear I don't remember. Maybe I didn't want to hear it.
Nava, who devoted her life to writing, speaking, and teaching about the Holocaust, worked with me mostly on the topic of sexual violence during the Holocaust. She was a member of the Advisory Board of Remember the Women Institute. Nava's incredible novel, And the Rat Laughed was published in English in 2008, translated from the 2001 Hebrew edition. It was also published in other languages and performed as an opera. As this book and her short story, "Hat of Glass" were both about sexual violation, Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth and I included a chapter about Nava and her work in our 2010 anthology, Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Nava spoke in New York for one of the events in connection with the book's publication, and she was brilliant. I learned from her that day something that I had known but never processed before: every woman who went through the induction process into a concentration camp was sexually violated. When we had a joint symposium with USC Shoah Foundation on sexual violence in 2012, Jane Fonda read, crying, from Nava's And the Rat Laughed.
In September 2017, Nava wrote to me and to Dr. Batya Brutin, curator, suggesting that we include in our forthcoming exhibition, VIOLATED! Women in Holocaust and Genocide, some artwork related to her novel. Emails went back and forth with no resolution. During this correspondence, in the middle of September, I sent Nava greetings for her 63rd birthday. She replied with thanks and attached a chilling poem entitled "Oncology Day Ward." I answered that I hoped the poem was not autobiographical and she wrote back that unfortunately it was, and she thought I had known. I wrote to her (for what I now know was the last time): "No, I did not have any idea that you were ill and in treatment. That was why your beautiful poem was so shocking, and I was hoping I was misinterpreting it. I wish you a refuah shlema and a new year that restores your health. We need you strong and 'kicking' to continue all of your wonderful and creative endeavors." She answered me for the last time a day later, "I hope the new year will bring more health and strength. Hugs, Nava." I was in New York at the time and I had planned to visit her soon in Israel. This was not meant to be. Yes, we do need you, and we will miss you. Baruch dyan emet.
Complete list of Remember the Women Institute Essays
The Remember the Women Institute welcomes essays pertaining to women
and history for our on-line library. Suggested research topics include:
How the lessons of the Holocaust apply to women in the present and future
The effect of politics on memorialization of women in the Holocaust
Women in Ravensbrück and other Nazi concentration camps
Women in ghettos, resistance, and partisan groups
Relationships between sexism, anti-Semitism, and racism
· Women and genocide
· Women and migration
· Women and immigration
· Women and displacement
· Women in science and technology
· Women in inter-religious dialogue
· Women in religious worship
· Women in Jewish history
· Women in the university
· Marginalized women
Please contact Dr. Rochelle
G. Saidel with your inquiries.