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Shattering Shame and Silence: Sexual Violence during the Holocaust and Other Genocides

by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel

This essay appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Jan. 26, 2011.
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As the United Nations observes Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 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 victims were among the women subjected to sexual abuse during the Holocaust and World War II. However, sexual violence against Jewish women has always been hidden in plain view. Eyewitness accounts can be found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, 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. In addition, more than one thousand 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 after the Holocaust, rape was not among the charges as a crime against humanity or a component of genocide. Rape was not defined as a crime of genocide under international law until 1998, by a decision  of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established by the United Nations. Based on this definition, verdicts have been passed against the perpetrators, e.g., against Bosnian Serbs accused of systematic sexual violence against Muslim women during the Bosnian war, and against Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of 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 excluded from their own communities, considered defiled because they had been raped.

Regarding 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 of the cases, women were doubly defiled--as female, 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 "Rassenschande" (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 was not 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 cover up and deny that the act had taken place.

The United Nations, 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 in the future. We commend the United Nations 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.

--- Dr. Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel are co-editors of Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2010). For more information, see

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