It may come as a surprise that, among the countless atrocities committed during the Holocaust, sexual violence has not been part of the history written in books and taught in schools. Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel has devoted much to her career to correcting that omission.
For FIT’s 15th annual Holocaust Commemoration, on April 7, Saidel, founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute (rememberwomen.org), gave a talk entitled “Sexual Violence During the Holocaust,” about her efforts to raise awareness of widespread rape and abuse of women throughout Hitler’s rule. Saidel has written or edited six books about the period, including the seminal Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust.
“Sexual violence has been the last frontier in putting women into the Holocaust narrative,” she said.
She spoke about the prevalence of brothels, common in military outposts and concentration camps, in which soldiers and collaborators could force themselves on Jewish women. She spoke about girls being taken from the ghettos in exchange for a reprieve from execution. She spoke about young women being singled out for sex slavery. She also pointed out that the humiliations of the concentration camp, including being forced to strip naked with no privacy, were traumatizing as well.
She placed this sexual violence in a larger context, explaining that violence against women has been endemic throughout history. Even a cursory reading of The New York Times brings up a story nearly every day about girls and women being raped and murdered during political conflict.
Saidel’s work has met much resistance, stemming from the fact that the Nazis kept no records of sexual abuse, and that the Nazi ideology of Rassenschande (racial defilement) supposedly prevented sex between Aryans and Jews. “It makes it a little too easy for some Holocaust organizations to discredit it,” she said.
Historians also told her she was trying to dilute the central message of Holocaust scholarship by focusing on sexual violence. “They say, ‘The Holocaust is the murder of 6 million Jews. We don’t want to take away from the greater tragedy.’”
And when she asked a guide at the site of Auschwitz why the brothel wasn’t mentioned on the tour, he said it wasn’t appropriate for children. “Mass genocide is acceptable for children, but not sexual violence?” she asked.
But Remember the Women Institute has collected numerous accounts of rape told by survivors—and Saidel believes there are many more untold stories, by women too ashamed to mention it and women who were killed.
“We know that these things happened,” Saidel said. “Finally, historians are beginning to acknowledge it.”
The event was organized by FIT’s Holocaust Commemoration Committee and sponsored by the Diversity Council. Before and after the lecture, members of the FIT community took turns reading names of victims in FIT’s Dining Hall.