Rape as Genocide: Understanding sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the context of the Holocaust

This is a conference paper I wrote in 2006. I am sharing it today as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. Since I wrote this paper, more research into rape and the sexual exploitation and violence perpetrated against women and children has been undertaken. Women Under Siege is an excellent source of information as is the book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. My own research in feminist theory has changed my understanding of sexual violence and genocide.

 

In the light of the stories of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape that are a part of the larger narratives of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it is almost becoming a truism to suggest that sexual violence is an intrinsic feature of genocide. In the realms of Holocaust history and studies, however, it is still a subject that has not attracted a great deal of attention. Certainly, scholars who are working on the ambit of female experience, such as Myrna Goldenberg and Joan Ringelheim, have always acknowledged the existence of these stories in Holocaust testimonies, but they have focused on the specific sexual vulnerability of women due to pregnancy, motherhood, and amenorrhea and so mention only small numbers of testimonies of women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted or raped, or even having witnessed these. Furthermore, they have also tended not to look at male testimonies concerning the sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape of female prisoners and even fewer have looked at stories of male sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape.[1]

My own (feminist) readings of the testimonies of witnesses Lucille Eichengreen, Sarah Magyar Isaacson, Thaddeus Stabholz, Weislaw Kieler and Fania Fénelon[2], however, led me to believe that there were more stories of sexual violence than have been acknowledged. Furthermore, if one accepts that sexual violence is not only a common part of genocide but can also be a genocidal act, then it is one that needs to be explored within the context of the Holocaust and the murder of Soviet POWs, the Sinti and the Roma, the mentally ill and differently-abled, and the exploitation of ‘Slavic’ slave-labour during the course of Nazi Germany. This includes not only the sexual violence perpetrated by the German SS, the Wehrmacht, and other Aryan administrators, but also that of the Soviet mass rapes of women at the end of the war and during liberation, as well as the sexual violence by all other militaries, Allied or Axis, and that perpetrated by ‘victims’ of Nazism against other victims of Nazism.

In fact, stories of sexual violence are more common than early feminist Holocaust scholarship has previously acknowledged, which is not to say that it was widespread, although this is likely, but simply that there are more stories than first recognized. There has also been an expansion in the number of stories of sexual violence in testimonies, partly due to new feminist research into rape, pornography, prostitution, and sexual trafficking,[3] which casts some testimonies in a new light, partly also due to the fact that the number of Holocaust testimonies published has increased exponentially since the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These new testimonies include more stories of sexual violence and interpret more events as having a sexual component rather than simply an act of violence of humiliation.

But while the increase in the numbers of stories of sexual violence is partly simply because witnesses now understand and write about specific events in this manner it is also because current feminist reading of testimonies includes a greater knowledge and awareness of sexual violence and reading my/contemporary definitions of sexual assault against the definitions given by witnesses is also essential to my thesis. Furthermore, it is the tension between my reading and what is written/not written that makes this a fascinating area of exploration. It also acknowledges, as Anna Hardman has previously noted, “the difficult interpretative questions as to the relationship between actuality and representation.”[4]

I believe, therefore, that the most significant reason for the expansion in the number of stories are the evolving definitions of the terms rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, humiliation, and choice by scholars, witnesses, and readers of these stories. There are numerous stories now interpreted as sexual violence. These include but are not limited to forced sterilizations of Mischlinge Jews, the Roma and the Sinti and the ‘asocials’, (that is the undesirable elements of society); forced abortions due to race; refused abortions due to race; forced pregnancies; viewing the abuse of others; forced stripping and performance; forced ‘prostitution’; brothels in the concentration camps; and the fear of rape. As a feminist, I feel that these stories needed to be placed in the centre of Holocaust studies along with the stories of abuse, humiliation, torture, starvation, deportation, murder and mass murder, ghettos and gas chambers.

What I consider to be the one of the more common forms of sexual violence during the Holocaust is what Myrna Goldenberg has termed ‘sex for survival.’[5] That is to say, stories of women, men, and children being exploited sexually in exchange for food, clothing, accommodation, work permits in the ghettos, or ‘good’ jobs in the slave-labour and concentration camps. Stories of ‘sex for survival’ exist in diaries written during the war and post-war biographies and oral testimonies.[6]

One such story may be found in one of the most well-known Holocaust testimonies: Fania Fénelon’s published testimony Playing for Time, also published as The Musicians of Auschwitz. Fénelon’s text is one of the most [in]famous memoirs of women written about Auschwitz-Birkenau and, more specifically, about the women’s orchestra in that camp. Fénelon was arrested as a member of the French resistance but was also half-Jewish. She spent nine months in the transit camp of Drancy, where she was tortured, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1944. She remained in Birkenau until November 1944 when the Jewish members of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where they were eventually liberated in April 1945. Upon arrival in Birkenau, a member of the orchestra recognized Fénelon as a cabaret singer and her ability to sing Madame Butterfly placed her in the privileged orchestra protecting Fénelon from the severe abuse and torture of the ‘normal jobs’ in the main camp.

Before discussing in depth the stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s testimony one must acknowledge the controversy surrounding it and the subsequent Arthur Miller play and film adaptations based on the text, particularly in relation to the issue of lesbianism and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her testimony Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen.[7] The debate is worth mentioning because of its discussion of identity, the use of survivor interpretations of the behaviours of others, the labels they attribute to other inmates, and the differences in the types of witness testimony, (literary texts, memoirs, poems). Succinctly, the debate concerns Fénelon’s description of the other members of the female orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, particularly of the characters ‘Marta’ and ‘Clara’. Fénelon devotes a section of the text to the relationships between the other prisoners in the privileged orchestra which includes a reference to a lesbian relationship. One of the women involved in the lesbian relationship was a cello player. Lasker-Wallfisch has been very clear that she was the only cello player in the orchestra and that she was not involved in any lesbian relationship and that Fénelon was well aware of this.[8]

There are a number of stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s text but the ones I want to discuss centre around Fénelon’s relationship with the character ‘Clara’ who she meets on the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am engaged in a ‘literal’ reading of the text here in order to demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in [re]-reading and [re]-writing representations of memory and identity. The problematic status of this particular text is does not lessen its value as a document, rather it is another instance of the problematic use of memory and representation to write a ‘history’ of  the Holocaust. The character of Clara is described as “a girl about twenty with a ravishing head set upon an enormous, deformed body”[9]; a body deformed in the transit camp by starvation, a well-brought up girl who was engaged to a boy she loved. Clara is apparently still a virgin; we do not know about Fénelon. The two young women become friends during the journey and pledge to help one another in the camps.

Fénelon and Clara’s first encounter with the concept of ‘sex for survival’ happened quite quickly after arrival in Auschwitz:

A soldier was walking next to Clara. He had a totally unremarkable face, something between animal and mineral. Suddenly he addressed her in French, in a voice as devoid of expression as he was himself: “I’ll get you coffee if you’ll let me make love to you.[10]

The two girls ignore him and the subject is not brought up again. But the soldier’s statement, so early after arrival, after several days trapped in a cattle car, is a lesson about Birkenau. As Fénelon comments:

Coffee? Either a woman wasn’t worth much around here, or else coffee was priceless. She said nothing and he let it drop.[11]

We do not know if either girl has some prior experience with this in Drancy; both were there for an extended period. It is quite likely that they did but this is assumption rather than factual knowledge. The other, more experienced, girls in the orchestra are quick to point out how cheap a woman’s body, and, by extension, a man’s and a child’s, were in the camps. Jenny, another girl is the orchestra tells them: “All you need to do is find yourself a man; here sausage replaces flowers.”[12]

We can interpret this as a story of prostitution but, while, there is a tremendous amount of feminist research into the coercive aspects of ‘prostitution’ in ‘normal’ society, exchanging sex for food in the midst of a centre for genocide changes and questions the terms we use to define the activity. Not all women who were given the option to engage in sexual activities in exchange for food ‘chose’ to do so, but, some did. Obviously, the term ‘choice’ is also questionable. The terms prostitution, sexual vulnerability, and sexual slavery are debated in feminist scholarship, but once we are within a situation where the intent to commit genocide is evident, trading sex for food, moves outside of common definitions of prostitution. Yet, the term ‘sex for survival’ also seems insufficient to describe the situations that many people found themselves during the Holocaust; indeed, the terms we use to describe these stories seem almost irrelevant in their inability to demonstrate depth of meaning.

Clara, quite quickly, makes the ‘decision’ that food is so important that sex can be traded for it. Furthermore, according to Fénelon, she hoards the food for herself and she is not particular in who the partner is. Several of the other girls have ‘lovers’ whom they sleep with for food, some even sleep with the SS but Fénelon does not describe these other women in the same manner that she describes Clara or her ‘choice’. In fact, Fénelon is extremely dismissive of it, claiming Clara was more interested in food than remaining ‘female.’ Thus it is unclear whether Fénelon is disgusted with Clara because of the sexual act, claiming Clara had lost her ‘womanly dignity’, or that she is disgusted with Clara because Clara is actually transgressing sex or gender boundaries, by refusing to engage in communal survival and share the extra food received. As Fénelon says:

Clara had changed quickly, very quickly. A month after our arrival in the music block, one evening at six o’clock, she’d said to me … I won’t share with anyone anymore.” The next day, at dinnertime, I opened her box by mistake and saw a pot of jam. Clara rushed at me. “Leave that; I told you to keep your hands off it.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. All our boxes look alike. I certainly wouldn’t touch that nobly earned jam of yours!”

There were tears of rage in her eyes, perhaps a last glimmer of a former morality, a remnant of dignity. The donor was probably a kapo from the men’s camp. Only the kapos, the blockowas, all Poles, Slovaks, or Germans, could come to our block.

Had she been a virgin? It was possible, it wouldn’t have been a decisive factor. Besides, the risk of pregnancy for internees was virtually nonexistent.

I felt sorry for Clara when I saw her twitching her large behind, … She had been an innocent young girl who loved her boyfriend and who still nourished childlike dreams. Living in a sheltered milieu she was innocent of life, like the adorable and naïve Big Irene, who remained so, while Clara changed so quickly and so totally. She had become frighteningly selfish; she would do anything to get food. In the middle of all these painfully thin girls, her obesity was a wonder, a most effective lure for men, who paid court to her in butter and sugar.[13]

But what is ‘womanly dignity’ inside a concentration camp? Can we not interpret part of Clara’s behaviour as an attempt for semblance of human contact or even love?  It is easier to interpret it in this fashion when Clara is engaged in relations with other male prisoners in privileged positions, but it is more difficult to do so when the boyfriend is a particularly brutal (German) kapo who, apparently, voluntarily worked as an executioner for the S.S. guards in the camp, apparently for pleasure rather than requirement. Fénelon posits Clara’s relationships against her own relationships with Leon, her ‘lover’ from Drancy who volunteered for the transport to Auschwitz in order to be with Fénelon.[14] Clara’s ‘boyfriends’ gave her food in exchange for sex, Leon gave Fénelon poetry and letters for, apparently, nothing. Love exists but Clara does not know what it is and is confused.

What is particularly interesting is Fénelon’s construction of Clara’s changing identity, and the way in which she contrasts her transformation from a good virginal girl to a prostitute with her understanding of the behaviour of ‘real’ prostitutes in France. While Fénelon defends the behaviour of French prostitutes who engaged in sexual acts with German soldiers to gather information for the French Resistance in terms of heroism, Clara’s attempt to survive through sex is viewed with disgust, a contrast that is highlighted in Fénelon’s description of Clara’s outrage at her participation in cabarets where German officers were the major clientele:

“I couldn’t have heard you sing,” said Clara rather primly. “We’d stopped going out at night. We didn’t mix with the Germans, and no one went to nightclubs except Germans and collaborators.”

I fell silent, slightly ashamed; it had been very good business. How would Clara have judged the proprietress of Melody’s, who looked like a madam – indeed, perhaps she was – but who protected us? How she would have despised those tarts that hung from the necks of German officers and gave us papers, photographs, and information.[15]

But, why is Clara’s transformation into a ‘prostitute’ to save her own life so negative? Partly, it is because Clara does behave increasingly violently towards the others. Certainly, when Clara is given the job as a kapo, (an inmate barracks supervisor), Fénelon claims she behaves with ruthless and vicious violence, beating the block inmates sadistically for various rule infractions. But this did not happen until after the girls were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; Clara’s ‘prostitution’ occurred in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.[16]

This story of ‘sex for survival’ is not uncommon. What is different is the way in which it is contrasted with ‘good’ stories of using sex for resistance. But how is resistance different from survival? Obviously Clara’s brutal behaviour as a kapo in Bergen-Belsen is part of the story and can partly explain Fénelon’s construction of Clara, but we do need to separate Clara’s behaviour in Bergen-Belsen from that in Birkenau to understand how Clara’s ‘choice’ was choiceless and thus to recognise her experience as one of sexual assault. More generally I think this story reveals the complexity of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the Holocaust in that at a certain point Fénelon forgets Clara’s identity as ‘victim’ and recasts her as a ‘perpetrator’ and in so doing, makes the sexual exploitation of Clara a footnote to the dehumanising effects of their situation. In order to rehumanise her (and many other victims of the Holocaust) we must therefore acknowledge and recognise the way in which sexual vulnerability is accentuated by and essential to genocide.

 

 



[1] This is not a criticism of their research but an acknowledgment of the research required. See Myrna Goldenberg, “Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust”, in Roger Gottlieb (ed.), Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp.150-166; Joan Ringelheim, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research”, in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 10, no. 4, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984-1985), pp. 741-761. Other examples of this sort of scholarship include Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998). Renate Bridenthal et al., (eds.) When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984); Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000); Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Sara R. Horowitz, “Memory and Testimony of Women Survivors of Nazi Genocide” in Judith R. Baskin (ed.), Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994), pp.258-282.

[2] Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, translated from the French by Judith Landry, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 1976); Judith Magyar Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois  Press, 1991); Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz, translated from the German by Susanne Flatauer, (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1972]); Thaddeus Stabholz, Seven Hells, translated from the Polish by Jacques Grunblatt & Hilda R. Grunblatt, (New York: Holocaust Library, 1990)

[3] Much of this research has grown in relation to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. See: Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bison Books, 1984); Anne Llewellyn Barstow, War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women (Ohio: The Cleveland Press, 2000).

[4] Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000), p. [check notes]

[5] Myrna Goldenberg, “Rape and the Holocaust”, paper presented at Legacies of the Holocaust: Women and the Holocaust Conference, (Krakow, Poland: May 2005)

[6] Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, (New York: LB Fischer, 1945); Trudi Birger with Jeffrey M. Green, A Daughter’s Gift of Love: A Holocaust Memoir, (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1992); Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Hedi Fried, The Road to Auschwitz: Fragments of a Life, edited and translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, (New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1992, 1948).

[7] Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, (London: Giles de la Mare Pub., 1996)

[8] For an excellent discussion of this debate see Anna Hardman, Women and the Holocaust, (U.K.: Holocaust Educational Trust Research Papers, 1999 – 2000), pp. 20-27.

[9] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.12

[10] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[11] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[12] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.66: Jenny to Clara

[13] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.105-106

[14] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[15] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[16] This post facto reconstruction of Clara may of course speak volumes about the nature of memory and memoir.

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