A documentary film premiering Wednesday evening on Israeli television sheds light on a dark corner of what is already the blackest of historical events. “Screaming Silence,” which will be broadcast on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, is about a topic which few, even World War II scholars, have dared to broach in public before: sexual abuse of children during the Holocaust.
For the first time, Holocaust survivors who were raped or sexually abused as children and teens in the ghettos and concentration and labor camps speak on camera about what happened to them and how this sexual violence has scarred their lives over the 70 years since the war ended.
These individuals kept the sexual abuse they experienced a secret from everyone, including their spouses, children and grandchildren—who will learn for the first time about what happened to their loved ones from this film.
Ronnie Sarnat devoted six years to producing “Screaming Silence.” She was determined to deal with a difficult subject that others have refused to research and speak about.
“The Holocaust research establishment doesn’t think that the Holocaust and sex go together,” she asserts. “But who decides what is permitted and what is not?”
Professor Gideon Greif, chief historian at Shem Olam: The Holocaust & Faith Institute for Education and Research and an expert on Auschwitz, concurs that indeed, there has been a tendency among Holocaust scholars not to touch upon the subject of sexual abuse of children.
‘There has been a lack of information about this topic because of a desire among those who study the Holocaust not to hurt the dignity of the victims’
“There has been a lack of information about this topic because of a desire among those who study the Holocaust not to hurt the dignity of the victims,” says Greif, who was a consultant to the film.
“Yad Vashem, for instance, has many testimonies that include accounts of rape and sexual abuse, but historians have been reluctant to deal with this. This film is really the first time that the subject is being dealt with so openly,” he says.
It took Sarnat a significant amount of time to locate survivors who were raped or sexually abused as children or teenagers. Once she found them, they had to decide they were ready to reveal publicly secrets they had buried so deeply and for so long out of shame and a paralyzing fear of being rejected by their children if the truth were known.
One elderly man in the film talks about how his son was such a “macho Israeli” that he felt he could never reveal to him what had happened.
“How could I let him think of his father as a ‘one of those Jews who went to the slaughter like sheep’?” he says.
Sarnat and her creative team decided to make the film using only the first-person testimonies of the survivors. There is no third-person narration and there are no talking heads providing historical context or psychological analysis.
“The witnesses wrote their own script, so to speak, and determined the limits of what they would or would not say on camera,” the producer says.
She believes this technique elevates the film beyond a horrific retelling of events to a more complex work in which the issue of rape is not necessarily more important than the question of whether a person should or should not tell a deeply held dark secret before he or she dies.
These survivors—both men and women—describe having been sexually abused, raped, gang raped or witnesses to prostitution at a young age
Watching and listening as these survivors—both men and women—describe having been sexually abused, raped, gang raped or witnesses to prostitution at a young age is difficult. Even more gut wrenching is hearing how these acts of violence damaged the rest of their lives and their images of themselves.
For instance, one man, who was raped by a German soldier as a 13-year-old boy in Tunisia, has struggled his whole life with his sexual identity. How could he be a man who goes out with women if he was in the position of being one, he asks.
One of the women speaks of how she never feels at ease and is always looking over her shoulder. She says she has never been able to have a sexual relationship. All she says about the fact that she has children and grandchildren is that “their father was a very cruel man.”
The man who was afraid of telling his “macho” son about his experiences in Auschwitz recounts what happened to him as a “piepel.”
According to Sarnat, no one is sure what the origin of the term is, but everyone in the camps knew what one was: A piepel was a pre-adolescent or young adolescent boy who was forced to serve one of the kapos (prisoner functionaries, who were Jewish or non-Jewish) in a concentration or labor camp. The boy was used to service all the kapo’s needs—including sexual ones. (Elie Wiesel included a scene with a piepel in his seminal Holocaust memoir “Night,” and the controversial Israeli Holocaust survivor writer Yehiel Dinur, also known by the pen name Ka-Tsetnik, wrote a novel titled “They Called Me Piepel” in 1961.)
The man who was a piepel tells about how, as a boy in Auschwitz, he was raped by an especially cruel kapo who forced bread into his mouth to shut him up during the rape. The man recalls how he was starving and readily ate the bread, and then says that he isn’t completely comfortable calling what happened to him rape because he willingly ate the bread.
“Child victims of rape are not like adult victims of rape,” says Sarnat. “They think it must be a punishment for what they have done.”
The man’s reaction is understandable from a psychological perspective, but Greif warns that it is imperative to always remember that the perpetrators, the Germans and their accomplices—and not the Jewish victims—were to blame.
…there is no way to really know how extensive this phenomenon was for the simple reason that the victims…never spoke about what had happened to them
According to Greif, sexual abuse and rape of Jews, including children, was a limited phenomenon because of the Nazi racial laws that prohibited Germans from having sexual relations with Jews.
“The sexual abuse that did occur was part of the Nazis’ drive to humiliate Jews, but there was no systematic approach to this,” he says.
Indeed, there is no way to really know how extensive this phenomenon was for the simple reason that the victims—like the ones in the film—never spoke about what had happened to them.
But Sarnat believes that if others go beyond the Holocaust research establishment as she has and do their own digging, they will find out more and more about this subject.
“Yad Vashem and the Germans both say that there were no Jewish girls used as prostitutes to service the Nazis. But I have testimonies that Jewish girls did work in bordellos in the camps,” she says. “They must have changed their names so the Germans wouldn’t know they were Jewish.”
Otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to avoid the gas chambers and crematoria by being sex slaves.
“Screaming Silence” will air on Israel Channel 1 on April 15 at 10:20 p.m.
The writer has been asked not to use the names of the people in the film or to identify them in the photos out of respect for the fact that they have not yet revealed their secret to their families.