Jane Fonda calls for more public attention to sexual violence during the Holocaust

Oscar winner performs dramatic reading of work by Israeli author Nava Semel at a US symposium promoting study of a long overlooked topic

Jane Fonda (second from left) appears with scholars Dan Leshem, Jessica Neuwirth (second from right) and Rochelle G. Saidel at a Los Angeles symposium on sexual violence during the Holocaust. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Kim Fox)
Jane Fonda (second from left) appears with scholars Dan Leshem, Jessica Neuwirth (second from right) and Rochelle G. Saidel at a Los Angeles symposium on sexual violence during the Holocaust. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Kim Fox)

I feel so glad that we hear about the Holocaust through firsthand accounts,” Jane Fonda said from the podium Thursday night at the Ray Kurtzman Theater in Los Angeles, addressing a private audience of scholars and historians. “Seventeen-hundred of those testimonies are of sexual violence — from those brave enough to talk about their experiences.

The Oscar-winning actress then moved the crowd with a dramatic reading from Israeli author Nava Semel’s novel And the Rat Laughed — a stark pastiche of childhood memories, confessional poetry and a Polish priest’s diary, time-tripping from 1943 through the present to 2099.

Tackling the very darkest of material — the tale of a Jewish girl hiding in a pit with a pet rat, sexually abused by the son of a Polish farmer — the actress looked up to the ceiling and called out with her unmistakable, pleading voice, “How to tell the story?”

Fonda concluded by pointing out that the long overlooked voices of sexual victims of the Holocaust are relevant to the present — “from Yugoslavia to Rwanda to the Congo.” She introduced a short video, shot in Denver in 1995 as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation project, which has collected almost 52,000 testimonials in 32 languages.

This clip showed Manya, a rosy-cheeked, 77-year-old Auschwitz survivor, recounting how she had been pulled aside by a Nazi guard. “He said that I’m pretty. ‘She’ll do different work.’”

In the video, Manya recalls in broken English how she was taken to clean in the officer’s quarters, a private room stocked with weapons and guns. “I knew I’m in trouble because he touched me in the face,” she says.

‘This was a minor area in genocide studies. In the past, [sexual violence] was considered too specific, ‘niche,’ something for feminists’

Ultimately, he beat her and raped her, and Manya remembers that “the guard told me, ‘When [your] face will be gone, you’ll go with the fire … you see the smoke?’” He then pointed to the chimney from the nearby crematorium.

The clip ends with Manya exhorting her fellow survivors to speak out as she has.

It was serious stuff for the Kurtzman Theater, a tony venue in the Century City area that’s part of Creative Artists Agency, the talent firm created by Hollywood power brokers including former Disney head Michael Ovitz.

The video, and Fonda’s reading, marked the culmination of a groundbreaking two-day symposium attended by more than a dozen Holocaust scholars. Put together by the USC Shoah Foundation — in conjunction with Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of Remember the Women Institute, and Jessica Neuwirth, one of the founders of women’s rights organization Equality Now — the seminars brought together social historians, language professors, biological anthropologists, doctors of political science and Holocaust experts from all over the world.

Together, they issued a group statement that begins: “Evidence, information, and scholarship are emerging that sexual violence, long largely ignored, was an integral part of the Holocaust in many forms.”

Which begets the question: Why has it taken so long for the truth about sexual violence during the Holocaust to surface? Or, as one audience member asked, how is it that we are more comfortable talking about the loss of a whole family through mass murder than addressing the issue of sexual violence?

Dr. Saidel, a co-author of “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust,” released in 2010, told the audience, “I was in Auschwitz, with a good guide. She talked about the mass murder, but she didn’t mention the bordellos. When I asked why, she said, ‘We’re not supposed to talk about that.’ ”

Dr. Stephen D. Smith, the Shoah Foundation’s executive director, addressed the problem from a variety of angles. “This was a minor area in genocide studies,” he said. “In the past, it was considered too specific, ‘niche,’ something for feminists.”

Fonda reads an excerpt from Israeli novelist Nava Semel's "And the Rat Laughed" to an audience including Holocaust survivors. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Kim Fox)
Fonda reads an excerpt from Israeli novelist Nava Semel’s “And the Rat Laughed” to an audience including Holocaust survivors. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Kim Fox)

In addition, Smith told the audience, the issue posed a special cluster of challenges for interviews with Holocaust victims. “To volunteer that info in front of a stranger, on camera, and after having signed a release form for public domain … Often, [the topic] would come up out of the blue. Frequently, the interviewers themselves shut the subject down.”

He added, “We haven’t developed the language to talk about this. We need to enable a real conversation to take place.”

Another challenge, the symposium’s experts said, has been the search for evidence. When Remember the Women approached the Shoah Foundation to find testimonials, “It was very hard to find a lot of those survivors,” Dr. Dan Leshem, the foundation’s associate director of research, recalled. “And other organizations … weren’t interested in the topic. They felt that there wasn’t very much research showing that this was widespread. They wanted to see documents. But, of course, in most cases, Germans didn’t document their own rape of Jewish women.”

Now, both the living and the deceased, recorded on film, have a forum.

After the panel, the microphone was passed around the audience, and before long, a survivor spoke out. “The sexual abuse was constant. Not just rape. Nudity — we were forced to be naked in front of officers, ogling at us. And remember that we were young — 18, 19, 20 years of age — and had never undressed in front of a man.”

Another survivor chimed in. “I was 14 years old in the camps. Usually the guards just walked by, but there was one 20-year-old among us who was so beautiful that he had to stop. He was angry because of his feelings — he grabbed her by the dress, shook her. She was afraid for her life because she was so beautiful. The German women also — they were a hundred times more brutal to a Jewish girl that was beautiful. Many of us stopped menstruating. We thought we could never have children. They made us half-women, not complete women anymore.”

Saidel noted that Holocaust historians’ work is complicated by the wide variety of abuses. “It wasn’t just the camps. So many settings: In the ghettos, in hiding,” she said. “[Sexual abuse] by kapos [inmates who supervised other prisoners], by Jewish men with more privileges. Also, women who allowed themselves to be raped for food to survive. There were all kinds of stories and situations. And also, men who were sexually violated.”

Nazis, non-Jewish prisoners, Jews and even liberators were responsible for the sexual abuse.

Referring to the collection of testimony from survivors, an activist says, ‘It’s late, but it’s not too late’

For a subset of survivors, the shame lasted a lifetime, with some asking that their testimonials not be shown until after their deaths. A maid suffered decades of guilt for not being able to protect a girl who was gang-raped and murdered. And, as Smith pointed out, “If a woman was raped and fell pregnant, she was almost certainly killed.”

Much of the potential testimony was lost, he added, because “the vast majority who experienced sexual violence did not survive.”

“We know it’s late” to collect more information, Saidel told the audience. “But we’re committed to moving forward.”

“It’s late, but it’s not too late,” Neuwirth concurred. “We need to break through the silence surrounding sexual violence or we will never end sexual violence. The denial of sexual violence in the Holocaust directly relates to the continuation of sexual violence in armed conflict today.”

One of the participants, Dr. Catharine A. MacKinnon — a frequently cited legal scholar who has represented Bosnian survivors and helped to create the concept of genocidal rape in law — said the two days of lectures and discussions, closed to the public, represented a chance for real change in perceptions. “A remarkable group of people were brought together,” she said. “It’s a historic event.

“The Shoah had a particular aim,” she added, “that no Jew would be left alive. It was informed by the intention of eliminating an entire people from the entire planet. And there are elements of that in other genocides, but they tend to be more confined to [limited] physical spaces, as in Rwanda and in Bosnia. In the Holocaust, often the rapes preceded the murders. Or women were raped to death.”

Why did this topic take so long, historically, to surface?

As MacKinnon sees it, “The resistance has to do with the feeling that sexual atrocity brings shame on the victim. My own opinion is that denial of the integral place of sexual violence in the Holocaust is Holocaust denial.”

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