Abstract Paint­ing — Grey, Ad Rein­hardt, Gift of Hen­ry Geldzahler, 1976

It has been sev­en­ty-five years since the Holo­caust and yet women’s expe­ri­ences of sex­u­al abuse dur­ing the Nazi era have only recent­ly been exam­ined, and children’s expe­ri­ences of sex­u­al abuse dur­ing the Shoah have been total­ly supressed. We must ask, why?

After World War II, the world was unable, or unwill­ing, to face the hor­rors that were revealed. While sur­vivors’ tes­ti­monies, writ­ten short­ly after the war end­ed, were truth­ful about the hor­rors of their expe­ri­ences — such as Gisel­la Perl’s mem­oir I was a Doc­tor in Auschwitz—the world was not yet able to under­stand the plight of Jews in the Holo­caust, nor will­ing to hear about the incom­pre­hen­si­ble cru­el­ty per­pe­trat­ed by Nazis and their col­lab­o­ra­tors. After years of hard­ship dur­ing the war, Jews want­ed to move on and rebuild their futures. Sto­ries of atroc­i­ty were unwel­come and sur­vivors learned to sup­press their expe­ri­ences in their attempts to cre­ate new lives. The Eich­mann tri­al in 1961 cre­at­ed aware­ness of Jew­ish expe­ri­ences and stim­u­lat­ed study of the Holo­caust, but as a broad study of Jews, rather than as Jew­ish women, men, or the even fur­ther neglect­ed top­ic of chil­dren. The real­i­ty of the hor­rors exposed was over­whelm­ing and it took all our efforts to sim­ply expose the inex­plic­a­ble events that had occurred. It was only in the 1980s that Jew­ish women’s voic­es began to be heard — along with a rise in fem­i­nism — so that atten­tion could be direct­ed to their expe­ri­ences, in par­tic­u­lar, dur­ing the Shoah. In the 1980’s the first con­fer­ence on Women in the Holo­caust took place in New York, but this focused on women as bread­win­ners, fam­i­ly sup­ports, and car­ing friends, and not as repro­duc­tive or sex­u­al beings.

It was only a decade lat­er that women began to ten­ta­tive­ly expose the shock­ing abus­es they had expe­ri­enced with regard to preg­nan­cy, child­birth and new­born care, and sex­u­al abuse. Some wel­comed this expo­sure, and for the first time in fifty years a num­ber told their sto­ries. Although many, if not most, had mar­ried and had chil­dren, they had nev­er admit­ted their expe­ri­ences of sex­u­al abuse, even to their part­ners. They felt that such expo­sure was unnec­es­sary. They believed that these expe­ri­ences were pri­vate, and in any event, it felt demean­ing to the women to admit they had been raped, or sex­u­al­ly assault­ed and harassed in their past. These feel­ings were echoed by aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ars of the Holo­caust. Many object­ed to pre­sent­ing Jews in any­thing oth­er than a pos­i­tive light and felt that such issues should not be explored. Oth­ers, how­ev­er, wel­comed this oppor­tu­ni­ty to hon­our the lives of the women who had expe­ri­enced such hor­rors by rec­og­niz­ing their anguish, respect­ing their abil­i­ty to sur­vive and con­tin­ue with life.

It was only a decade lat­er that women began to ten­ta­tive­ly expose the shock­ing abus­es they had expe­ri­enced with regard to preg­nan­cy, child­birth and new­born care, and sex­u­al abuse.

Even few­er books were ded­i­cat­ed to telling the sto­ries of chil­dren, and almost all sup­pressed the fact that many had been sex­u­al­ly abused. Instead, they focused on the hard­ships expe­ri­enced by chil­dren when their par­ents were stolen from them or even killed, often in front of their eyes. They empha­sized the coura­geous role that chil­dren played in smug­gling food into the ghet­tos and there­by help­ing their fam­i­lies sur­vive, or the betray­al chil­dren had felt when giv­en to strangers by their heart­bro­ken par­ents, in the hope that this was the best chance the child might have to sur­vive. No one antic­i­pat­ed that these osten­si­bly kind-heart­ed strangers might abuse them emo­tion­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly, or even sex­u­al­ly. Yet some did.

Preg­nan­cy, birth and sex­u­al events dur­ing the Nazi era are dif­fi­cult to study. Preg­nant women were the first to be mur­dered by the Nazis, leav­ing few sur­vivors to tell their sto­ries. Chil­dren were sim­i­lar­ly tar­get­ed so that while about a third of all Jews in Europe sur­vived the geno­cide few­er than ten per­cent of the chil­dren did so. After the war, sex­u­al top­ics were taboo, espe­cial­ly sex­u­al abuse of chil­dren. Women who sur­vived were often con­demned for their sex­u­al behav­iours, such as hav­ing to exchange sex to sur­vive. For exam­ple, one woman on a bus in Israel, whose tat­tooed arm was revealed, was met with deri­sion from her fel­low Jews: Isn’t it inter­est­ing how only the pret­ty girls sur­vived?” Women, not sur­pris­ing­ly, rarely told their sto­ries of rape or sex­u­al abuse, even to their husbands.

Child sex abuse is also infre­quent­ly revealed by vic­tims who some­times car­ry these secret mem­o­ries for a life­time. Nate Leip­ciger, for exam­ple, once abused as a pie­pel, only revealed this after his tenth vis­it to Auschwitz-Birke­nau as a Holo­caust sur­vivor-edu­ca­tor. He not­ed in his mem­oir The Weight of Free­dom, The sex­u­al abuse was some­thing that both­ered me all my life. At first, I was ashamed to admit it to any­one, except my wife, and thought it was my fault… it took me years to get up the courage to talk about it… This was the last secret.” When chil­dren told their sto­ries of hor­ror and abuse imme­di­ate­ly after the war end­ed, they were scoffed at imply­ing that they were too young to know what that was about. Instead, they were told to for­get the past, don’t talk or think about it, and just move on with life. As Joseph Pol­lack writes in his Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ning text After the Holo­caust the Bells Still Ring, To say to us What do you know, you were just a child,’ was to tell us we were not who we thought we were, we were not sur­vivors like those grown-ups. We expe­ri­enced, in this way, the Jew­ish ver­sion of Holo­caust denial.” Today, there are only rare accounts of child sex­u­al abuse. In Betrayed: Child Sex Abuse in the Holo­caust I report 160 inci­dents of sex­u­al abuse of girls and boys with the aver­age age of abuse being eleven-years-old.

When chil­dren told their sto­ries of hor­ror and abuse imme­di­ate­ly after the war end­ed, they were scoffed at imply­ing that they were too young to know what that was about.

I have ded­i­cat­ed my life to study­ing women’s expe­ri­ences of birth in dif­fi­cult social, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and reli­gious cir­cum­stances, such as Black women’s expe­ri­ences in Apartheid South Africa, women liv­ing under Com­mu­nism in the For­mer Sovi­et Union, immi­grants to Cana­da giv­ing birth with pri­or expe­ri­ence of Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion, and the over-med­ical­ized birth envi­ron­ment of North Amer­i­can health care. None of these come close to match­ing the hor­rors relat­ing to child­bear­ing and sex­u­al life that women and chil­dren expe­ri­enced dur­ing the Holocaust.

Hav­ing spent most of my life in a Uni­ver­si­ty set­ting, I decid­ed, after forty years, to step away from the for­mal com­mit­ment to teach­ing and uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion that accom­pa­nies the world of aca­d­e­mics, and to direct my research and writ­ing to top­ics that inter­est­ed me. I turned to a life­long inter­est in the Holo­caust, spurred on part­ly, by two of my now-adult daugh­ters tak­ing cours­es in Holo­caust stud­ies, as well as my family’s tales of my father’s ser­vice in the war as a med­ical offi­cer, and by the sto­ries of my grand­par­ents’ escape from pogroms in Lithua­nia, and Latvia decades before the first world war. As a now retired Full Pro­fes­sor, I enrolled in an online course on the Holo­caust with Yad Vashem, attend­ed two fur­ther cours­es offered by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and read vora­cious­ly on the sub­ject. Twelve years lat­er I pub­lished the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ning text: Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voic­es under Nazi Rule (UK: Grosvenor House Pub­lish­ers, 2015).

But I was unwill­ing to stop there. Dur­ing my stud­ies of hun­dreds of women’s expe­ri­ences of preg­nan­cy, birth, and sex­u­al assault, I had also come across writ­ings of chil­dren who had been sex­u­al­ly abused. A few of them wrote about these events in their diaries, while some oth­ers lived to write their mem­oirs, some­times decades lat­er. A num­ber gave tes­ti­monies to the Shoah Foun­da­tion or oth­er archives, and many turned to psy­chol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists for help. Their expe­ri­ences were doc­u­ment­ed in the writ­ings of these pro­fes­sion­als. I could, not, how­ev­er, find any com­pre­hen­sive report of such expe­ri­ences, although books about oth­er aspects of children’s lives were cer­tain­ly available.

I could, not, how­ev­er, find any com­pre­hen­sive report of such expe­ri­ences, although books about oth­er aspects of children’s lives were cer­tain­ly available.

My search­es for such accounts in archives around the world were eye-open­ing for me. It was dif­fi­cult to access the children’s reports in these archives. I was often met with the words, You know this sub­ject is taboo don’t you?” Some flat­ly refused to allow the sub­ject to be explored. A few made it dif­fi­cult to access the doc­u­ments but even­tu­al­ly relent­ed. Only one or two wel­comed me and assist­ed me whole­heart­ed­ly — and to them I am most grate­ful. Anoth­er six years of study, read­ing and writ­ing result­ed in my recent book Betrayed: Child Sex Abuse in the Holo­caust (UK: Grosvenor House Pub­lish­ers, 2020). This is a ground-break­ing book that expos­es this taboo aspect of Holo­caust his­to­ry: the sex­u­al abuse of chil­dren. The Nazi’s geno­ci­dal bru­tal­i­ty facil­i­tat­ed the abuse of chil­dren in addi­tion to tar­get­ing them for mur­der. After the war, the chil­dren were again betrayed by those who dis­count­ed their expe­ri­ences, and by Holo­caust schol­ars who refused to acknowl­edge their sto­ries or give cre­dence to their memories.

Today, rape is used as a weapon of war across the globe, sex­u­al traf­fick­ing of women and girls is ram­pant, child sex abuse in schools and oth­er insti­tu­tions has been shock­ing­ly revealed, and mass migra­tion with its dis­rup­tion of fam­i­ly life, and accom­pa­ny­ing child sex­u­al abuse, is evi­dent glob­al­ly. Under­stand­ing women’s and children’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the Nazi era will aid us to help the vic­tims of these mod­ern atroc­i­ties. My books tell women’s and children’s hid­den sto­ries, in their own words, so that we may hon­our their courage and brav­ery in fac­ing the hor­rors imposed on them by the Nazis. The words of one elder­ly woman — an Auschwitz sur­vivor — who spoke to me after an award cer­e­mo­ny linger for­ev­er in my mind. She thanked me for writ­ing Birth Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voic­es under Nazi Rule and said, Now I can rest at peace: my sto­ry has been told.” My two books on this sub­ject are writ­ten to hon­our women like her, and the count­less chil­dren whose lives were torn apart by their sex­u­al abuse dur­ing the Holocaust.

Dr. Bev­er­ley Chalmers’s research focus­es on the repro­duc­tive life of women in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Her book Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voic­es under Nazi Rule was award­ed a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Women’s Stud­ies, a Cana­di­an Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Holo­caust Lit­er­a­ture, and a CHOICE Out­stand­ing Aca­d­e­m­ic Title award.