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.