Academic journal article Shofar

Sexual Violence during the Holocaust- the Case of Forced Prostitution in the Warsaw Ghetto

Academic journal article Shofar

Sexual Violence during the Holocaust- the Case of Forced Prostitution in the Warsaw Ghetto

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This article discusses the topic of forced prostitution as a case of sexual violence against women in the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite a proliferation of studies on the ghetto experience, women who manipulated sex for their own and their families' survival remain an untold story of the Holocaust. This was brought about by the attitude of both those relating their experiences and those listening to them. Victims, motivated either by shame or perceived appropriate gender roles, were in general unwilling to return to these events in their testimonies. Their silence was further reinforced by the attitude of the researchers, who could not, or perhaps for various reasons did not want to, ask directly about sexual abuse. By examining the history of sex for survival in the Warsaw Ghetto, the article demonstrates how a vital part of women's Holocaust experience was marginalized and their memory silenced.

In 1976 Polish] ournalist and writer Hanna Krall published a long interview with Marek Edelman, one of the surviving leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The interview, entitled Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem (To Steal the March of God) was strikingly different from the contemporary discourse of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Together Krall and Edelman conducted a conversation which was shocking in its frankness and lack of heroic pathos. During the interview Krall breaches the topic of ghetto prostitutes, asking "Do you think it would be proper to write that there were prostitutes in the ghetto?" Edelman simply responds"I don't know. Probably it wouldn't be. In the ghetto there should only have been martyrs and Joans of Arc, right?"1 This perception of women in the ghetto, the willingness to selectively ignore the objectionable aspects of their Ghetto experience, which is encapsulated in Edelman's answer, still retains its grip on Holocaust scholarship. Even today, over 70 years after the liquidation of the ghetto and almost 40 years since the publication of Krall's interview, the state of knowledge about various forms of forced prostitution and prostitutional relationships in the Warsaw Ghetto remains minimal.2

There are several reasons why for so long this topic continued to be taboo, at least among some Holocaust scholars. Even though, as we will see, sexual abuse was often openly discussed during the Holocaust, the immediate postwar period was not the time for moral ambiguities. The sexual crimes committed against the women and girls of the Warsaw ghetto were not included in the postwar investigations. Instead, women who worked as prostitutes or entered into prostitutional relationships were crudely tarred as collaborators and linked to those who abused them. Essentially, the pattern of female collaboration was through sex with the oppressor. Archival records of the postwar trials of women perceived to be collaborators reflect this attitude perfectly. The most infamous case was that of singer Wiera Gran, who, though cleared by the court, spent the rest of her life living under the shadow of the accusation. The proceedings of her long and highly publicized trial were undertaken purely on the basis of Gran's rumored sexual relations with Jewish Gestapo collaborators.3 Aside from this and a few similarly notorious cases, prostitution and sexual abuse were rejected from the official historiography of the Warsaw Ghetto. As Nomi Levenkorn explains:

Survivors' feeling of shame and their sense of guilt that they survived, especially if they survived through the use of their sexuality, created a veil of silence on the topic that lasted for many years before being breached-especially when the topic was the use of the body in exchange for a portion of food ... A woman who provided sexual favors for food was defined one-dimensionally as a prostitute rather than as a person who struggled for survival... The prevalent view was that an element of choice existed in any arrangement of sex as an exchange. Therefore, those who were suspected of being guilty suffered from being treated with contempt and disgrace, scorn in which even survivors were at times complicit, criticizing the women harshly and self-righteously. …

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