For the 2011 Annual Lecture on Gender and Genocide, guest lecturer Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel brought up a topic that rarely gets heard in connection to the Holocaust. During her presentation, titled “Shattering Shame and Silence: Sexual Violence against Jewish Women During the Holocaust,” Saidel, the founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute in New York City, told the story of her fight to bring to light the horrific sexual abuses of the Holocaust that never made it into history books or memorials.
Her 2010 publication, “Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust,” which she co-edited along with Sonia M. Hedgepeth, is, according to Saidel, “the first book ever in English” to specifically address that topic.
Saidel’s interest in the Holocaust originated in 1977 when she attended the hearing of a Nazi war criminal at her home in Albany, N.Y. At the hearing were 13 witnesses the United States government had shipped in from Israel.
Upset at the lack of hospitality provided to the witnesses, alone in a foreign country, Saidel invited the Israeli witnesses over for dinner and heard their Holocaust experiences first-hand.
Three years later, Saidel was invited to visit East Germany as part of an initiative by the communist government to show that there was no anti-semitism in the country. Saidel insisted on being taken to visit the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a Nazi prison camp for female political prisoners. When her hosts finally consented to bringing her, Saidel found that it had been turned into a communist shrine that completely ignored the experiences of the 20,000 Jewish women who had been imprisoned there.
This neglect on the part of the East German government inspired Saidel to research the experiences of women during the Holocaust, leading her to write “The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.”
She interviewed women who had survived Ravensbrück about topics such as medical experiments, menstruation and forced nakedness, but never about rape or sexual assault. “We were talking around it but we weren’t being direct,” Saidel said.
Her hesitation to directly address the issue of sexual violence did not last long. In 2006, Saidel and her co-editor were giving a workshop, “Beyond Anne Frank: Teaching About Women in the Holocaust,” when a prominent Holocaust scholar interrupted the workshop to protest her assertion that sexual violence had most likely occurred. “You have no documents. You have no right to say that women were raped during the Holocaust,” the attendee protested.
Saidel could not believe the scholar’s fervent denial. “Rape has been a part of war, a part of genocide, for as long as the history of war,” Saidel said.
She decided to investigate the issue, an investigation which led to her publish her 300-page book documenting women’s experiences of sexual violence at the hands of Nazis, Nazi collaborators, Jewish men and people hiding Jewish women.
Her exposé has not yet succeeded in bringing remembrance of sexual violence completely into the spotlight.
A recent Holocaust remembrance event at the UN about the experience of women during the Holocaust did not include sexual violence at all, an omission that horrified Saidel.
“We can’t keep it quiet,” Saidel said. “The more we know, the more we can convince women to talk – I think that’s really important.”
Speaking about the possible beneficial effects of her work, Saidel expressed optimism. “I would hope that the knowledge would contribute in some way. I know that keeping quiet cannot contribute,” she said.