mardi 22 mars 2011

Voices yet to be heard

A collective book on Jewish women and the sexual violence they faced during the Shoah, edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, deserves our attention.  Here is an excerpt of a review by Elissa Strauss in the Forward:

At the end of their workshop about women in the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in 2006, scholars Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel encountered some dissent. The presentation, “Beyond Anne Frank: Teaching About Women and the Holocaust,” looked at the ways in which women experienced the Holocaust differently than men did, and included a discussion on sexual violence at Ravensbrük. Afterward, a few of the conference attendees, including a pre-eminent Holocaust scholar, said there was no evidence on this subject and questioned whether sexual violence had really occurred.
As an answer, Hedgepeth and Saidel got working on the recently published “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During The Holocaust” (Brandeis, 2010), the first book on the topic in English, which comprises 16 essays examining the rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced abortion and sterilization that took place during the war.
While the Holocaust has been examined from myriad perspectives in both academia and popular culture, sexual violence, which was largely directed against women, has received little attention. Hedgepeth and Saidel, along with a small group of academics and writers, are fighting to change that.
“This has been totally neglected in the history of the Holocaust,” Saidel said, explaining that there has been a resistance overall to looking at survivors’ experiences in terms of gender. “For some historians, focusing on women means that you are taking away from the totality of the Holocaust experience.”
“For some,” Hedgepeth added, “there is a false perception that looking at sexual violence is asking the question of who suffered more.”

[Read more]
Startling is the statement that some "historians" questioned whether sexual violence occurred during the Shoah. Unfortunately it did occur -- and to levels unprecedented in history.

The (excellent) review points out rightfully several of the (difficult) questions that such work entails. It is both surprising and instructive to observe that
rape was not among the charges against Nazi war criminals during Nuremberg and other trials. In fact, rape was not considered a crime of genocide by the United Nations until 1998, when it was made so through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
For some reason, the reviewer felt the need to include, as a concluding remark, that "a truth of history can keep us from repeating its suffering". Nothing in the world can warrant this.

Since this statement appears quite often in several (disguised or not) forms, this may be the place to state precisely why it should be objected. Yes, most of the victims yearned for the truth to be told, they desired with all their heart and all their soul that the truth be heard.  There is no reason to suppose that victims of sexual violence feel differently. But one essential reason why their voices were/are so repressed or difficult to hear is that justice cannot be done. Those who chose to speak had no choice but to engage in the world as it is. Those who truly desire to keep history from repeating its suffering (or increase them) have no choice but to act in this world as it is. Otherwise no truth of history is so compelling that it collectively prevents us from inflicting suffering to others.

Despite all the great scholars' and historians' works, the true impact on present politics is marginal. We are remembered the sobering remark of R. Hilberg (In "The Politics of Memory"): only when the politics sought a gauge with which to measure their own atrocities in foreign affairs (the US War on Vietnam), only then it became "possible" to talk about the holocaust. No truth of history is so compelling that it cannot become an instrument. We would do well to remember this as well. There is no doubt that one of the co-authors of the book, Rochelle Saidel, has a particularly acute understanding of the "politics of memory". And even knowing history of the "politics of memory" will not keep us (or our executive representatives)  from repeating the same passive or active mistakes in our day.

What is the value of scholarship then ? What is the value of all the great efforts of these scholars ? Is there not already plenty of documentation ? The facts may be documented and overwhelming, but they can also be twisted and manipulated. Or simply ignored. Yes, the scholar may freely choose history as goal per se. Indeed, this is how Aristotle defines history as defining man as man. But undoubtedly, as a woman (or man)living in this world, she faces a serious dilemma. What should her own priorities be ?

This being said (and left unanswered), I add, in the words of the great scholar Yerushalmi,
If this be the choice, I will take my stand on the side of `too much' rather than `too little', for my terror of forgetting is greater than my terror of having too much to remember. Let the accumulated facts about the past continue to multiply. Let the flow of books and monographs grow, even if they are only read by specialists. Let unread copies lie on the shelves of many libraries, so that if some be destroyed or removed, others will remain. So that those who need can find that this person did live, those events really took place, this interpretation is not the only one. So that those who may someday forge a new halakhah may sift and retrieve what they require.

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