New Holocaust findings highlight larger gap in conflict and rape research

By — March 5, 2013

One of the most emailed New York Times stories over the weekend was a piece about the Holocaust. In it, Eric Lichtblau explains new findings from experts at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: that the number of Nazi ghettos, camps, and other sites of systematic human misery is six times what the study authors had predicted.

“When the research began in 2000,” Lichtblau writes, lead researcher Geoffrey Megargee “said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing—first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.”

Each of the places Megargee’s team has mapped out is its own locus of torture, forced labor, starvation, enslavement, or death. (Think of zooming in 42,500 separate times on a map. Now think about seeing, on each and every zoom, between a dozen and 500,000 individual lives behind barbed wire.)

The researchers, Lichtblau reports, counted a range of Nazi facilities, including “killing centers,” forced labor camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and so-called “care” centers, “where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth.” These centers, where Nazis perpetrated ethnic cleansing through sexualized violence, are in addition to 500 so-called brothels, where, Lichtblau writes, “women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.”

Child Holocaust survivors await freedom during the liberation of Auschwitz. While Auschwitz is one of the more well-known Nazi concentration camps, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have recently mapped tens of thousands of additional death camps, labor camps, and sites of sexualized violence from the war.

Put more directly, those “brothels” were places of violence. When a person in conflict is “coerced” under threat into having sex in order to survive, it’s rape, as the International Criminal Court defines it.

But how is it that such sites of sexualized violence and enslavement are only now being tallied, nearly 67 years after Hitler’s end? How is it that basic facts from a much-discussed conflict are just today becoming news? The short answer is, even as we try to track current conflicts, like the violence in Syria, there is an ocean of information still washing up from older wars.

As WMC’s Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe wrote after a trip to Guatemala’s National Police archives, 80 million documents related to that country’s genocide, which spanned the 1970s through the 1990s, were hidden until 2005. Now, seven years later, workers are still sorting through the piles and piles of paper. That’s 80 million documents that took decades to find and that contain important information on 200,000 deaths and 100,000 conflict-related rapes. Who knows what sort of evidence is hidden in other postwar regions? That question is especially fraught knowing that right now, the murder of women in at least one war is burying what we may otherwise know about the rate of sexualized violence.

In tracking sexualized violence in Syria, our team has discovered that more than 20 percent of the women in our reports are found dead or witnessed killed after rape. How many more women have been killed after being raped, destroying lives and evidence we will never find?

As for Megargee’s team of researchers at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, they began their search for data 13 years ago, or about 54 years after the Nazi genocide’s end. They’ve gathered information from 400 contributors, and are the first to document the full network of Nazi facilities. And it took until 2010, with the publication of a book called Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, to uncover multiple instances of sexualized violence in the Holocaust—everything from forced prostitution to rape in the concentration camps during “gynecological exams.”

On the one hand, it’s more than encouraging to read about such dedicated experts—people taking the time to gather vital new facts that will give us all a better understanding of how systematic violence erupts. On the other, when it comes to studying conflict, and rape in conflict in particular, it’s now that much clearer that we’ve a long, long way to go.

To read our in-depth profile about how sexualized violence was utilized as a weapon in the Holocaust, please click here.