Obama includes sexualized violence in U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum remarks

By — April 24, 2012

On April 23, President Barack Obama delivered an address at a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. He intended both to commemorate the Holocaust and to outline his administration's efforts to honor the pledge of “never again” by developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities.

Regarding sexualized violence and genocide, Obama said: “We’re doing more to protect women and girls from the horror of wartime sexual violence.” He added that “for the first time, we explicitly barred entry into the United States of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Such crimes now include rape and sexualized violence, according to the United Nations.

Remember the Women Institute, which has been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness about sexualized violence against women during the Holocaust, believes it is significant that Obama chose this occasion and this location to make his statement about “the horror” of wartime sexualized violence. Even today, some scholars do not want to acknowledge that various forms of sexualized violence occurred during the Holocaust. The shame that sexually violated women feel for their entire lives has silenced many survivors, and the Nazis and their collaborators permanently silenced other victims by murdering them immediately after violating them.

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, the groundbreaking anthology that I co-edited along with Sonja M. Hedgepeth (2010, Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England), was the first book to address this issue. It is remarkable that such a book did not appear until 65 years after the end of the Holocaust. The book’s 16 chapters cover different forms of sexualized violence from various perspectives, including contributions from an international group of historians, social scientists, literary and film critics, and psychologists. As the chapter authors detail, not only the Nazis and their collaborators, but some Jews, non-Jewish prisoners, rescuers, and even liberators violated Jewish and other women.

As feminist writer, activist, and founder of Women Under Siege Gloria Steinem has stated: “The Holocaust horrors suffered by males and females alike have been rightly memorialized in histories and museums, but the sexualized violence suffered by females has rarely been recorded. Perhaps we would have been better able to prevent the rapes in the former Yugoslavia and the Congo if we had not had to wait more than 60 years to hear the truths that are anthologized in Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust… .We owe [the editors] and the authors they assembled a debt of gratitude for a well-documented warning that sexual violence is a keystone of genocide." Steinem cites the book as inspiration for Women Under Siege.

While we still need to know more about what Obama and the United States are specifically doing to “protect women and girls from the horror of wartime sexual violence,” we at Remember the Women Institute applaud both his statement and the conscious or unconscious connection that he made between sexual violation during the Holocaust and in more recent genocides.

Rochelle G. Saidel is founder and executive director of the New York-based Remember the Women Institute, which carries out and encourages research and cultural projects that integrate women into history. She is co-editor of Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, as well as author of The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Her newest book is Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp. For more, see www.rememberwomen.org.