Turning ‘never again’ into action: the legacy of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis


70 years ago this week, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated. From the ashes of the murdered arose the words “Never Again” – spoken as shorthand for our collective responsibility to act in the face of genocide. However, on the world stage, the words “Never Again” soon were replaced by a reality of “Yet Again”, as the horrors of the Holocaust were followed by genocide after genocide, atrocity after atrocity – from Cambodia to Rwanda, from Darfur to Congo. Since 1945, 46 genocides have claimed the lives of tens of millions.

Until 2004, I was among those who failed to act. Like many Jews who grew up in the 1950s, I internalized a deep sense of responsibility to safeguard the memory of the Shoah – so that the world would understand anti-Semitism’s dangers and prevent Jewish persecution in the future. Yet, when I heard about atrocities in faraway places like Cambodia and Rwanda, the notion that I could do something – that I should do something – never materialized in my head. My mindset shifted because of one man, Rabbi Harold Schulweis – with whom I co-founded Jewish World Watch. As he changed my perspective, Rabbi Schulweis dramatically changed my life – and saved thousands of others.

In the wake of Rabbi Schulweis’ passing last month, our emotions at Jewish World Watch have run the gamut: great sadness at the loss of a truly extraordinary human being, gratitude for our opportunity to know and love such a deeply influential Jewish leader – and more than anything, resolve to amplify his message.

Somehow I wish that we could transport the entire American Jewish community to the Congregation of Valley Beth Shalom on Rosh Hashanah in 2004, when Rabbi Schulweis asked, “Where were you when one million innocents were slaughtered in Rwanda?” Like many others sitting in the congregation, I felt a pit in my stomach as I thought of my response to his question. Then he challenged us, “What will you do today to stop the first genocide of the 21st century – the genocide in Darfur?”

In that room, at that moment, no one could look the other way as Rabbi Schulweis spoke about another people being targeted for destruction. From his moral call, we resolved that Jewish World Watch would protect those threatened by genocide and mass atrocities in all corners of the planet. We would educate our community, lobby policymakers, and provide moral support and direct assistance to survivors on the ground.

In 2004, at 80-years-old, Rabbi Schulweis founded an organization – a movement – that has become one of America’s largest and loudest anti-genocide groups. In the decade since that Rosh Hashanah, Jewish World Watch has been at the forefront of advocacy efforts that helped to bring about pressure to end the genocide in Darfur, drive the most lethal militias out of Congo, and create broad awareness among governments and global corporations about the threat of emerging genocides around the world.

We’ve raised many millions of dollars for projects to aid more than 500,000 survivors of genocide and mass atrocities – from educational programs that allow former sex slaves and rape victims in Congo to reclaim their futures; to Solar Cookers, a simple invention that has dramatically improved the safety of Darfuri refugees, allowing women and girls to avoid the frequent assaults that result from leaving their refugee camps to search for firewood.

Even as his health began to falter, Rabbi Schulweis remained deeply involved in our work, day after day. His intellect and oratory animated our marches, rallies, and seminars. His warmth and humility cemented our coalitions with people of all faiths and races. His excitement and encouragement inspired our board members to take frequent trips to Africa – and to report back to him about the people we met and the projects we were pursuing. His bold conscience insisted that we continue to dig deeper to find the godliness and goodliness in our souls.

As a human being, it is natural to become mired in your own struggle – in righting the wrongs that have been done to your people. With global anti-Semitism on the rise – as we see Jews continue to be murdered only because of their faith – the impulse to hunker down and focus only on our own is real and understandable.

Yet, Rabbi Schulweis spoke out against that kind of thinking. He drew the connections between genocides. He pushed our community to see that the Jewish quest for justice will never be complete if we stand idly by when others are in danger – and that the Jewish drive to protect ourselves will not succeed in a fractured and Balkanized world.

We live during a time in grave need of Rabbi Schulweis’ message. From Congo and Sudan, from Iraq to Syria, from Burma to the Central African Republic, we are called to take the words “Never Again” and turn them into action. In his memory, let us continue to breathe life into the best of our Jewish values to create a better world.


 

Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Esq., is the President and Co-Founder of Jewish World Watch – a multi-faith coalition representing hundreds of thousands in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities.

‘The Act of Killing’ shows underbelly of Indonesian reality


There is a scene near the beginning of the documentary “The Act of Killing” in which Anwar Congo, a self-professed mass murderer, dances the cha-cha on the rooftop patio where he once beat people to a pulp before strangling them with chicken wire. 

It’s a moment that’s hard to watch at home. To imagine having stood there in person while he danced is nearly unfathomable. But, for Joshua Oppenheimer, it was merely one day in five years of filming the disturbing and brilliant documentary about the Indonesian killings of 1965-66. “I began this journey over a decade ago, when my collaborator Christine Cynn and I went to make a film [‘The Globalisation Tapes’] about people struggling to organize a union in a place where unions had been illegal,” Oppenheimer, 38, said in a recent phone call during his press tour. “It was my first time in Indonesia. I didn’t know Indonesian yet. … They were afraid to organize a union because there had been a strong plantation union until 1965.”

That’s when Indonesia experienced an anti-communist purge following a failed coup that took the lives of between 500,000 and 2 million people. 

Over a period of a little more than a year, communists, leftists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese-Indonesians were rounded up by paramilitary death squads directed by the Indonesian army. They were beaten, tortured and, more often than not, killed.

There was never a reckoning for the leaders of these death squads. Many went on to earn fame and fortune for their roles in the massacre, often ending up in government posts. 

It is this aftermath, this bizarre world of glorified genocide that caught Oppenheimer’s interest. 

The director began by reaching out to neighbors of the plantation workers who’d once been participants in the purge and were now living next door to the people whose parents they’d once helped kill.

“I would go and meet these neighbors who I heard were [death squad] perpetrators. … I’d approach their houses, cautiously. … They’d invite me into their house, offer me tea … and immediately they’d open up about the killings, because the killings had been the biggest thing they’d ever done and the basis for any career they’d had afterward.”

The world Oppenheimer reveals in his documentary is a surreal one in which mass murderers appear on talk shows and brag about their exploits; a world where the vice president of a country appears at the rally of a paramilitary group and praises them for being gangsters. To Americans, it might seem like something out of a parallel dimension.

At the heart of much of it is Congo.

“Anwar was the 41st perpetrator I’d filmed,” Oppenheimer said. “I think I lingered on Anwar because his pain was close to the surface.”

Anwar Congo cuts a fascinating figure on screen. He’s at once repulsive and yet oddly likable in some ways — charismatic, sweet to his grandchildren. 

American films play a strange role in the documentary. Congo and his friends were film buffs, and they suggest to Oppenheimer that it might be a good idea for them to act out the killings they carried out by imitating some of their favorite American film genres. 

They put together a series of grotesque vignettes for Oppenheimer’s cameras, depicting atrocities with a surprising and disturbing flair. A gangster film, a horror film, a war film — each iteration a violent homage to the glory days of old. Congo, in particular, seems tickled by the idea of re-enacting his killings in the style of his favorite films, though toward the end of the movie, even he begins to see the horror in the re-enactments.

“It’s not so surprising that the re-enactments ultimately become the prisms through which he recognizes the horror of what he’s done,” Oppenheimer said of Congo. “Even if he’s never capable of recognizing it consciously and in words, I think by the end of the film, his body is literally choking on it.”

That’s not to say American film made Congo into a killer. While Congo describes leaving an Elvis Presley movie and walking across the street to torture communists, happily, Oppenheimer pointed out that “Elvis Presley musicals aren’t violent, they’re just stupid.”

Oppenheimer believes that Congo’s outward behavior — even the cha-cha — hid inner turmoil.  

“The justification of killing is not necessarily a sign of pride, but it can be a sign of the opposite, that they know what they’ve done is wrong and that they’re desperately trying to get away from it,” he said. “I think he was profoundly haunted by what happened on the roof. Indeed, he says before he dances the cha-cha that he’s a good dancer because he was going out drinking, taking drugs and dancing to forget what he’d done.”

The Indonesian killings particularly hit home for Oppenheimer because his father’s family narrowly escaped from Frankfurt, Germany, before the Holocaust. When he visited Germany for the first time in 1995, a cousin drove Oppenheimer around Frankfurt and began pointing out the former locations of Gestapo offices. 

“They were Kentucky Fried Chickens, banks, restaurants, handbag shops … and I remember thinking to myself, everywhere that these things happened should be left empty, as monuments to what’s happened, not so much to punish the Germans, but so we as human beings would be forced to live with, and forever remember, the consequences of our actions.”

In “The Act of Killing,” these empty spaces are all filled with mixed emotions. The patio where Congo used to do his killings now sits above a women’s handbag store. The theater where Congo and his friends used to watch American films before their torture sessions is now eerily shuttered but still standing.

Oppenheimer said he remains worried about the indifference of Americans to our own role in the rise of men like Congo. Popular brands like Nike and Adidas have been cited by Oxfam International, an anti-poverty group, for using Indonesian sweatshop labor in the past. And Indonesia is by no means unique.

“Every article of clothing touching my body is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it for me. I’m wearing a $6 T-shirt from H&M that had a tag on it that said, “Made in Bangladesh,” which I cut off and threw away, wondering whether the person who made my T-shirt is now buried in rubble,” Oppenheimer said. 

The danger, he said, is thinking that we are somehow above the Indonesians that appear in the film, that this is a world we could never tolerate or understand. 

“Everything we buy comes from places like the Indonesia of ‘The Act of Killing.’ … We depend on Anwar and his friends for our everyday living. ‘The Act of Killing’ is not a distant reality, but rather the underbelly of our own reality.”

“The Act of Killing” is playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Repairing our broken world: Stories from the Congo


A mother of five was robbed and raped by a village pastor; when her husband heard of the rape he abandoned the family, as did the victim’s parents.  A nurse who works in a hospital specializing in the care of rape victims was abducted, assaulted and left for dead, probably as part of a  campaign to intimidate the hospital's medical director who has become a global advocate against the rape of Congo’s women and who himself was the target of a recent assassination attempt.  A 14 year old boy was heroically retrieved from the jungle, having been forced into militia service since his abduction some seven years ago; after spending every day for the past seven years killing with his AK47, he is hoping to reunite with his family, be accepted back into his village and just be allowed to “live in peace”.  Nine female babies were raped by bayonets — two died and the other six are fighting to survive.

These are just a few of the stories I heard and the people I met this week on my fourth visit in as many years for Jewish World Watch (JWW) to the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I am currently at the airport in Goma waiting for the plane that will take me on the first leg of my 36-hour journey back home to Los Angeles.  My head is spinning with thoughts and feelings about what I witnessed this week.  The stories are almost unbearable to hear, and the extent of the depravity and barbarism shock me anew with every visit.

As I sit and listen to the horrible stories and wonder how human beings can commit such vile acts, I always find myself remembering Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ words—“Godliness is found in the response to evil.” If that is the case, as ironic as it might sound when referring to one of the most violent places on earth, Godliness abounds in Congo.  The most amazing work being done in Congo is being done by a panoply of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), some of them founded and run by local Congolese, and others run by international non-profits.  JWW has found its partners here, mostly with local organizations, with the exception of our partnership with International Medical Corps with whom we just completed building the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center. (more below).

[Related: Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem]

Since my first trip to Congo, I have seen important changes in the nature of the services provided by our partner NGOs.  Where once the programs were limited to relief and service, they now include components addressing the core societal issues — the cultural values and social mores — that lie behind the conflict plaguing Congo.  It is a tall order to produce change in a country that is essentially a failed state; Congo is teeming with corruption; it is continuously being invaded by foreign militias nad has a military that arms but does not train or pay its soldiers. It also has huge a huge problem of gender inequity, which leads to horrific violence against women.  But, those who are bravely taking the first steps towards addressing Congo’s complex problems must be supported, or the chances of their success will be severely thwarted. 

Women survivors of gbv at Chambucha

This past week our JWW team visited 11 different projects. One of them is a series of local gender-based-violence community leadership councils through which local leaders, with the counsel of skilled staff, are charged with addressing the violence against women, the attitudes towards rape victims and the overall issue of severe gender imbalance in their communities.

We met with all of the members of one of the local councils; many of the council members shared stories of very personal transformations, such as the admission by one of the men that he was shocked to learn during a council session that forcing his wife to have sex was a form of rape.  This notion had never occurred to him, and he vowed to stop that practice.   

At a transit house for liberated child soldiers and sex slaves, we met with a young woman, Maryam, 22, whom I had met on a prior visit, several years ago, not long after her liberation. When we first met, Maryam spoke almost inaudibly, never making eye contact; I remember her telling me of her dream to become a lawyer so she could help to develop a system of accountability in Congo by advocating for other girls who had been abused like her.  This past week I cried when Maryam told me that thanks to this amazing organization in Bukavu, which housed her (and her daughter of rape) and which paid for her education, she is now almost finished with law school and is looking forward to studying for their equivalent of our bar exam.  She plans to work for one of several NGOs that are trying to have rape victims testify in court despite the grave dangers associated with doing so.

One key purpose of my current JWW trip, which I took with fellow board members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat, was to help dedicate our largest and newest project in Congo, the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center.  The Chambucha Center is located in a very remote village, which required a treacherous four-hour drive each way from Bukavu that we had to complete in one day due to security concerns in the region.    JWW built the center, which serves a regional population of 29,000 women, in partnership with International Medical Corp, and the Center not only provides all forms of rape trauma care, including surgical repair of fistula, and contains a well-equipped maternity ward, it also houses a comprehensive gender-based violence clinic that offers women's economic and social empowerment programs.  The Center has instituted programs designed for the entire population of the region that are intended to shift cultural mores away from violence against women and towards gender equality.  The quality and scope of services provided at the Chambucha Medical Center makes it the finest of any rurally based medical facility in all of Congo.

The Chambucha Women's rape and trauma center

Congo is a country that must emerge after hundreds of years of exploitation by foreign as well as domestic powers. For years, King Leopold of Belgium held Congo as his own private property, depleting the country of its massive rubber resources and murdering millions. Since independence in 1960, Congo has endured a succession of either cruel or weak — but always corrupt and kleptocratic — heads of state.  The countries surrounding Congo, most notably Uganda and Rwanda, have invaded eastern Congo, raping, murdering and pillaging, as their proxy armies continue to steal Congo’s minerals. Minerals that, by all rights, should have made Congo one of the richest countries in the world.  Against this backdrop, are Congo's women and children, who have been targeted by all of the various militias, factions, power seekers, and authorities at all levels, for the greatest abuse and exploitation.  Human Rights Watch has repeatedly named Congo the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

[Related: New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime]

The problems are extreme in Congo, and the solutions are complex and will take years to achieve.  The work Jewish World Watch and others are undertaking in Congo is a critical part of the tapestry of services and funders making a significant impact towards planting seeds of justice and reform.  What makes our work truly unique is that via Jewish World Watch, the voice of the Los Angeles Jewish Community is also making a resounding impact in Washington D.C.  The recent appointment of former Senator Russ Feingold as the new U.S. special representative for the ongoing crisis in Congo, is just one example of the impact of our advocacy, and a victory for which our community can claim partial credit.

As I board my plane, I am thinking about all of the people I met this past week and about their sad and painful stories — the babies and the nurse recovering from last week’s brutality, the young teen just liberated from years of forced “service”, and the hundreds of others who have similarly suffered.  Rather than feeling overwhelmed by their painful stories, I rely on the ancient wisdom of the Talmud, which teaches us that we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).  Together we will perform the other ancient mandate– to repair our broken world.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik is coFounder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with fellow JWW Board Members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat to Congo’s eastern provinces to meet with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, to participate in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict to build innovative new partnerships and projects.

Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem


We’re staring down the barrel of another full-scale war in Congo. The M23 rebellion, launched in March 2012, last week stormed and seized Goma, a crucial town in eastern Congo. The M23 rebels already had been responsible for the displacement of more than half a million civilians — another 60,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the last week alone. While it might appear that the M23 rebels are retreating to the outskirts of Goma, they have made it clear that they will continue to administer and control Goma until their demands are met. 

The success of the siege is likely due in part to the support of the rebels by outside influences, namely elements within the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and militaries. The last time Congo saw this level of foreign incursion, the chain of events that followed led to the deaths of 5.4 million innocent civilians. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.

On the surface it may seem that our political leaders and the international community may be responding quickly to the crisis. But the reaction by both the Obama administration and the United Nations Security Council threatens to rehash old, failed “solutions” that set Congo on the path to repeat its cycle of violence. In particular, our political officials seem to be pursuing a policy of accommodation and protection of Rwanda, to the detriment of the development of sustainable solutions in Congo. 

Guilt over past horrors — the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in particular — might be clouding the judgment of the very people with the power to change international policies towards Congo.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, along with her former boss, President Bill Clinton, has carried the burden of inaction in Rwanda since those fateful 100 days that saw the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. And that guilt has translated into consistent support for and protection of Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, credited with ending the genocide and restoring security to Rwanda. 

But our protection of Rwanda and its leadership can go no further. While advocates have long suspected Rwanda’s complicity in the exploitation of Congolese minerals and its support of proxy militias in Congo, we now have proof: two separate U.N. Group of Experts reports on Congo published this year have pointed to significant support to the M23 rebels by Rwanda and Uganda. The latest report, leaked earlier this month, named Gen. James Kabarebe, the Rwandan Minister of Defense, as sitting at the top of the M23’s chain of command.  

Despite this clear evidence, the Obama administration’s own statement condemning the M23 rebels, while swift, failed to call out Rwanda or Uganda for their role in the crisis. And the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week similarly failed to explicitly name Rwanda or Uganda as supporting the M23 or expand targeted sanctions against Rwandan and Ugandan officials despite evidence that they had violated the arms embargo in eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda were, by all accounts, protected in the Security Council by the U.S. mission.  

Rwanda receives nearly 45 percent of its budget from Western donor countries like the United States — roughly $1 billion in aid annually. That is a lot of leverage that we could be using to bring about constructive negotiations that lead to long-term, regional solutions to this conflict. Instead, we are frittering away our political capital. 

The U.S. government must change tack and immediately: 1) push the U.N. mission in Congo to protect civilians against rape and pillage; 2) through the U.N. Security Council, expand targeted sanctions against all officials and parties that are blocking peace — from M23, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda; and 3) immediately appoint a special envoy to work with an African Union-/U.N.-appointed mediator to begin a real peace process that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying longer-term economic and political interests of the parties.

We bystanders should feel guilty for our silence and inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  But the value of guilt is limited to its power to inform and shape future behaviors. When President Obama was Sen. Obama, he wrote and passed a single bill: the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Ending the crisis in Congo was important to him then; it must return to his list of priorities now. He, and all members of his administration, must not signal to Congo’s invaders that the United States will continue an acquiescent policy moving forward.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.

New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime


With rockets raining down on Israel, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Our families, our friends, our compatriots are under attack, and our hearts ache for them. But Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who co-founded Jewish World Watch, reminds us that the needs of our own families and communities do not preclude us from caring for others who are unknown and far away, as well. The base question – should I care for Israel or for civilians under attack in Congo (or Sudan, or wherever genocide and mass atrocities rear their ugly heads) – is a false choice. The question might present as “either/or,” but the Jewish response to an “either/or” question, is “both/and.”  There is no question that people with a conscience are required to work overtime.  We are concerned and work for Israel’s security and safety, and we do not stand idly by when atrocities are being committed against targeted populations in a place like eastern Congo.  This week, I was supposed to travel to Darfuri Refugee Camps to visit our newest Solar Cooker Project installation and to Eastern Congo to visit our newest project, a Women’s Rape and Crisis Center in a remote area in Eastern Congo where the systematic gang rapes of women abound.  While we will travel to the Darfuri camp (stay tuned for our blogs…), we cannot go to Congo this week, as fighting with rebel troops, the M23, escalates. The United Nations has accused the M23 of recruiting child soldiers, as well as arbitrary executions and rape, according to a report to be released on Nov. 23.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in Congo.  Congo is a country enormously rich in natural resources, but instead of enabling the country and its inhabitants to prosper, the resource grab of militias and rogue groups from surrounding countries and of rebel groups from within Congo itself, has caused millions of deaths and has made Congo the rape capital of the world.  Weak leadership, porous and uncontrolled borders, and pervasive lawlessness conspire to impoverish and enslave the Congolese people, with primary impacts on the women and the children.  But this week, even for a country prone to unrest, there has been a dramatic and alarming surge in the violence, particularly in Eastern Congo.

The M23 rebellion, which launched in March of this year with the likely backing of both Rwanda and Uganda, reached the outskirts of the main city of Goma in North Kivu province late Sunday night. The battle continued on Monday.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the rebels stormed and seized Goma, home to 1 million Congolese civilians. This is the largest take-over by rebels in eastern Congo since 2003. The M23 rebels, since March of this year, had already displaced more than half a million civilians in North Kivu province. Just in the last few days, another 60,000 have been newly displaced. The last time we saw this level of violence and foreign incursion in Congo we lost 5.4 million innocent lives. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.  

These disheartening events underscore the purpose of and need for an organization like Jewish World Watch.  As the violence in Eastern Congo surged, Jewish World Watch led the effort to shine a light on the region.  Shining a light on injustices and atrocities in the world is a critical step in the arduous process of bringing about peace and minimizing violence against targeted civilian populations.  Our Jewish community has a particularly strong and resonant voice in this work based upon our experiences in the Holocaust.   We know what it feels like to be isolated and abandoned, and therefore, Jewish World Watch is now at the forefront of the coalition seeking de-escalation of this brutal attack in Congo.

We ask you to join us in speaking out for the people of Congo. The United States government can help end the crisis. Now, more than ever, it’s time to for us to show leadership. We need to encourage the White House to take action against this rebellion and to protect the civilians of Congo.

Send this letter to Denis R. McDonough, the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor, and ask him to take action against the M23 incursion and for the people of eastern Congo.

We are all working overtime this week…

Holocaust women’s rape reports break decades of taboo


Gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict zones around the world is a subject of continual research and education through witness testimonials,

podcasts and information presented by the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

But this year the museum took a look back, delving into a topic from history that, surprisingly, is entirely new pivotal research about the rape of Jewish women during the Holocaust, described in a new book by two female scholars.

“Rape does not just happen,” said Bridget Conley-Zilkic, director of research and projects for the division that guides the museum’s genocide prevention programs, at a special event in Manhattan, N.Y., about the new book. “It is a tool that perpetrators use to reach their ends. We honor the history of those who suffered and those who died in the Holocaust by changing our world today.”

The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women in the Holocaust has been a subject that is so taboo that it has taken 65 years for the first English language book on the subject to make its way to the public.

“One question we get a lot is, ‘Why did it take so long?’ And, for that you have to understand how it came about,” said Rochelle G. Saidel, co-editor with Sonja M. Hedgepeth of “Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust,” a multidisciplinary anthology released by Brandeis University Press in December 2010.

In 2006, during a rare seminar about women and the Holocaust at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial, Saidel and Hedgepeth, both accomplished historians, mentioned, in passing, sexual abuse.

Saidel said, “This very illustrious Holocaust scholar raised his hand and said, ‘There were no Jewish women who were raped during the Holocaust. How can you say such a thing? Where are the documents? Where is the proof?’ ”

His voice was not alone. For decades, a myth held sway that the Nazis didn’t rape Jewish women because it violated German rules on “race” mixing. Others asserted that Jewish women who were raped must have colluded with the Nazis for food and that women, especially attractive ones, who survived the death camps voluntarily engaged in sexual barter.

Saidel and Hedgepeth knew rape was not documented in the same way as the number of trains that traveled to a concentration camp, but they sought out scholars from seven countries and collected 16 essays, drawing upon oral histories, literature, psychoanalysis, eyewitness reports and diaries.

The stories of rape and sexual abuse began to emerge as if they were old photographic film waiting for the right chemicals, and long-erased pictures of Jewish women who had suffered sexual abuse began to emerge.

Jewish women were raped and sexually abused by Nazi guards, but also by liberators, people who hid them, aid givers, partisans and even fellow prisoners. Judy Weiszenberg Cohen, an Auschwitz survivor living in Canada, told the editors that the “fear of rape” was omnipresent in the concentration camp.

“The exact number of women who experienced sexual molestation during the Holocaust cannot be determined and the rapists by and large did not leave documents testifying to their actions,” writes Nomi Levenkron, a human rights attorney in Israel, in an essay in the book. Most women who survived preferred silence, she said, fearing that they would be stigmatized in their communities.

“This is about all of our humanity. After I read the manuscript, I became kind of obsessed with it,” said Gloria Steinem, the renowned feminist writer and advocate, who sponsored two events in New York this year to draw attention to the publication. “I thought, ‘It’s 70 years later. Why didn’t we know this?’ For all of the people to whom it happened, to be victimized is one thing — to be shamed, as if it was your fault, is another profound and deep oppression.”

Many sexually abused women were raped and then simply killed.

Author Moinka J. Faschka of Kent State University in Ohio, one of the contributors to the book, cites survivor Harry Koltun, who said in an interview: “[T]he Gestapo SS came in and took out a few Jewish girls, they took them into a forest and they never came back. They did what they had to do sexually, and they killed them. Nice, nice-looking girls.”

At a presentation at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, the book’s authors said that previously the barriers to telling the stories of sexual abuse have been tremendous. Some Holocaust scholars believed that segmenting out rape stories — and even women’s stories unrelated to sexual violence — would sever women from the community by focusing on one group when all Jews, regardless of gender, were targeted for persecution. Rape was not included in the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi officials were charged with war crimes.

In other cases, women feared they would be considered “impure” or be ostracized by their families.

“I have been interviewing Holocaust survivors in Israel since ’78, but it didn’t even occur to me to ask about sexual assault,” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist in New York City. “These people had lost so much of their dignity and privacy. I didn’t want to take that last bit of privacy away from them.”

For this book, Fogelman identified 1,040 testimonies of the 52,000 in the Shoah Foundation collection at the University of Southern California that mention rape or fear of rape.

“What you have is women who were raped talk about it in bits or pieces. Or, ‘I know a woman, and this happened to her,’ a way of indicating this happened, but not implicating themselves,” Fogelman said.

This book, said co-editor Hedgepeth, is only the beginning of the exploration of this sensitive topic.

“I’m starting to feel from conversations that there will be more that comes out of this,” she said.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who frequently writes about reproductive rights.

Teen’s focus on Congo begins at home


David Taylor doesn’t see the point in getting emotional about the evils across the globe.

“What do I accomplish by being sad about it?” he asks.

Rather, he looks at human rights atrocities and thinks about them methodically — where and how can he make the most impact?

And he doesn’t let the fact that he’s 13 years old deter him.

Over the past year, he has convinced the executive board of Kehillat Israel, a 1,000-plus family congregation, to commit to purchasing electronics produced with conflict-free minerals and has mobilized the entire student body of New Roads Middle School in Malibu, where he is an eighth-grader,  to work for a peaceful Democratic Republic of Congo.

Taylor, who lives in Pacific Palisades, first learned about conflict minerals in Congo through a Jewish World Watch presentation while he was researching a bar mitzvah project. Residents in villages at the entrances to the mines are subject to rape and violence by marauding gangs trying to gain control of the tantalum, tungsten and tin trade — minerals used in computers, cell phones and digital cameras.

Story continues after the video.

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