Cross-posted on Companions of the Garden
On Sunday I attended a panel discussion at Brooklyn Museum entitled “Gender and Genocide,” moderated by Gloria Steinem. Despite being a fan of her work for years, it was the first time I’d heard her speak, or seen her in person. To do so in such a potent yet intimate capacity was a genuine privilege.
The panel focused on the sexual assault of Jewish woman during the Holocaust, stories that, while hideous, have gone a long time untold.
There are a variety of reasons behind this lack of visibility, all equally disturbing: first, legal stipulations by the Third Reich forbid Nazi officers and soldiers from engaging in sexual relations with Jewish women, an injunction that failed to prevent them from perpetrating abuse, but succeeded in precluding documentation of the assaults; second, the rapes occurred in such close proximity to the outright murder of prisoners, male and female alike, that they found themselves all too often overshadowed; and third, the hideously counter-intuitive phenomenon of victim-blaming prevented many women from coming forward to discuss their experiences.
Two of the panel’s more impassioned presenters, Drs. Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, co-edited a book entitled Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, the recent publication of which helped to prompt the panel. The editors’ expressed goal was to make certain that the victims’ stories were preserved, expanding the declaration to “Never forget the Holocaust” to include the remembrance of victims of assault.
To its enormous credit, the panel didn’t limit itself to the Nazi genocide, but addressed present-day atrocities as well. In the Q & A session that followed the panel, one of the women from the audience approached the microphone, introduced herself first as “an American Jew,” then declared, her words moving in their succinctness, “The best way to remember the Holocaust is to be cognizant of the world we live in.”
Embodying that very approach, the panel included Maman Jeanne Kasongo L. Ngondo, President and Founder of the Shalupe Foundation, whose extraordinary work in her native Congo has addressed the needs of countless women, and this in the world’s most lethal present-day war-zone. Maman Jeane’s exacting, first-hand testimony countered what I find to be a palpably disturbing trend: the tendency of public discourse to assign to the Nazi genocide a status so unparalleled that subsequent mass-murders are robbed of their seriousness. By some estimates, over six million people have died in the Congo since the wars began in 1997, matching, if not exceeding, the famous figure of Jews killed in the Holocaust. I was beyond grateful that a member of the panel could speak on their behalf.
As for Gloria herself, acquaintances of mine who know her personally have spoken again and again of her humility, and her conduct on the panel confirmed it. Her opening speech, while powerful, was only three or four minutes long, and for the vast majority of the discussion she remained a respectful listener, functioning in her official capacity of moderator, and speaking only when it was necessary to guide the conversation along.
Given the timeless preponderance of the ego, it was a breath of fresh air, to say the least.
- Posted by Micah Bochart