Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction


Dr Miryam Sivan

Miryam Sivan lectures at the University of Haifa. Her research interests include contemporary American and Israeli literature and literature of the Shoah, and she has written about authors such as Cynthia Ozick and James Baldwin. She is also a creative writer and has authored a number of short stories, a novel, Make it Concrete (to be published in April 2019, with another, Love Match, undergoing revisions), and a collection of short fiction, SNAFU and other Stories. The essay below is based on Miryam’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.

‘Do you remember the three girls that were taken out one night for an orgy? The Germans were drunker than ever. At dawn two of them crawled back, their bodies bruised all over. The third girl had been rolled up in a carpet, her long hair hanging out of one end, dragged into the garden, and set on fire. The drunken Germans stood and watched the hair, flaring up readily, and the smell of burnt flesh filled the rooms until the wind blew. One of the girls told us, before she was taken to the doctor and never returned, that the Germans had strangled her friend while violating her body. In the morning the other girl began to spew blood. She came to my room for shelter and showed me the fist marks on her lower abdomen.’

Savyon Liebrecht, ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies,’ Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories     

To write about the Holocaust is to enter into dialogue with an extreme epoch of Jewish vulnerability and helplessness. Writing about sexual violence committed against Jewish women during the Holocaust highlights this. In fiction by Israeli writers Savyon Liebrecht and Nava Semel few details of these atrocities are spared. The sadism and perverse violence to which some Jewish women were subjected is exposed in their stories, making readers inadvertent ‘witnesses’ to this significant Holocaust accounting.

Israeli writers came to the Holocaust as a subject for their work in the 1980s. This rather late entrance reflects a predilection in Israeli society for creating psychological distance. There are a number of reasons for this: the depth of Holocaust trauma caused some degree of collective repression; there was a great need for post-war Jews, both survivors and those already living in pre-State Israel, to ‘normalize’; the heroic narrative of the New Jew returned to the historical homeland actively rejects the image of the diaspora Jew going passively to the slaughter; survivors were judged for having made it through the war ‘by any means necessary’. Today we recognize the injustice and immorality of this kind of victim blaming. But back then, in the first decades after the war, energies in the Jewish world were dedicated to rebuilding – and trauma was repressed, suspended.

There were exceptions, both in terms of individuals talking about their experiences and writers writing about them. A handful of Hebrew language novels published prior to the mid-1980s deal with the Holocaust – but these were small glimmers of light in what was otherwise a virtual black hole in Modern Hebrew literature about the Holocaust.

The forty year time-span may not be a coincidence. In the Bible, when the children of Israel leave Egypt, God understands that the impact of hundreds of years of slavery can not be washed away in one sea-crossing, no matter how miraculous. The generation born in Egypt has to die out and only their children and grandchildren, raised in freedom, can enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Hazal, Judaism’s traditional scholars, called the Egyptian-born Israelites Dor Hamidbar, ‘the Desert Generation’. Forty years of wandering in the liminality of Sinai constructed a new identity for their progeny.

A similar weaning away from diasporic exilic mentality occurred in 20th century Israel. The first generation raised in Israel, many children of survivors among them, lifted the veil of silence around the Holocaust. In 1985, exactly forty years after the war ended, Nava Semel’s collection of short stories, A Hat of Glass, was the first book of contemporary Hebrew fiction that deals with second-generation trauma. Its title story, ‘A Hat of Glass’, was also about sexual violence against women during the war. This story, this book, was too loaded for Israeli society to embrace it and Semel’s book received little attention.

A year later, in 1986, David Grossman’s post-modern novel See: Under Love was published. This book also deals with the Holocaust and with first- and second-generation trauma, but its highly intellectual language and structure create emotional distance. Naturally, Grossman being a man helped his brilliant novel receive the attention it duly deserves. And naturally, Semel being a woman and dealing with sexual violence against women in the camps and frontlines, helped bury its publication under the habitual blanket of silence and denial.

Rape. Why is the literary treatment of this subject a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, of its opposite, self-confidence? In Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking academic study of rape published in 1975, Brownmiller describes how ‘[m]en of a conquered nation traditionally view the rape of “their women” as the ultimate humiliation, a sexual coup de grace. In fact, by tradition, men appropriate rape of “their women” as part of their own male anguish of defeat’ (31).

Added to the already heavy burden of shame that tragically haunts the crime of rape, within the context of war this common weapon proves to an already defeated nation that the frontline moves into homes sparing no one. Rape has come to represent literally, literarily, and allegorically the depths of an individual’s and a nation’s defenselessness.

For Jews this climactic powerlessness is seeded in the Bible. When Abraham takes his entourage down to Egypt (Genesis 12), he instructs his beautiful wife Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister (not his wife). For if she were to please Pharaoh he would have Abraham killed. Taking a man’s wife sexually was abhorrent. Taking his life to obtain a desirable woman was justifiable. Murder is, by implication, more acceptable than adultery.

And indeed, Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s palace but, as midrash Bereshit Rabbah 41:2 explains, Pharaoh was struck with impotence and his lust for Sarah is never consummated. Ketubot 7:9 says leprosy or venereal disease prevented sex. And Tanhuma Lech Lecha 8 recounts that an angel struck Pharaoh every time he tried to touch Sarah. Of course the rabbis and scholars writing midrash would make all these ‘convenient’ claims. The obfuscation of rape is no modern invention.

The litmus test of vulnerability resides here, in this story (Genesis 12:10-20). The first precondition is exile. Once there, the woman is defenseless and her husband has no means to protect her, only deception – which may in the end save his life but does not necessarily spare her the trauma of abduction and rape. A similar story is repeated in Genesis 26: 7-11 when Isaac and Rebecca also leave Canaan and go south in search of water and food. They tell King Avimelech that they are brother and sister – again, so Isaac won’t be killed. These deceptions are, according to Arnold Eisen, a ‘lesson directed particularly at partisans of the diaspora – the sexual politics of homelessness are always demanding and at times devastating. The rape or near-rape of the matriarchs and their daughter Dinah are emblematic of the large set of compromises and violations to which the Jewish people stands exposed to as a stranger in strange lands’ (183).

By contrast, the language used to describe acts of rape in Canaan is usually plainspoken and direct. A strong example of this is when Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:14:

 וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ, וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ ולא אבה, לשמוע בקולה.

‘But he would not heed her and being stronger tortured her, and lay with her.’

Gone are the euphemisms and obfuscations of exile.

Nava Semel and Savyon Liebrecht, daughters of mothers who lived through European labor and concentration camps, take on the sexual politics of exile. They begin filling in the silence plaguing their mothers’ lives, telling tales of women’s sexual abuse. These are traumas that their mothers witnessed and/or experienced. These are stories that reach back to Genesis and create a link with the disavowed suffering of Sarah in Egypt. For these 20th century women writers, the denial that smothered the subject of the Holocaust in their childhoods is compounded by the shame, guilt, and denial that haunts victims of sexual crimes.

In Semel’s ‘A Hat of Glass’, sexual violence is not explicitly described. One reason is that the story’s narrator is not actually present when Clarissa, a former Feld-Hure, is summoned to the room of the ‘golden-haired officer, Brunhilde of the Black Forest’ (190), as the camp inmates jokingly refer to the German officer in charge of them. At only one point in the story is ‘the Brunhilde’ seen touching Clarissa in public and this is done in anger, because Clarissa has shared forest berries with the women on the factory floor. But what actually enrages ‘the Brunhilde’ is the concern and nurturing sympathy Clarissa reserves exclusively for her fellow inmates. The German officer may be able to use Clarissa’s body as she likes, but she has no control over her mind or heart: ‘She went over to Clarissa, took her by the shoulders and shook her with one power jolt. “Das ist meine Clarissa,” she said in a stiff voice. “Sie ist Mein.” “Mine, mine”’ (196). To remain alive Clarissa accepts being this woman’s sex slave, but she also uses her position to help her sister inmates.

One night the narrator asks Clarissa what the officer does to her and she recalls how suddenly Clarissa’s face contorted with a pain so intense that she recoiled. Then Clarissa reassures the younger woman that she was not being hurt. Yet the narrator knows better and says how other women used as sex slaves ‘had already thrown themselves against the fence to sever the frenzied memories. Others had turned into wild dogs, directing their humiliation and disgrace at women as yet unafflicted’ (191).

Savyon Liebrecht, too, creates a narrator who is only witness to, and not herself a victim of, sexual abuse. In ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, the unnamed narrator sits among a group of women minding babies in a Tel Aviv park. She spent part of the war working as a seamstress in a house of sexual slavery. One morning, years after the war, she sees a new nanny with a small child in the park and recognizes her immediately as one of the more exquisite women from the so-called brothel. Watching her care for the young child, the narrator is transported back to those scenes of hell and addresses her in her mind: ‘How did you guard your soul in that place?’ (183). Like Clarissa in Semel’s story, this beautiful woman did not allow the torment to take hold of her. At least not in any externally visible way.

Liebrecht’s prose is graphic and direct. She does not airbrush away the particulars of the torture and literary close-ups are key to understanding women’s suffering. For Liebrecht ‘that creature, the Shoah survivor, has always been a sort of asexual. There was a reduction of gender subject […]. Specifically, I am talking about women, the experiences of women at that period. And it’s not only that, but – of women who were used, who were used for the pleasure of the Germans. I mean, a woman’s most feminine element, a woman’s eroticism’ was deliberately ignored for so long in the writing of the history of that period.

Liebrecht and Semel courageously take on the painful subject of sexual abuse of Jewish women during the war. They do so by describing it directly and unsparingly, without euphemism or indirect references. But it is not until Semel publishes The Rat Laughs (2001) that a first-person habitation of violent experience of sexual abuse during the Holocaust era occurs in Hebrew Israeli literature. This novel recounts the abuse of a five-year-old Jewish girl at the hands of the peasant family paid to hide her. In the first section of this mixed-genre work, the narrator, middle-aged now, like the narrators in ‘Hat of Glass’ and ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, recalls her war time experiences. When her granddaughter prods her to tell her story she omits much more than she tells. In her mind though, she recalls a great deal and so once again readers become inadvertent witnesses to the horrors of the lightless potato pit where the child lives.

The use of euphemisms here for the continual rapes the five-year-old child suffers at the hands of ‘the Stephan’ as she calls the teenage son of the household, is understood as an expression of (grand)-maternal protection and do not constitute repression, or any deliberate white-washing of sexual torture. She simply cannot endure having her own granddaughter, herself still a child, think about the nightmare of her grandmother’s serial pedophilic rape. The child is spared; the reader is not.

In a later section of the novel, composed of small poems written in a child’s voice, in a verse entitled ‘Cradle Song’, the effect of the rapes is tangible and acutely painful:

There once was

a small Jewish girl

and she had

small Jewish hands

and small Jewish eyes

and a small Jewish mouth

and a small Jewish body

and a big hole (134).

In this novel, Israeli Hebrew literature redeems the lost experience of lived nightmare and treachery and violence. In these scenes any standard of moral security is rendered unstable. Here a first-person female narrator, reflecting on herself as a child, a complete innocent who does not even know enough to name the act of rape being perpetrated against her, inhabits the hell of sexual violence. Here the constraints of fear and insecurity fall away. Meaning lies in the power of deconstructing the biblical paradigm of obfuscation and telling directly and explicitly what occurred and how – to the best of the narrator’s ability. This draws and derives in no small measure from the process of normalized confidence and security: a people, a land, a language. It is no longer now from the position of exile that Liebrecht and Semel confront us. These tales are a reckoning, a filling in of the gaps, a determination to give voice to an important frontier in the ongoing study of the Holocaust – namely, women’s experiences in general, and women’s suffering at the hands of sexual predators in particular.

The fact that the language of composition of these narratives is Hebrew gives these tales of brutality and grief an added poignancy. Within the cadences and images of their sentences, in direct and unapologetic language for the sexual abuse endured, a sense of time compressed resonates. And the resilient thread that stretches from Sarah, Rebecca, Dinah, Tamar, and Esther, to countless unnamed Jewish women in Egypt, in Spain, in Morocco, Poland and Germany is pulled taut. Their voices are not part of the biblical canon. Their female progeny suffered silently in concentration and labor camps, ghettos, forests, and hidden shelters. Semel and Liebrecht, Israeli writers, are finally able to write the stories of this anguish, negotiating the silence, expanding the discourse, and insistently setting new terms.

Tags : David GrossmanHolocaustIsraeli Holocaust fictionJudaismNava SemelReligion and Rape CultureReligion and Rape Culture conferenceSarahSavyon LiebrechtTamar


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