The Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute is the biggest archive of oral-history interviews of Jews and other survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides. Trained volunteers have conducted more than 50,000 interviews from 1994 until today. The interviews were filmed and did not only focus on the period of the Holocaust itself, but also the interviewees’ pre-war and aftermath lives.1 The interview with Michael Begum, the case study of this blog entry, was conducted on 19 October 1996 in Los Angeles in English. He was born on the 22nd of June 1922 in a small shtetl called Parafjanava around 150km north of Minsk (then the Soviet Union, today Belarus) in an observant, but not a very religious family. After the German invasion and attack on the Soviet Union, an open ghetto without a Judenrat was created in Parafjanava. In May 1942, when a commando of the Einsatzgruppen surrounded the ghetto and killed most of its inhabitants, including Begum’s sister and parents, Begum escaped to the forest. After three months, he encountered Soviet partisans. They initially refused him for fearing he was a German spy but accepted him after he killed a number of Germans in Parafjanava with hand grenades. At the end of 1944 with the arrival of the Soviet forces, Begum joined the Red Army. In 1949, he migrated to the United States.
In the following, I will analyse in-depth two seemingly unrelated incidents Begum describes in his interview, dealing with topics of intimacy and sexualised violence. Instead of a conclusion, I will put some suggestions forward on how researchers of the Holocaust can approach the topic of sexualised violence in oral-history interviews, in particular when we lack information and the perpetrator-victim divide is blurred, as in the case of this blog entry.
During the interview, Begum recalls an intimate incident amidst the genocidal violence of the Holocaust and World War 2. Fighting with his partisan group in the woods north of Minsk, he stayed with nine other men at a farmhouse with the farmers woman, for whom no further information is provided, he describes as follows: “very healthy, I wouldn’t say she was a beauty”. At four in the morning, Begum was woken up by another man and was told that it was his “turn,” which he allegedly declined by referring to a minyan, indicating that the other men did not need a tenth person to join in.2 Both the female interviewer and Begum laugh and do not go further into details; and Begum notes: “Seems to me that she didn’t mind,” while the interviewer replies laughing: “obviously the other men didn’t mind either.” The interviewer then starts a sentence to inquire more about the woman but changes the question to learn more about partisan activities, thus averting the female perspective and potential sexualised violence.3
Michael Begum speaks about an incident of potential sexualised violence. The youtube video clip from the Interview of Michael Begum is from the collection of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. For more information, please visit http://sfi.usc.edu/.
Listening to the interview, one can only assume the sexual nature of the incident, however, what actually happened remains silenced and vague. In particular, a critical reading of the event as potentially violent and forceful, is brushed aside by Begum and the interviewer revealed through their laughter, which seemingly makes the situation involving the ten men and one woman a laughing matter. Indeed, Begum must have referred to this story already before the interview, because the interviewer specifically refers to a “pretty funny story” he apparently told beforehand. This raises pivotal questions for researchers studying gender and sexualised violence during the Holocaust. How can we make sense of information that is only presented superficially or implicitly and does not allow for a deeper reading of the actual events? What do these narratives reveal but also obscure of violence, power structures and hierarchies? And finally, how can one critically, but also sensitively, approach topics that are often marginalised and linked with taboo or shame?
Although neither Begum nor the interviewer engage deeply with the situation he described, taking the statement at face value, many questions remain. A woman by herself in an isolated farmhouse was arguably in a vulnerable and dependent position, not only towards the ten male partisans. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the age or family status of the farm’s woman. In broadening the analysis to think beyond consent and coercion, the woman could have found herself embedded in the general environment of violence, war, and genocide. To sexually engage with the woman, it can be assumed, maybe no further violence or force had to be perpetrated by the partisans and under the circumstances, the woman chose to subjugate to them. Taking the agency of the woman and men seriously allows a critical analysis that overcomes the static dichotomy of consent/coercion and penetrates further possible readings of the situation. Nevertheless, since we do not know the perspective of the woman and with the information at hand, there are certain indications that sexualised violence was at play. Brigitte Halbmayr laid out an analytical framework that takes power and various forms of violence such as humiliations or intimidations into account that can help illumate our understanding of incidents of sexualised violence.4 First, Begum did not engage with the woman directly but was told by a third person it was his “turn,” thus suggesting that the woman could not choose by herself who to be intimate with. Second, it seems very unlikely that the woman simply ‘voluntarily’ agreed to have intercourse with ten men in a row she presumably did not know. Rather, it is plausible that she submitted to the men due to their perceived power and violence they were able to perpetrate; or possibily had perpetrated. Third, perhaps, Begum was oblivious to the power relations and hierarchies at the time, and during the interview and was thus not able to consider it as a possible act of sexualised violence. Intriguing in this regard is his statement: “Seems to me that she didn’t mind,” which portrays his gaze on the incident. As the perspective of the farmer’s woman is not known, it might be a way of downplaying the situation, and at the same time pre-empting critical questions by the interviewer or a critical reading of the incident.
After all, it seems also plausible that the men and Begum knew about the farmhouse and the farmer’s woman living there as they were operating in the area. His description of her appearance could lead to the conclusion that this was also not their first encounter. This begs the question whether sexual barter was at hand, which usually would have involved less persons, rather making it an act of sexualised violence. What is more, it might also be possible that Begum did get involved, but refrains from saying so in the interview. Yet, I suggest this was not the case as he remembers his response regarding the minyan in detail, attributing to the veracity of his own role in the incident.
Nevertheless, Begum demonstrated male Jewish sexual agency in his narrative in choosing not to get involved and have his “turn.” However, his motivations and thoughts remain hidden, but it is an incident he recalled and spoke about before the interview, suggesting its relevance for him. In the interview itself, he initially seems reluctant to speak about the occurence on tape and has to be encouraged by the interviewer to go ahead. Thus, the interviewer, in contrast to Begum, deems it an appropriate topic to openly talk about. Although Begum only provides an abridged interpretation of the situation and neglects its possible sexualised violent nature, the intimate character of the incident still counters the heroic narrative of fighting, suffering, and survival linked with partisan warfare. Yet, although uninentionally, Begum provides a glimpse into the overwhelming homosocial environment of the partisans, who were able to affirm their heterosexuality and stress their virility and potency in their encounter with the woman at the farm. Finally, in referring to theories of rape and sexualised violence, one could also read the incident as an act of partisans’ conquering the peasant’s body and demonstrating military strength.5
This episode is all the more intriguing as Begum explains a few segments earlier in the interview that the perpetration of rape by a partisan was punished by death. Indeed, the partisans were dependent on the trust and support of the local population in order to survive; discipline and good relations between the local population and the partisans were thus paramount. However, Begum illustrates a case in which a Soviet partisan raped the daughter of a partisan’s informant. As a consequence, the partisan was sentenced to death. Although this should have served as a disciplinary measure, Begum and other partisans asked the commander to not sentence the partisan as he was a good fighter. Instead, he should continue fighting or die in battle, that is, “kill as many Germans as possible.” The commander agreed, and the sentenced man was sent to a mission, intricately planned by Begum to blow up several Germans. Successfully doing so, the convicted rapists was spared his death. When the interviewer inquired about the man, Begum simply answered: “When you are 18, you are immortal.”6
Michael Begum speaks about a rape of a partisan. The youtube video clip from the Interview of Michael Begum is from the collection of the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. For more information, please visit http://sfi.usc.edu/.
The fact that Begum recalls this incident in detail not only illustrates a view that subordinates women, but also the relevance of being a fearless, masculine fighter. Indeed, fighting and killing Germans was considered to be more important than the bodily integrity of women. In their support of the sentenced man, Begum and the other advocates highlight their complicity with sexualised violence and the fact that the woman did not account to much in their opinion. They created a hierarchy which did not have space for the straits of the local population and had the power to overrule their own policy which, in theory, clearly stated the consequences of rape.
Analysing the interview in its entirety and linking the two incidents Begum described, one can examine two different narratives: While the rape of the peasant’s daughter is clearly acknowledged as such, the men found a way to overcome the death sentence and placed the convicted man’s fighting ability above anything else. In contrast, the description at the farmhouse leaves much room for interpretation. Begum clearly does not frame it in the context of rape, but I argue it should be understood as sexualised violence. What is more, these episodes also shed light on the general atmosphere of violence, and complicity. All that counted for the partisans was to survive and fight Germans. Still, considering the (sexual) agency of Begum and his narrative in the interview, he remains surprisingly passive in the farmhouse, neither joining nor condemning their actions, but takes a leading role in saving the man sentenced to death, and throughout the interview, depicts himself as rather active. What is more, Begum externalises the events and attributes them to the other men at the farm house, while saving the man who committed the rape, presumably making it possible for him to talk about it in the first place.
Interesting are also the dynamics between Begum and the interviewer. Through her behaviour, one could argue, she becomes an ally of Begum and his narrative. In particular, their laughing about the incident at the farmhouse that potentially involved sexualised violence makes it impossible to ask follow-up questions and examine the full extent of the situation. While the interviewer asks about the convicted man in the rape incident, nothing is known about the informant’s daughter or the informant himself and how they perceived the idiosyncratic interpretation of the conviction. The interview itself further has to be considered as a gendered space, in which social dynamics might lead to different ways topics are talked about. While Dorota Glowacka suggests male survivors might be more inclined to speak to women about sexualised violence perpetrated against them, it could also be argued that the interview as ‘masculine game’ opens up the opportunity to speak about sexuality in general rather in a homosocial space, i.e. among men.7 Nevertheless, the two episodes must have been significant enough for Begum to remember and integrate them into his account. In this regard, interviewees presumably open up to male or female interviewers according to context, the dynamics of the interview (i.e. trust) and also their general willingness to speak about intimate topics.
Sexualised violence in all its forms was inextricably linked with the Holocaust. For researchers of the Holocaust to understand and give meaning to these intimate experiences shaped by violence, we need to obtain a bigger picture, that is often missing in a single testimony. A sensitive, close reading of various sources, or in the words of Christopher Browning ‘collected memories,’ can give meaning to the private sphere of men and women during the Holocaust.8 But also a single interview, as in this blog entry, allows to reconsider and pose critical questions about narratives that emerge in oral-history interviews. Indeed, fleeting hints or half-sentences can be easily overlooked/or overheard and considered insignificant. Especially the narrative of the farmhouse invites the listeners to either miss the relevance of the situation or entirely exclude it from the analysis, as much of the pertinent information is missing. Thus, an event of potential sexualised violence remains silenced. A rereading of ambigious statements and implicit allusions is paramount in excavating potential sexualised violence. Scholars of the Holocaust (even without a specific focus on gender or sexualised violence) could use such fleeting hints or comments in order to integrate them into their research and writing about events that constituted an important experience of Jews during the Holocaust.
By critically examining sexualised violence during the Holocaust, the excavation of ambiguous content can lead to a better understanding of male power, power relations and hierarchies, not only between the Germans and Jews, but also among Jews or in this case, the relations between partisans and the local population. Without moral judgements, it is possible to use the example of Begum’s testimony to highlight the affirmation of heterosexuality of a group of partisans in a setting that can be understood as potential sexually violent, but also to acknowledge gender dynamics in an interview and how intimate events are remembered and presented. Finally, I would like to address the often noted assumption of taboos or shame, that are articulated by researchers when referring to intimacy or sexualised violence and a perceived reluctance of survivors to speak about such themes. This might be true in many cases. However, many survivors do write or speak, however implicitly, about it. Indeed, it is then the role of the researcher to carefully reread or listen to the given information, as Holocaust and gender studies pioneer Joan Ringelheim reminds us:
“I believe we avoid listening to stories we do not want to hear. Sometimes we avoid listening because we are afraid; sometimes we avoid listening because we don’t understand the importance of what is being said. Without a place for a particular memory, without a conceptual framework, a possible significant piece of information will not be pursued.”9
In following Ringelheim, scholars of the Holocaust can make hidden power relations visible, shedding light on scattered information and address painful questions of the conduct of the Jewish men persecuted by the Germans. How Jewish men persecuted by the Germans narrate sexualised violence perpetrated or witnessed by Jewish men awaits further research and conceptualisation, to which this blog entry aims to provide some preliminary considerations.
I am thankful to the generous donors of the Clemens N. Nathan Scholarship. I would also extend my warmest thanks to the team of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research at University of Southern Californa Shoah Foundation and the feedback I received at a public talk.
- See: http://sfi.usc.edu/content/interview. ↩
- Minyan are commonly considered the number of ten men to constitute a Jewish religious service. ↩
- Visual History Archive 21493, segments 110-112. ↩
- Brigitte Halbmayr, “Sexualized Violence against Women during Nazi “Racial” Persecution,” in Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, ed. Sonja M. Seidel, Rochelle G. Hedgepath (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2010). ↩
- For the concept applied to German troops see for example Regina Mühlhäuser, “Between ‘Racial Awareness’ and Fantasies of Potency: Nazi Sexual Politics in the Occupied Territories of the Soviet Union, 1942–1945,” in Brutality and desire: war and sexuality in Europe’s twentieth century, ed. Dagmar Herzog (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). ↩
- Visual History Archive 21493, segments 90–98. ↩
- Dorota Glowacka, Sexual Violence against Men and Boys during the Holocaust. A Genealogy of (Not-So-Silent) Silence,” German history (2020): 19f; Sylka Scholz, “Das narrative Interview als Ort eines »männlichen Spiels«? Prozesse des Doing Gender in der Interviewinteraktion,” in »Die biographische Wahrheit ist nicht zu haben« Psychoanalyse und Biographieforschung, ed. Klaus-Jürgen Bruder (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2003). ↩
- Christopher R. Browning, Remembering survival: inside a Nazi slave-labor camp (New York: Norton, 2010). ↩
- Joan Ringelheim, “The Split between Gender and the Holocaust,” in Women in the Holocaust, ed. Dalia Ofer, Leonore Weitzman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 342. ↩