A post on empathy and forgiveness for rapists:
Recently, I came across an interview where this Ukrainian Baba said what I spent almost an entire year trying to explain in an essay.*
She was at the concentration camp for women, Ravensbrück. At the end of the war a liberating Russian raped her.
An officer came, and on orders from above** shot the rapist in the head. She was horrified that one of her own*** was shot dead like that.
She said, “But they aren’t to blame. The soldiers shouldn’t be blamed.”
I said, “Why?”
Baba: “You know, he was going to die. They gave him drinks so that he would have courage, so that when he went to war he wouldn’t be afraid.”
And later, she said, “You know, the poor man, he was going to die, and to him nothing mattered. He was going to die.”
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Despite her great suffering, this Baba could also empathize with the soldier, who had suffered to such an extent that most of us will never, ever know. She knew the officers gave them plenty of alcohol so that they could keep moving through the hell they were experiencing.
I know some people didn’t understand how I could have empathy for the soldiers, but I did feel that, to my surprise. And having shed so many tears while writing my own essay, to now revisit this Baba’s interview feels incredibly poignant. I found it especially moving that this woman also said that her rapist wasn’t to be blamed. She seems to have felt the same empathy I did as I read officer Kopelev’s memoir. But I am a civilian survivor of rape and sexual abuse, while men raped her after she had survived life in a German concentration camp. Then the Red Army came. She was hoping to be liberated, which she was, but only after a man raped her.
I wish I knew if she had always felt that empathy or what. Plus, she had to witness the execution, which must have been incredibly haunting. There are so many issues for us to unwrap with this Baba’s account.
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I am embarrassed that I could not have analyzed all of this while the Baba was sitting right next to me. I wish I could have asked her more about this. There were many barriers, though. I was working through the interpreter and understanding only a portion of what they said. Additionally, I was thirty years old, sober under a decade and still haunted with flashbacks and other symptoms of recovery. I do not know if I had yet read Kopelev’s memoir. My hunch is that I had not, but it really doesn’t matter because of all the other barriers.
All the Babas and Dids I interviewed are long gone…only their children and grandchildren remain.
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*In the 1990s I read a passage and felt empathy for Red Army rapists. It took almost thirty years of growth before I could explain it until 2019.
**the Rokossovksy order was to officers to shoot rapists on the spot because Stalin was embarrassed by all the raping (he didn’t care about the raping, just about the bad press).
***As the Baba said, “We were considered [as one], we were never divided between Russians and Ukrainians. We always viewed it as Russia and Ukraine being one nation.” This is really only true for part of Ukraine. It is an extremely complex region.