Will be posted if unable to publish elsewhere…Please message me if you want to communicate.
Originally posted July 30, 2018 elsewhere.
I knew it was time to tell my daughter I was a rape survivor. It is a significant detail in my life, has influenced many decisions, inspired many years of research on sexual violence, and it seemed natural to have my family members know. Some day I will tell my son.
Additionally, I am writing about my life and experiences and want to include my entire history. If anything would go online, even if anonymous, my daughter might know it would be her mom from the context. I also have journals and electronic devices around our home with my past outlined, so if I died or otherwise because incapacitated, she may come across the information. I thought I had waited long enough, she was old enough, and I really needed to write and add my piece to the metoo movement in case it would help even one other person.
I had considered telling her for years, but it hadn’t felt right for various reasons. Now, in 2018, my kids are older, I’ve been writing more since 2016, I am clear-headed, healthy, and strong, and it was time.
My considerations were these:
- I did not want to burden her. I did not want or need her to worry about me or be scared for me or her family. That would be putting a burden on her, and her life is full enough now as a teenager.
- I made it clear to her from the beginning of our conversation that I was telling her because she is my daughter, and it is a large part of my life, my existence. My assaults do not define me, but they have been such a immeasurable part of me since I first realized what had happened to me, and I wanted my daughter to know about this.
- I told her I was telling her from a place of strength – that I had done many workshops and hours of therapy sessions. I explained the growth from victim to survivor to thriver, and said that I felt I had reached the point of thriving in so many ways in my life. I told her this because I wanted her to know that although I recognize the injustice and tragedy of sexual assault, I also feel my power as a person.
- I told her she could ask me any questions, any time.
- As I was telling her my voice caught a little, and instead of ignoring the emotion and having her wonder, I explained that even though I was telling her from a place of strength, it still is a significantly sad part of my life history and so to tell someone as close to my heart as my daughter is emotional. I also recognize how the news can affect someone who loves me. I told her that if it comes up in a conversation with a friend, I almost always feel differently.
- I explained the anger I had felt in the decades following and that even today a part of me feels shame. (I don’t seem to feel any anger today about my own assaults, but I am of course very angry about all the injustices against women around the world, past and present.)
I ended up telling her one afternoon because I couldn’t stand it any longer thinking about when a good time would be. I told her when there wouldn’t be that much time for us to sit and discuss. Originally, I had planned to tell her when we had a lot of time, but I feel it was better this way because we weren’t able to get bogged down with the awfulness. She still was able to ask four or five questions, and I answered them. I checked in with her after we were interrupted to reiterate that she could ask me questions any time or that we could talk about it any time. I also asked her if she was okay, if she felt she was okay that I had told her, and we hugged…
I am fifty one, and my daughter will be seventeen in a week.
My first rape was a statutory rape when I was sixteen and the man thirty-two. He took advantage of me one other time, as did an additional man in his twenties on a different occasion (I never included the latter occurrence as one of my rapes, but it still was illegal for him to take part in that, and I was lucky that I had the sixth sense to know he probably wasn’t the type to tie me up or physically rip apart my body).
The other two were before I was twenty. I had been drinking alcohol before all instances, and the last rapes I was intoxicated.
None of the men “hurt” me, as in forcibly held me down, used a weapon of any kind, or physically harmed my body. But these assaults, as well as having grown up in a rape culture and all that that entails, as well as, of course, personal family circumstances and the way I was raised (which in part was influenced by our rape culture), immeasurably affected my self esteem, some major life decisions, as well as numerous day-to-day decisions and habits formed, my research, and my general life direction. I have suffered and survived. I thrive as a survivor, and I still suffer in ways that continue to surprise me.
My emotional world has started to close in on me, as if my smaller physical world was nagging at my mind, telling it to come along – “you can be small, too. This will never end. Let’s get small, feel small, and forget about all the love out there. Just think about the doom and how powerless you feel alone and in your virtual world. Compare your measly accomplishments to others and feel the smallness!”
At first I FaceTimed and exercised every day, had different national and international taiko zoom meetings, reached out to others to connect, plus I encouraged my family to do special family outings in the parks or to play games. I even tried to get them to play charades! I wrote, and I worked on my dream. I basically took the bull by the horns (or whatever that saying is) and took charge of the situation, knowing what I needed for my emotional health.
I so appreciated seeing people’s faces. I loved having conversations and hearing voices. I loved connecting on FaceBook with my friends. I felt strong, in shape, and as though I could get through this, even though I had no idea how long it would be until I could play music or drink coffee with friends.
But after a few weeks, I got tired. I started to feel more withdrawn, as if the anxiety of the pandemic and staying at home was gnawing at me more and more, tugging at me to stay in bed and binge watch Game of Thrones. Once, during a zoom meeting there was a chance when the formal topic ended to just talk, and after only a few minutes I wanted to “leave the meeting.” I didn’t understand why though, because I liked to hear what these people were saying – some of them were wonderful friends I was close with.
Of course I googled to investigate why I didn’t feel as connected as I felt I should even though it also seemed obvious – without any great theory or insight it seems natural to understand that for some reason true connection for humans comes from being together physically. Plus, I had spent the last ten years of my life working on becoming more social, so that by the time of the pandemic I was drumming two to three times a week with friends, volunteering once a week, exercising with another friend fairly regularly, going to movies, book club, lunch, or other social events. Being a writer and a home-business owner, as my children had grown, I had needed to do this for my well-being.
So, I realized I was slowly sliding into the darkness during the second half of April, despite feeling grateful for my well-being, my family’s safety, etc. etc. Being grateful for one’s circumstances I have learned over the years is not enough to feel good. It doesn’t mean I feel guilty for my circumstances. It just means that I believe humans or at least that I was meant for more connection, more accomplishment, more face-to-face conversations, and more than what I had been doing so far with my life.
My old reality, my dreams and goals from just a two months ago seemed so far away. It felt harder and harder to keep working on them and to remember that this too shall pass, that maybe I’m not heading toward death and destruction and grief. I felt and have been feeling small and powerless. I am angry at Schleich and Amazon.com who, with their economic bullying are taking away so much of my income. I am angry that no matter what I write to them, they do not care. I feel angry at all the corporations and greed and at our incompetent and immoral politicians and their supporters. I was starting to feel I will never accomplish my dreams, even though logically this didn’t make sense, because of course the pandemic has to end at some point.
But as a survivor of patriarchy and so many of the bad things that can happen to young people, feeling angry and powerless is a familiar, deep-seeded feeling. I know it has the power to bring me down into a darkness I haven’t visited for a long while. So before I slip too deeply….
I woke up realizing it is Prince’s death anniversary, and I decided that I was going to feel differently. I sat looking out the window by my bed and wrote this essay.
I wanted to write, to believe, and to tell you that we can get through this. I can get through this. If I can get through this, so can you. Please join me in believing that this pandemic will end without the entire world dying. Join me in believing we can have large gatherings with lots of human connection and interaction. As we shelter-at-home and feel grateful for those who are risking their lives for us, know we are doing the right thing for the greater good by staying at home. And know that we will persevere, that you and I have inner strength and wisdom and love that we and the world needs.
So, today I will wear some purple.
Today I will do something with my hair.
Today I will work a little on my dream, even if for just ten minutes.
Today I will call a friend.
Today I will express to someone, somehow my true feelings.
Today I will step outside and look up to the sky, breath in and feel the connection I have to the great universe and feel my own inner power and wisdom.
On top of our daily work, if we can also take a few minutes every day to do some of these positive things or to do as many of them as we can fit in, then I know we can get through this. I know I can. No matter how much time each of us has left on this earth can be spent knowing that we can make a difference in ourselves and in those around us, even if we are stuck at home.
So, look out your window, step our your door, or just look to the ceiling. Imagine a – or look to the – big beautiful sky and see how big you can become, feel how much wisdom you have inside yourself, feel the love you have inside of you and know you can share this love and spread it and help heal the world. Know too, that all love given returns. The positive energy you send out today and every day will help others and yourself as well.
Many of us who are not essential workers are feeling a mix of relief and guilt at the same time, while also trying to figure out if we remember how to sew or if there is another way to help those in need. Staying at home is a public health service, but many of us want to do more. Through the past weeks, I have found meaning in my situation, having started with a feeling of fear for my mental health and guilt for being temporarily successfully self-employed.
I am a small business owner of over twenty years. By small I mean that I am the CEO, the accountant, the strategist, the packer, the logistics manager, the buyer, etc. I wear all the hats except during the holiday season, when a couple of friends and a family member or two help me pack.
I’ve enjoyed gross sales of over $100,000 for maybe seven years over the years, enough to make me feel as though I were contributing something financial to the family besides my unpaid labor. Having given up in frustration with Amazon and eBay, for years I tried to make a go with my own websites, but almost eight years ago I ended up returning to the large marketplaces.
Had I made this a full-time endeavor, my story would be different. I never took out a business loan. I never had a business plan. I maintained my own websites, which quickly meant mine became old-fashioned and cumbersome. Except for on a couple of occasions I didn’t invest in professional development or any other professional services. I worked on my business as I progressed through graduate school, as I homeschooled my kids, all along wanting to keep this part-time since I was also interested in other work .
Before the pandemic I received a letter from Schleich, a name brand toy company I have carried for over fifteen years and have primarily sold on Amazon.com, (as well as eBay, Sears, etc.) with only a few sales on my own website. They told me I wouldn’t be allowed to sell on the large marketplaces anymore, even though they had just sold me thousands of dollars of toys. They won’t give me an answer as to whether they will take any inventory back, despite one of their representatives in December assuring me that if Amazon took my listings down or pulled any more tricks they would take back the inventory I had purchased (for a couple of years I had been having multiple issues on Amazon with my Schleich listings, because they are trying to be the sole carriers of Schleich and other name-brands and so would make it very difficult for me to list in ways I can with less-known brands).
Schleich’s agreement with Amazon states that Amazon will be the only retailer selling Schleich toys on Amazon.com. This takes away at least ninety percent of my business.
Having already purchased much of what I would need in 2020, when Minnesota started to shut down, I had $38,000 in inventory, but with business so slow during the year, I had no idea how I was going to get rid of this without just donating it and taking it as a loss. I kept emailing Schleich asking about returning items, but they won’t respond properly. I marked everything down and put a sale on all Schleich items, plus I lowered my shipping and handling costs.
In the third week of March, the orders suddenly started coming in. It wasn’t as busy as during the holiday season, but much more than usual for this time of year. As I realized what was happening, I felt guilty. So many people were suffering around the country, and they wanted to get their children a toy. They were suffering, while I was getting rid of inventory. Sure, it will take many months to rid myself of the majority of it, but still, I was busy and successfully self-employed (not that I have ever been eligible for unemployment). I reconciled myself with the thought that at least the children were getting toys without costing their parent’s too much.
As the weeks have passed, while I still feel lucky and privileged to be safe, fed, and housed, I also realized it is okay that I am getting rid of my inventory. It’s not okay that others are suffering greatly. It’s also not okay that this billion-dollar corporation sold me thousands of dollars of inventory before basically putting me out of business. It’s not okay that Amazon is allowed to determine the online marketplace to the extent that they do. It’s not okay that Amazon and other large corporations don’t pay any taxes, while I do. I don’t have employees, but I still work hard for what I earn, and I then put money back into the economy.
After a month I have realized a deeper meaning for me. For years I have insisted that I didn’t want to be a retailer, because I am a historian, and I wanted to do something else that felt more meaningful. Besides writing, I wasn’t sure what that will be – if I would tutor more people, edit more essays, or what. I started writing again about ten years ago, and this helped my sense of purpose, but things had fallen into place yet.
Now in 2020 the corporate bullies have pushed me into action, ideas have landed in my lap, and I have a new sense of purpose knowing that I can use my other talents to make the world a better place. Still, I wasn’t sure how to lose myself of so much inventory without taking a great financial loss, but the pandemic has allowed me to ship out hundreds of toys, for which I don’t need to feel guilty. Instead, although I do see value in providing children with quality toys, I am grateful that sooner rather than later, I will be able to focus on other areas in my life. So as I sit at home waiting out the pandemic and packing toys, I keep my dream of more meaningful work for myself alive each day.
I don’t know how long I have had post-traumatic stress disorder. I first started addressing the main symptom of numbing the emotional pain in 1990. This means that this August I will have been actively trying to get beyond PTSD for thirty years. It wasn’t until some years after 1990 that I was officially diagnosed. This was because it became clear that although I wasn’t numbing my pain, I still lived with other symptoms, including anxiety, depression, negative self-talk or obsessive worrying, being easily startled (especially if awoken), frequently feeling emotionally overwhelmed whether in crowds, at home, or in groups, difficulty making even small decisions (subconsciously fearing unknown consequences), difficulty dealing with anyone who was or could be angry with me, difficulty speaking out for fear of retribution, and for many years hiding myself from movies, news media, or books that might include information or scenes on rapes.
Because I have actively faced my issues with intense group therapy, workshops, individual counseling, EMDR counseling, and various support groups, I grew incredibly fast and past many obstacles, and I was able to teach my children at a young age to name their emotions, to talk about their emotions, and to actively and frequently engage in self-care. Despite my diagnosis, I was still able to raise two children with high self-esteem, finish my Ph.D. on an extremely difficult topic (sexual violence and war), homeschool my kids for about six years, run a part-time home-based business for twenty years, write essays, encyclopedia articles, and start a memoir about one period in my life (I still hope to finish this). I was in a swing dance performance group, later took tap dance lessons, and then more recently started playing taiko.
Because of societal and self-imposed pressure, however, I used to hide my symptoms, some of which were common to people without PTSD. I put on a brave face to the outside world. I often wasn’t fully honest and pretended I was “normal” when I had to explain something (I couldn’t admit that I had this “thing,” this “issue,” this “problem,” that makes whatever the event or issue was too hard for me to fathom doing). I also tried as hard as I could to hide my anxiety or sadness to my kids. I knew children can sense a lot, so I put a conscious effort into smiling, being positive, and pretending to be brave and without fears of simple societal contact. I had always shared smaller feelings, because I wanted them to see one parent who could express a range of emotions naturally, and as my kids grew, I began to share more of the feelings I was ashamed of. I came out to my daughter as a rape survivor when she was about sixteen, and I have yet to share much with my son.
As a child, I was told to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and to stop “feeling sorry for myself,” which are positive messages when given in moderation, but in excess this led me to swallow my natural emotions and to not learn how to express my feelings verbally in a healthy way, and despite all my journaling about feelings, I still grew up believing no one cared if I was sad or scared, because I thought I was supposed to be stronger and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself. I hid all my assaults from my parents and friends, and once I stopped numbing my pain, I still only told certain people who were safe to me. I knew intellectually that I should not feel ashamed of anything that had happened to me, but I did not know how to voice it. But I taught my children that people do and will care about their feelings, so with the right people, it is safe and healthy to express one’s sadness, disappointment, frustration, etc. It is also good to learn to move on after facing a setback.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about half of all women will experience a traumatic event in their lives, and many of these women will subsequently live with PTSD. Traumatic events are also common among men and transgender people. Those who develop PTSD from a traumatic event can experience debilitating symptoms, while for others, the symptoms are less severe. Some people never experience PTSD from a traumatic event. This could be because they have the emotional tools to deal with what happened, but it also could be something about how their brain is wired – something even the experts cannot yet explain.
I have complex PTSD in the sense that it wasn’t just one event. The childhood lack of emotional support, physical abandonment (in the sense of being left alone a lot, even for multiple days as I entered middle school) prevented me from learning basic coping skills, and the overuse of alcohol starting before before I was a teenager both led me to not being able to cope with traumatic situations later on (sexual harassment in middle school, high school, and workplaces, constant bullying in middle and high school, multiple rapes).
You may think that I had lousy parents, but I believe they did the best that they could with the tools they had while I was a young child. Despite not providing me with certain tools required for emotional, physical, and spiritual health, I learned these tools quickly in my twenties (it was like I took an intense course to overall well-being), and by my thirties I was able to provide my children with these tools only because my parents gifted me a sense of drive and a will to survive. In 1990, when I first started realizing all that I had been through and how my past, despite not being as bad as many stories I heard, still was not ideal, I dug in and fought to stay afloat, get past my rapes, understand my raw and strong emotions by reaching out to others, using my phone list, sharing my feelings over and over again in safe supportive settings. Because of a heart condition I developed, I truly believe that I would be dead if it were not for this determination to not only survive, but to rise above and give back to the world in a kinder and gentler way than some of what I have experienced.
Recently I had the experience that someone seemed to think I was a project they could fix. This was because they had witnessed some of my raw emotion and knew I had trauma in my life. But living with PTSD does not mean someone needs fixing, especially someone who has actively been working on growing past their obstacles for so many years.
I think we are all works in progress, and for some reason some people do have extra obstacles to overcome. Early on in my recovery I started to see myself not just as a survivor, but as a thriver. I have been fortunate to have grown up without too much economic distress and much travel and education. I do believe this has helped my ability to thrive, because I could fight back for my sanity and for justice in ways that those less fortunate than I cannot.
Still, though, thirty years into this journey, I see how my trauma and the PTSD directed many of my life decisions. I could have become a professor, but having researched war and rape for seven years, I felt even more traumatized, and I needed a break. Many, I know, would have forged on, but I had fear, felt overwhelmed, and had already faced so much in my recovery, that I had to step away and stop “kissing ass” to the establishment. Besides, I had a young child, and had I become a professor, I would have had to leave her for someone else to raise, which I didn’t want to do. I felt a grave ownership and will to make sure she would not be raped at sixteen, not have her first drink at nine or have regular blackouts by the age of thirteen. I knew my parents were good people, but somehow those are a few of the milestones of my childhood, and I couldn’t let something like that happen to my daughter.
My last dramatic amount of growth came because I needed to find something more for myself, since my kids were older allowing me more time, and I found taiko, which has helped me shed more grief in three years than I could ever have imagined when I picked up my first pair of bachi and hit the drum. The #metoo also movement inspired me to speak out in the hopes that my story can help others with their grief and sorrow. This is all to say that while I have had many symptoms of PTSD, I still have been able to push past them – sometimes better than other times – and give back to the world in a variety of ways. And although I believe some of my trauma will always be a part of me, this will not prevent me from continuing to get stronger and to help others who also have similar struggles. I, like many of you, am a force with which to be reckoned! 😀
Just a short note today to take issue with a new-fangled theory about which pronoun to use describing one’s own rape: An academic feminist who graciously read one of my essays turned my pain into an academic exercise by taking issue with my use of the pronoun “my” to describe my rapes. This theorist explained that using “my” insinuates that I blame myself for my rapes and that using possessive pronouns make the rapes the survivors’ possession. She also wrote that she would not “want to identify that closely or take possession of being raped.”
I wholeheartedly disagree with all three of these points and argue that to shy away from using the grammatically correct pronoun “my” falsely separates oneself from one’s own trauma and only slows down one’s own and the world’s healing process. To me, not owning one’s trauma is at the heart of many problems in this world because by facing one’s own pain one can more easily empathize with the experiences of others. If we are to move forward in a progressive, healing, and inclusive manner, we each need to face our own trauma to be able to teach the next generation to be strong and move forward with insight and wisdom.
To insinuate that using “my” means the survivor somehow blames themselves for the assault is illogical. Survivors often blame themselves, just as society blames rape victims, but this is not because they use the pronoun “my.” The issue of (falsely) blaming oneself for one’s rapes is separate from what pronoun a survivor uses to describe their rape. Such theoretical nonsense will not make our world, feminists, or trauma survivors stronger. It also will not help our children or young college students heal because if survivors divorce themselves from their own trauma at the instruction of their teacher or parent they may be stronger temporarily, but the wound will fester underneath the facade of strength or happiness. Trauma is in one’s body at a cellular, emotional, and even some would say a spiritual level, so to disassociate oneself from it on an intellectual level can only be a temporary fix. I believe one can heal the fastest by facing one’s pain, not by running from it.
Additionally, a survivor of rape or other trauma uses the pronoun “my” because the rape is their experience, just as an incarceration, a beating, or a birthday party is. It is the only logical pronoun to use, because that is how we speak English. We say, “I was robbed,” or “We were broken into,” or “I was raped.” Similarly, we say, “she or he raped me.” The rape belongs to both the rapist and the victim. This is tragic, but reality, and by trying to distance oneself by not owning or possessing the crime is pushing both sides away from healing, truth, and wisdom.
Maybe we do not want to take possession of our deep pain, but to pretend it isn’t one’s own will not help our world. “Identifying closely” with one’s rape is how we learn to empathize with other survivors and even perpetrators, because we can closely understand the pain inflicted and how that pain mingles with other painful experiences. Many perpetrators also feel pain, have had trauma in their lives, and as a society we need to understand all different kinds of pain to be able to not raise more perpetrators. If we do not claim and understand our own pain or if we spend time taking issue and writing articles about the usage of my to describe one’s own rapes, we are only postponing our own healing and perhaps even the healing of those around us or those we influence.
Divorcing oneself from one’s own trauma, which is felt on so many levels, is exactly how our world will not come to a place of understanding one another. I am not a psychologist, but in addition to years of reading about trauma and survivors, I have heard hundreds of women in person speak about their own trauma, and the ones who make progress in healing are the ones who do not run from their pain. Instead, they face it, own it, speak about it, and by doing this, they are able to move forward and grow stronger, all the while lessening the control their trauma has over them, and in doing so are able to bring up and teach their children or students to be morally courageous by always looking inward first to see the source of one’s emotions.
I have referred to my rapes as “my rapes” for twenty-nine years. They happened to me. I own them, and I experienced them. They exist in my brain and my body, and they have affected my life in countless ways. In day-to-day life, in healing workshops, and in therapy I have shaken, screamed, and physically felt my shame, rage, and fear on a cellular level. That is not theory. That is real, and being in touch with what one’s body and psyche has experienced by embracing one’s own trauma is really the key to how we can have empathy for others and how we as a society can move forward in a progressive and healing manner. I believe that because I faced my pain head on, I moved from being a victim, to a survivor to a thriver. My rapes will always be a part of me, and in various odd or miscellaneous ways may affect me to the day I die, but by embracing my pain, I experienced many levels of healing. By doing this, I have been able to teach my children and adults around me that facing, owning, and naming one’s own feelings is the easiest way to understand much of the trauma in the world today.
This interview was published in Vox Feminae, a Croatian magazine, with the help of Luka Pejić: https://voxfeminae.net/pravednost/zaboravljena-povijest-seksualnih-zlocina-u-drugom-svjetskom-ratu/.
Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen is an American historian from Minnesota who received her PhD in 2004 with the dissertation “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front during World War II.” In doing this research, she worked with material available in archives in the US, Germany, Latvia, and Estonia. In addition, for the purposes of her dissertation, she spoke with more than thirty women and men from the territory of Ukraine whose life experiences were an important source for a fuller understanding of the problems of sex crimes during the war events in the east of the European continent in the 1940s. Although, after completing the nearly 400-page text, she temporarily gave up historiography, because of the trauma she had experienced from going deeper into the topic of her own research. In the last few years she has returned to academic work, the focus of which is gender and social history.
You wrote that the Germans developed an “extensive system of sexual slavery” during World War II. What exactly do you mean by that?
The German leadership recognized the dangers of venereal diseases to their armed forces and the reality that men, married or single, were having sexual intercourse with local women they met on the street, in local brothels, or elsewhere. Without antibiotics to fight syphilis and gonorrhea, soldiers became ill and eventually were unable to serve because of their
unsafe sexual practices. To save the health of their soldiers, the Germans established brothels in concentration camps and across the areas they fought and occupied. Sanitation officers required a strict cleansing routine before sexual intercourse for the soldiers. The workers also were required to be clean, and doctors routinely checked them for disease. Females who engaged in prostitution during the war were starving or had limited options/chances for survival. Germans also forced girls and women at gunpoint to work in brothels where they could serve more than thirty men a day. This is sexual slavery.
Could you elaborate how the spread of prostitution in Eastern Europe during the war was economically conditioned? What were the consequences of this phenomenon?
During the war people had a hard time finding food, medical services, and other necessities. The Germans viewed Slavic people as Untermenschen and planned to starve them and eventually inhabit their territories in the east. Not only were people starving because of typical war conditions, the Germans purposely confiscated any food they could find. With the arrival of sex-craved soldiers who had essential food items, as well as chocolate and liquor, prostitution spread.
The consequences were many. The German army began arresting women and forcing them to undergo medical examinations to see if they were infected with venereal diseases. Venereal diseases spread through both the local populations and the German forces. This in turn led to Himmler insisting on establishing brothels, even if the females were Untermenschen. The spread of prostitution of course probably enabled some to bring food to their starving families, and maybe in some cases there were happy endings with love and romance. I’m sure that women forced into prostitution also were injured by sadists, which was traumatic beyond the pain of having to sexually service strangers.
Brothels existed even in the concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau. How do you explain establishment of places like these in those locations? What were the living conditions there?
There were two different kinds of brothels, one for the prisoners and one for soldiers and officers. The prisoners had an incentive program so that they would work hard and behave themselves. One of their rewards was a visit to the camp brothel. This is something that is rarely talked about in Holocaust discussions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the outdoor Berlin museum, Topography of Terror, as well as the museum underneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, all do not mention that camp prisoners visited camp brothels where women and girls worked. Even if a female prisoner volunteered to work in the brothel despite the fatal risk of pregnancy or of injury and death by multiple
rapes, this likely was NOT because she wanted to have sex with multiple men a day, but because she thought perhaps she would have a place to sleep and possibly more food. This is another layer of victimhood, where a victim victimizes another in the camps. While the topic of layered victimhood has been widely discussed in regards to arranging food, jobs, and services in the camps, museums and textbooks need to include in their discussions how sex, prostitution, and rape were bartered just as bread or indoor jobs were. Sometimes the SS would visit the camp brothels, and there is also testimony attesting to SS brothels just outside of camps.
In one chapter, you mentioned the various forms of “camouflage” undertaken by the female civilian population under German occupation for the purpose of avoiding rape. Could you tell us more about that?
Camouflage seems to have been a common phenomena. Several people told me about this, and you can read about it in various memoirs or testimonies. In one memoir, a family goes to extraordinary efforts to camouflage the teenage girl as being ill when the Soviet soldiers reentered the Crimean town of Feodosia in December 1941. Ukrainian women I spoke with also told about trying to make themselves look old or contagious. They would limp, cough, and cover or smear dirt or coal on their faces to make them look dirty.
Did you come across any specific information regarding sex crimes and prostitution during the 1940s in the area of former Yugoslavia?
Yes, the Chief Sanitation Officer in Poland argued that a brothel visit was not a social relationship, but a “material and economic kind,” and therefore such sex with Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavians, and others, was allowed. This infers, as another scholar pointed out, that there is evidence of Yugoslavians in brothels. Additionally, historian Danijel Jelaš found a document for me from 1941 in the Osijek archives that discusses the plans for multiple brothels in Osijek and the sanitation procedures required. I suspect there were others in additional cities in the former Yugoslavia. We need further research to ascertain how many brothels there actually were and what kinds of sexual violence people endured.
In the thesis, you also analyzed crimes of the Red Army. Moreover, you point out that in Berlin alone, more than 90,000 women visited doctors’ offices because of sexual abuse perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers. What were the causes of these mass rapes committed by Stalin’s troops? How did the dictator perceive reports on this type of crime when they had reached him?
There are several points: The first concerns motivation. The Soviet soldiers did not rape en mass as a political act to degrade the German enemy. They raped females of all nationalities and cultures. The Red Army consisted of soldiers from across Europe who raped Ukrainians, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Yugoslavians, Jews, Christians, etc. The primary motivating factor in rape is sexual desire (not power or politics), and rapists use their power to obtain what they want, which is sexual satisfaction. Similarly, sexual desire motivated men to visit German brothels and have sexual intercourse with females who were not there to enjoy their afternoons.
Secondly, the desperation men and women felt as they went into battle or continued to fight is something we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in Wehrmacht or SS brothels, of seeing entire Slavic towns disappear to mass graves, and knowing their own families were malnourished and dying at home. The soldiers were living in a surreal and horrifying alcohol-infused nightmare. They had seen corpses of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated, not to mention the carcasses of cows, horses, cats, and other animals, and all the destroyed (bombed or burned) trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc. Their desperation does not excuse their actions, but it does put the rapes into their horrific context.
Thirdly, historians and the media have long ignored the sexual crimes of the Germans and other western forces and instead have highlighted the rapes and other crimes against humanity by the Red Army. They have depicted the Slavic men as an Asian horde of rapists. While the mass rapes are inexcusable and horrifying, even unimaginable to most, so are the extensive sexual crimes of the German forces.
The Germans spent an enormous amount of resources in the establishment of their extensive system of brothels that enslaved thousands of females, and likewise, Stalin was unconcerned about the welfare of civilian females. There are mixed reports, however, about the issue, because as more diplomats became aware of the raping, there was a Soviet attempt to show that an effort was being made to control the soldiers’ behavior. One of these
attempts was the Marshal Rokossovsky Order #006 by which a soldier would be executed for raping. However, various diplomats report meetings with Stalin who dismissed the sexual crimes. Even Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas wrote about how Stalin completely ignored the issue and acted angrily when Djilas asked about the conduct of the Soviet soldiers, who were not only raping Germans, but also Yugoslavians. I too acknowledge the horrors the Red Army experienced and the soldiers’ heroism pushing back the Germans, but unlike Stalin, I don’t believe that a soldier was entitled to “have fun with a woman or take some trifle” (Djilas).
What social consequences did victims of sexual abuse have to deal with when the war ended? You mentioned that some abused women were referred to as “German whores” upon return to their hometowns and that their children, who were born after rape, were also victims of discrimination.
Because of patriarchy and cultural norms, local people abused those who had been raped or had suffered prostitution. People condemned and shamed females as whores for consorting with the enemy, regardless of the circumstances, and society did not condemn those who had abused their power to obtain sex. Even in Germany, but more so in the more conservative Slavic countries, there was silence surrounding the rapes, and victims were unable to obtain counseling. One Ukrainian family I interviewed suffered for generations because a Polish man drugged the mother and raped her. When she came home her townspeople called her a German whore. She bore her rapist’s child, who in turn was bullied and called a German bitch (even though the rapist was Polish). Furthermore, many people in conservative societies did not view exchanging food for sex as rape, even though probably in most cases, the female normally wouldn’t have sex with the person who had the food. Instead of blaming the person with the food who used their power to obtain sex, both men and women blame the victim. Even my Ukrainian translator thought this particular woman wasn’t raped, since she was sleeping, but the man drugged her, and of course, a sleeping person cannot consent to sex.
How is it that, despite the abundance of available materials (official documents, testimonies, memoirs, etc.), such topics remain historiographically neglected? Have you noticed any progress on this issue in the last ten years?
Simply answered – shame, silence, and patriarchy. If someone is attacked, people ask what the victims were wearing or if they were intoxicated, none of which is relevant because the perpetrator is to blame. Women and men hold these institutionalized patriarchal views, and thus victims feel shame and do not speak out. Male and female victims need to talk, analyze themselves and heal, so they can heal their children and students. Historians need to tackle these topics so we can better understand why people rape, whether during peacetime or war. Because of these persistent views, professors may discourage graduate students from tackling sexual violence. One educated Croatian woman asked me why I had chosen my topic because it was a “man’s topic.” This kind of archaic view hampers progress toward raising awareness of sexual violence, which is a gender-neutral human rights topic that affects males, females, and transgender people.
When I presented my research in Cherkasy, Ukraine, it was momentous occasion because many people in Cherkasy had not yet spoken publicly about their trauma. It was as if my talk about sexual violence gave them permission to also start discussing and sharing. When we break the silence and fight the shame to honestly face our own trauma, we can better understand the trauma of others, the complexities of victimhood, war, and violent sexual and other crimes. It is extremely difficult to openly admit and discuss one’s own rape or the rape of a family member. Despite the difficulties of recovery and healing, war- and peacetime survivors of sexual violence can help us understand other trauma if they face their own pain. I was only able to do the research I did and to continue to write because for the last twenty-nine years I have faced my own complex trauma of sexual abuse and other childhood familial issues. It has been extremely challenging at times, but well worth the effort because I have changed the world for the better in small, but meaningful ways—by writing, talking, and raising children who will be less likely to be victimized as I was. Understanding our complicity in crimes around the world or the motives behind mass shooters or rapists in the US can help us better teach our children and students to not engage in such violence. Similarly, the more Croatians better understand their personal and societal traumas by breaking the silence and shame, they too can help Europe and the world grow toward a more peaceful and healthy society.
And yes, now there is much more written on the topic of WWII sexual violence than when I first tackled it. However, the general public still is not aware of the widespread system of brothels the Germans established nor how much the drunken Axis soldiers raped, yet a larger portion are acquainted with the extent of the rapes by the animalistic Red Army. This needs to change.
I have thought about a passage from a memoir I read almost twenty years ago to this day. I had empathy with a drunken rapist, which surprised me because I am a survivor of many non-violent rapes.
Major Kopelev was on the eastern front during WWII when Marshal Rokossovsky issued his order to execute rapists without trial. The reasoning behind his order was to try to regain control over the troops as they moved through the devastation the Germans and others had caused in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and all across the eastern front. Kopelev wrote that a Polish woman with a torn dress came running in screaming for help, and the lieutenant in charge threatened to execute the rapist, according to the “orders from headquarters. For rape – execution on the spot.” The major did not want to shoot a “brave soldier blind-drunk on vodka.” Kopelev drew his pistol, and the drunken man “came at [him], hoarse with anger, spraying saliva. ‘You fucking officers, fuck your mothers! You! Fighting the war on our backs! Where were you when my tank was on fire? Where were you, fuck your mother, when I set fire to that Tiger?’” The officers could hear the men saying things like, “Some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch” (Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, 50-51). (Note that the woman was not German, which I discuss because it helps to explain some of the raping that occurs during war.)
I am a survivor of multiple peacetime violations, so my empathy surprised me. I am working on an essay where I explain my reaction to the horrific sexual crimes western and eastern European men committed during the war. I have not felt empathy for the leaders, for example, for the Germans who planned and implemented the largest system of sexual slavery during the war, still mostly unheard of today. But for the desperate soldier who was forced into a nightmare so large and long-lasting most of us cannot even begin to fathom, I have felt understanding and empathy even for those who raped, usually in a drunken and frenzied state.
I have never supported the NFL, nor been a Vikings fan. I could barely remember what sport the Timberwolves played when people in Croatia were excited that I was from Minnesota and mentioned our team. I dislike football because of the research revealing the high incidence of sexual violence and football players. I am saddened by how many ex-athletes have life-long physical and mental health issues because of how the experiences either on the field or in the spotlight affected them. The issue of concussions is a travesty and shows how greed and ambition trumped the welfare of players, who despite their wealth and fame, were still pawns in the great monetary game of sports. I am opposed to how much money these athletes make when caretakers, teachers, and other educated people in our society make so little, when working class people have to struggle so hard, etc. It isn’t just that I don’t usually enjoy watching these popular sports (once in a while I do enjoy a game if kind of forced to watch because of a situation), but I also oppose them for political and social reasons.
But what the NFL players and owners are doing now is worth commending. Our lousy president’s continued, childish Twitter responses reveal his racism, his lack of understanding more than one side of an issue and how he doesn’t want us to think about his failing presidency, the inability of the Republicans to repeal the ACA, or the dangerous path he is leading us on with North Korea because of his insistence to take things personally instead of to be a unifying, democratic, diplomatic and conciliatory leader. In response to Trump’s horrific tweets about a protest against racism in juxtaposition to his tweets about some Nazis being nice people, the NFL players and owners have bravely continued to peacefully exercise their right to protest racism in our country in an extremely visible setting.
I adjure the NFL players who have so much wealth and visibility to also use their power and influence to work toward a better America, a more racially and economically just America. Some already have and currently do philanthropic work, and I hope more of them follow suit. But when members of the NFL kneel to protest racial injustice, lock arms to show solidarity with those who choose to practice their right of free speech or otherwise make a statement, this is a brave move, one that comes from their hearts and probably from much personal consideration. Their actions raise awareness about the racism of the White House, our president, and of institutions and far right groups across America. These actions of protest may spur others to action as well. Our flag and national anthem symbolize the freedoms we hold dear in this country – freedom of speech, of protest, and of the press. Unlike Trump, these players are not insulting veterans or families of veterans. America is far from being a equitable country, and if this is how some want to make a statement about the very real injustice in our land, then I commend them for it.
Part of the problem with bullies and people who feel victimized by bullies is that often the latter do not realize they are cruel, and often the people they insult do not know how to speak up. I believe I continued to be berated for personal choices in my life by certain people because it took me so long to clearly point out the fact that this was inappropriate and that I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore.
I am not blaming myself for other people’s cruelty and insensitivity, but had I been taught as a young girl that my private life choices are to be respected, that my feelings are important, that I am not too sensitive, and that it is necessary and healthy to speak my mind so long as I do it in a respectful way, I would have spoken out more often, set more boundaries for myself, and saved myself a lot of anxiety.
One area in my life I often had to ward off disrespectful comments concerned dietary decisions. I stopped drinking cow’s milk in the late 1980s. To my incredulity, this seemed to offend people around me. I heard various comments in voices filled with shock and emotion. It was as if I had personally decided to insult them with my private decision about what kind of milk I would drink and it showed the success of the dairy lobby, because they people were so aghast and dumbfounded at my decision, it seemed to be an idea that had never entered their minds. It felt as though I had told them I had joined a new religion from outer space and that as a ritual I would be cutting off one of my arms.
I was private about my decision and didn’t advertise it. People found out because I declined when offered milk or because they saw me pour myself a glass of soy milk. I didn’t announce my decision or try to convince other people to give up cow’s milk. And yet some reactions were this strong.
Later, becoming a vegetarian caused an uproar in various situations. Again, it was somehow as though I had insulted others, and the anger and distaste displayed toward me was impressive. At certain gatherings, how my family ate seemed to cause such discomfort even though I never expected people to go out of their way for us, and even though we always tried to be flexible.
Eventually my husband and later children all ate vegetarian, and at gatherings we took part in the dinner rotation schedule when at a vacation spot for a number of nights. Each night a different family would be in charge of dinner. We spent much time making sure what we made to eat would be something satisfying to meat eaters – on one of these weekends I remember making a wonderful chili with the fake hamburger, a recipe I had often served to meat eaters who would almost always proclaim they couldn’t tell the difference and that it was delicious.
Not everyone on these mini vacations was cruel, but one family not only never had anything good to say about what we offered, they would berate it, and on a few occasions when it was their turn to cook, they served meals where my husband, kids and I really could only eat bread and butter because everything else, even the salad, had meat in it. Of course, we didn’t expect a full-out vegetarian meal, but even a few slices of cheese could have been offered so that we could have made a sandwich.
After a few times of having to later feed my kids and us separately, we opted out of the dinner rotation and brought our own food. I was fed up with the blatant verbal insults as well as the passive aggressiveness our vegetarianism seemed to provoke. And yet, I only rarely said anything to my main bully. When I did say anything, it seemed to be too late and ineffective, and it was after we had opted out of trying to do any kind of collaberation with food.
Even after having been a vegetarian for a decade or more, at one gathering a person berated my choice of soy milk over cow’s milk in front of my young, impressionable daughter. This was at least fifteen years after I had quit drinking soy milk and had endured friends and strangers odd and sometimes cruel comments. I felt sick that I allowed my daughter to be with such people who would openly insult such personal health decisions and so I slowly started speaking out and pulling myself away from such gatherings.
When my daughter was just a baby, a person close to me incessantly cracked jokes about my decision to feed her vegetarian and would say things like, “I bet she would just love a sausage right now!” Or, “I bet when she gets teeth, she will love the way I cook steak.”
After listening to these jokes for months, I finally brought an end to it by telling the person the jokes were hurtful and disrespectful, and that how I chose to feed my child was a personal decision. This was over fifteen years ago, and with hormones flying through my body (I was still nursing) and not yet speaking out as much as I wanted to, it felt like a milestone, and the jokes stopped for about a decade.
People who find offense at such jokes about food or religion choices are not too sensitive. I think most of us would understand that we would never make some senseless joke to a Muslim woman about her wearing a headscarf, or tease someone on a paleo or low carb diet about their choices. We understand that making a joke about someone’s personal decisions is hurtful and disrespectful.
But as a young girl, I internalized that my opinions were unimportant. Growing into adulthood, I started to speak out about various issues, and I often heard from others that my feelings were too big, that I should just lighten up and that I was too sensitive. When the person who is somehow different speaks out, it sometimes is met with silence and acceptance, but also sometimes with defensiveness and the comment, “lighten up!” This only adds insult to insult. For me, the childhood internalization of the idea that my opinions were unimportant would rear up again, and I would have to go back to ground zero and figure out how to speak out again.
It feels I wasted much time and emotion being upset about other people’s dysfunction while in my twenties and thirties. I also spent time figuring out ways to express my anger and disappointment in a healthy and respectful way, because I was not going to lower myself to a bully’s standards of communications. And yet, this time spent was the only way I knew to grow strong in the realization that my feelings counted, and that these bullyish comments explained a lot about the people making the comments.
If you are reading this and think I cannot laugh at my vegetarianism, it isn’t true. I have laughed many times with others about misunderstandings with food or diet. One example was in the dentist office when I asked why I should want to fix my teeth, because my mother-in-law had dentures and she seemed to manage just fine. The technician said to me, “well, it can be quite difficult chewing with dentures, especially trying to chew a nice, juicy steak,” to which I had to reply with a laugh that I was a vegetarian and so that didn’t bother me. We all laughed and she said, “well, you won’t be able to chew that carrot very well either.”
No offense was taken. Nothing was said with passive-aggressive distaste or anger. There was no negative feelings. This and other conversations I have had are funny and enlightening.
I am not too sensitive. I can tell which jokes or comments about my diet, personal habits and choices, are disrespectful and hurtful. Even though there are no hard and fast rules about what is disrespectful and what isn’t, if it feels wrong and you wish the comments to stop, then you can request this and be assured that it is okay for you to do so.