Rebuilding Shattered Societies: Lessons on Memory, Justice, and Redress from Poland, Germany and South Africa

The Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Picture credit: Bonolo Ntlatleng

On the 21st of July 2017, I and a group of 20 other University of Cape Town students left South Africa for a 10 day study tour of Germany and Poland. The aim of this tour was to reflect on how these nations recovered post-WWII and see if that held any lessons for us as South Africans still healing from Apartheid. We had to write a reflective essay for the organisers and funders of the tour. This was mine.

In her book, “Gifts of Imperfection”, researcher-storyteller Brené Brown states the following: “We need to own our story so that we can write the ending”. This is a tenet that is relevant for both our personal narratives and our collective narratives as communities, societies and nation-states. We have to tell the whole truth in our collective histories — in order to write a different ending for ourselves. It’s the only way to not remain mired in the legacy of those histories. We have to acknowledge all of the mess of who we’ve been so we don’t get stuck re-enacting the destructive patterns of that story.

This should form the foundation of how and why we memorialise. How we create collective memory about significant events in our past. The holocaust is one of the most widely memorialised genocides in the world. So when I left for Germany and Poland on this tour, I expected the sites we’d see to be inclusive and expansive. I assumed that there would be no act of violence that remains unspoken. I was wrong.

All of the deepest lessons I learnt on this tour came from the silences — they came from what was not there. The most piercing silence for me was the reluctance to talk about sexual violence during this time in history. War and sexualised violence go hand in hand. It’s something that international laws and courts have only very recently acknowledged but it’s a living legacy that’s been part of every conflict. This means that World War II is no exception but you wouldn’t know that from any of the monuments, museums, documentation centres, religious sites, concentration camps and memorials that we visited.

“Taboo”: this is the word that came up over and over again when I would ask why. It’s a word that smacks of social silencing, prohibition and restriction. More than one director of a museum or memorial site used this word to explain away that silence. Then came the denialism — one director of a site in Berlin said that there isn’t any information about this in the archives. This isn’t true. There’s a whole body of academic and other literature that speaks into this gulf in the dominant narrative. I wouldn’t have known about this if it weren’t for two of the female academics that joined us on the tour.

Another director asked if I’m expecting a colleague of his to demand that his mother (a female survivor) delve into such a painful topic. In sharing their stories, some survivors have already been open about the wound. I would never advocate for harassing anyone for traumatic personal testimony. What I would advocate for is to listen and honour what victims/survivors have already shared — to not treat it like a dirty secret. To not conceal it as though it somehow sullies the people who were already brave enough to bring it to light.

Before even leaving South African shores, I was thinking about how difficult experiencing Auschwitz would be. And as we stood outside that infamous gate, on a drizzly afternoon in Poland, I was expecting the worst. What I didn’t see coming were all the unanswered questions that I would leave with. At one of the blocks, our tour co-ordinator asked if our tour guide could talk about the “brothels” that formed part of the block. She ignored the question and once it was brought to her attention again, she simply stated that she would get to it later. Well, “later” never came.

It took a Google search after coming home to South Africa to finally get answers about places that I’d been to. Typing ‘Gender and the Holocaust’ into the Search box opened up a whole new component of that period of Nazi terror.I don’t think that “bordellos/brothels” are adequate or appropriate words to describe the sexual exploitation, degradation, coercion and abuse that female prisoners were subjected to in these “special blocks”. The women sent to these blocks were not the only people subjected to sexualised violence. Furthermore, the long arm of sexual assault stretched beyond the confines of the concentration camps.

In her book chapter, “Sexual violence in the Holocaust”, Doris L. Bergen is clear about the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation was perpetrated by various actors during the World War II period. When it comes to this form of violence there is no clear binary between hero and villain. Bergen states that there are cases where rescuers sexually abused the children and the women they were hiding. She states that there are various cases of German soldiers who sexually violated women and girls on the transports. The victors of the war (allied forces that toppled the Nazi regime) are also charged with committing mass acts of sexualised violence.

In a book called “Women in Berlin”, an anonymous German journalist recounts personal narratives of survivors of what’s now referred to as “the Rape of Berlin”. During the dying days of the war and the Nazi regime, Soviet Red Army troops executed a shocking campaign of mass rape of an estimated 2 million German women — including young girls and the elderly. This book was published in the 1950s but subsequently removed from the shelves and circulation in Germany — it was available only in Switzerland. This was done to prevent a revival of nationalist ideals. This is typical of how narratives of sexual violence are treated — orphaned because they do not support, or they conflict with or complicate the messages of the dominant narrative. These days the crimes of the Soviet army are acknowledged more publicly but now there is evidence that other troops in the Allied forces (Particularly British, French and American troops) are also implicated in mass incidences of sexual violence.

Although women and young girls bore the brunt of this form of violence during this time period, men were not exempt from being victimised. Bergen writes about the sexual abuse meted against men in the form of forced nudity, castration and torture. There are also a few reported cases of male prisoners raping younger male prisoners (teenagers) and homosexual men being sexually abused by Kapos.

The abovementioned cases of sexualised violence and the literature that surrounds them are some of the most brutal instances of inhumane treatment I have ever read. This could lead again to the question of why it’s important to inculcate them as part of our collective historical memory? Bergen is instructive on this question as well. She says that we have 4 options:

“We can overlook sexual violence as part of warfare wherever and whenever it occurs and therefore unworthy of much thought. Or we can refuse to discuss sexual violences because it is inappropriate, disturbing and offensive. Alternatively, we can sensationalise it, as often occurs in popular culture, where the Holocaust and violent sex are frequently intertwined. Or most difficult of all, we can confront and try to understand it.”

We must go for the most challenging path which is the one that entails us thinking through why and how it happened. Furthermore, we need to ask ourselves what legacy the silencing of sexual violence during this time period has created. In an article titled: “Sex-based violence and the Holocaust — a re-evaluation of harms and rights in international law”, Fionnuala Ni Aolain states that the Holocaust had a defining impact on international law. In addition, she also asserts that the erasure of sexualised violence in the collective memory of the Holocaust compromised the ability of post-war legal mechanisms to fully account for all of the harms that take place in the context of conflict and genocide.

Aolain argues that we need to look more closely at women’s experiences during the Holocaust and World War II period in order to have an expansive understanding of the breadth of violation that was experienced. She is clear that this is not a means of arguing that women had it harder than men during this period — it’s just a means of telling the truth. I agree with her, this essay is not about belittling the horrors that men experienced during this time. This essay is about flooding the murky areas of this history with light. Like I said earlier, it’s about acknowledging difficult historical narratives so that we can write a different ending. It’s about uprooting unacknowledged trauma so that we can name it and ensure that those who experience it presently do not feel like it’s in any way their fault. In so many of the testimonies, particularly of women, they diminish their suffering and many feel ashamed of what they went through. We need to ensure that historical traumas are not a burden of blame and shame on those that were victimised — and the generations that follow.

I’m very fortunate to have had Tali Nates on the tour to fill in the gaps and give me glimpses of the missing women’s narratives (both as perpetrators and victims). I’m also fortunate that Dr Helen Scanlon was on this tour and able to provide me with resources on “Gender and the Holocaust” once we were back home. The conversations that I had with both of them provided me with useful snatches of information. But they were always side conversations — Tali would sneak in info whilst we were moving on to the next thing and Helen basically gave me a short seminar when I interrupted her shopping trip in a mall in Krakow.

As a South African who is heavily involved in activism around gender-based violence, I’m used to the conversation around sexual violence being side-lined. I’ve spent the last two years in student activist spaces in which it was treated as a secondary issue — a “maybe later” item on the agenda. I’ve been in so many political spaces, including Fees Must Fall, where bringing it up was simply met with silence and moving on to the next person. This is one of the most unfortunate legacies that we carry from the Struggle against Apartheid.

In her article, The Contribution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission toward the promotion of women’s rights in South Africa, Lyn Graybill argues that the TRC neglected women’s stories and particularly the oppression that they’d experienced during the Apartheid regime. She states that the TRC only made space for three all-women hearings only after immense criticism and pressure from women’s organisations. Graybill also gives brief summary of the types of abuses women were subjected to from the 60s to the 80s.

Unsurprisingly, in the 60s, Women’s resistance was treated as secondary and was required to simply play a supporting role. In the 70s, Women trade unionists, like their male counterparts, were arrested and tortured through means of sexualised violence. In the 80s, women were active in many wings of the United Democratic Front but were still not, by in large, given leadership positions in the movement. The apartheid state ramped up the level of sexualised violence and torture for detained activists — including women.

The most disappointing thing is that sexual violence was not a weapon only used by agents of the Apartheid state. Sexual exploitation and sexual assault in the MK camps was an ever present reality. In the run up to the TRC, the ANC withheld the names of individual perpetrators and submitted a collective amnesty application for these crimes. Even though women’s hearings were held in order provide better spaces for women to give personal testimonies of what they had experienced. Many women who had experienced sexual assault — particularly rape — were silenced in various ways. Many worried that coming forward would mean that they would be blamed and disrespected because of what happened to them. Victim-blaming/shaming is rife in our society and in many cases their concerns were justified. Many worried that if they’d been sexually violated by political opponents they’d be seen as collaborators. One woman who made the decision to testify against her MK comrade for sexual abuse was threatened with legal action by an ANC cadre — she was forced to relent and recant her testimony.

As I stated earlier, I think that the reluctance to speak about sexual violence stems from the fact that there’s barely any moral high ground for anyone to stand on. It’s a poisoned blood line and legacy that we all share. Historically, it’s existed in both ‘progressive’ and ‘repressive’ spaces. It’s hushed so much because often when it’s acknowledged, it entails deeply reflecting on how we’ve contributed to the problem — whether oppressor or liberator. It implicates so many of us that it dulls the righteousness that people don as armour against accusation. Whether we peddle the societal norms that blame and devalue survivors for their own victimisation, or say nothing when we see it happening or know of it happening. By in large, we are a society that defends and makes excuses for certain perpetrators because holding them accountable often means facing up to our own misguided beliefs. By in large, we’re a society that is willing to sideline these discussions or see them as only fitting for one month of the year — Women’s month. We’re also a society that is drowning in so much violence that we refuse to engage with a kind that we can so easily silence.

Sexual violence happens on our streets, in our homes and in our offices or places of work. If it’s not the actual incidence of it then it’s the shaming of survivors for what they were wearing, where they were, how much they had to drink, their sexual history, their social class, their sexual orientation/gender identity, their body type etc. We lean into these toxic social norms around dinner tables, in lunchrooms, in comments sections online, during panel discussions, in courtrooms and police stations. There was never a time this was more apparent than during President Jacob Zuma’s highly-publicised rape trial.

At this point I’d like to provide an example that is relevant to Investec as the funder of this trip. A close friend of mine worked for Investec last year and towards the end of her time there she was sexually harassed by a co-worker. When I asked if I could share her story and write about in this essay she said the following:

You can use my name. You can give details. I don’t think I was very private about what happened and I don’t think I have reason to be because I’m not ashamed of how I conducted myself. I have no reason to be ashamed of what happened. I really don’t — I think that he should be the one that’s ashamed. I met somebody the other day and he’s one of the people that don’t know me in the organisation and he said that the dominant narrative is that I tried to slander the perpetrator’s name which is ridiculous and shocking because he owned up to it in the disciplinary enquiry.

I was made out to be a vindictive person that was just trying to damage his reputation and I think my manager believed that. She couldn’t even say goodbye to me. I was the one that was treated like I had done something wrong. In fact I was victimised for wanting it to be treated with the seriousness that it ought to have been treated with than simply ‘ugh I’m sorry’. I think particularly how the organisation handled it and just allowing a team leader and manager in the organisation to victimise the person on the receiving end of the sexual harassment and to treat my issue with it as ‘melodrama’ and say that he’s a friendly guy.

To the organisation’s credit. I know that people in senior management there have made sure that all team leaders go on a course — just basically a sexual harassment course to understand how to deal with it and what are the measures they should be taking so I think that there’s some good that came out of it. Other people who experience the same thing will not face what I did so maybe it’s only right for me to mention that. But I still think that the fact that it had to happen to me and that I had to fight it as hard as I had to for anything to be done or for people actually to be just aware ”

I’m really grateful to have been given the opportunity to go on this trip but I have to be honest and say that how my friend was treated during this disciplinary process almost stopped me from applying. I understand that senior management eventually took steps to ensure that some staff get better training but I was on the other end of the phone listening to the details of drastic steps she had to take in order to ensure that what happened was taken seriously.

I’m no stranger to influential actors in institutions being slow and insensitive on the uptake of these issues. I’m at a university whose disciplinary procedures too often fail survivors. I’ve spent more than 3 years of my life neck deep in activism that is trying to combat that. Almost four years ago, when I began to raise these issues the university said that I was lying. I had to collect testimony after testimony on what’s now the UCT Survivors blog just to make people aware of what was happening on UCT’s campus. It took a serial rapist making the news and multiple protests for the university executive to form a task team to deal with sexual violence. As it stands this task team has no office, no budget and no permanent staff.

When I first started this journey, I thought that simply speaking into the silence would be enough for institutions to take action. I just assumed that once those in positions of power knew what was going on they’d be moved to do something about it. So much of this journey into activism has proven me wrong and the same can be said for many moments of this study tour. However, there were definitely ears that have been open to listen and I’d like to acknowledge and thank them.

On our second last day in Warsaw, I approached one of the curators at the POLIN museum and asked her why none of their exhibits speak on sexual violence. She admitted that it was huge oversight on their part and promised to raise this issue in their next meeting. Her willingness to listen and take action were a welcome reprieve from the barrage of hollow and ill-considered responses from previous days.

One of my key takeaways from this trip was a piece of information that was shared by our guide at the Memorium for the Nuremburg trials. She told us that it was students and young lawyers in the 60s in Germany that pushed for Holocaust history to be acknowledged and memorialised after two decades of societal silence. I think that we’re having a similar moment in South Africa — a time marked by student mobilisation and activist organisations taking legal action against the state. The calls to deal with the inequalities embedded in our society are getting louder and harder to ignore.

Unfortunately, even in this cacophony of voices with a social justice imperative, gender-based violence is still treated as a second tier and peripheral issue. In a recent article, “Government has a sorry history of protecting abusive men — and Manana is no different”, Lisa Vetten highlights this problem and implores readers to start to understand that state corruption not only lies in those stakeholders profiting from undue financial gain but also in the state actors that have been allowed to get away with sexual misconduct. She asserts that women’s emancipation from oppression is a founding principle of our democracy and therefore it is a principle worthy of our vigilance and protection.

I would extend this pursuit of vigilance and accountability to survivors of every age and gender. Furthermore, I’d add that this needs to happen at every level. This needs to particularly happen in the realm of our shared narratives and collective histories. People, particularly South African youth, are wielding their pens in attempt to forge a different path and write a different ending for the legacy of our country.

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