TEL AVIV — One day, six years ago, while working on a documentary for Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day, television producer Ronnie Sarnat came across a strange story.
"I sent a crew to film testimonies of Holocaust survivors and the crew came back deeply distraught," she says. "One of the survivors came out to them, crying and yelling, and refused to be filmed. He told them, "forget about me, forget my name, go away." Any documentary filmmaker would mark this as something to come back to, but it was immensely difficult to find him again. When I did get to him and interviewed him, I found a broken man, a person whose entire life had been devastated because, when he was 13 years old, he was raped by a German soldier. Since then I realized I want to address this topic that nobody dares talking about."
Sarnat says this man was "the first letter in the story," and she began her search for others. "I found out that there was nothing documented regarding sex in the Holocaust, and it got me wondering why. The entire commemoration enterprise, innumerable testimonies and endless footage — and no mention of sexual abuse.
"I tried studying the topic through the official, institutional sources, only to face fierce opposition. They argued that mentioning sex and Holocaust in the same sentence stains the memory of the Holocaust. I had a dilemma between this view and the authentic historical truth, what actually happened. In a few years there will be no one left to tell this story and I think denial is a mistake. I decided to embark on a quest for truth. It was a long and painstaking journey, progressing by word of mouth — someone who knew something, someone who knew someone else ... I knew the research would make or break this documentary."
After six years of a slow, persevering quest, during which time four of the protagonists died, the result, Screaming Silence, was broadcast on Israel's Channel 1 TV on the latest Holocaust Memorial Day last week.
In striking candor Holocaust survivors sit in front of the camera with their names and faces, telling — some for the first time ever — what they went through when they were children. Apart from a few photos illustrating how young the victims were at the time, the film uses no archive footage.
"At first I interviewed experts," says Sarnat, "An Auschwitz expert and a criminologist. They added an interesting dimension, but after I watched the testimonies again I thought they needed no explanation. Their authenticity and the difficulty some of the people had to tell their story really stood on their own."
How do you deal with that? "Some of the descriptions are indeed graphic, there is no point making reality prettier. I was concerned with a sense of snuff, but once you show the person, make them a character and describe everything that happened before and after, the story about the rape is not pornographic — it is part of the overall story."
One of the woman interviewed, who has since died, said "the rape was nothing." She was so young she didn't even understand what happened, what they had done to her. Another says in the film, "I won," because even though she was raped, she never told them who provided her with fake documents.
Sarnat says, "I think that if the details of the rape were left out, it would have done injustice to these people because they wanted to tell us about this. You don't leave the film with a pornographic feeling, but mainly with the question: How come this topic hasn't been addressed before?"
There is a common belief that the Nazi eugenics prevented the Germans from having sex with Jews, who were considered by them to be an inferior, filthy race. But the testimonies in the documentary reveal a different reality.
Not only does the film bring evidence there were Jews in the Auschwitz brothel, it also gives new credence to the writings of Yehiel De-Nur, whose descriptions of Nazi rapes of prisoners were denounced as being pornographic.
"When he published the book some said it's not true, that it's just sick imagination. But in my film the victims are mentioned in a firsthand testimony from a youth who knew them. The shed managers took young boys, often with a feminine look, to be their servants, even sex slaves."
Are the protagonists in the film united as Holocaust survivors or rape victims?
"I think the fact they were child rape victims is more significant than the fact they are Holocaust survivors. As an adult you can understand that you were the victim of a rape and it's not your fault. A child feels they were raped because they had done something wrong and this is the punishment — so the sense of guilt is carried for the rest of their life."
How did they deal with this?
"Each of the participants in the documentary has his or her own story. Some tried to hide the story from their children, who are now in their 50s, their entire life, for fear it would become a lifelong badge of shame. One of them has issues with sexual identity to this day, another had many wives in his life, and yet another is concerned her children would disown her. It's different for each person, so it's impossible to generalize the way this trauma is dealt with."
It's difficult to see a firsthand testimony of a person who says, "yes, I was raped." Who benefits from such brutal exposure of the truth?
"That's one of the questions that concern me most: Is the Israeli society open enough to face rape testimonies? Daring to complain about rape is not trivial, coming out and saying openly "I was raped" is an important and rare thing even today. And still, after so many years of hiding, people stand up and say, "We were raped by the Germans and their accomplices." I think there is nothing you can add to this message, so these people deserve great compassion and respect. I don't know if this exposure will do them good, I can only hope their children — once they understand what their parents went through — will embrace them with even more understanding and more love."
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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