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."