I have had two fields of interest and work for the past two years. Since
1993, I have been involved in the field of sexual exploitation and feminism through my
work for the International Abolitionist Federation (IAF) and the Union Against Trafficking
in Human Beings, which has been the French branch of IAF since 1926, and is also
affiliated with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. The other field, the
"final solution," is hard to say "of interest," since it is part of my
mind since I was born. I am a Jew of what we call "the second generation," a
woman born in France, of two parents who were condemned to death because they were Jews, a
daughter of survivors. My studies in history were oriented on that part of history,
especially on the period after 1945 in France, on the silence that surrounds this dark
part of French history.
In 1995 Steven Speilberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
In the struggle against negationists, or those who deny the reality of the "final
solution," the Foundation collected the testimonies of survivors living throughout
the world. I became an interviewer on the project. The collection of interviews ended in
France in autumn 1997. More than 50,000 testimonies have been collected around the world,
with 2,000 in France. I myself have interviewed more than 100 survivors.
Before starting my analysis of the testimony of the survivors in effective political
struggle, and before describing my work with survivors of the "final solution"
and linking it to the survivors of sexual exploitation, I would like to be very clear
about the way words are used, and their effects on future political dynamics.
Often the word "Holocaust" is used to refer to what was done to the Jews in
Nazi Germany. The word "Holocaust" is not part of my vocabulary. The word
"Holocaust" has a religious meaning. In the Bible it was the sacrifice of an
animal that was given to god by men through fire. Sacrifice gives a function and sense to
the suffering. I dont believe the suffering of anyone makes sense.
The word "Shoah," the Hebrew word that was used in Israel after the second
World War, means cataclysm, catastrophe, disaster. Claude Lanzmanns 1986 film,
"Shoah," described very precisely the whole industrial system built to kill the
Jewish people, and the word "Shoah" has taken the place of the word Holocaust.
The word "Shoah" is also a post-war word that comes from the perspective of
those for whom this period was a real cataclysm in their history.
I try not to use the word "Shoah" anymore, although I prefer it to the word
Holocaust. I use the words of Hitler when he decided to build a whole system of murder for
the Jews, an efficient industrial system of killing with camps, trains, gas chambers,
crematoriums. His purpose wasnt a Holocaust, it wasnt a cataclysm; it was the
Besides that, the words Shoah and Holocaust lead straight to a possible victimization.
You sacrifice a victim, and you are victim of a cataclysm, you cannot do anything against
a cataclysm, you die or you wait for it to finish. The word survivor has a real life and a
dynamic of struggle; it is a fight. When you survive you win against your oppressor who
wanted to kill you.
When you confront the negationist, or denier, it is very important to be straight with
the use of words. It is also very important if you want to use analogies. Here, I think
especially of the anti-abortion movement in France, which used the analogy of the death
camps to condemn abortion. During Valery Giscard- dEstaings presidency, the
Minister of Health Simone Veil, survivor of Aushwitz, presented a proposal for the
legalization of abortion in 1974. The "let them live"-"laissez-les
vivre" movement countered the proposal by saying that Veil wanted to send French
fetuses to the crematorium. Many of the "laissez-les vivre" movements
supporters went to Aushwitz to commemorate the death of the aborted fetuses. This analogy
was anti-Semitic and cruel to compare the project of a woman survivor of Auschwitz to Nazi
murderers, and further, all women or pro-legalization of abortion movement to Nazis.
In any system of domination, the denial of the crime is based on the silence of the
survivors. I think those who deny the violence of prostitution are similar to final
solution negationists or deniers. I do not hesitate to say that the policy of the Dutch
government and the pro-prostitution movement today is built on the silence of prostituted
persons, who are now called "sex workers," and the denial that sexual
exploitation is a form of violence against women.
I believe that the voices of the survivors of sexual exploitation are important in the
fight against silence, negation, and to demand justice and create a world that
wouldnt accept any kind of domination.
Many historians, such as Raoul Hilberg, have already worked on the "final
solution." Many writers, including Elie Wiezel and Primo Levi, among others, have
written about the genocide. We have seen the pictures taken by the American Army entering
the concentration camps. There are museums dedicated to the memory that no one should
forget. There have been projects here and there to gather testimony of survivors of the
final solution, for example, at Yale University and some private ones in France. But
Speilbergs Shoah Visual History Foundation is the first time that a project of this
magnitude gives a voice and a face to thousands of people throughout the world. For this
project the definition of a survivor is any Jew who lived from 1933 to 1945 in a country
occupied by the Nazis.
The oldest person I have interviewed was a man born in 1903. He was almost blind and
deaf. He had never talked about his experience before. As I was there, in front of him,
very close to him; he reached for my hand. I asked him only a few questions as he
couldnt hear me well. But he felt me, he knew I had time to listen, he knew that
thousands of people would be able to listen to him in the future. And he told his story,
describing precisely, living again all the details. This man was so alive. When I left the
house he said that now he could turn the page, meaning it was all right for him to die.
The youngest person I interviewed was a woman born in 1941. Her mother was sent to
Aushwitz in 1944. She was hidden by others, but always felt her mother had abandoned her.
She never forgave her, and felt constantly guilty. Her childhood was full of nightmares in
which she heard again and again the sound of boots on the ground.
When I started my work as an interviewer, I thought I already knew a lot. After having
interviewed more than one hundred persons, I feel that I know less and less. Each story
opens up new perspectives. It isnt only history; it isnt just a succession of
stories. It is always an individual destiny in a family story of global history.
I thought when I started the work that I would have to face the dimension of death.
Instead, I discovered the strength of life and resistance. I also discovered the violence
of silence. This is especially true for France, a country that didnt allow the
survivors to speak. General De Gaulle wanted to rebuild France after five years of German
occupation and French collaboration with the Nazis. The Jews coming back to France were
told to keep silence. The war was over. Why remember this dark page of French history when
all the effort was on national reconstruction, the restoration of the French Republic
based on the founding myths of liberty, equality and fraternity. The members of French
resistance came back from the German concentration camps as heroes. The "racial
deportees," as they were called, came back from the extermination camps, most of them
a long time after the member of the resistance. Some of them even returned in cattle
trucks, as there were few trains or planes. Some of them felt ashamed at having been
racial deportees and not heroes like those in resistance. Even their survival was
considered suspect. Some men heard that they must have done horrible things themselves to
survive those conditions. And women, always the same question: Were they prostitutes? Were
they raped? Was that the reason they were still alive? To get rid of those suspicions, I
have interviewed a lot of women who removed the tattooed numbers from their arms, so no
one would ever again look at them with suspicion.
More than the experience, it is the banning of speech from the free world that makes
the suffering so strong. And I wonder if they are not, after all, survivors of the
survival, survivors of the silence. Sometimes I think of the suicide of Primo Levi, or of
Bruno Bettelhiem, who based all his work on autistic children.
One man, who was sent to Aushwitz, spoke quickly of his experience, as if it had no
importance, had happened to somebody else, an anecdotal story of a stranger. When he
arrived back in France to a military base, a servicemen ask him questions. "I had
waited for that moment during all this time," says the survivor. "This moment
was what kept me alive; to tell when I came back." When he started telling his story
to the military assembly, a serviceman made a gesture as if the survivor was a fool. At
this moment of the interview, the survivor broke down and cried. He never spoke of his
experience in Aushwitz after that event.
The violence of silence may be inscribed also in the flesh of the next generation. J.
is a strong little woman full of vitality, a sort of Edith Piaf. When I interviewed her,
she started to sing a song she sang in Aushwitz, a song of resistance, a song of cries, a
song of rebellion. She was liberated from the Thereisenstadt camp. She didnt want to
wait for the humanitarian aid in the camp and decided to walk in the city of
Thereisenstadt. She found an open house on the way. She went inside, took a bath, got
dressed in a beautiful dress and left behind her old deportee clothes. She found in one of
the rooms what she describes as Ali Baba treasure, thousands of jewels, diamonds... She
put on as many bracelets, earrings and so on as she could wear. When she got out in the
street, free, a new person; she sang French songs in the street. A French soldier heard
her. She told him she wanted to come back to France as soon as possible. He helped her to
find a military plane to fly back the same day. When she arrived at the military base in
Lyon in France, dressed like a lady, with perfume and jewelry, she was accused of
collaboration. She showed the number on her arm and told her story. No one believed her-a
deportee couldnt look like a human being; could not be well dressed and clean. They
believed that she did something wrong and she was condemned to death. The day before her
execution, some members of her family, who had hidden in France, managed to free her. She
never spoke again, although she continued her life with vitality. Forty years later, when
her oldest son died from AIDS, the nurse washing his body, found that he had tattooed the
number from his mothers arm in his armpit. When J. learned this, she broke down.
Today she is beginning to suffer from Alzheimers disease.
Staying alive is already a form of resistance against oppression. A minority of those
who fought to stay alive didnt die; thats why their testimony is so important.
It gives a voice to the ones who were condemned to death. Their testimony bears witness,
not only to their own torture, but also as witness to the industrial murder of others.
Our society is fascinated by morbidity, violence. It is important to remember how the
Nazis carried out their plans of extermination. It is also important to remember the
resistance, not only the big resistance with guns, or the insurrection of the Warsaw
ghetto, but the little resistance, the day after day resistance that kept people alive as
a human beings. Remembering everyday resistance is important for remembering the past and
for present and future struggle against oppression.
In the 1950s, people said that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep, and instead
they should have resisted. I see here an analogy with the way some people put the
responsibility and guilt on women who are victims of violence, rape, battery,
prostitution, and incest. For example, the Dutch government is blaming the victims of
prostitution and trafficking by using the word "forced" when talking about
trafficking. Since April 25, 1997, the Dutch government, in a European inter-ministerial
meeting, established the concept of "forced traffic." It isnt the
trafficking in women, anymore, that is condemned in principle. The woman who has been
trafficked has to prove that she didnt want to be trafficked, that she was forced.
Resistance isnt always big and visible. In every interview I did I found small
acts of resistance. Primo Levi wrote about these little resistance acts, such as when he
was trying to remember poems with others in the concentration camp. There was also a man I
interviewed who kept a rag, like a treasure. He would put it on his knees during mealtime,
thinking, "Im not a beast, Ill eat as a human being." Or a woman who
pretended that she was going to the beach while in Auschwitz. When I asked what beach, she
answered that behind her block there was a flat place. She went there with her sisters,
and they closed their eyes, and imagined they were lying on the beach near their house in
Marseille. All of them spoke of long discussions in which they would spend hours talking
of all kinds of meals, exchanging cooking recipes. One woman was fourteen when she arrived
at Auschwitz, a few weeks after her mother. The entire time she was in the camp, she
searched for her mother everywhere. She was sure her mother was still alive and her search
kept her alive. In her testimony, she described the camp through the eyes of a girl of
fourteen searching for her mother, like in a nightmare. In fact, her mother was already
dead; she was selected for the gas chamber when she arrived to Auschwitz.
The perspective I want to bring after giving these examples is that resistance brings a
positive political dynamic to the testimony. It recognizes the elements of survival, and
never fossilizes the victimization.
The frame and the purpose of a project of testimonies are as important as the testimony
itself. A project should respect the individual dimension and bring collective
denunciation. Filming the testimony protects the survivor from the possible violence of
negative comments that can come during speaking in public. In most cases, it is a real
effort for the survivor to speak in detail about that period of suffering and humiliation.
At the same time, the survivor knows that his or her testimony has a political purpose and
will be seen and heard by many, in the present and future. I also believe that for many of
them it has a therapeutic effect. But unlike the classical therapeutic relation that is
always private and in a relationship of two, it is the political function of public
denunciation that creates a therapeutic effect.
Also, the interviews I do never concentrate only on the particular moment of the
trauma. The testimony always starts with the background and the origins of the family of
the survivor, his or her life before, childhood, education... Then comes the specific
period that includes the description of what he or she lived, saw, and felt. It continues
on to the period after liberation, and how he or she rebuilt his or her life.
Also, from the point of view of the interviewer, the protocol of interviewing and
framing is also very important. The camera is the tool that transmits the story to the
public audience. At first I thought the cameraperson would only concentrate on the
technical side of the filming and remain silent. As an interviewer, I realized how the
relation between the cameraperson and the interviewer effects the quality of the
interview, and assists in establishing the relationship between the interviewer and the
survivor. The interviewer is not a journalist collecting anecdotes, nor a therapist, but
she or he has to hold this very particular moment of the relation, not inducing, but ready
to listen to anything, letting the survivor cry, remaining silent, helping this human
being break the silence. From my experience the nonverbal relation is as important as the
questions. I believe that the success of a testimony is mainly based on the trust and
confidence that an interviewer can establish with the survivor. The fact that the
interviewer is only one element of the political project excludes voyeurism or imbalances
of power. The interviewer is not there to exploit the testimony. Survival is a dynamic of
life and struggle; testimonies of survival are not simple witnesses. They recognize the
importance and the specificity of each person liberating himself or herself from silence,
they enable they use of the word "I." They introduce a dimension of
responsibility and never the unhealthy reaction of pity.
Since I have been involved in the field of sexual exploitation, I have been disturbed
that in Europe, and in France, the only public political speeches made by women in
prostitution are by those asking for the recognition of themselves as "commercial sex
workers." I am disturbed by the silence of survivors of prostitution. There are a few
books with testimonies, but they were never included in the fight against prostitution.
I was introduced for the first time to the idea of the speech of survivors as an
efficient political struggle when I read Kathleen Barrys Female Sexual Slavery.
I didnt realize how important this was at the time. When I was at the Brighton
Conference in November 1996, which was a real success for feminists because of the
uncompromising final declaration against prostitution, I was really impressed to see that
survivors, ideologues, university professors, could speak at the same level.
Then I heard all kinds of testimonies and I started to understand the political
function of the word "survivor." There was one sentence in particular that
enabled me to see how oppression is built on silence. It was the first sentence of Norma
Hotalings speech at the Brighton Conference:
"I speak here for all of those women who cannot speak, for all of those women are
dead because of prostitution, all of those women who died because they would speak."
This sentence was a real shock for me. I had heard the same sentence so many times
during my interviews with the survivors of the "final solution." I understood
that the political function of the testimony could be applied to any struggle. The person
who uses the "I" speaks also for others, all the others who didnt speak,
who cannot speak.
As I heard this sentence I felt a personal rebellion against some organizations in
France, which never created a place for free speech for the women they were supposed to
help. Those who were in contact with women living in prostitution, through shelters, who
where condemning prostitution on principle, didnt allow the survivors of
prostitution to speak. In fact, in France the idea of being a survivor of prostitution
doesnt exist. I asked some of the organizations I was in contact with why this was
so. They said they had to protect the women who lived in prostitution, that those women
could "turn the page," or move on with their lives, that being visible would
label them as "ex-prostitute." I felt disturbed by this answer. Especially, when
I met a survivor who was working in one of those groups, who in fact wrote a book under a
pseudonym, a book called, I Turned the Page, and who always spoke of her experience
saying "she," so no one would know that "she" was "I." In
fact did she really turn the page? Is it possible to live in a society or a group which
doesnt allow you to use the "I," which accepts the law of silence, the law
of silence of the pimps, governments, police, and neighbors. Isnt this protective
relationship of grassroots groups another relation of power and domination, speaking in
the name of the victim, but keeping the victim silenced? Even though they say they look at
the person who lived in prostitution as a human being, as long as they are afraid of the
word prostitute, as long as they are afraid of the outside eye, as long as they define
prostitution through societys eye, as long as they define a person through what she
was and not for what she survived, as long as the survivors of prostitution dont
have free speech, I believe that the work will never be effective.
The concept of protection infantilizes the person. It is the reproduction of the
relation of power like between a husband and his wife. The problem is not to know if the
husband is a good husband, or if the woman wants to speak or be free, the problem is
living in a structure that does not allow you to speak as an equal. We need to have
structures and organizations that allow you to speak if you wish, and give you the
strength to use "I."
Faced with the normalization of the huge industrial sexual industry that includes
pornography, we have to fight at all levels, we have to fight to let the survivors speak.
We have to build a frame in which they can speak freely, a framework for thousands of
"I"s saying, "Pornography is not free speech. "There is no free choice
I hope one day, as soon as possible, that a collect of thousands of testimonies of
survivors of sexual exploitation will be possible, and that this will help the fight
against this new kind of "negationist" who exploits the human body as a consumer