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The Violence of Silence: Survivor Testimony in Political Struggle, Malka Marcovich









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 don’t 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 Lanzmann’s 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 wasn’t a Holocaust, it wasn’t a cataclysm; it was the "final solution."

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- d’Estaing’s 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" movement’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Speilberg’s 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 couldn’t 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 isn’t only history; it isn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 mother’s arm in his armpit. When J. learned this, she broke down. Today she is beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Staying alive is already a form of resistance against oppression. A minority of those who fought to stay alive didn’t die; that’s 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 isn’t the trafficking in women, anymore, that is condemned in principle. The woman who has been trafficked has to prove that she didn’t want to be trafficked, that she was forced.

Resistance isn’t 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, "I’m not a beast, I’ll 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 Barry’s Female Sexual Slavery. I didn’t 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 Hotaling’s 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 didn’t 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, didn’t allow the survivors of prostitution to speak. In fact, in France the idea of being a survivor of prostitution doesn’t 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 doesn’t allow you to use the "I," which accepts the law of silence, the law of silence of the pimps, governments, police, and neighbors. Isn’t 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 society’s 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 don’t 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 in prostitution."

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 product.


Malka Marcovich was born in France in 1959. She is a historian and a journalist with fields of specialization in "The Final Solution," the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jews in Europe, and, since 1993, sexual exploitation. She is the author of the study "The last rumor of the Just, or social collective’s sensibilities in the 60s through the success of the book, The Last of the Just, by Andr Schwarz-Bart," Ecole des Hautes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 1986. Since 1985 she has worked as a journalist. She was the interviewer for the film And Then the Silence, based on testimonies of Jewish survivors after World War II. Her latest study was "Sexual and sexist violence in high schools," Delegation aux Droits des Femmes, Vaucluse, France, 1998. Malka is also the Founder and President of Movement for the Abolition of Prostitution and Pornography and All Forms of Sexual Violence and Sexist Discrimination (MAPP) in France.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu