Allison Somogyi lectures about discourses surrounding sexual violence in post-war testimonies

Tue, 09/08/2020 - 10:27pm

“Walking a Fine Line: Hungarian-Jewish Survivors and the Discourse Surrounding Sexual Violence in Postwar Testimonies”

Allison Somogyi

USC-Yale Postdoctoral Research Fellow

August 27, 2020

For its first online lecture of this fall semester, the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research welcomed the 2019-2020 USC-Yale Postdoctoral Research Fellow Allison Somogyi. Dr. Somogyi delivered a lecture about her postdoctoral research, which was made possible by the joint support of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the USC Libraries Collections Convergence Initiative, and the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research. In her lecture, entitled “Walking a Fine Line: Hungarian-Jewish Survivors and the Discourse Surrounding Sexual Violence in Postwar Testimonies,” Dr. Somogyi comparatively examined accounts of sexual violence by Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors who gave interviews to both the Fortunoff Video Archive and the USC Shoah Foundation.

Dr. Somogyi opened her lecture by pointing out that sexual violence against women proliferated in the final stages of World War II and its immediate aftermath. In Budapest alone, she emphasized, Soviet soldiers raped approximately 50,000 women, or 10% of the city’s female population. According to Dr. Somogyi, this exacerbated the trauma carried by Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors, as some of them had witnessed or directly experienced sexual violence perpetrated not only by the Nazis and their collaborators, but also by the survivors’ fellow prisoners and even rescuers who hid them during the war.

 After the war, discussions about these experiences were silenced and any topics of a sexual nature were considered shameful and taboo. Dr. Somogyi noted that it took decades for the public to become receptive and encouraging of survivor testimony. Yet, even when that shift occurred, the topic of sexual violence remained taboo. Such circumstances were reflected in the scholarship on the subject. Dr. Somogyi pointed out that women were largely absent from literature on the Holocaust up until the 1980s. In late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, scholarly attention turned to women as nurturers, mothers, and caregivers, and a number of scholars, such as Marion Kaplan, sought to apply the lens of gender to the broader field of Jewish history. However, Dr. Somogyi emphasized that it was not until 2010 that the first English-language book focusing specifically on sexual violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust was published. She noted that her postdoctoral project aligns with a movement that pushes for greater visibility of women and gender in the Holocaust.

Next, Dr. Somogyi turned to her project. During her yearlong postdoctoral research, she identified and analyzed 109 testimonies of Hungarian Jewish women. Her research also focused on the testimonies of seven additional Jewish women who spent time in Hungary during the war, as well as 83 testimonies of Hungarian Jewish men and 16 Jewish men who spent some time in Hungary during the war, for a total of 215 testimonies of Hungarian Jewish survivors who gave their testimonies to both the Fortunoff Video Archive and the USC Shoah Foundation. During her research, she analyzed the differences in the ways survivors recounted sexual violence in their testimonies. She offered a brief history of both archives, their testimony collection and interviewing methodology. Dr. Somogyi’s aim was to discern whether survivors were more willing to discuss sensitive topics, such as sexual violence, in their 1990s testimonies for the USC Shoah Foundation compared to their testimonies recorded for the Fortunoff Video Archive in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dr. Somogyi discovered that this temporal distance between the two testimony-gathering projects did not significantly affect survivors’ willingness to discuss sexual violence.

In the second part of her lecture, Dr. Somogyi provided ample space for survivors’ voices themselves, playing extended clips and giving the attendees an opportunity to note the ways they discuss sexual violence in their testimonies. She started this section with a variety of testimony clips from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to illustrate the varied ways survivors discuss rape and sexual assault in their testimonies. Next, to highlight the differences in how the same survivor discussed sexual violence in separate testimonies, first filmed by the Fortunoff Video Archive and later by the USC Shoah Foundation, Dr. Somogyi played a series of clips. In particular, she showed longer excerpts from Frances Goldstein’s 1980 Fortunoff Video Archive interview and her testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation in 1996. In her 1980 Fortunoff Video Archive testimony, Goldstein was interrupted during her discussion of sexual violence, but she made a point of returning to that story and recounting it in full. However, during her 1996 interview for the USC Shoah Foundation, Goldstein does not mention that particular story at all. Dr. Somogyi speculated that her openness on the topic in the 1980 Fortunoff Video Archive interview might be due to the presence of Goldstein’s sister, providing moral and emotional support needed to insist on finishing her story. Dr. Somogyi also pointed out that this example demonstrates the crucial role of the interviewer in encouraging or silencing survivors’ recounting of sexual violence. She showed other clips of Frances Goldstein’s testimony where stories were more similar. Dr. Somogyi concluded her lecture by showing a clip from an “outlier” testimony by Lilly Wolf. In her 1995 interview for the USC Shoah Foundation, she openly shared two personal experiences of sexual assault, despite frequent interruptions by the interviewer. In ending her presentation, Dr. Somogyi argued that social norms and taboos that shaped survivors’ narratives are still relevant today in that they inform our understanding of the external factors that might encourage someone who had previously denied an assault to later share more of her story. Dr. Somogyi concluded that, despite the differences in interviewing methodologies evident in the Fortunoff Video Archive and USC Shoah Foundation testimonies, female survivors rarely shared their experiences of sexual assault in their postwar testimonies.

Dr. Somogyi’s lecture was followed by an extended Q&A session covering wide-ranging questions from the audience, which included but were not limited to questions about the impact of differing interviewing methodologies on the discussion of sexual violence; whether Dr. Somogyi analyzed testimonies in other languages, such as Hungarian and Yiddish; whether Dr. Somogyi plans on integrating approaches from other disciplines; and whether she analyzed experiences of sexual violence recounted by men.

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