Lauren Cantillon Lectures on Women's Narratives of Sexual(ized) Violence During the Holocaust

Fri, 04/09/2021 - 4:36pm

“Challenging the Shame Paradigm: Jewish Women’s Narratives of Sexual(ized) Violence During the Holocaust”

Lauren Cantillon (PhD candidate in the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries at King’s College London, UK)

2020-2021 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies

March 25, 2021

Lauren Cantillon, the 2020-2021 Robert J. Katz Research Fellow in Genocide Studies at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered an online lecture that marked the end of her monthlong virtual residency at the Center. The lecture was cosponsored by the USC Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Cantillon presented on Jewish women’s narratives of sexual(ized) violence during the Holocaust, focusing primarily on those women who challenged the so-called “shame paradigm” by sharing their experiences of sexual violence. The research Cantillon conducted during her fellowship at the Center is part of her broader dissertation project in which, among other questions, she explores the diversity of feelings and emotions expressed by Jewish women that look past the dominant paradigm of shame and silence to provide a more nuanced understanding of women’s emotions in the public recounting of their memories of sexual(ized) violence. During her residency, Cantillon watched 1,144 segments from 884 testimonies of female Jewish Holocaust survivors housed in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. Through her research, she identified 386 women who recount their own firsthand experiences of sexual(ized) violence.

Cantillon opened her lecture by reflecting on her research methodology and the challenges she experienced in watching such a significant number of testimony excerpts in such a short period of time. Next, she discussed her analysis of the three main ways that narratives of sexual(ized) violence emerge in interviews. In the first way she identified, narratives about sexual(ized) violence are embedded within Jewish women’s broader Holocaust narratives, are part of the interview chronology conditioned by the interviewing methodology of the interviewing institution, and are connected to other memories of events they recount that took place at the same location. The second pattern of emergence that Cantillon identified is one in which women break away from the chronological structure of the interview to include a detail they failed to mention previously. Cantillon noted that this “breakaway” pattern of emergence is especially important because it demonstrates women’s agency in their decision to tell these stories of sexual(ized) violence publicly. The third and final way in which these narratives emerge results from the interviewer’s general questions that are not directly related to sexual assault. Cantillon argued that there is a significant number of Jewish women survivors for whom it is not challenging to integrate their experiences of gendered violence into their broader narrative about the Holocaust.

In the next part of her lecture, Cantillon discussed the feelings and emotions present in women's recountings of their memories of sexual(ized) violence. Cantillon reflected on some of the scholarly works and theories around feelings and emotions, particularly the feeling of shame, that shape her own thinking about emotions in relation to the recounting of sexual(ized) violence. Specifically, Cantillon highlighted Regina Mühlhäuser’s writings about stigma and shame in the aftermath of sexual violence and the ways those have influenced Cantillon's work.

After outlining the theoretical underpinnings of her research, Cantillon turned to her analysis of three women's firsthand accounts of sexual(ized) violence that she discovered in Visual History Archive testimonies. First, Cantillon played a clip from the testimony of Lucyna Goldberg, who was the first woman Cantillon encountered who expressed anger about her experience of sexual(ized) violence. In analyzing a brief testimony excerpt, Cantillon noted that while at first she classified Lucyna Goldberg as being angry while recounting her experience, she later realized that the word indignant would be a better choice and more in line with Goldberg’s micro-points of her recounting. Cantillon discussed how the clip provoked her to consider the relation between indignation and shame. Analyzing how Goldberg expresses her indignation, Cantillon plans to further explore whether shame can have a transformative power in compelling people to share accounts of sexual(ized) violence. Such an approach challenges the prevalent notion of shame being a key factor in why there is a perceived lack of firsthand accounts of sexual(ized) violence. Next, Cantillon played a clip from Olga Kovacs’ testimony in which Olga Kovacs recounts what she terms as a gynecological search she experienced before being deported to Auschwitz from the Salgótarján ghetto in Hungary. Using this excerpt, Cantillon drew attention to the vocabulary Kovacs employs to describe the sexual assault she experienced, noting that listeners are required to restore the violence and sexuality back into the narrative from which it has been deflected by the use of medical terminology. Cantillon herself terms this type of sexual assault a “vaginal assault,” emphasizing that this is the most frequent type of assault Jewish women of all ages experienced in various settings and contexts during the Holocaust, but also the type that has been most obscured and camouflaged by the use of medical terminology. Then Cantillon turned to the third and final clip, one from the testimony of Inge Frank who recounts her experience of sexual assault and her feeling of shame that followed, but also her anger. In analyzing Frank’s recounting, Cantillon pointed to the duality of the opposing stances Inge expresses in her retelling: the awareness that the rape was not her fault and her feeling of being ashamed. This, Cantillon noted, points to the duality between the survivor’s self-understanding and external, wider impositions of shame, which she also plans to explore more in her research.

In the final section of her lecture, Cantillon reflected on the way the Visual History Archive’s indexing thesaurus and search engine shape her work. Cantillon pointed to the disparity between indexing of overt stories of sexual violence and more covert and nuanced recounting in the archive, which, she argued, has an impact on knowledge production and memory. Cantillon argued that this is especially the case with stories of child sexual assault that are often not indexed as such. Cantillon expressed her pleasure at being invited to help improve the archive’s indexing in this domain. She concluded her lecture by reflecting on how transformative her experience of working with the Visual History Archive has been.

Cantillon’s lecture was followed by a long and lively Q&A session that included questions about whether Cantillon noticed any differences in survivors’ recounting sexual violence according to the interviewer’s gender; which group of perpetrators – Nazis, bystanders, or fellow prisoners –  most frequently perpetrated sexual violence; Cantillon’s reasons behind choosing the term “sexual(ized)” violence; how it was for Cantillon to be immersed in the project amidst the upsurge of violence against women in the UK and following the death of Sarah Everard; how often did Cantillon encounter what she calls the “breakaway” pattern of emergence of stories of sexual violence; Cantillon’s recommendations on how to approach the topic of sexual violence in future interviews; and whether Cantillon encountered differences in the way survivors recount their experiences of sexual violence in interviews they gave for different institutions.

Summary by Badema Pitic

Lecture image is a detail from "Roll Call" by Ella Liebermann-Shiber. Courtesy of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Art Collection. 

Badema Pitic