While all concentration camp prisoners were subjected to different forms of violence and public humiliation, women lived under greater threat of sexual violence.1 The featured testimony was collected in the late 1980s—a time when rape and sexual aggression during the Holocaust were finally being discussed and studied.2 In the immediate postwar era, these experiences were often withheld from interviewers due to feelings of mistrust and shame. This testimony by Dora Goldstein Roth was recorded at a time when the vocabulary for discussing sexual violence during the Holocaust was only just emerging.3
Roth was born into an upper middle class Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland in 1932. She was only seven years old when her family fled to Vilna, Lithuania (Vilnius) following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Roth and her family were later interned in the Vilna ghetto. German forces executed her father in front of her, making Roth's mother the sole parent and authority figure in her life—an inversion of the typical gender roles in upper middle class families at the time. During the Holocaust, many Jewish women became the sole provider and protector of their children.4
After the destruction of the Vilna ghetto in 1943, Roth was deported to a series of camps with her mother and sister before arriving at the Stutthof concentration camp.5 There, Roth and her family were subjected to extremely difficult forced labor and brutal treatment.6 Neither Roth's mother nor her sister survived their time in the camp.
The featured clip from Roth’s testimony describes the mass rape of women that she witnessed at Stutthof when she was around eleven years old. Roth describes how camp guards forced all the female prisoners in the camp to stand naked in freezing temperatures for twelve hours as a collective punishment when three women had escaped the camp. The guards selected several women and brutally raped them in front of the group. Roth recalls that this was the first time she had been exposed to sex, and her mother attempted to shield her eyes. As a result, a guard dragged her mother out of line and beat her so severely that she lost all of her front teeth.
In her testimony, Roth speculates that her mother must have covered her eyes to keep her from associating sex with violence. "When I married," she says, "honest to tell you, I have never even thought about this scene...I wish my mother would have known it." Roth attributes this to her "strong nature" and an ability to "disconnect" herself from the events that she witnessed.
It would be easy to apply our own 21st century expectations and understandings of trauma to Roth’s testimony. Indeed, we might see Roth's use of the term "disconnect"—a term with psychological implications for trauma survivors—as proof of the impact that this moment had. This could also suggest a more popular understanding of "working through" trauma by separating oneself from it. Ultimately, however, we are left with Roth's own brief account of events as she understood them over forty years later—without much to guide our understanding of how this singular moment in the camp impacted her life.