Dora Goldstein Roth was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland in 1932. She was only seven years old when her family fled northeastwards to Vilna, Lithuania, in 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. Roth and her family were later interned in the Vilna ghetto. Her father was executed in front of her—an event she describes as devoid of emotion at the time. Roth's mother became the sole parent and authority figure in her life—an inversion of the typical gender roles in upper middle class families. The story of Roth and her family falls into a wider trend of family roles: many Jewish women had to take on traditionally male roles during the Holocaust (for example, employment) in order to help their family survive.1 After the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, Roth, her mother and her sister were deported to Latvia, first briefly to Kaiserwald-Riga and finally to the Stutthof concentration camp.2 There, Roth and her family were subjected to particularly hard forced labor.3 Roth's mother and sister both perished in the camp.
This clip from the testimony of Dora Goldstein Roth demonstrates the complicated ways in which trauma—and specifically sexual violence—is remembered and processed by one child survivor. The interviewer prompts to describe the mass rape of women that she witnessed at Stutthof, when she was around eleven years old, prior to the deaths of her mother and sister. This short selection is part of what is an extremely disjointed, disorganized testimony that lacks chronological or thematic cohesion. It is the only moment in which sexual violence is discussed in any way. As Roth describes: three women had escaped the camp, and as a "punishment," the guards forced all female prisoners in the camp to stand naked for twelve hours, in frigid temperatures. Following this ordeal, the women were raped in front of the group. Throughout her account, Roth emphasizes her youth and inexperience. As Roth remembers it, this is the first time she had been exposed to sex and what it meant. For this reason, she explains, Roth's 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 denies any traumatic impact that this moment might have had. "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 reaction (or lack thereof) to her "strong nature," and an ability to "disconnect" herself from the events that she witnessed. Listening to Roth's harrowing account it is easy to impart our own 21st century expectations and understandings of trauma. Indeed, we might see Roth's use of the term "disconnection"—a term with psychological implications for trauma survivors—as proof of the underlying impact to this moment. Or, it instead might demonstrate a more popular understanding of "working through" trauma by separating oneself from it.4 Ultimately, we are left with Roth's somewhat contradictory account, and her own fragmented understanding of it over forty years later, with little guidance as to how this singular moment in the camp impacted her daily life.
The rape that Roth witnessed calls our attention to a particular vulnerability in the camps.5 While all prisoners were forced to carry out forced labor and were often punished in often humiliating ways, women lived under the specific threat of sexualized brutality. That said, there is new and notable research emerging regarding the rape of men within the camp system—a topic that is only now being more freely discussed.6 Similarly, this testimony was collected in the late 1980s—a time in which rape and sexual aggression during the Holocaust were finally being discussed and studied.7 By contrast, in the immediate postwar era, these stories were treated with mistrust, suspicion, and shame. This testimony, like all testimonies, exists within its own cultural moment—one in which the vocabulary for discussing sexual violence was only just emerging.