The Holocaust Is Having a #MeToo Moment

How should we handle Holocaust victims who also suffered sexual violence—at the hands of other Holocaust victims?

By Anna Hájková|October 8, 2019 12:00 AM


Long silenced and denied, the question of sexual violence during the Holocaust has been the focus of growing interest in the past two decades. As Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua has argued [1], it is time for a #MeToo moment in Holocaust studies. A particular sore spot is the fact that not all instances of sexual violence were perpetrated by Nazis or bystanders: A significant number of cases of rape and sexual coercion took place among Holocaust victims themselves. The realization that some, overwhelmingly male, victims assaulted other victims makes for a particularly disturbing insight. How are we to make sense of it in our understanding of the Shoah? Some may ask whether it is even relevant to the bigger picture; in most cases, both victims and perpetrators were murdered by the Nazis.

I believe it is important. The society of Holocaust victims was a human society. As in ours, some people chose to engage in sexual violence. For some of them, this was a pattern carried over from earlier life; for others, it was conduct that emerged from their experience of persecution. The victims, men and boys, women and girls, were almost always shamed into silence. The wider society made them feel that they were complicit in their sexual assault, and that they ought to stay silent for decency’s sake. But the victims struggled, not only with memories of the persecution, but also with the assaults they experienced from fellow prisoners. We need to listen to their stories and recover them.

In April 2019, Amanda Petrusich wrote the story of Erich Vogel [2], a Czech Jewish jazz musician who survived the Holocaust, for New Yorker online. As moving as the story was, it was marred by imprecision and mistakes, and at least one aspect seems to have been taken out of context for effect. Such problems are frequent enough in mainstream writing about the Holocaust. But for a publication whose reporting helped to initiate the #MeToo movement, the most egregious omission was the erasure of sexual violence. Petrusich mentioned that Vogel’s wife, the table tennis champion Traute Kleinová-Schallingerová, married a sports teacher, Jacques Schallinger, before the war, and that all three were deported to Theresienstadt. What was missing was that, in Theresienstadt, Schallinger reportedly sexually extorted a young woman, Erna Frischmannová.

Frischmannová, born in 1921, grew up as an only child in an assimilated middle-class family in the town of Golčův Jeníkov. In 1940, the family moved to nearby Kolín, where Frischmannová worked for the local Jewish council and met her fiancé, the lawyer František Aschermann. In June 1942, the Jews of Kolín, including Frischmannová, her parents, and the Aschermann family, were deported to Theresienstadt.

The Theresienstadt ghetto, which the Nazis set up in November 1941 as a transit camp for Central European Jews, was run by a Jewish self-administration, headed by a Jewish Elder. The SS oversaw the ghetto, but rather than engaging in the work of administration themselves, the commandant and some 30 officers supervised the Jewish administration. Everyone in the ghetto between the ages of 18 and 65 was expected to work, and the organization of labor was undertaken by the Labor Center, which was a stronghold of Czech Zionists. Frischmannová, coming from an assimilated family that considered themselves Czech first and foremost, was assigned to work in one of the offices there due to her administrative experience. In that job, she recalled 40 years later in an interview, “I started to learn the hard facts of life.”

The shifts in her office often lasted until late in the evening. After work, male workers would normally accompany their female colleagues to their quarters. One evening, Frischmannová’s male colleague was Jacques Schallinger, whom she vaguely knew. As soon as they left work, Schallinger proclaimed that he was going to have sex with her, and he told her how that intercourse would take place.

Born Jakub Schallinger in 1905 in Ivančice, Moravia, Jacques Schallinger (he adopted the French version of his given name) later moved to Brno, where he began working as a sports teacher for Maccabi, the Zionist Jewish youth association, where he was a colleague of the gay couple Fredy Hirsch and Jan Mautner [4]; in Theresienstadt, Hirsch would play an important role in child care. In 1932, Maccabi opened its table tennis section, which Schallinger headed. One of the people who soon began playing there was the Brno native Traute Kleinová, born in 1918, who became a world table tennis champion under Vogel’s prewar tutelage. In 1939, she and Schallinger were married, and in December 1941, they were deported to Theresienstadt, where Traute continued playing in the sports division of the ghetto’s Recreation Department.

Jacques Schallinger (©️ Brno Jewish Community)

Frischmannová rejected Schallinger’s advance, reminding him that he was married—she had met Traute when she visited Schallinger at work—and that she herself had a fiancé. “In short, no interest, thank you,” she said.

Schallinger’s answer indicated that he was willing to use coercion to get his way: “Do you know, that in a fortnight’s time, there is a transport to the East?” Frischmannová rejected him again; she did not take the threat seriously.

Two weeks later, she and her parents received notifications summoning them for the upcoming transport. “My father ran in, white as a sheet of paper, ‘I am in,’” Frischmannová recalled. She confronted Schallinger and remembered their conversation as follows: “‘Is this your work?’ ‘Yes, but if you are willing to accept my conditions, I can get you out. But not your parents.’ So I said, ‘No, thank you.’”

On Sept. 1, 1942, 1,002 people were deported to Raasiku in Estonia, among them Frischmannová and her parents.

To understand Schallinger’s actions, two things must be taken into account. First, while it was the Nazis who decided when transports would take place, where they would go, and how many people would be included, compiling the actual names on the list was the job of the Jewish self-administration. To this end, each of the departments drew up rankings based on “indispensability”—that is, importance to the upkeep of the ghetto. Schallinger, a long-standing Zionist who was well connected, was able to assign Frischmannová a lower rank, or ensure in some other way that she ended up on the transport list. The prisoners in Theresienstadt did not know, at that point, that the transport meant death, but they assumed that many of those deported to the East would die.

Second, Schallinger’s extortion is an instance of sexual violence, but not rape. The victim, Frischmannová, still had a measure of agency. She had a choice between two bad options: giving in to sexual extortion, or being deported with her parents, which she rightly feared could mean death. But we need to recognize that this was a valid choice, and Frischmannová chose to exercise it.

Feminist Holocaust historians like Joan Ringelheim have documented many cases of rape between prisoners—assault without choice. Schallinger’s extortion is violent sexual barter. That does not make it less problematic or criminal. But it did give the victim the possibility of deciding whether or not to give in. It should go without saying that either decision was absolutely up to the victim, and neither choice would make Frischmannová any less honorable.

***

After five days in transit, Frischmannová’s transport arrived in Raasiku. The German security police forced the newly arrived Czech Jews to undergo a selection. Some 200 young people were selected for forced labor; the remaining 800, including Frischmannova’s parents, were sent on trucks to the sand dunes of Kalevi Liiva, where they were shot by an Estonian police unit.

Frischmannová and 150 other women were sent to a concentration camp in Jägala, Estonia, and then to a series of other camps in Estonia, to Stutthof in August 1944, to satellite camps of Neuengamme in Hamburg, and finally to Bergen-Belsen. Their camp odyssey has been recounted in Lukáš Přibyl’s award-winning documentary Forgotten Transports. Fewer than 50 of these women survived until liberation; one of them was Frischmannová, who endured other experiences of sexual violence, one involving a German commandant at the Goldfields camp.

One of the things that kept Frischmannová going was the hope of seeing Schallinger brought to justice. But by the time she was liberated, she no longer cared. Her parents had been murdered; her fiancé was deported to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944 and killed there. Jacques Schallinger was deported soon after Aschermann and did not return. Traute and Jacques were deported separately; Traute went with a later transport, a  circumstance that may cast light on the state of their marriage: Almost always, if possible, families were deported together, and the Jewish self-administration accepted and received female volunteers for the transport that sent Jacques to Auschwitz.

Traute survived; upon returning to Czechoslovakia, she was reunited with her old table tennis trainer, the trumpeter Erich Vogel, and they became a couple. In order to be married, Traute had to provide evidence of her husband’s death. The file on his death includes two witnesses who recalled that Jacques Schallinger, 39 years old, was sent to the gas chamber upon arrival at Auschwitz. With her husband’s death thus recognized, Traute and Erich were able to marry in 1947; a year later, they emigrated to the United States.

Erna Frischmannová stayed in Czechoslovakia. Immediately after liberation, she was approached by the former rabbi of Kolín, Richard Feder, who was preparing a book about the Holocaust of the Czech Jews, titled Jewish Tragedy: The Last Act. He asked her to write a chapter about her camp odyssey. She considered writing about Schallinger’s extortion, but decided not to; she worshipped Rabbi Feder and did not think her experience would fit into the book. In fact, Feder removed parts of her narrative that he considered “girl stories.”

Frischmannová married, but was soon left a widow, with a small son. She remarried, and in 1968 emigrated with her family to Great Britain, where her husband had spent the war years.

***

Forty years after the war, with the advent of Holocaust oral history, Frischmannová began speaking about her experience of sexual violence—first in an interview [5] with the British Library Oral History Division, later for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, and then to Lukáš Přibyl, who kindly drew my attention to it. “I sorted my memories,” Frischmannová told me in 2017. “This is the true context of how it happened. This is the definite truth.”

I have published [6] and lectured about Schallinger’s sexual assault, but I was curious whether Schallinger had any relatives and what they knew about him, and I wanted to inform them of this difficult history. I eventually found out that two of his sisters had survived and was able to locate Schallinger’s nephew, Milan Singer, who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Sweden in 1968. Today, he is a retiree.

When I reached out to Singer and told him what I knew, he did not at first want to acknowledge the whole story: “I don’t think the things you describe are so terrible. I think it’s normal for a healthy man to go after a young and pretty girl, and it’s also normal that she might not like it and would see it as sexual harassment. But for what came after, the transport, the question is whether this wasn’t just an accident, and if Erna didn’t draw the wrong conclusions.”

A bit desperate that Frischmannová’s story would go unheard, I shared her own words with Schallinger’s nephew. Frischmannová’s testimony changed Singer’s view, and he admitted, “I read it all several times carefully and it makes me sick. Clearly the events unfolded as you said, and it will take a few days for me to digest everything.”

After some time, Singer approached me again, saying he wanted to reach out to Frischmannová and apologize. None of this was his fault, but he was his uncle’s only living relative, and it was important to him. Generously, he also gave me permission to quote his words. Singer’s acceptance of Frischmannová’s testimony, and his apology, were what I had hoped for: acknowledgement of a painful, difficult past, and an attempt to make amends as a belated form of justice.

Today, Erna Frischmannová is 98 years old. When I asked her what she thought of Schallinger after all this time, she answered laconically, “He was a disgusting guy, one of many disgusting guys.” At the same time, he was also a Holocaust victim.

The story of Schallinger’s assault raises questions about what we consider appropriate history, the ethics of including sexual violence in that history, and the general messiness of human behavior at all times, and even during the Holocaust. We do not know whether Frischmannová was Schallinger’s only victim, and we know nothing about his behavior before the war; today we are aware that the job of sports coach is not always benign. While his gay Maccabi colleague Fredy Hirsch was accused of untoward behavior toward children [4], Schallinger’s conduct shows that heterosexual sexual violence, though it clearly took place, was far less likely to be inquired into or acknowledged, and that victims had little recourse under the Jewish self-administration.

Frischmannová, courageous and patient, sought a different strategy: She found her voice and testified to her assault, even though her story was long deemed unsuitable for inclusion in Holocaust history. Yet she spoke out repeatedly until someone listened. It is my belief that we need to take evidence of sexual violence seriously, and not treat it as marginal to the stories we tell. This not only makes for better understanding of the Holocaust; it is the most ethical approach to the genocide.

***

You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today [7].

Find this story online: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/292226/holocaust-metoo-moment