When Professor Agatha Schwartz watched the 2008 movie A Woman in Berlin, the true story of a German woman who was raped by Red Army soldiers near the end World War II, she was “just flabbergasted.” And surprised that few people were talking about these atrocities. Sorting through the little research that had been conducted in this field, she decided to make a meaningful contribution to preserving and telling the stories of women who have been traumatized by wartime rape.
Her collaborative research project, “Children of the Enemy”: Narrative constructions of Identity Following Wartime Rape and Transgenerational Trauma in Post-WW II Germany and Post-Conflict Bosnia, examines the narratives of women who suffered sexual violence, and the lives of children born of that violence, at the end of WW II in Germany and post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995). Funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, the team conducted a series of personal interviews with survivors, their children and family members, examined published narratives such as testimonials and first person narratives, and studied films that deal with the trauma of wartime rape and its consequences.
“We are creating ruptures in the predominantly homogenous narrative about what happened.”
The team is now analyzing these interviews, focusing on how people see themselves, how they talk about their trauma, and what they choose to say – or not to say – about it. As Agatha points out, these women and children (who are now adults) had to make incredibly difficult choices, and their trauma often shows up in what isn’t said, in the silences, omissions, and in their body language.
“When you deal with sensitive research subjects, you have to keep in mind that you may not always get the data you want...that's why it's fascinating, what we got out of it, it was not necessarily what we thought at the beginning...”
The team’s preliminary results show a number of common threads running through these narratives and these two very different historical episodes. This makes the project’s conclusions incredibly relevant beyond their historical and cultural contexts; their findings are applicable in other contemporary situations, like in the case of the traumas suffered by Yazidi women and children born out of the violence during ISIS occupations. The research is also challenging previously accepted truths about wartime rape by proving that there are multiple narratives about sexual violence in war: “We are creating ruptures in the predominantly homogeneous narrative about what happened,” says Agatha.
For the Modern Languages and Literatures professor, the research has not been without challenges. Only a small number of women and children have been willing to come forward to share their stories, likely because – even after 70 years in the case of WW II – a stigma still persists around wartime rape and the difficult choices women faced, and still continue to face. In Bosnia only about a dozen survivors, out of 40 to 50 thousand women who were assaulted, were willing to be interviewed. For some of them, the researchers were the first people to whom they had ever told their story. In both contexts, the researchers were also able to interview children of wartime rape. While children are starting to come forward, some even publishing their stories, it is still difficult to get people to talk publicly about their experiences. But this is the nature of such research: “When you deal with sensitive research subjects, you have to keep in mind that you may not always get the data you want to get. And so that’s why it’s fascinating, what we got out of it, it was not necessarily what we thought at the beginning…”.
“We are hearing the stories of extremely courageous and strong people... it is our responsibility to preserve them and to pass them on.”
Agatha says that one of the most important things she’s learned is that the people who were willing to talk are fiercely resilient: “We are hearing the stories of extremely courageous and strong people.” These are people who went on to have families and successful lives, who maintained a façade that camouflaged their trauma for decades and never talked about it. What the team discovered, though, is that eventually many survivors could no longer keep silent and needed to talk about their secret to a family member, sometimes even on their deathbed. “They had to say this is what happened, this is my truth, and it’s so important to find that empathic listener at some point who is just there as a kind of carrying vessel for their story.” She adds that the ethical challenge for the research team is huge – “Now we carry these stories and it is our responsibility to preserve them and to pass them on.”