Oscar winner performs dramatic reading of work by Israeli author Nava Semel at a US symposium promoting study of a long overlooked topic

By DANIEL WEIZMANN November 9, 2012

Jane Fonda (second from left) appears with scholars Dan Leshem, Jessica Neuwirth (second from right) and Rochelle G. Saidel at a Los Angeles symposium on sexual violence during the Holocaust. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Kim Fox)

“I feel so glad that we hear about the Holocaust through firsthand accounts,” Jane Fonda said from the podium Thursday night at the Ray Kurtzman Theater in Los Angeles, addressing a private audience of scholars and historians. “Seventeen-hundred of those testimonies are of sexual violence — from those brave enough to talk about their experiences.”

The Oscar-winning actress then moved the crowd with a dramatic reading from Israeli author Nava Semel’s novel And the Rat Laughed – a stark pastiche of childhood memories, confessional poetry and a Polish priest’s diary, time-tripping from 1943 through the present to 2099.

Tackling the very darkest of material — the tale of a Jewish girl hiding in a pit with a pet rat, sexually abused by the son of a Polish farmer — the actress looked up to the ceiling and called out with her unmistakable, pleading voice, “How to tell the story?”

Fonda concluded by pointing out that the long overlooked voices of sexual victims of the Holocaust are relevant to the present — “from Yugoslavia to Rwanda to the Congo.” She introduced a short video, shot in Denver in 1995 as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation project, which has collected almost 52,000 testimonials in 32 languages.

This clip showed Manya, a rosy-cheeked, 77-year-old Auschwitz survivor, recounting how she had been pulled aside by a Nazi guard. “He said that I’m pretty. ‘She’ll do different work.’”

In the video, Manya recalls in broken English how she was taken to clean in the officer’s quarters, a private room stocked with weapons and guns. “I knew I’m in trouble because he touched me in the face,” she says.

‘This was a minor area in genocide studies. In the past, [sexual violence] was considered too specific, ‘niche,’ something for feminists’
Ultimately, he beat her and raped her, and Manya remembers that “the guard told me, ‘When [your] face will be gone, you’ll go with the fire … you see the smoke?’” He then pointed to the chimney from the nearby crematorium.

The clip ends with Manya exhorting her fellow survivors to speak out as she has.

It was serious stuff for the Kurtzman Theater, a tony venue in the Century City area that’s part of Creative Artists Agency, the talent firm created by Hollywood power brokers including former Disney head Michael Ovitz.

The video, and Fonda’s reading, marked the culmination of a groundbreaking two-day symposium attended by more than a dozen Holocaust scholars. Put together by the USC Shoah Foundation — in conjunction with Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of Remember the Women Institute, and Jessica Neuwirth, one of the founders of women’s rights organization Equality Now — the seminars brought together social historians, language professors, biological anthropologists, doctors of political science and Holocaust experts from all over the world.

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