Hidden History: Sexual Violence Against Women & Survivor’s Guilt in World War II


There are many stories about World War II: those of horror from the concentration camps, of the heroism of the men and women who fought in battles or as spies behind enemy lines, and of fortitude in the face of deprivation and disaster on the home front.

Mary Chamberlain’s new novel, The Hidden (Oneworld, 2019), explores a different war. She focuses on three themes: the occupation of the Channel Islands, sexual violence against women captives at the hands of the Nazis, and the guilt and shame that many people took with them out of the war and into their peacetime lives.

As she says about the first of these three:

The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during the Second World War. Although there have been two recent films set in the Channel Islands during this period (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Another Mother’s Son), the occupation is not widely discussed, or even much known about, and rarely mentioned within the current, popular narrative of plucky little Britain standing up to, and alone against, the behemoth of Nazi Germany. I wanted to tell a different version of war, and of our occupation, less driven by the spirits of Dunkirk and the Blitz, more akin to a common European experience.

The novel is based around two main characters: Dora, who in 1942 is a young Jewish nurse who has already fled the Nazis once when Jersey is occupied by the Germans, and Joe, a Catholic priest struggling with his calling. It follows them over two distinct time periods, during the war itself and then in the 1980s, when a young German woman struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the war comes into their lives and forces them to revisit their past.

Chamberlain was inspired to write Dora’s character after hearing two true-life experiences. One was that of a concentration camp survivor who, she says, “had been approached to enter a ‘Muttiheim’ (brothel) – her good looks and complexion had earmarked her as ‘Aryan’ even though – and this is the irony – she was Jewish.”  The other was the experience of a friend’s cousin, Marianne Grunfeld, who, Chamberlain notes, “had escaped Germany, taken a job in Guernsey and was trapped there when the Germans invaded. She lived and worked openly until she was betrayed as Jewish, and deported in 1942 where she died in, or on the way to, Auschwitz.”

Chamberlain goes on to say, “I wanted to talk about these brave and gorgeous women, to breathe life into them, and to talk about women and war because there are many stories, still, which play down or ignore the gender dimension of conflict.”

One of the problems that the author had in doing this was the lack of direct evidence. As she explains:

Sexual violence was not considered a crime against humanity as defined in 1945, so, unlike other war crimes, the evidence was not collected. Incidental evidence, however, revealed that women prisoners were used in brothels in the Nazi concentration camps, and kidnapped into prostitution in Eastern Europe. The women who had been trafficked during the war did not speak out after – out of shame or fear, or both. They left no record, in terms of memoir, or testimony, much like the women today who are trafficked across continents to work in the brothels of Europe and elsewhere…

I turned to other published accounts to understand how women in the brothels survived …What rang through loud and clear was the ability of the women to switch off, to disassociate from the abuse. Whatever the strategy, the result was dehumanisation. I had to try and convey that, along with despair and the oppressive reality of being captive, through my imagination.

Dora’s experiences at the hands of the Nazis leave her traumatised, and when peace comes she is treated roughly by the islanders for ‘collaboration.’ The novel’s other protagonist, Joe, is also shattered and guilt-ridden from his war-time experience. As the author says:

All of this drove them to repress their experiences, a repression reflected in a wider, public silence around the occupation and the individual traumas of those caught under it. We now know how long trauma can last, how viciously it can eat into an individual’s memory, self-esteem and personality. Certainly, after the war, the effects of post-traumatic stress were poorly understood, if at all, and were thought in any case to apply only to battlefield stress, not to those held captive, let alone women.

With its themes of trauma, sexual violence and betrayal, Chamberlain’s novel could have been bleak. But these stories are something conventional academic history does not always show us. Chamberlain notes:

I could have told the story of women working as forced prostitutes from archive sources, if they exist. I could have told the story of the abused slave labourers. But to tell the story of one such woman and one such man, to invest in them the fears and hopes, the panoply of bruised, desperate emotions, the strategies for survival and the costs of silence, offers a version that a historian could not dare to pursue.

The Hidden deals with difficult, sometimes harrowing subject matter. It reminds us that the wounds made by war cause pain long after the last guns have been fired, but also that there are many types of heroism – and they too are a legacy which should not be forgotten.

About the contributor: Charlotte Wightwick is a prize-winning writer who has written for the History Girls blog, as well as articles and reviews for the HNS.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)

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