BUDAPEST — Last month when a Polish art student installed a life-sized sculpture in a Gdansk public square of a Red Army soldier raping a pregnant woman, his activism provoked a storm of angry reactions from Russians and Poles. Critics claimed that the image of a serviceman holding a gun to a woman’s head dishonored the memory of Soviet troops and was an inappropriate commemoration of victims of wartime rape. Both the shame and the denial voiced during the Gdansk incident are typical responses to any reminder of the mass rapes perpetrated by Red Army troops during World War II, says Hungarian filmmaker Fruzsina Skrabski, whose documentary “Silenced Shame” was shown earlier this month at the 13th Hungarian Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Skrabski’s film, financed with a grant from the Hungarian government, investigates the atrocities committed by Red Army soldiers during their takeover of Hungary in 1944 and 1945 and the tyranny of silence that followed under Communism.
I met with Skrabski and the film’s producer, Zoltan Janovics, who helped translate the conversation, in a café in Budapest, to talk about the film, which has been aired on Hungarian television and shown in public theaters here.
Skrabski filmed survivors of wartime rape, women in their 80s and 90s, as they spoke publicly about their traumas for the first time in 65 years. “These women who gave interviews are heroes,” she tells me. “They don’t want young women to forget” what happened to them.
One of the film’s survivors, Magdolna Prosz, recounts in horrifying detail her attempt to resist four soldiers by clinging to her older sister, and then describes her sister’s slow death from a shot in the head following the struggle. Another witness, Mrs. Miklos Ujj, tells how women “were made to look ugly” as a form of protection: “We didn’t wash and we were covered in fleas . . . My mother made a hump for my back and I went around like that.”
According to Skrabski, it’s possible that as many as 800,000 Hungarian women were raped, and the violence included gang rape and sexual torture. Pregnancy resulting from rape was so widespread that the government suspended its ban on abortions for several months during 1945, offering abortion and STD treatment services free of charge.
Skrabski believes that “Hungarian men were also victims.” Because they were ashamed that they hadn’t been able to protect the women, she says, “[the rapes] were secrets for the men, too.”
Her documentary explores how the physical and emotional suffering of the rape victims was compounded by layers of shame–their own and that of their families–as well as by politically imposed psychological repression. Under post-war Communism, not only was it forbidden for Hungarians to criticize the Red Army, but they were required to celebrate the Soviets as their anti-fascist liberators. The women who had been raped were systemically silenced. In the film, Mrs. Lajos Vincze remembers: “You never brought the subject up—even indirectly. Forget it—that was the word. We tried to forget it.”
In a series of riveting film segments, Skrabski challenges former Soviet soldiers to recall their wartime experiences. Sitting in full regalia in the Hall of Glory of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow, the Red Army veterans deny mass rape, argue that the women infected the serviceman with STDs (not the other way around), and claim that sex was mostly consensual.
At one point, frustrated by Skrabski’s persistent questioning, a veteran reacts defensively, linking the suggestion of war crimes to a central tragedy of war, the dehumanizing of soldiers: “The hardest thing to do is to kill a person. Do you understand? You have to kill people! . . . That is the greatest mental trauma of war.”
Experts featured in “Silenced Shame” provide a more psychologically complex analysis of wartime rape. Historian Krisztian Ungvary states that “[Rape] is about power, and a soldier does it to compensate for the horrors he has been forced to suffer as an instrument of war.” A Russian scholar views rape as part of the spoils of war, “a kind of subconscious reinforcement of victory.” When Janovics, the film’s producer, echoes this, telling me “[Wartime rape] is not sexual; it’s a way to show power,” Skrabski adds: “I think it is the same way in other wars.”
But according to The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, “not all wartime sexual violence can be explained or understood in the same way.” The purpose of rape during war, why it happens and how it functions, can differ depending on the circumstances of the conflict. Gender violence can be employed as an intentional “tactical weapon” instituted by leaders, rather than occur as a random or deviant by-product of war. Rape, as a weapon, functions as a form of terroristic social control that undermines familial and societal ties and, when pregnancy results, contributes to ethnic cleansing.
The Campaign asserts that systematic, tactical rape is used today in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Burma, among others.
Regarding the impact of her film, Skrabski acknowledges that wartime rape is not unique to the Red Army; that in fact, it goes back far into history and continues today. “It is always happening,” she says, which is why she hopes the film will receive international attention. But by providing a public space for particular women to name the specific horrors of their past, she believes that “Silenced Shame” functions as an historical record and an act of remembrance.
Near the end of the film, after disclosing a harrowing trauma, survivor Gabi Kali speaks with dignity, though her pain is palpable. “I have forgiveness in my heart,” she says. “But I can never forget.” Her public remembering does not change her personal history, but it frees her from long years of censure and isolation.
Sharing intimate knowledge of the brutality experienced by these women becomes an act of solidarity for the viewer. And for those who understand that wartime rape is not restricted to the past, but is perpetrated in conflicts today at a rate of one per minute, this shared remembering becomes an extended vigil for victims worldwide.