In Support of Difficult History

Neuengamme prisoner card files. Photo by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hochhaus. CC-BY-3.0.
Neuengamme prisoner card files. Photo by Dr. Karl-Heinz Hochhaus. CC-BY-3.0.

Anna Hájková, a historian of sexuality in the Holocaust, notes that investigating queer and other “deviant” sexuality requires a certain stamina. Probing the gaps in knowledge arising from sexual stigmas – the lacunae formed when survivors “were and are…not authorized” to speak of their most intimate experience – demands close attention of researchers. It requires a careful, forensic approach, extensive legwork, long conversations with survivors and their relatives, and – it turns out – the resilience to cope with lawsuits, ethics investigations, and journalistic ad hominems. All in a day’s work.

Since spring 2019, Hájková has faced the consequences of writing about how an inmate of the Neuengamme concentration camp, Helene Sommer (a pseudonym), may have had an enforced relationship with a female guard in 1944-45. As Hájková writes in her July 2020 article for German History, the beautiful young Czech Jew was remembered by most other survivors as having had sexual relationships both with this female guard and with a male Kapo at Auschwitz. Sifting through these claims, Hájková explores the dimensions of sexual barter – including its queer variety – as a survival strategy. More broadly, she proposes that dismantling stigmas around both sexual barter and queerness can return agency to historical subjects like Sommer and restore complexity and dignity to the choices they made.

Unfortunately, this view was not shared by Sommer’s daughter, who brought charges against Hájková in Germany for insulting the “reputational dignity” of the deceased. (Germany’s exceptionally expansive posthumous privacy laws, developed after World War II in no small part to “protect” the reputation of dead Nazis, are considered problematic among some historians for obstructing research on controversial subjects.) In April 2020, the court ruled Hájková could not use Sommer’s real name or photograph in connection to any suggested lesbian relationship, but otherwise dismissed the case. Sommer’s daughter, however, brought new complaints both to the court – attempting to quash publication of Hájková’s article even after her mother’s identity was anonymized – and to Hájková’s employer, the University of Warwick.

Hájková was fined EUR 4,000 by the German court because several references to Sommer’s real name persisted on the internet in connection to Hájková’s research, despite her attempts to have these “scrubbed.” However, the court affirmed Hájková’s right to publish her research about Sommer, provided her identity was protected.

The ethics investigation at Warwick (whose ethics board, incidentally, had approved the research in 2017) is ongoing. Apparently drawing on leaks from the confidential process, The Guardian newspaper has meanwhile shamed itself with two biased and misleading pieces by the journalist David Batty (Oct. 8 and Dec. 21, 2020). Bypassing any of the legitimate legal, ethical, and historical questions raised by the case, the lurid headline of the first piece (“Holocaust survivor’s daughter takes historian to court over claim of lesbian liaison with Nazi guard”) veered into homophobic territory with its implication that a “lesbian liaison” is a transgressive insult to a woman’s memory (Sommer’s probable affair with a male Kapo was not mentioned). The second piece – “Court fines historian over claims of Holocaust survivor’s lesbian affair” – failed to mention the crucial fact that the court also vindicated Hájková’s right to write about Sommer (for a more balanced view, see Der Spiegel’s coverage here). The article centers upon criticism that Hájková failed to consult a key source, a roommate of Sommer’s in Neuengamme, who unequivocally stated in her memoirs that she witnessed no physical relations between Sommer and the guard. In fact, Hájková explicitly cited and responded to the survivor’s claims in her article, a fact that Batty did not mention despite having full access to the text – allowing Sommer’s daughter’s groundless charges of Hájková’s “unprofessionalism” to go unchallenged.

Several collective letters to the editor from noted historians, German studies, and queer studies scholars – politely objecting to the first Guardian article – were met with silence; none were published, with no explanation given. We now feel the time for politeness is over.

Those of us who study the Holocaust – or any difficult subject – have a responsibility to go where our investigations lead us, and sometimes to ask questions that may be painful or troubling. Hájková’s work on the role of sexuality in the Holocaust is not only a legitimate part of the historical inquiry but reveals a bravery and courage that is as welcome as it is rare. Seeing the harassment Hájková has endured, however, could easily discourage other scholars from taking equivalent risks. In our open letter of support for Anna Hájková, we call for a research ethics that respects the privacy of historical subjects without reinforcing homophobia or sexual stigma – or punishing those who take on these difficult questions.

We express our strongest support for our colleague Dr. Anna Hájková, who has been subject to arbitrary and unfair attacks for her pioneering and courageous work in the field of Holocaust Studies. We invite people to join us in signing the attached letter (available here) by sending a note to mike.beckerman@gmail.com or kate.lebow@gmail.com.

Dr. Michael Beckerman | New York University

Dr. Katherine Lebow | University of Oxford

13 Comments

  1. Responsible Sexuality studies of the Holocaust are justified. This persecution follows the path of the “scrubbing” of Emily Dickinson’s letters to Sue Gilbert, the near burning of Ann Lister’s journals and so on and so on. Full support for Dr Hajkova.

  2. Laws on “reputational dignity” should not be used to censor history. The present should not have primacy over victimization in the past.

  3. Omitting whether German law is an ass, there seem to me 4 unresolved factors:

    1. Whether Dr Hajkova understood her obligations under German law prior to or during her research, or if not could have been expected to.

    2. Therefore whether she negligently contributed to references to the subject’s actual name in this context persisting online, or was sloppy or merely fallible.

    3. Whether Dr Hajkova gave fair weight to any testimony or evidence contrary to her conclusions (so was ethical), or was biased eg selective with or omitted it.

    4. Poor, damaging reporting by the Guardian, omitting the key proviso of the judgment.

  4. Est-ce que cette historienne n’aurait pas été initiallement un peu imprudente juridiquement avec un léger “manque de tact” par rapport aux familles et descendants ?

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