A few weeks ago, I published a difficult story on this board. I dug into a term known in the concentration camp universe. A pipel, or a sex slave. Basically, these young prisoners received privileges – extra food, removed from the grueling exhaustion of the work detail, protected from the frigid climate (except during roll call), and shielded from the selections – for a staggering cost. Sexual abuse came their way. For sex – for rape – these prisoners gained a shield. Their overlords/abusers became their protectors.
In the story, I documented certain events of one pipel. His name was Stephan Ross. His story did not specifically conform to the established definition of a pipel. Different perpetrators abused him. Stephan Ross did not serve one boss and that boss did not, in return, protect him. But Ross did what he had to do to survive.
Since publishing Ross’s story, I have received some backlash. I want to concentrate on one reader’s response. Anna P. wrote, “You asked about consent? You implied pleasure? What an extravagance of a question! This man, then a boy, was raped. What were you thinking?”
Anna’s words have remained with me these past few days, and I want to respond. Here’s what I was thinking. In his iconic memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel introduced one boy prisoner as a “pipel” during a hanging scene. He alone among the multitudes of eyewitness accounts submitted the pipel description. As I detailed in my new biography on Wiesel, The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), Wiesel framed an outlier. He alone described the boy prisoner as a “sad angel.” He alone framed a Christ-like death scene. Crucifixion 32, C.E., shifted to Crucifixion 1944. Golgotha met Auschwitz.
One eyewitness to the hanging, in an author interview, tacitly suggested that Wiesel worked the pipel detail into his scene as a self-referent. When I pushed him further on the detail, he walked back his meaning. “You have to ask him,” he said, meaning Wiesel.
But the question remained with me while I dug into Wiesel’s work. Why did he alone invoke the pipel referent?
The question gets a little more gristly. Wiesel didn’t stop with Night. This research did not make it into GAEW, but Wiesel didn’t end his framing with Night. As his literary record indicates, he returned to the framing in his third book, known as The Accident, but sometimes called Day. Wiesel chewed on sex slavery at Auschwitz, and notably this notion of consent.
Let’s dig in. The scene occurred as a set piece in The Accident. Wiesel introduced a character named Sarah. Like Stephan Ross, Sarah was not the specific definition of a pipel. Like Stephan Ross, she did not serve one boss and she was not, in return, protected by that boss. Sarah, the reader learns, became a prostitute, a playmate for the enlisted men.
In fact, there were two official brothels at Auschwitz (and officially ten death camp brothels). The largest brothel at Auschwitz, located near the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in Block 24, went by the nickname “Puff.” Peepholes in the doors to the rooms ensured that only Nazi-tolerated sexual positions were used.
Yes, you read that sentence correctly. The Nazi hierarchy controlled even the most private details of German life. A Nazified research institute, The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, considered the military position the most clean. Further, the women were sterilized, and had disinfectant cream routinely smeared over their genitals.
Today, Block 24 services the IT department of the Auschwitz State Museum. The peepholes remain.
The literary record indicates that the first major work to chronicle the Auschwitz brothels appeared in 1953. The author, Yehiel Feiner, was born in Sosnowiec, Poland. He entered Auschwitz in 1943. After the war, he immigrated to British-mandated Palestine. There, he changed his name to Yehiel De-Nur and began a writing career. He didn’t use his adopted name as his pen name, but rather his camp number along with the Yiddish term for camp inmate. He became Ka-Tzetnik 135633.
In 1953, De-Nur published his most famous novel on the Joy Division, or female Jewish prisoners used by the Germans for their sexual pleasure. Officially, the Germans did not permit racial mixing with Untermenschen – or sub-humans, as the doctrine asserted – but we all know the hypocrisy of bureaucracy. The brothels were just another humiliation tactic.
De-Nur based the book on his sister, ostensibly. The English version, House of Dolls, using the Nazi name for the brothels, was published three years later. The novel sold millions of copies.
Notably, De-Nur went on to use his brother’s story in the same way. In 1961, De-Nur published Kar’u Lo Piepel, or Piepel as the English translation appeared in the same year. The story followed a sex slave named Moni, who longed for his parents throughout his pipel experience. In the end, Moni made a suicidal run, reflecting the Auschwitz term, “He has gone to the wire.”
In Wiesel’s scene, his protagonist, eponymously named Eliezer, met Sarah in a Parisian café following the war. Something about the prostitute stimulated Eliezer and the two ended up back in her rented room. Eliezer, based so tightly on the young Wiesel, cautioned Sarah of his penury. “‘That doesn’t matter,’” she responded. “‘You’ll pay me some other time.’”
The words suggested purposes for the prostitute outside her purview.
In Sarah’s rented room, a passionate kiss occurred. Eliezer chronicled, “Instinctively I had closed my eyes. When I opened them I saw hers, and in them an animal-like terror. This made me draw back a step.”
Wiesel then used fear to embark upon Sarah’s story. “She was twelve years old when, separated from her parents, she had been sent to a special barracks for the camp officers’ pleasure,” Wiesel wrote. “Her life had been spared because there are German officers who like little girls her age. Who like to make love to little girls her age.”
If the author Wiesel wanted to shock his readership with that detail – and Wiesel at this point in time in his life was dealing with massive rage issues – he upped the shock value. “‘Did you ever sleep with a twelve-year-old woman?’” Sarah asked.
Eliezer did not reply. “I tried not to scream,” Wiesel wrote.
Sarah continued, “‘But you have felt like it, haven’t you?’” And then, “‘All men feel like it.’”
Sarah then accused Eliezer of not having sex with her because of her age. Specifically, she was no longer twelve. Sarah then continued with her history at Auschwitz: “‘All the men loved me: the happy and the unhappy, the good and the bad, the cold and the young, the gay and the taciturn. The timid and the depraved, the wolves and the pigs, the intellectuals and the butchers, all of them, do you hear? All came to me.‘”
Notably, Sarah laughed while she spoke. Wiesel the writer used the laughter for its mirror effect. Eliezer wanted to scream. But the scene wasn’t over. Sarah continued, “‘I want you to know this and remember it: Sometimes I felt pleasure with them… I hated myself afterward and even while it lasted, but my body sometimes loved them…’”
The words heightened the fear factor. Eliezer fled the room in panic. “Only later, while running, did I notice that my fingers were still clutching my throat,” Wiesel wrote.
These words attempted an answer of sorts to some fascinating questions. Even in the most depraved moments did delight creep in? Did desire? Could the victim feel passion?
Notably, the shock of these questions forced the protagonist Eliezer to the street. Perhaps our reader, Anna P., acted as Wiesel’s protagonist did? Anna, can I offer some advice when delving into the Holocaust, or any massive and grim history. Don’t let the shock factor stop you. Take in the history. Allow it to live inside you. Then dig deeper.
Let’s dig deeper. Let’s focus on the names in Wiesel’s story. The protagonist, Eliezer, was of course a reflection of Wiesel. But, strikingly, he gave the prostitute his mother’s given name, a circumstance the protagonist Eliezer pointed out. What did that convey?
Sarah Vizel died some moments after arriving at the Auschwitz depot. There are no records of her incarceration, unlike extensive records of Wiesel and his father. As detailed in numerous sources by Wiesel over the decades, the Vizel family was separated during the first selection at the Auschwitz depot and she died, again according to her son, in the gas chambers. The lack of documentation supports the claim. Death in the gas chambers meant that the Untermensch wasn’t processed into the camp.
Wiesel’s youngest sister, Tzipora, went with her mother. In Night, Wiesel detailed her last moments alive: “Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her.”
One word in the description circled over to Wiesel’s description of the prostitute Sarah. He gave her “blue eyes and golden hair.” A bit later in their interaction while in the café, he buried himself in the newspaper, “trying to forget the blond girl and to avoid her straightforward, innocent eyes and the sadness of her smile.”
The ploy didn’t work and the couple went to Sarah’s rented room, but the description sparked a question. Did Wiesel use the prostitute Sarah as a reimagining for his sister Tzipora and his mother Sarah? When he fled the scene, did the panic include shards of his family’s past?
These questions are incredibly pregnant when considering the psychological development of Wiesel. As detailed extensively in GAEW, Wiesel wrote The Accident, originally published in 1961, in a state of renunciation. The future looked entirely bleak. The protagonist of The Accident suffered from an inability to dream of his future. Without a perceived future, he had no hope. Who are we when all hope is lost?
That question not only formed the basic philosophy for The Accident story, but it defined Wiesel during that part of his life. The Jewish communities, and beyond, came to know Wiesel as a tremendous energizer. In fact, the “Elie Wiesel Phenomenon” was born. That development skirted the lonely years, post-war, when Wiesel lived as a renegade.
As a renegade, Wiesel allowed himself to wade into some contentious territory – like sexual pleasure at Auschwitz. Later, he formed a Gospel. The Gospel according to Elie Wiesel rejected revenge. The Gospel according to Elie Wiesel rejected anger, violence, hopelessness. Sorrow became the overarching marker of the Holocaust experience, bereavement.
Sorrow and bereavement would not have led to Wiesel’s scene with Sarah the prostitute.