Florian Zabransky Lectures about Male Jewish Intimacy and Agency in Oral History Interviews
Florian Zabransky, the 2020-2021 Margee and Douglas Greenberg Research Fellow at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered a public online lecture that marked the end of his virtual residency at the Center. The lecture was cosponsored by the USC Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies. During his monthlong residency, Zabransky conducted research in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive to explore the intersection of intimacy, violence, and agency of Jewish men, focusing on the domains in which Jewish men asserted their agency through intimate acts. In his lecture, he focused on partisans during the Holocaust, offering illustrative case studies through which to analyze what attitudes towards sexual encounters and rape reveal about the gendered experience and agency of male Jewish partisans.
Zabransky opened his lecture by providing details about his doctoral research project that focuses on the intimacy and agency of Jewish men during the Holocaust. He reflected on his developing conceptualization of intimacy, which, in his interpretation, can include the following: exercises of masculinity linked with intimacy, such as fatherhood; the emotion of love; fear relations; sexual relations and barter; friendships; closeness; nakedness; intimate violence against the body, such as shaving of one’s hair or beard; and rape and sexual violence against and perpetrated by Jewish men. Zabransky pointed out that, in his understanding, intimacy and agency are not inherently positive concepts and that they can be associated with sexual violence, which is something he explored in the following sections of his presentation. In addition to detailing his thinking about intimacy and agency, Zabransky also reflected on the content of his dissertation in progress and the types of sources he is using, such as memoirs, diaries, court documents, and oral history testimonies, including those by female Jewish survivors.
Next, Zabransky elaborated on his monthlong research in the Visual History Archive and the value of testimonies for his work. He noted challenges he faces in his research, as many archives have not indexed themes and terms relevant to his topic. In addition, his approach is a theme-centered one, not place-centered, which makes it more challenging in terms of narrowing down his research. In this regard, Zabransky emphasized the value of the Visual History Archive and its indexing metadata, mentioning only some of the many index terms he relied on, including friendships and sexual activities terms.
Zabransky continued with a brief contextualization of Jewish resistance and partisans. Zabransky distinguishes between armed resistance in ghettos and camps and partisan warfare in open, non-confined spaces, such as woods and forests in the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. He noted that for many Jews who were not incarcerated or who had managed to escape from the incarceration, joining a local group of partisans was the only means to survive. While around 30,000 Jewish men and women were part of partisan groups all over Europe between 1941 and 1944, Zabransky argued that prevailing antisemitism among the partisans often made it difficult for Jews to join in, especially for Jewish women who made up around two to five percent of all partisan fighters. By relying on the material he found in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Zabransky touched upon the status of and discrimination against women in the partisans, as well as on sexual relations and intimacy within partisan groups. He quoted from several female interviewees who detailed the gender dynamics in these groups and sexual and romantic relationships that developed in this context. By citing these women, Zabransky emphasized the fact that women often sought relationships with men in the group to secure food and protection. Much of the material on this subject comes from female interviewees. Yet, Zabransky noted, these dynamics are enlightening when considering the hierarchy among partisan men and the way partisan men exercised their sexual power and, therefore, their status within the group. However, he pointed out the absence of the male perspective on this matter.
Zabransky then turned to presenting a case study of a Jewish partisan, Michael Begum. After providing a few details about Begum’s life and the conditions that led him to join the Soviet partisans, Zabransky focused on two incidents Begum recounts in his testimony that involve sexual violence. The first incident, which Zabransky considers sexualized violence even though it was not presented as such by Begum or his interviewer, involved a sexual encounter between his partisan group and a lone woman on a farm where the group spent a night. Retelling this incident, Begum noted that he was woken up to take his “turn” in the unspecified act, but he refused to do so. Zabransky offered his analysis of this testimony excerpt by speculating about the nature of the incident, the possibility of sexual violence that occurred but was silenced, and the issue of consent in relation to the power relations in place. He noted that by choosing not to participate in the incident, Begum exercised male Jewish agency while at the same time being oblivious to the power relations at play and failing to name this incident as an act of sexual violence.
Next, Zabransky played another excerpt from Begum’s testimony in which Begum states that rape was punishable by death in the partisans. However, he tells a story of a fellow partisan who raped the daughter of a local partisan’s informant and was sentenced to death by court martial. However, Begum advocated for this man by emphasizing his fighting ability, which saved his life. Zabransky again offered his analysis of this incident and stressed that these two incidents shed light on the general atmosphere of perceived moral standards, violence, and complicity among the partisans and the way Jewish men asserted their male agency. Zabransky closed his lecture by reflecting on the relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer in this particular case and by pointing out that the existence of hints and comments about largely silenced events during testimonies can be important sources for research about Jewish experiences during the Holocaust.
Zabransky’s lecture was followed by a long Q&A session that included the following questions: how can the interviewer’s laughter that accompanies her eliciting of Begum’s story be interpreted beyond her complicity; whether Zabransky encountered any narratives about Russian partisans in the archive and what were sexual dynamics in those groups; Begum’s positioning and comments about the farm incident; whether Zabransky encountered other instances of off-record conversations between the interviewee and the interviewer that were later referenced in the actual interview, like in Begum’s case; how far can scholars go in interpreting the interviewee’s stories; how Zabransky interprets agency in terms of sexual violence, and also how women express it; and how the construction of morality and sexual ethics in the context of violence and genocide influences the way Zabransky interacts with his material.