By Kate Stewart
When I began to research Ruth Rappaport’s life, I knew that I would find stories about how she had survived World War II, the 1948 War for Israel’s Independence, and the Vietnam War. I didn’t expect to find so much documentation about another battle Ruth often fought in her daily life. In her diaries, letters, and other documents, Ruth detailed extensive sexual harassment and sexual assaults.
A Jewish girl who had grown up in Germany, Ruth was able to narrowly escape the Holocaust by getting an American visa to live with her her uncle, Carl Rubinstein, a successful Seattle businessman with lots of connections. When Ruth was 18, she wrote in her diary about how one of these family friends, Irving Sarkowsky, came over to the house when he knew she’d be alone: “Every time he can get me alone he takes me in his arms and presses me to him so hard that I am afraid he is going to break my entire body, and then he tries to kiss me—and to pass his thick hands under my dress—it has already happened two times, and I do not know what I should do—because it happens only when I am alone at home—and he is so strong that I can’t do anything about it—and he is also such a good friend to Uncle and Aunt.”
At the end of 1947, Ruth left for Palestine, where she thought she would continue her career in journalism and be an eyewitness to momentous, historical events. In Jerusalem, trapped by a siege of the city, Ruth lived with her sister’s brother-in-law, Fred, who was convinced they would marry. Ruth was not interested, and yet Fred continued for months to harass her, climbing in bed at night to “paw” at her, as she phrased it.
She soon found out that men promised positions to women in exchange for sexual favors. Her rabbi in Seattle had given her a list of contacts for job leads before she had left. She later wrote to him of one of these men, “Bancover I met at a Histadrut reception, and pardon the vulgarism, he practically tried to make me at the reception while Golda Meyerson [Meir] was giving a speech. Later he asked me to see him at his office, and the minute I entered he locked his room, but while trying to come close I whackingly boxed his ears.” She met a famous journalist, Roy C. Carlson, who propositioned her and said he could get her food and cigarettes, which were scarce in Jerusalem. Ruth wrote, “If he thinks he has a chance to sleep with me, then I can get things—God—what has the world come to. Am I just waking up? Have I been completely naïve and asleep all these years?”
Ruth had come to Palestine with substantial savings; she used this money to buy her own dinners and drinks to avoid any expectation that she would have to sleep with a man who treated her. But this strategy proved to backfire; instead, paying her own way was interpreted by many men that she was a prostitute. She described an encounter with a well-known pilot named Lee of the 101st squadron, considered a hero to many Israelis: “[He] has never taken me out, or spoken to me, walked in drunk and wanted to know who invited me to the party . . . also adding that I had sponged drinks off everybody in town and that I had slept with everybody in town . . . Well, I got so sore, I just stood up and slapt his face in public.”
One man that she dated, named Sigie, would not take no for an answer. Despite her protests, he forced his way into her apartment, and “he then made love to me by force, I got mad . . . and went to spend the night alone on the beach. If I had not left, I could have created such a row the whole town would have awakened.” Sigie came back a few days later late at night and on the street outside her apartment, he yelled for hours. The next day, her landlord kicked her out. Another acquaintance offered his mother’s apartment to her to stay in. It turned out his mother wasn’t currently living there, but he was, and he hoped he would get lucky with Ruth.
She summed up her complete disgust with the harassment she faced in Israel in her diary: “Here it is the 20th century. An era of emancipation and modernism, and yet human beings and society are as interwoven and perhaps even more restricted because of their very freedom as in the Middle Ages. Especially for a girl. It is rather pathetic, just because a woman walks along the beach alone in the evening people get suspicious, turn around, want to strike up a conversation or want to pick her up . . . What if people want to be alone? . . . What if one does not want to be dependent on a friend or husband? Could one really defy society and manage alone? . . . It is a vicious circle.” Ruth had been a committed Zionist all her life. She had to admit, however, that a homeland for Jews would not protect her against these kinds of daily, humiliating and dangerous assaults.
Ruth came back to the U.S. and went back to school, eventually completing her career plans to become a librarian. Her first job was with the Air Force at a library in Okinawa, and she wrote a memo to her boss about an incident with a colonel on the base: “Colonel Thompson began to harass me about official library business. My attempts to change the subject and to move away from him were to no avail, and he ended his verbal attack by repeatedly telling me: ‘You are a fool… The only reason Sgt. Eberwein likes working in your library is that he expects to get a piece of tail from you, and if he doesn’t get it soon he’s going to quit… I haven’t gotten mine yet either … Why don’t you just quit and get the hell out of here so I can close that damned library.’ This was not the first time I was subjected to verbal abuse by Col. Thompson, but it is the worst to date.” No records exist on what happened after this complaint, but Ruth soon left for a new job in Saigon.
Ruth went on to work at the Library of Congress for twenty-two years, finally finding the home, career, and community she had longed for. While the #MeToo movement has exposed the trauma of sexual assault that so many women have dealt with for years, it also presumes that most women were silent about their experiences in the past. The documentation that Ruth Rappaport left behind shows how some women in the past refused to stay silent, even if they risked more danger to their bodies and their careers. Her outspoken bravery was not easy, but for Ruth, staying silent was never an option.
Kate Stewart is a third-generation librarian who has worked as a librarian and archivist for the Library of Congress and the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona. Learn more about Kate at www.kate-stewart.com.