A few years ago, a book in a Tel Aviv used-book store caught the eye of documentary filmmaker Ari Libsker. The book, written in Hebrew, featured hard-core pornography, but what attracted his attention was its setting and the identity of its characters. The story tells of a Nazi prison camp commanded by women, and includes descriptions of their abuse of prisoners of war - some of them sexual.
That same bookstore visit sparked Libsker's interest in "stalagim," pornographic books published in Israel during the 1960s that describe sadistic relations between beautiful Nazi women, who commanded Third Reich prison camps, and their tortured prisoners. In these books, the prisoners are usually American and British, rather than Jewish. Libsker adds that in the books' narratives, the protagonist is usually a prisoner who describes the humiliation, torture and rape he experiences in the camp.
His interest in this subject led Libsker to Eli Eshed, a researcher of popular Israeli culture and pulp literature, who examined the "stalag" phenomenon. In an article Eshed published in the Ha'ayal Hakoreh online publication in 2001, he cited dozens of titles belonging to this genre, which were released in Israel between 1961 and 1964. The first publication of the series, "Stalag 13," was printed seven times and sold a total of 25,000 copies.
Not only did these books break taboos relating to pornography in Hebrew fiction - they broke taboos that had existed with regard to the literary treatment of the Holocaust, according to Eshed.
"It is no accident that 'stalagim' began to appear in 1961, in the shadow of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem," Eshed writes. "The bitter and widely publicized testimony gave rise to a renewed public discourse on the Holocaust."
It was the exposure to this literary genre that led to Libsker's decision to make a documentary film to examine the phenomenon.
Filming, which began a year ago, mainly focuses on interviews with people who wrote these books under pseudonyms, and their readers. "The film will expose the inventor of this genre, who was interviewed for the first time," Libsker says.
Two weeks ago, Libsker interviewed Uri Avnery, editor of the now defunct Haolam Hazeh weekly news magazine that devoted the back pages of two editions to "stalagim." Avnery also referred to the Eichmann trial as a turning point in Israel's approach to the Holocaust. He believes the "stalagim" developed as a sado-masochistic, public response to the horrors described in the trial.
"The film attempts to identify the backdrop to which this fiction was created, and the reason it became so popular," Libsker says. "It also examines how these books influenced the generation that read them - people now in their 50s and 60s - and how the books shaped their memory." He maintains that for many "stalag" readers, the boundaries between fact and fiction became blurred. "Although these are fictional books, members of that generation absorbed the 'stalagim' as part of the collective memory of the Holocaust," he says.
Libsker says it was hard to find the books' writers and to persuade them to grant interviews for the film. Readers were also reluctant to expose their reading habits on camera.
According to Libsker, many find the subject intimidating and some interviewees demanded that he conceal their identities on film. In some scenes, he asked readers to read passages from the books aloud, as he documented their responses to the text. He says many of them remembered the books as soft pornography and were surprised by the extremely graphic details of sexual abuse (that include the amputation of genitalia, for example).
The years that passed not only softened the memory of the pornographic details in the readers' minds. According to Libsker, many switched the roles and sexes of the characters: Readers, who have matured since reading these books, often remember them as stories about Nazi men raping and torturing Jewish women, rather than the opposite.
The filming of the documentary, temporarily entitled "Stalagim," will be completed in the coming days. Barak Heiman co-produced the movie with Libsker and the film was funded by the "Yes Doco" television channel and the New Fund for Film and Television in Israel.
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