A Korean woman who survived sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” during World War II spoke about her experiences Thursday at the Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center of Queensborough Community College in Bayside.
“Comfort women” is the name given to women and girls forced into sexual slavery on military bases by Japanese armed forces before and during the war. Most of the women were kidnapped from occupied territories such as Korea, China and the Philippines, but many were from southeast Asia as well. While there is no definitive tally of how many women were enslaved, estimates range from 20,000 to upwards of 100,000.
Yong Soo Lee was kidnapped from her family farm at age 15 in the early 1940s. She spoke about her innocence at the time of the ordeal, having only experienced a sheltered rural life.
“I was taken away when I was young,” Lee said. “I had no idea what was going on in the outside world. I didn’t even know what the world was.”
She was first held on a naval ship with several other women, and then taken to a military outpost in Taiwan to be abused by kamikaze pilots before their suicidal assignments. She endured horrific experiences which included being repeatedly beaten, tortured with electrical shocks, and held in a collapsing building during a bomb attack, during which she suffered a miscarriage. She was captive at the base until the end of the war.
Lee stayed silent about her experiences until hearing about other comfort women coming forward in 1991. She currently lives in Korea, and serves as an activist working to end sexual violence against women around the world.
“At first I started out as a victim,” Lee said. “I was really sad and I cried a lot in the beginning, but I don’t cry anymore and I do not keep resentment in my heart anymore.
The Holocaust Center has been working with local Korean-American partner organizations to record Lee’s story as part of an ongoing series of events on the topic. It’s currently trying to fundraise for several more initiatives including a permanent monument to comfort women at the Holocaust Center and a traveling exhibit to be shown at other venues.
Dr. Dan Leshem, director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives, commended Lee for her bravery in telling such a personal story about the pain inflicted on her. Lee has said that she will try to live until the age of 200 if that is how long it will take to end sexual violence against women.
“She’s just a remarkable woman and I have been so moved by getting to know her even in such a short time, by her passion and her dedication,” Leshem said.