Women's Sexuality in WWII Concentration Camps: ... Tool for
Survival ... Tool for Oppresion.
An Oral History Project for UC Berkeley's English 1B, Section
By Johanna Micaela Jacobsen
[Note: To access the footnotes, click on the bold numbers.]
Through the combined voices of those survivors who experienced the modern
cataclysm we have labeled the Holocaust, entry into a world otherwise only
attainable through history books becomes possible. Whereas history presents
facts, personal narrative has the potential of vividly illustrating emotions.
Here, the voices of Lucille E., Micheline
Maurel, and other survivors of concentration
camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrueck, will intertwine
with the matrix of history, to present a picture of the Holocaust painted
by female survivors. This paper will focus on aspects of women's sexual
nature in concentration camps, looking at how the camps drew out what I
have labeled "the dual nature of 'femaleness'" in WWII-ridden
Europe. Used as tools for oppression on the part of the SS men and as tools
for survival on the part of the women, feminine identity served a dual purpose.
This paper will look at both aspects of the situation, first discussing
the use of female sexuality as a tool for degradation by looking at hair-shearing,
menstruation, rape, brothels, pregnancies, and force-sterilizations. All
of these facets targeted feminine identity in a way that spoke of denigration,
pain and humiliation. Secondly, this paper will discuss femininity used
as a means of survival in the camps, in light of both the constant, desperate
effort to keep up appearances, and the self-imposed prostitution.
Pertinent because many of the women whose narratives speak out in this
paper survived these camps, a brief discussion of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen
and Ravensbrueck follows. Concentration camps, set up by the Nazi regime
as part of the "Final Solution" w hich called for the extermination
of the Jews in Germany, systematically tortured and killed not only Jews
but political prisoners, homosexuals and other "undesirables"
by means such as gassing, execution style killing, and medical experiments. Perhaps the most notorious of the concentration
camps, Auschwitz claimed the lives of over two million Jews from all over
Europe during the course of WWII. Bergen-Belsen,
a work and transfer camp for those Jews who had relatives in Palestine,
did not fit the mold of most concentration camps, as death came not from
gassing or mass executions, but rather from starvation, malnutrition and
the rampant diseases that hit the camp in t he final stages of the war. Ravensbrueck was the largest concentration
camp for women in all of the German Reich, in which over 100,000 women from
over 20 countries were imprisoned, and where 5-6,000 women died in the gas
Upon arrival in most of the camps, women selected for work-detail instead
of immediate gassing were led into a room where they underwent a systematic
procedure of shearing and hair-cutting.
Informed th at this served as a means of preventing lice, the prisoners
were shorn by both male and female Kapo's and SS alike; 
although lice as a reason seem plausible, shearing also served as a means
of degrading and humiliation the women. Using a rusty razor blade, the Kapo's
or the SS did their work quickly, shaving pubic hair as well.
Considerations to feelings of shame and humiliation were ignored: Micheline
Maurel, a French priso ner who survived Ravensbrueck recalls: "...undress[ing]
hastily (one's clothes were torn piece for piece off of the body), [and
getting] onto a table where one was held down by another women, while another
inspected all the natural bodily openings. An outright humiliation."
For many women, this hair-shearing process remains in memory perhaps
the single most terrifying and humiliating event that happened in the camps.
In many ways, shearing took away an external characteristic used not only
to establish femininity, but as a method to reaffirm one's feminine sexuality.
Relating hair to femininity, an anonymous woman from Ravensbrueck remembers:
""I did not want to loose my hair. That is the worst thing that
can happen to a woman." The shame
of not having hair, coupled with the pain of parading around naked and bald,
was used as a tool by the Nazi's to bend and break the women's spirit and
to infuse fear into the group. This is evident in a recollection of Lucille
E., a survivor of both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen: "You saw those
bowling balls with protruding ears and those frightened eyes and it was
like something out of a nightmare."
Naturally, these acute feeling of shame inc reased dramatically in the presence
of SS men, who taunted and leered at the women.
Survivors recall that "...the sexually charged looks and the lewd jokes
were so denigrating..." The best way
to summarize the feelings and emotions resultant from the process, though,
is through a quote from an anonymous survivor of Ravensbrueck:
Nobody should see ... how a woman can look exposed of that which marks
her as and makes her a woman. That was a so terrible moment.... It was as
if one had taken off our skin, as if nothing of our personality was left.
We weren't any longer the girls Helga or Olga or Maria or whomever....
Due to both the physical and psychological shocks received from entering
the camp, including the shearing-ordeal, most women did not menstruate. Frequently interpreted as a mechanism of
self-protecti on, as even the most primitive feminine hygiene articles were
not obtainable, women associated not menstruating with great amounts of
stress.As an unidentified survivor of Ravensbrueck
stated. "It hurts, not to have t hese monthly days, one doesn't feel
like a woman anymore, one already belongs to the old ones!" The notion of not being a real woman anymore,
coupled with the word "hurts", indicates precisely the pain and
worries caused by the situation. However, the very few women that did menstruate
would bleed freely, the blood "...run[ning] down their legs like animals." Yet, despite this uncomfortable situation,
those bleeding on a monthly basis counted themselves as lucky because it
assured them of their continued fertility. However, despite the relief granted
from this knowledge, those that did bleed were put down for their uncleanliness:
the Nazi's believed that Jewish women could not keep themselves clean, and
thus consequently made them the butt of many lewd jokes.
Not infrequently, female survivors recount that menstruation was a factor
that caused them not only psychological suffering, but a lot of physical
pain as well; as an anonymous survivor remembers: "In order to retain
the cleanliness of [the block], the Kapo's beat the women [who menstruated],
and force[d] them to clean their traces. Yet another denigration, another
misery." In other words, the fact
that some women menstruated was used by the Nazi's as a way of putting down
the women to a level of animals. Thus, one cannot easily state whether menstruation
in the camps was positive or negative: women suffered if they did menstruate
through the verbal and physical abuses by the Nazi's relating to their "uncleanliness,"
and suffered if they did not by the self-imposed psychological fear brought
about by being in the camps of not being a true female.
Rape, too, prevailed in the lives of many women. Sexual abuse, another
means by which the Nazi's attempted to degrade women, was especially brutal,
as it often had the effect of shaming a woman to a point where her identity
became unrecognizable.  The women that
returned after the rapes, described by Ruth Elias from Auschwitz as "pitiful
creatures," came back "in an awful, undescribable state." This abuse had the effect of breaking the
spirit of the women: their bodies no longer their own, the women had no
control over their lives. Ruth Elias remembers several instances in which
"...the SS men appear[ed] in ... [the] block", and "without
shame, ... pull[ed] the girls out of their beds, Jewish girls they took
... to rape ...." The SS men justified
these rapes by saying that raping Jewish women did not violate the taboo
of marrying them, and therefore was an acceptable action.
This argument, not only weak but useless, illustrates arguments used by
the Nazi's to push their will onto others.
Some camps, including Auschwitz and Ravensbrueck, had organized brothels
set up mostly for the perusal of the SS, but occasionally for select prisoners
as well. Literally hundreds of female prisoners
forced t o work there became victims of what I think can aptly be called
"organized rape." Interestingly enough, brothels originally were
set up by the SS as a means of prohibiting and stopping the spread of male
homosexuality within the camps. However,
sexually abusing women can also be seen as a means of control: Usually unwillingly,
the women had to give up their bodies and their rights to them, and frequently
suffered from humiliation and shame. Mostly
Germans, but also some Polish, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian women were
chosen for the brothels on the basis of their physical appearance, in a
selection process not dissimilar to selections for transports in the main
camps. Erika Buchman, a political prisoner from Ravensbrueck recalls that
the "...medium good ware would be sent to the concentration camps,
the better to the Wehrmacht, and the prettiest and strongest girls into
the homes for the officers and the SS."
The "ware", females ranging from their mid-teens to early thirties,
would frequently be "tried out" in what can only be called gang
rape: a political prisoner from Ravensbrueck recalls from personal experience
that "...the women and girls, after having been inspected for physical
appearance, would be taken into an operating room and 'tried out.'"
Although humiliating enough, once the brothel selection process had
taken place, the women's daily routine caused further heartache and misery.
The women had most of the daytime off; however, the evenings consisted of
"working" for two hours, in whic h they had to serve up to and
sometimes exceeding eight men. Made visible
in the eventual outcome of the life of one brothel survivor, the pain and
agony inflicted onto the women becomes increasingly clear. Margarethe
W., a survivor of Ravensbrueck who served in it's brothel during the war,
attempted suicide during her internment in the camp by slitting her wrists.
She recalls: "I did not - unfortunately - manage to carry [the suicide]
out." The word "unfortunate"
indicates just precisely how strong the feelings of despair were: even death
was preferable over a continued existence in the brothel. Physically ill
throughout the rest of her life, Margarethe also suffered from frequent
epileptic attacks. Thus brothels instituted
by the male SS, even by high-ranking commanders such as Himmler, inflicted
immediate as well as long term pain and suffering upon women. Though not
necessarily planned, brothels still served as means for making the women
prostituting their bodies feel like nothing.
Not infrequently, pregnancies resulted from some of the aforementioned
rapes and even from some of the sexual intercourse that occurred in the
brothels. Although the distribution of
"anti-baby" shots to prevent pregnancies was implemented in the
brothels, some women nonetheless found themselves with child; however, minimally
few pregnancies were carried to term. Not
all pregnancies, however, came from within the camps; some pregnancies were
brought in from pre-camp, pre-war encounters. Lucille E. remembers an instance
in which a woman from Bergen-Belsen gave birth to "...maybe a half
pound, a pound, large infant." The
woman had recounted that "...she didn't even know she was pregnant." Pregnancies, though not directly denigrating,
nonetheless had the effect of victimizing the women further, inasmuch as
they had no control over the happenings over their own bodies. Nazi's decided
whether or not the fetus would be aborted, whether the mother could keep
the child, and even whether the woman herself would live.
In other words, pregnancies in the camps instilled a realistic fear in the
women of not surviving; in that way, the SS managed to grip onto a feminine
sexual trait, and used it to increase the pain and fear present amongst
Force sterilizations, feared by many women, constitute a further hit
on femaleness. Especially prevalent in death camps such as Auschwitz, two
types of sterilizations as means to wipe of the birth-giving ability in
Jewish females took place. One method consisted
of mixing highly toxic chemicals such as sodium into the already unfit food,
causing excruciating pain, internal hemorrhaging, itching, the formation
of holes in the mouth cavity, as well as the desired result of the permanent
stop of menstruation. Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper,
a woman who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, recalls that "...during the
whole time in the camp, we feared that we were getting "something"
[mixed] in the food...." The fear
concerning this issue drove many over the edge, prompting many women to
refuse the life-giving food. This paradox
is a great one: women wanted to survive, but also wanted to retain the ability
to bear children By refusing to eat, their fertility was assured; their
life, however, threatened by starvation, was not. Even after liberation,
the fear of fertility continued to haunt many women, such as this anonymous
one: "After the war most of us, however, were very much afraid. I know
I was hysterical every time I was pregnant hoping I would have a healthy
child...." The "surgical"
re moval of the ovaries constituted the second type of force-sterilization
found at Auschwitz, and consisted of the "surgical" removal of
the ovaries, in which the female reproductive organs were literally burned
out by X-rays. This process of destroying
a females ability to reproduced caused extreme pain, as recalled by eye-witness
Ceijka Stoijka from Ravensbrueck: "...screaming with pain, the ovaries
burnt through the x-ray, the twelve and thirteen year olds threw themselves
onto the streets...." Sterilization
constitutes as another big attack on femaleness by the SS, because it literally
stamped out that property unique to women: the ability to bear children.
However, even though femininity and the female identity gave the Nazis
an extra tool for humiliating and degrading, it gave the women themselves
an extra method for survival. This may sound paradoxical or controversial;
upon closer examination, however, one can see that women indeed, in certain
situations, pushed and flaunted their feminine sexuality in order to survive.
Not infrequently, the selection processes that picked women to send
to a different camps or to the gas chambers chose women on the basis of
their physical appearance. More specifically, women were chosen on the basis
of whether or not they still had breasts.
As another anonymous survivor reports: "You know, the most important
thing here is that your breasts remain firm. My breasts have saved me more
than once.... When the Germans look at you, they first glance at your breasts...because
as long as your breasts are still good, a person still counts as a work
animal." Although impossible to say
that women would or even could care for their breasts especially, attention
was nonetheless paid to the physical shape of the body. Thus, femininity
and retaining as much of a stereotypical female body as possible could serve
Not only was the retention of as much of a feminine body as possible
important, but doing anything within reach to look "good" on the
outside proved equally crucial. Personal hygiene and care became an important
survival strategy, as small wounds, sickness, or even grey hair frequently
led to selection and death. Aware of this,
it was not infrequent that women risked their lives for some articles of
clothing which, in their minds, would help them survive at least one more
day. Specifically I bear in mind the story
of Lucille E., who risked her life in order to obtain a "...long, dirty
garment in rust-red and olive-green shades...."
 Although initially not sure why, she recalls standing "...for
a few seconds as if hypnotized.... [,] obsessed by the desire to cover [her]
shorn head." Realizing that being
caught could result in death, Lucille nonetheless retrieved the scarf: necessity
to hide her shame overwhelmed even the fear of death.
Prostitution was yet another way that a woman could, on the basis of
her sex and gender, promote her survival. A way to get extra food for oneself,
one's child, one's husband, and one's friends, prostitution perhaps enabled
the survival for one extra day. Survivors, though occasionally skeptical,
do not blame the females that "...gave themselves away for a little
bread and butter." As Renata Laqueur,
an exchange prisoner in Bergen-Belsen states:
I don't think we can judge the women and girls too harshly because they
gave themselves to the Kapos.... It was their will to survive, and often
also the wish to save their husband and children, that made them take that
Although seemingly paradoxical, femininity and female sexuality in Auschwitz,
Ravensbrueck and Bergen-Belsen and in many other concentration camps throughout
Europe were not only used by the SS as a means of controlling and humiliating
female prisoners, but also by the women themselves as a tool for survival.
The SS used aspects such as women's hair, their menstruation, rape and prostitution
as a way to control, degrade and humiliate the female prisoners. However,
by clinging onto the tattered rests of femininity that remained to them,
some of which overlapped with the aspects the SS used to control them, many
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