Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexualized Violence
The Holocaust was a dark time in our world’s history, with over 11 million killed including Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, Roma, and many other groups of people. Many horrific stories came out of the Nazi concentration camps, and in this post I will discuss the sexualized violence that occurred against many women during this time period and explore the reasons why this topic is not widely discussed. I will examine the different traumatic events women were forced to endure, and dissect why war often breeds a rape culture.
In order to understand the types of acts taken out against women, I will explain what sexualized violence and what it entails. According to an online article on the Human Research Protection website called Breaking the Silence about Sexual Violence Against Women During the Holocaust, “the term sexualized violence makes it clear that male violence against females is not about sexuality, but is a show of power on the part of the perpetrator, and includes many forms of violence and sexual connotations, (AHPR, Online). This does not mean that sexuality did not play a role in these acts, but it focuses on the power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim. These sexualized acts can be defined as rape, coerced sexual activities, forced nudity, prostitution, sexual enslavement, sterilization, and many other types of assaults on women’s bodies. (AHPR, Online). These types of violence can be accompanied by torture and mutilation and frequently ended in the victim’s death. All of these acts contributed to this superiority complex of the Nazis, and their assertion of power over others. In a reading called Sexualized Violence Against Women During Nazi Racial Persecution Austrian sociology professor Brigitte Halbmayr discusses these relationships. “Sexualized violence is a manifestation of power and a claim of ownership of men over women, rooted in the centuries old tradition of patriarchal societies. Thus, sexualized violence is supposedly an expression of hatred of women, a way to discipline women and assign them their social standing” (Halbmayr, 32). This lack of respect is evidently dominant, and is shown through the stories of Holocaust survivors who recall their hardships.
There are many different types of sexualized violence that occurred during this time period, and therefore there are many stories told by the women who endured those acts. Initially, when women arrived at concentration camps they were forced to strip down naked, which in itself is a form of sexualized violence. The brutality continued, as one woman described in Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk’s New Arrivals how women “waited for the SS men to visit us. We jumped up from our places and stood naked in front of a large group of SS men who looked us over slowly, with disdain in their eyes” (Normberg, 16). From the moment of arrival, these women were subjected to revealing their naked bodies to the eyes of men who despised them and thought of them as nothing. While naked, women had to “undergo an examination for lice. They told us (women) to stand on a stool, and had to look and see if we had live, even in the hidden places” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 34). This invasion of privacy was furthered by the shaving the women’s heads and body hair, which was considered humiliating and often made women unrecognizable to their friends and family. This initial arrival was something that all women had to endure, and were humiliated for their nudity and the invasion of their bodies. It became as though these women were treated as cattle, merely bodies that were to be judged and shaved in order to maintain some semblance of hygiene.
Not all of the women survived the arrivals in the concentration camps, as some were sent to the gas chambers according to their physical abilities, if they were pregnant, or if the Nazis deemed their race or ethnicity unacceptable to remain within the camps. The women who remained within the camp lived an excruciatingly painful life, with little food or water and an unbearable amount of physical labor that their ailing bodies could not handle. Along with these atrocities, women feared sexual assault, torture, multiplication, prostitution, among various other sexual acts. As Nomberg-Przytyk describes, “forced sexual acts were closely linked to the fight for survival and accentuated hierarchy within the concentration camp system. Through a relationship with an SS man or prisoner of high rank within the hierarchical system, a women prisoner could increased her chances of survival. She might gain greater access to better food, clothing, and items for taking care of herself” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 36). One woman describes such as interaction, “then suddenly one of the criminal Germans came and he had two tins of sardines. And he went to one woman and he had intercourse with her, one of those thin scarecrows…He have her the two tins, she stood up and he did this thing” (Halbmayr, 36). This description shows the desperation women felt within these camps, where enduring sexualized violence became a way of survival. These acts are not to be thought of using sexuality to advance prospects, but it is a survival tactic that some women gambled with.
Most acts of sexualized violence did not stem from a relationship of giving and receiving. Women were senselessly raped and victimized in various different ways. Some women were subjected to forced sterilization, where they underwent surgery without anesthesia–a surgery many died from; other women were forced into prostitution. These women within the camps were subject to many tortures that humiliated and demeaned them. Nomberg-Przytyk tells the story of a survivor who describes her interaction with an older women within the camp, “suddenly I noticed an old lady in the next bed squat and start peeing in a pot from which she would drink coffee in the morning. She looked at me, embarrassed, and put her finger to her lips so that I would not say anything to anybody” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 26). Quick moments such as these capture the humiliation women felt of their situation and their bodies. They were forced into desperation situations of shame, as some women encountered with their sexual relations with SS officers.
These different acts of sexualized violence such as the rape, mutilation, and the sterilization of women within the concentration camps exemplify the the German superiority complex of the Aryan race. “Rape for the Germans played a serious and logical role in the achievement of what they saw as their ultimate objective: the total humiliation and destruction of ‘inferior peoples’ and their establishment of their own master race’ (AHPR, Online). This idea of humiliation and destruction is something that the Nazis used as a way of asserting their superiority. Nazis were, however, specifically forbidden from sexually touching Jewish women because of their race defilement laws called Rassenschande (AHPR, Online). While these sexual assaults were prohibited, it did not stop them from occurring. According to Lauren Wolfe who wrote about Women Under Siege “some scholars have been loath to believe sexualized violence was extensive” (AHPR, Online). This focus on Holocaust scholars appears to be a prevalent reason why some feminists believe sexual violence during this time period is not widely discussed. The AHPR article added, “holocaust historians omitted women from their rendition. If they mentioned woman at all, male scholars referred to motherhood but ignored sexual identity issues entirely” (AHPR, Online). These historians believe that discussing the sexualized part of the holocaust would divert attention from the overall traumas millions incurred and trivialize the holocaust. Some feminists have accused such scholars of erasing women from the history of the holocaust because their plights are not being discussed. Despite these historical drawbacks, there have been actions taken to make sure women are protected from sexual assault and sexual violence during war time. Still, there are many stories which will not be heard of voiced due victims’ shame and humiliation, along with the many women who perished at the concentration camps. These women’s stories are important to remember when discussing the atrocities within the holocaust because they were not isolated to this war, and they are many other victims.
“Breaking the Silence about Sexual Violence against Women during the Holocaust.” AHRP. Alliance for Human Research Protection, 09 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.
Halbmayr, Brigitte, Project Muse., Rochelle G Saidel, and Sonja M. 1952- Hedgepeth. Sexual Violence against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. Waltham, Mass. : Hanover [N.H.]: Brandeis University Press, 2010.
NOMBERG-PRZYTYK, SARA, and Roslyn Hirsch. Auschwitz: True Tales From a Grotesque Land. Edited by Eli Pfefferkorn and David H. Hirsch, University of North Carolina Press, 1985, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807898826_nomberg-przytyk.