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Women's Sexuality in WWII Concentration Camps:
... Tool for Survival ... Tool for Oppresion.

An Oral History Project for UC Berkeley's English 1B, Section 7

By Johanna Micaela Jacobsen

 

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.[1 ], Micheline Maurel[2 ], 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.[3 ] 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.[4] 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.[ 5] 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 chambers.[6]

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.[7] 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; [8 ] 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.[9 ] 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."[10 ]

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."[11] 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."[12] Naturally, these acute feeling of shame inc reased dramatically in the presence of SS men, who taunted and leered at the women.[13] Survivors recall that "...the sexually charged looks and the lewd jokes were so denigrating..."[14] 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....[15]

Due to both the physical and psychological shocks received from entering the camp, including the shearing-ordeal, most women did not menstruate.[16] 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.[17]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!"[18] 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."[19] 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.[20] 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."[21] 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. [22] The women that returned after the rapes, described by Ruth Elias from Auschwitz as "pitiful creatures," came back "in an awful, undescribable state."[23] 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 ...."[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] 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."[29] 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.'"[ 30]

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.[31] 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."[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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."[36] The woman had recounted that "...she didn't even know she was pregnant."[37] 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.[38] 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 the women.

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.[39] 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.[40] 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...."[41] The fear concerning this issue drove many over the edge, prompting many women to refuse the life-giving food.[42] 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...."[43] 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.[44] 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...."[45] 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.[46] 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."[47] 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 to save.

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.[48] 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.[49] 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...." [50] Although initially not sure why, she recalls standing "...for a few seconds as if hypnotized.... [,] obsessed by the desire to cover [her] shorn head."[51] 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."[52] 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 path. [53]

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 women survived.

ENDNOTES:

1 Lucille was interviewed by Ellen S., Maria J.B., Brian P., on August 14th, 1990, for the Holocaust Oral History Project of
San Francisco, California. I got the interview off the World Wide Web at http://remember.org/wit.sur.luc.html.

2 Micheline Maurel's narrative can be found, excerpted, in Frauen in Konzentrationslagern: Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrück.
(Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1994.) Edited by Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung.

3 Wolfgang Benz, Der Holocaust. (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1995) p. 43.

4 Petter Hellman, The Auschwitz Album: A Book based upon an Album discovered by a Concetration Camp Survivor, Lili
Meier. (New York: Random House, 1981.) p. v11.

5 Eberhard Kolb, Bergen-Belsen: Geschichte des :Aufenthaltslagers? 1943-1945. (Hannover: Verlag für Literatur und
Zeitgeschichte GmbH, 1962.) pp. 22-23.

6 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, et.al. Frauen in Konzentrationslagern: Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrück. (Bremen:
Edition Temmen, 1994.) p. 13.

7 ibid., pp. 124-125.

8 ibid., pp. 125-126.

9ibid., p. 125.

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 Lucille E., interview. (cf. endnote 1, for website.) Hence referenced as L.E.

13 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, pp. 126.

14 ibid.

15 ibid.

16 ibid., p. 127. Also: Hermann Langbein, Menschen in Auschwitz. (Vienna; Europaverlag, 1987.) p. 450.

17 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, p. 127.

18 ibid., p. 128.

19 ibid., quote from an anonymous survivor.

20 ibid., pp. 127-128.

21 ibid., p. 127.

22 ibid., p. 130.

23 ibid.

24 ibid.

25 ibid.

26 ibid., p. 135.

27 ibid., p. 136.

28 ibid.

29 ibid., p. 139.

30 ibid.

31 ibid., pp. 143-144.

32 ibid., p. 144.

33 ibid.

34 ibid.

35 ibid.

36 L.E., interview.

37 ibid.

38 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, p. 144.

39 Langbein, p. 380 and Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, pp. 128-129.

40 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, p. 128.

41 ibid., p. 151.

42 ibid., p. 128.

43 ibid.

44 ibid., p. 128.

45 ibid., p. 130.

46 ibid., p. 126.

47 ibid., quote from an anonymous survivor.

48 ibid., p. 131.

49 From Ashes to Life. (Hamburg, Germany: Dölling and Galitz Verlag, 1993.) p. 131. Also: Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and
Martina Jung, p. 131.

50 ibid., p. 131.

51 ibid.

52 Claus Füllberg-Stolberg and Martina Jung, p. 130.

53 ibid.

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