Virtually unexplored until recently, sexualized violence in the Holocaust took many forms, faces, and insidious paths. Among the more than 6 million Jews killed were an unknown number of women, probably thousands, who were raped—in camps, in hiding, in ghettos. The perpetrators were Nazis, fellow Jews, and those who hid Jews. There are few records of this particular form of suffering for many reasons, including no records being kept of rape, that few women survived, and that Nazis were specifically forbidden from sexually touching Jewish women because of race defilement laws called Rassenchande—hence, some scholars have been loath to believe sexualized violence was extensive.
But individuals didn’t always follow the higher ranks, secretly raping Jewish women against policy—in camps, in private slavery in their homes, and in brothels set up for fellow prisoners. And we know this form of violence was rampant from testimonies of survivors and their relatives, as told in the 2010 book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, edited by Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel (referred to below as Sexual Violence).
With the launch of their book, Hedgepeth and Saidel experienced much pushback from scholars. As in any other conflict, survivors of sexualized violence and their family members often experience shame, keeping their stories with them to the grave. Faced with horrors on a scale not experienced by humanity before, Holocaust rape survivors have specifically said they felt that what they’d suffered was too small to mention in that context.
It’s not just the women who downplayed their sexual exploitation—scholars have often relegated these stories to footnotes, choosing to tone down these experiences, whether because of shame that their mothers, grandmothers, or whoever close to them were raped, or because they chose instead to focus on stories of triumph and hope. Some scholars have been reluctant to use victim testimonies in their construction of Holocaust history, favoring “official documents.” This is problematic because Nazi documentation on rape is scarce or nonexistent. Also, the shame of Jews raping Jewish women in the camps or ghettos may have been a difficult truth to accept within the community.
Another way that women suffering sexualized violence during the Holocaust has been erased is through a “heroic” retelling of events: Historians have been eager to emphasize the ways in which women resisted rape and “held onto their dignity”—exhibiting “moral, heroic, or noble behavior.” Survivors may feel pressured to present their experiences through the lens of heroism.
With the information gleaned from thousands of testimonies from the Shoah Foundation and elsewhere of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors in one book, the evidence is clear: As in nearly all conflicts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, women suffered sexualized violence in horrific, complex ways in the Holocaust.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
Unlike in other genocides in the 20th century, sexualized violence was not used during the Holocaust as a sanctioned strategy from above. It was, however, employed deliberately and haphazardly, with horrendous results.
To subjugate: In their quest to annihilate the Jewish people, Nazis subjugated them through starvation and slave labor. But Jewish women were subjugated on a sexually violent level as well: raped, sexually humiliated, and destroyed bodily.
For ethnic cleansing: The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” The Holocaust was an effort to completely annihilate the Jewish people. We are using the term “ethnic cleansing” here to denote that sexualized violence was used to prevent the propagation of Jews and other groups of people. Ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will. In the Holocaust, forced sterilizations and abortions, as well as heinous "medical" experiments, prevented Jews and Sinti-Roma (or Gypsies) from later having children.
To wield power: Some women were forced to accept rape as payment for receiving food or shelter, or to save their children, in the camps and ghettos under Nazi control. This was also used as a tool when women were in hiding to bring silence through humiliation and fear. Nazis; their collaborators; Kapos (prisoners in charge of prisoners); male prisoners (Jewish and non-Jewish) who had more food or privileges than the women; members of a Judenrat (Nazi-appointed council that governed a ghetto) all wielded power over women through various forms of sexualized violence.
To humiliate: Women were forced to strip in front of soldiers, stand naked for hours, even days, or wait naked in lines for disinfection, or were whipped naked or made to dance naked. One of the biggest humiliations for a woman was having her hair shaved, not only from her head but from all over her body. Rape sometimes took place in front of relatives in forced home invasions, or fellow camp prisoners. In one "show" in Auschwitz-Birkenau, German soldiers raped 20 Jewish women in front of a labor group, who were supposed to stand and applaud, writes Helene Sinnreich in Sexual Violence. According to the testimony of one witness survivor, one of the women who were raped was from his hometown; she later committed suicide.
Patterns of Violence
- While technically forbidden, there is testimonial proof that Nazi German officers, guards, and soldiers, as well as their collaborators, raped prisoners in various camps, including Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Skarzysko-Kamienna, a labor camp, according to eyewitness accounts at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Israel’s Yad Vashem archive. They also raped victims who were about to be executed in pits in the east.
- Rape was often part and parcel of looting, which was also technically forbidden in Nazi-occupied Europe. Germans would force their way into homes, driving out the inhabitants while stealing valuables and raping women. Sometimes looting was merely the pretense under which soldiers committed acts of sexualized violence. Sinnreich writes in Sexual Violence: "Sometimes soldiers broke into homes just so they could demand victims to sexually abuse." As a Warsaw doctor testified: "One continually hears of the raping of Jewish girls in Warsaw. The Germans suddenly enter a house and rape 15- or 16-year-old girls in the presence of their parents or relatives."
- Sex for survival. Sometimes those who hid Jewish women and girls, the so-called "righteous,” raped them in lieu of payment or to wield power over them. Survival was the tradeoff. The same was sometimes true in the camps, when women found themselves at the mercy of guards or prisoners, who could mete out a small portion of bread in exchange for sex. That could literally mean continued existence. There are also testimonies on how there were forced marriages or fake marriages with male partisans for survival. These are a more complex form of sexualized violence in which women found themselves seeking the protection of a fellow partisan while in hiding, often in the woods. In other cases, attractive girls in ghettos were passed to the Nazis to prevent deportation of an entire town.
- Forced prostitution. We know that women were made to work in camp or ghetto brothels, servicing their fellow prisoners or guards, although unofficially because they were technically forbidden from sleeping with Germans because of Rassenschande laws. Brothels were also frequented by some Jewish prisoners. “Himmler’s idea was to increase production efficiency by granting selected prisoners the right to frequent a brothel,” writes Robert Somner in Sexual Violence. The Archives of the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross have records that tell the history of 10 concentration camp brothels, in which the names of 174 forced sex workers can be identified, according to Sommer. There were also instances of private, forced sexual slavery in German officers' homes.
- Jewish women were raped or molested by camp guards during body searches. "Gynecological exams" were carried out during deportations and upon entry into concentration camps to search for hidden valuables, as women from Slovakia and elsewhere have testified.
- Jewish men, fellow prisoners, occasionally raped Jewish women in the camps, a fact that has been kept covered up for decades because of shame that such violence occurred within the community. This was often in the form of forcing women to trade sex for food in order to survive, but Sexual Violence defines this as rape. There is at least one documented case in which the Jewish head of a ghetto raped women.
Despite the many testimonies from Jewish and non-Jewish survivors that mention the prevalence of rape and the threat of sexualized violence, it is likely impossible to come up with any plausible numbers. The scale of the Holocaust was so immense, and the atrocities so widespread, that we can only recount individual acts and statements like this one, in Sexual Violence, from a Warsaw doctor: “One continually hears of the raping of Jewish girls in Warsaw.” Continual, terrifying, and obliterating—sexualized violence must be recognized as a tornado force in the Holocaust without quantification.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
Women were expected to prevent rape; hence they were often blamed for what happened to them. It was considered their fault. They were thought of as loose, immoral. This is yet another reason for the decades of silence.
Families and/or societies ostracized or stigmatized victims of sexualized violence after the Holocaust, as after many conflicts in which women's bodies have been part of the battleground. So-called pretty women who survived were suspected of having done so by granting sexual favors, and sometimes were stigmatized even though they were not victims of sexualized violence. Sometimes people or even communities tried to identify ways in which a woman's actions contributed to her own sexual assault, rather than offering to help rebuild her life. Some raped women felt they couldn't marry; others were shunned.
This testimony from survivor Sara M. comes from the USC Shoah Foundation (interview 29016). Sara M. was raped at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. A woman took her from her barracks, gave her candy, and left her in a room:
"There were two men there and there were some other people in the room, I think. I was put on a table. From what I remember, [it was] a table or it could have been a high table. I was very little so it seemed like it was very high up from where I was, and I was very violently sexually abused. And I remember being hit, I remember crying and I wanted to get out of there. And I was calling people and screaming and I remember one thing that stands out in my mind, that one of them told me that they would stand me up on my head and cut me right in half. And they wanted me to stop screaming, and I've had nightmares about that most of my life."
Much of the sexualized violence during the Holocaust was committed outside the camps. The following is a testimony from survivor Golda Wasserman, who witnessed girls being raped and sent back to the Tulchin ghetto in the Ukraine, in 1942, from Holocaust in the Ukraine, edited by Boris Zabarko:
"About 15 kilometers from the ghetto, there were Italian and Hungarian reserve divisions. As demanded by the commissariat-officers of these divisions, the Romanian gendarme who was the Kommandant of Tulchin selected healthy young girls from the ghetto and sent them away, under the official pretense of working in the kitchen and bakery of those divisions. The girls returned from there having been raped, ill with venereal diseases. Many committed suicide back in the barracks while some of them were killed while revisiting or attempting to flee. Then the Kommandant selected new girls for 'work.'
"Selection was carried out every 15 to 20 days. It is impossible to describe what was happening in the ghetto—the desperate screams of the girls, the pleas of their parents. Some girls tried to run away along the road. The Fascists shot them in the back. Only a few managed to hide in the villages, pretending to be locals, or were saved by the partisans after long wanderings in the forests. I belonged to the latter group. Among 25 other girls, I was picked to be sent to 'work.'"
- Much has been said of the Nazi doctors' work on the reproductive systems of women, but less has been said of what this meant for the women. Forced abortions, forced sterilization, and mutilation meant that women, if they survived a concentration camp and the procedures themselves, were left with a quintessential part of their beings destroyed. At least 40,000 people were forcibly sterilized, according to Brigitte Halbmayr, in Sexual Violence. About 5,500 women and 600 men died after being sterilized, according to Halbmayr.
- Unwanted pregnancies, forced sterilizations and abortions, and venereal diseases left some women unable to bear children, and sometimes were the cause of their death.
- Sexual assault can be extraordinarily violent, leading to internal injury. In some cases, women's reproductive organs were so damaged from sexualized violence in the Holocaust that they could not bear children afterward, Sinnreich writes.
Although no official precedents were set at the 1945-1946 trials at Nuremberg--its charter did not explicitly refer to rape or sexualized violence--“the possibility of prosecuting sexual violence as a war crime was present,” argues Anne-Marie de Brouwer, the author of Supranational Criminal Prosecution of Sexual Violence. She writes that sexual violence could have been prosecuted under “other inhumane acts” and other headings already recognized by international law.
(Lauren Wolfe/published on February 8, 2012)