International: Holocaust Memorial Day: The Experiences of Women


In this 2004 paper by Alana M. Morrissette (Brandon, Manitoba), the author begins by citing Sybil Milton: 'The study of women and the Holocaust has barely begun, and the complexities and contours of the subject... will keep historians and other analysts occupied for many years', and goes on to describe how women were physically and emotionally injured even before their deportation to Nazi death camps. You can read the full paper here:

However, it is also a tribute to the role women played in looking after the survivors: 'For example, women demonstrated an extraordinary caring for one another due to their, "...preoccupation with hunger and obtaining food, the importance of social bonding, heightened fear of physical vulnerability and sex-specific humiliation, and reliance on prewar homemaking skills as coping strategies" (Ofer & Weitzman, 1998, p. 335). Goldenberg (1998) discussed the connectedness, nurturance, and care giving in women's memoirs and stated, "... such bonding was not exclusive to women but is difficult to find consistent evidence of men's caring about one another to the extent that women did" (p. 337).'

Jewish citizens were forced to move into ghettos prior to their relocation to concentration camps. Ghettos were enclosed by fences, buildings, walls, or barbed wire (Aktion Reinhard Camps, 2004). The gates of the Warsaw ghetto, for example, were guarded by Polish, German, and Jewish Police (Ofer, 1998). It has been recorded that, "Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were so bad that between 1940 and 1942 an estimated 100,000 Jews died of starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto" (Jewish Ghettos, 2004). Such estimates are highly inaccurate because many deaths were not accounted for. For example, "In many ghettos the Germans instituted a policy of compulsory abortion" (Weitzman & Ofer, 1998, p. 7). Also, infants were murdered prior to or at birth. Rittner and Roth (1993), highlighted Dr. Perl's choiceless choice when having to preserve a life by taking a life and recalled this physician's experience, "I took the warm little body in my hands, kissed the smooth face, caressed the long hair - then strangled him and buried his body under a mountain of corpses waiting to be cremated" (p. 115). Because males were at high risk of being deported to forced-labor camps, married women assumed responsibility for completing outdoor chores such as standing in line for food so their husbands could remain hidden indoors (Ofer, 1998).

Women within ghettos were also targets of rape and public humiliation by the Gestapo. Chapnik (1998) stated, "In the ghetto all Jews were potential victims of Nazi sadism. Members of the Gestapo would come to the ghetto - alone or with friends - for entertainment. This entertainment consisted of taking potshots at a child, raping a woman, cutting the beard off an old man, humiliating people in the street, and so on" (p. 113). It has been noted that to avoid hysteria as a result of their despair, women remained active (Ofer, 1998).

Forced Sterilization. The Nazi sterilization law was enforced on January 1, 1934 and was designed to prevent lives unworthy of life (Rittner & Roth, 1993). The Nazi's used two types of forced sterilization to prevent women from having children. Some women were unknowingly sterilized when highly toxic chemicals were secretly put in their food. These chemicals resulted in excruciating pain, internal haemorrhaging, itching, the formation of holes in the mouth cavity and long lasting anguish (e.g., Cohen, 2003; Greenhouse, 2003). The second type of forced sterilization involved the use of x-rays to burn and destroy a woman's ovaries. Both methods of sterilization were used to break a woman's spirit and attack her femininity.

Gas Chambers. Gas chambers were used by the Nazi's to exterminate prisoners. 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 perished in the gas chambers. According to Ofer and Weitzman (1998), "The gas chambers were made to look like showers, and the victims were told that they were going through a process of disinfection" (p.269).

Shearing. The Nazi's would shear women using rusty razor blades. They worked quickly and would shave a victim's entire body including her pubic hair. The purpose of shearing was to degrade, humiliate, and annihilate a woman's sense of femininity and will. Recalling the despair of one woman prisoner, Goldenberg (1998) wrote, "After the humiliating process of being shaved, she felt so dehumanized, so alone and so deeply depressed, that she prepared a noose with which to hang herself" (p. 328).

Menstruation. After entering a concentration camp, being sheared, and experiencing astounding stress, some women ceased menstruating. Women who did menstruate had to contend with blood streaming down their legs because they were not provided with proper hygiene articles. Consequently, these women would be humiliated, criticized, and assaulted by Nazi soldiers for appearing unclean. Although these women were distraught as a result of their treatment and appearance, they considered themselves fortunate because they knew that they could still bear children.

Rape. Women were often raped in concentration camps and consequently, endured intense physical injury and broken spirits. In some concentration camps, brothels were set up for soldiers and select prisoners. Brothels were actually designed for organized rape and were places where women lacked control over their bodies. Women who were considered pretty and possessed strong bodies would be inspected for physical appearance and tried out. In essence, these women would be exploited and raped.