It is without a doubt, that the Holocaust was a horrible and brutal experience for both men and women. Even though both men and women were tortured both physically and mentally well beyond what any human being should have to endure, women were treated to far greater abuse and punishment than their male counter parts. The stories of brave women such as Melita Maschmann and Emmy Bonhoeffer highlight the extent of what these women were subjected to. The cruelty and brutality that these women had to endure left a long lasting mark etched into each of their lives, years after being liberated.
Jewish ghettos in Europe were the outgrowths of segregated ghettos instituted by the Nazis during World War II. Prior to being sent to concentration camps, Jewish families were forced to live in ghettos so that they would remain in an enclosed area, unable to escape. Fences and other barriers hindered free passage in and out of these ghettos (Holocaust Encyclopedia). Jewish citizens were forced to leave their life behind and move into these types of ghettos prior to their relocation to concentration camps.
Due to the fact that males suffered a higher risk of being deported to the forced labour-camps, married women took responsibility for completing the outdoor chores. These chores would include things such as standing in line waiting for food so their husbands could remain hidden indoors. Women who had never worked outside their homes were now expected to spend long hours in factories and industries and to put in a full day’s work operating complicated machines. When women left their homes they had to be exceptionally careful, as they also ran the risk of being targets of rape and public humiliation. Some women were forced to accept this sexual assault as payment for receiving food or shelter, or to save their children. Kapos who male prisoners had more food or privileges than the women and members of a Judenrat all wielded power over women through various forms of sexualized violence ( Women’s Media Center). As a result, women were not treated as superior to men, in fact they were often faced with dreadful tribulations. On March 13, 1943 The Nazi Party ordered the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos (Liquidation of the Ghettos).
Women suffered the brutal agony of being separated from their life long partners and their young children, many not seeing them ever again. Upon arrival to the camps women were ordered to strip naked, and have their heads shaved so that they would lose their sense of security while living in the camps. These women were forced to strip naked in front of SS men, the sadistic SS guards would come watch them shower and degrade them (Heinemann,1986). For many it was the first time they had been seen naked in front of a male and to be met with this kind of humiliation crippled the women’s sense of sexual identity and self-respect. Lotte Weiss a Holocaust survivor stated “Shortly after our arrival and the deadly “selection”… we were ordered to undress… they stripped us of our clothing and shaved off all our hair.
We felt humiliated and degraded by being forced to stand naked in front of all those SS men and women. Our feminine sensitivities were callously trampled on” ( Women of the Holocaust, 1949)For women in the camps pregnancy was an automatic precursor of death for women, in the initial selection a pregnant women was sent directly to the gas chambers (Women in the Holocaust). Additionally women were more subjected to rape and sexual assault than males, which would ultimately lead to pregnancy. In instances of pregnancy while in incarnated in the the women were beaten or mauled by dogs and later thrown in the crematorium alive (Women in the Holocaust,1949). Additionally, the women who fell pregnant, in fear for their own lives, underwent abortions as late as five months into the pregnancy. While the child was successfully aborted, in many cases the mothers themselves did not survive.
In addition to the the horrors of the concentration camp, women endured atrocious medical experiments. Ravensbrück was the only women’s concentration camp, and inmates there were put through spine chilling medical experiments. The camp doctor, Walter Sonntag began testing ways of killing prisoners by injecting petrol or phenol into their veins ( Nazi Death Camps for Women). This was not only the case for Ravensbrück but many camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau conducted forced sterilizations on both men and women.
The Nazi sterilization law was passed on January 1, 1934. The Nazi’s used two types of sterilization techniques. The first technique consisted of secretly adding toxic chemicals in woman’s food. These chemicals cause extreme pain and anguish to women. It also caused them to have certain health problems such as hemorrhaging, itching, and cavity problems. The second type of sterilization involved x-rays to burn and destroy woman’s ovaries.
Both of these types of sterilization destroyed womens identities and hope of having a family in the future.Alternatively, many believe that men had it worse throughout the Holocaust. Although men also went through unimaginable things, they still had a sense of authority in the ghettos which women did not have. The Judenrat refers to the Jewish council that was forced to implement Nazi policy while in the ghettos. In addition, women were not allowed to participate and instead tried to maintain their families alive.
Although men also suffered sexual assault it was not as extreme as it was for women. Men did not run the risk of becoming pregnant and ultimately facing death themselves or of their child.The first concentration camp was liberated on July 23, 1944, finding hundreds of sick and exhausted prisoners ( The Holocaust Liberation). Jewish people were now forced to rebuild their lives after years of being imprisoned, many afraid to go back to their hometown due to anti semitism. Many women remarried after being liberated, but unfortunately the repercussions of those who survived the brutal medical experiments made it impossible for women to bear children.
Their experiences at the camps left a long lasting impact on the females of the Holocaust. For example, Holocaust survivor Lotte Weiss recalls arriving to the camps and states “It was such a terrible terrible feeling, humiliating, painful, and unfortunately left a very very terrible mark on my life, because I was so ashamed of my body…I could never undress in front of my husband because I was so horribly humiliated.” Many of these women were never able to overcome the horrors of the camps.Overall, every Jew regardless of gender, was equally a victim in the Holocaust, however studies of the have typically been make centered.
Women’s experiences differ from those of men because they were faced with vulnerabilities that relate exclusively to their gender. These gender specific themes of women’s experiences in the Holocaust include sexual abuse, pregnancy, abortions which affected their chances of survival. It is important to raise awareness to the gender specific differences of women’s experiences throughout the Holocaust.