Breaking the Silence about sexual violence against women during the Holocaust

The deliberate use of rape as a weapon of terror has always been and continues to be part of wartime violence against women. The German military and the SS raped and sexually assaulted women wherever they conquered. Rape was (and is) often accompanied by torture and mutilation and frequently ends in the victim being shot or bludgeoned to death.

“Rape is the quintessential act by which a male demonstrates to a female that she is conquered – vanquished – by his superior strength and power, it was perfectly logical within the framework of fascism that rape would be employed by the German soldier as he strove to prove himself a worthy Superman. Rape for the Germans, and to a similar extent for the Japanese, 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 the establishment of their own master race.” (Susan Brownmiller. Against Our Will, 1975)

For survivors, rape and sexual violence arouses profound guilt, shame and humiliation whose memory most women at that time wanted to bury fearing that they would be stigmatized and ostracized by their own community. The incidence of rape was vehemently denied or not mentioned by historians of WW II –neither Jewish, German nor Soviet scholars — each had different reasons. Until feminists pried open the subject of sexual violence, it was taboo.

June, 2014: “Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”
Sexual violence is an assault weapon used to degrade, terrorize, subjugate, defile and dehumanize women; it is the crime that links women victimized during the Holocaust & women victimized in modern genocide. The subject received worldwide attention when Angelina Jolie convened a “Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict,” in London (June 2014) where the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague launched a new protocol for documenting and prosecuting sexual violence to “shatter the culture of impunity.” Earlier, the chief ICC prosecutor issued a policy paper citing “forced nudity” as an example of sexual violence. This is profoundly important; it is a tacit acknowledgement that every woman who was forced to strip naked upon arrival at a Nazi concentration camp was a victim of sexual violence.

The Global Summit prompted the major Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, to run an in-depth article, Silence Surrounding Sexual Violence During the Holocaust (June 2014) noting that sexual violence against Jewish women during the Shoah (Holocaust) has been a taboo subject that was shunned by two generations of mainstream Holocaust scholars who dismissed the subject as trivial and unworthy of serious attention. Yet, sexual violence against women is the link that connects the Holocaust and current victims of ethnic genocide: in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Nigeria, the Congo, and wherever it is used to degrade, terrorize, subjugate, defile and dehumanize.

Sexual violence includes rape, “coerced sexual activities,” forced nudity, forced prostitution, sexual enslavement, forced sterilization, and other assaults on women’s bodies. Rape has always been and continues to be part of wartime violence against women. From its first-phase violence against Jews, beginning with Kristallnacht, rape was an integral part of the Nazi pattern of sexual violence against Jewish women despite the Nazi prohibition against Rassenschande – i.e., “racial defilement” through sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. But two generations of mainstream Holocaust scholars in the U.S. and Israel kept sexual abuse issues out of the discourse; they regarded the subject as taboo or trivial and unworthy of serious scholarly attention.

When “ethnic cleansing” – i.e., genocide – is the goal – as it was an explicit, implemented Nazi policy to annihilate the Jews – an objective is to inhibit the ability of the despised ethnic group to reproduce. By assaulting women’s bodies, their sexuality and means of reproduction, the rapists assert their power and absolute control to ensure that the despised population will not rebound.

The Nuremberg Tribunal disregarded evidence of sexual violence
Rape was already outlawed as a war crime long before the Nuremberg Tribunal; and there is evidence that in previous war crimes trials perpetrators were punished for sex crimes. Violent sexual assault, including rape, forced nudity, forced pregnancies, forced abortions, forced prostitution, forced sterilization – some of which were carried out within the context of forced medical experimentation that mutilated their bodies, were all committed on a massive scale against women in Europe and Asia, by both the Nazis and Japanese Imperial Army during WW II. Though ample evidence was submitted during the Nuremberg Trials, the Nuremberg Tribunal chose not to prosecute sexual violence.

Anne-Marie de Brouwer argues that “sexual assault could have been prosecuted as a war crime” under several provisions of the International Military Tribunals’ Charter. She notes that since sexual assault crimes were included within the body of evidence submitted to the Nuremberg Tribunal, they could have been prosecuted. But the prosecutors evidently did not have the will to prosecute sexual assault crimes. Surely, the lack of any women participants in the organization and prosecution of the Nuremberg Tribunal may have contributed. (Anne-Marie de Brouwer. Supranational Criminal Prosecution of Sexual Violence, 2005, p. 7)

For more than five decades Holocaust historians failed to examine any distinct aspect of women’s experience; and sexual violence against women was virtually a taboo topic.

 “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.(Lauren Wolfel. Holocaust, Women Under Siege, Feb. 2012)

For women, “different horrors, but the same hell”
Although many memoirs had been written by women survivors after 1946, not even a handful stayed in print. Feminists who scoured archives for testimonials – especially those written soon after the war — found that whereas women and men were subjected to subhuman conditions and degradation; to starvation, slave labor, torture, and unspeakable cruelty; women suffered differently and they coped differently because of their biological difference and their different socialization skills they had acquired in pre-Nazi Europe.

For women, the lack of hygiene and the humiliation and dehumanization of being stripped of their femininity; having their heads shaved and forced to expose their nude bodies publicly was acutely painful. These calculated indignities undermined their dignity, their sense of security,  and foreshadowed imminent death. Women’s traditional upbringing served as an advantage to their survival. Most women growing up in the early 20th century had been taught precautionary hygienic practices, homemaking, caregiving and social skills, all of which helped them survive. They kept themselves and their living space as clean as possible, forestalling disease; and they bonded with other women forming surrogate “families” that nurtured and supported one another. (Read Women’s Fight for Survival)

Holocaust historians omitted women from their rendition. If they mentioned women at all, male scholars referred to motherhood but ignored sexual identity issues entirely. When women asked those researchers “where, in all that history are the women?” Such questions were dismissed, Historians feared that featuring a female component would divert attention from and ultimately trivialize the Holocaust. The failure by mainstream scholars to address women’s experience, victimization, differences in survival techniques, sparked acrimonious tension in the late 1990s between mainstream Holocaust historians and feminists who view history in gender terms, accused male scholars of having “erased the history of women in the Holocaust.”(Gabriel Schenfeld. Auschwitz & the Profssors, Commentary,1998; Judith Shulevitz. Culturebox Rules: Feminism and the HolocaustSlate, 1998)

Feminist historians set about to redress this imbalance and marginalization of women creating a repository for women’s voice and expression. Feminists who view sexism and the subservience of women within traditional male dominated heterosexual relations as inherently oppressive, attempt to integrate the  violence women were subjected to during the Holocaust within a global sisterhood of victimized women. Some feminists view all victimization of women as having a common denominator; an oppressive patriarchal social order irrespective of the historical context.

SS Guard shooting naked woman

SS Guard shooting naked woman

SS guards Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath & Ilse Koch

SS guards Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath & Ilse Koch

That disregards the violent, often sexualized brutality inflicted by female guards. And it disregards the fact that the vast majority of women at the time of the Holocaust would not have identified with such a feminist perspective. Furthermore, since all Jews – men, women and children – were equally doomed to be exterminated because they were Jews – the feminist gender oppression paradigm does not fit. (Atina Grossman. A Question of Silence, 1995)

However, women deserve better than being relegated to the status of inconsequential, nameless “unmentionables.” Sexualized violence was not part of any discussion until the 21st century. Most women survivors remained silent for many years. Survivors’ guilt loomed large; within the scale and enormity of the catastrophe, the significance of sexual violence paled. Furthermore, survivors were reluctant to talk openly about such issues as rape, prostitution, and other forms of sexual abuse for many reasons. Shame was a major factor for religious and non-religious women at a time when sexual issues were not openly discussed. And there was fear of being stigmatized and shunned by their own communities as having been sullied, “damaged goods.”

In 2007, a ground breaking conference broke a German and Japanese taboo about forced prostitution during wartime in the 20th century was held at the Ravensbrück concentration camp memorial in Germany. Although Jewish women were not conscripted as sexual slaves because of Nazi racial ideology, the conference opened a public discussion about sexual violence; its organizers were the editors of Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women.

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, 2010

Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, 2010

“Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust”
This anthology edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel (2010) touched off heated controversy and debate: CNN reporter Jessica Ravitz did a good job in presenting the issues: Sexual violence during the Holocaust has not been discussed;  ; historians who those against raising the issue, argue “It wasn’t part of Nazi policy. There’s no proof.” Others argue, “even if it wasn’t the norm, no matter how rare, the stories need to be heard.” However, the issue raises concerns that those who were victims of sexual assault would not have wanted to be “outed” and stigmatized. Therefore, some argue that the issue should better be left alone. (Jessica Ravitz. Silence lifted: The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust, CNN, June 24, 2011)

Women’s testimonies, however, do describe being sexually assaulted and raped in the concentration camps, in ghettos, and in hiding by those who sheltered them. The situation in the camps was a natural setting for every manner of abuse. Women were raped; women were subjected to forced nudity; forced sexual slavery in brothels; for soldiers and male prisoners. And women were subjected to forced forced sterilization — some of which were carried out within the context of medical experiments. Women were forced to undergo abortions, and medical experiments that mutilated their bodies. Many of the surviving women were rendered incapable of conceiving and giving birth — which was a primary goal of Nazi and Japanese racist genocidal policies. The mass rapes by invading armed forces then and now are motivated not merely by lust, but have as their primary objective, the eradication of an enemy by defiling its females.

Sexual Forced Labor: Nazi conscription of women as sex slaves
Until very recently, women conscripted as sexual forced laborers (i.e., sex slaves) at Nazi concentration camp brothels was hushed-up; a largely ignored chapter in the history of Nazi Germany. Among the many incongruities in Nazi policies, prostitutes were imprisoned for prostitution; yet, these same prostitutes were coerced into prostitution at concentration camps.

Published, 2009; [Concentration Camp Bordello: Sexual Forced Labor]

Published, 2009;

The first comprehensive, scholarly study of the brothels was undertaken by Robert Sommer, a Cultural Studies scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin in 2000. Sommer spent nine years reviewing written records in archives, at memorial sites and interviewing historical witnesses –both male and female. (Concentration Camp Bordello: Sexual Forced Labor, 2009 [Das KZ-Bordell]; review by von Kellenbach, 2010)

Sommer’s findings show that the Nazi regime enforced total surveillance of prostitution, both in Germany and in its occupied territories. He documents a comprehensive network of state-controlled brothels in Europe; these consisted of civil and military brothels, as well as brothels for forced laborers within the concentration camps. Prostitution, he notes is an “especially perfidious form of violence in the concentration camps.” This sexual exploitation of women in SS slave labor camp brothels were a facet within the Nazi regime’s mass enslavement of millions of human beings who were systematically used as a disposable labor force

When Hitler criminalized prostitution, many young German prostitutes were arrested and sent to the women’s slave labor camp, Ravensbrück. After the invasion of Poland, SS Chief, Heinrich Himmler concluded that brothels under supervision and control of SS medical-personnel would prevent venereal disease, “mixed race” sexual contact, and could be used to reward productive laborers. It is estimated that 300 to 400 young women imprisoned at the woman’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück and at Auschwitz (between the ages of 17 and 30) were coerced “to volunteer” as prostitutes in brothels established at 10 concentration camps.

The SS feared the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; so the men were given disinfectant ointments in the hospital barracks before and after each brothel visit; and doctors took smear samples from the women to test for gonorrhea, and tested their blood for syphilis. Himmler picked Dr. Walter Sonntag to conduct experiments to find treatments for sexually transmitted diseases. Sonntag was a sadist who conducted abominable sterilization experiments on women inmates at Ravensbrück; deliberately infecting some with syphilis and gonorrhea. Many of the women in his experiments died suspiciously after Sonntag injected syphilis into their spines.

70% of the women were coerced to become camp brothel prostitutes
According to Sommer, they were recruited from the “antisocial” group of women, among them were young German prostitutes and women who had relations with non-Aryan men. These women had been picked off the streets and sent to Ravensbrück where other inmates shunned them. The brothels were part of a system of incentives intended to boost the productivity of concentration camp slave laborers; foremen, heads of barracks and other “deserving” prisoners were given this “bonus” which consisted of exactly 15 minutes with a prostitute.

Nazi racial classification was strictly maintained: German women (who comprised 60% of the prostitutes serviced German prisoners, Polish women were assigned to Ukrainian and Polish prisoners. Each woman was obliged to serve 300 to 500 men. The longest stay of women in a brothel was 21 months; the majority stayed between 8 and 17 months before they were transferred back to Ravensbrück or other concentration camps. Jewish women were exempted from recruitment as prostitutes because of the Nazi prohibition against Rassenschande – I.e., “racial defilement. For the same ideological reason, Jewish men were forbidden brothel visits.

For many of the women living under the threat of death, serving in a brothel was their last hope of survival. Der Spiegel quotes Lieselotte B., who survived: “The main thing was that at least we had escaped the hell of Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück…The main thing was to survive at all.” (Fallet and Kaiser. Concentration Camp Bordellos, 2009)

Sommer’s research findings contradict previous assertions; he found that sex slaves did not face higher mortality rates. Women who became pregnant or infected with STDs were not gassed as previously maintained, but rather, were forced to undergo abortions and were treated medically. He notes that these women were better fed and better housed than other prisoners; and they were able to use their relationships with privileged prisoners to negotiate better positions in the prison hierarchy when they were transferred into other camps. Overall, he concludes, these women had a better chance of escaping death in the camps. (Read about the Japanese Imperial Army’s forced sex slaves who were called, “Comfort Women”)

Violent Sexual Rampage and Mass Rape by Red Army “liberators”
German scholars were silent for very different reasons about the rape of German women by Red Army “liberators” who were on a violent sexual rampage of gang rape as they were advancing from the east toward Berlin. An estimated two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers; 110,000 women in Berlin were raped, many were assaulted repeatedly and 10,000 died (or were killed if they resisted). Between 70,000 and 100,000 women in Vienna were raped; and anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria (countries which had been pro-Nazi). Red Army soldiers did not discriminate; they also raped the women in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (who had not been pro-Nazi); and the soldiers even raped emaciated concentration camp survivors, including Russian women wearing their prison uniform, whom they had “liberated.” (Andrew Roberts. Stalin’s Army of Rapists: The Brutal War Crime That Russia and Germany Tried to Ignore, The Daily Mail, October 24, 2008; Antony Beevor. The Fall of Berlin 1945, 2002)

The rapes had affected women across Berlin; women between the ages of 15 and 55 were ordered to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. “You needed the medical certificate to get the food stamps and I remember that all the doctors doing these certificates, had waiting rooms full of women.”  And though abortions were illegal, they were granted to women who were raped in 1945.

This was rarely mentioned after the war in Germany – West or East – and remains a taboo subject in Russia even today. The Russian media regularly dismiss talk of the rapes as a Western myth.

“It’s the fate of history to be rewritten to suit the agenda of the present. That’s why first-hand accounts are so valuable – from those who brave the subject now, in their old age, and from those younger voices who put pencil to paper on the spot.” (Rape of Berlin, BBC News, 2015)

Vladimir Gelfand Diary

Vladimir Gelfand Diary — BBC News

A recently discovered diary kept by Vladimir Gelfand, a young Jewish Soviet officer from 1941 until the end of the war, is one of many sources that tells the story of the depravity that happened. (Lucy Ash. The Rape of Berlin, BBC News, May 1, 2015)  A diary by an unidentified young German woman who had been raped was published in 1959, titled A Woman in Berlin. Her frank account of the choices she made to survive was attacked for “besmirching the honour” of German women. However, when the diary was adapted as a film in 2008, it encouraged many women to come forward, including the diarist, Ingeborg Bullert.

In East Germany it was sacrilegious to criticize Soviet heroes who had defeated fascism; while in West Germany, guilt for Nazi crimes made German suffering unmentionable. Any narrative that might support postwar Germans’ self-perception as victims was highly suspect when discussing Germany’s Nazi history. Historians feared that such a perception might lead to a dangerous revival of German nationalism; a whitewash the Nazi past, and would normalize a genocidal war. Professor Atina Grossman points out that for German women in 1945, felt victimized, violated, humiliated but not guilty or responsible. They viewed Soviet soldiers as “primitive” brutish Mongols. Rape was experienced as:

“a collective event in a situation of general crisis. While frightful and horrific, it seemed to provoke no guilt; if anything it confirmed their expectations and reinforced preexisting convictions of cultural superiority. Rape came as just another more (sometimes the worst, but sometimes not) in a series of horrible deprivations and humiliations of war and defeat…The story of rape was told as part of the narrative of survival in ruined Germany. As one observer noted, ‘rape had become routine.’ [And so had] venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, and mass abortions.” (Atina Grossman. A Question of Silence, 1995)

After the German men returned home, and 90% of the pregnancies had been aborted; the topic of rape was no longer discussed as it was too humiliating for German men and dangerous for the women who feared a violent reaction from the returning men. Historians found the lack of guilt on the part of the women troubling; as it underscored German unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility for the Nazi atrocities and the subsequent misery in defeat. Professor Grossman notes that German women were not innocent bystanders during the Nazi regime; they had been actively complicit in the Nazi atrocities. But feminists certified women’s status as victims of a patriarchal regime. (Read Recent Scholarship)