Gender Determined Experiences of the Holocaust

The Holocaust had an underlying theme of gender, as it played a major role in this horrific event. The Holocaust is often seen as a story of men, whether an S.S officer, a doctor, or forced workmen. Often women are thought of less, and possibly pushed aside as a mother or wife. Although gender is fluid, the Nazis did not address this complex matter. At this time, the genders and the role men and women took on were very segregated. Gender determined experiences through power struggles, mental abuse, motherly roles, and sexual violence.

When it came to gender and roles, men struggled because of the lack of power and lack of ability to fulfill their typical role of being the provider and protector. Men often experienced most of the physical harming, such as beatings. In the camps, men ‘looked worse than [women] did,’ women “”could suffer more than a man,”” men’s “”spirits were broken much more than [women’s]””–but men may have endured harsher treatment from the guards. The men would also be publically humiliated. Old Jewish men were tied to carts, beaten, and mocked. This author clearly states that the men were the ones being beaten. Also, the power positions, such as Nazi guards and officers, were almost always men. This was difficult for middle and high class Jewish men, who were used to holding high positions. These beatings and acts of humiliation by Nazis were very distressing for men, especially because of the stigma of having to be strong and ‘manly’. This constant struggle for power took a toll on those who could not achieve their usual accustomed role.

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Ghettos had Jewish Councils and Jewish police, which gave Jewish men a chance to express a form of power. As a councilman, one had to enforce Nazi orders and administer the daily affairs of the ghettos. Men were appointed based on their role before the war. Most often, the council would be made up of community leaders. The council had to distribute food, enforce social and cultural life, and create a sense of community. Often, the councilmen had to make difficult choices. For example, they had to come up with lists of people to be deported to death camps and concentration camps. If one could not perform his task on the council, he was killed and replaced. Many of these men had major internal struggles which caused them to commit suicide. Others attempted to negotiate with the Nazi rulers to save family and friends. Most members of the Jewish Councils were murdered, regardless or not if they carried out commands. The internal operations were left in the hands of the Jewish police, who worked under close supervision of the Germans. The policemen’s main job was to round up those on the list for deportation. This took a harsh mental toll on the men, considering they were sending their fellow prisoners to their death. Often, the Jewish police helped smuggle children out of the ghetto and get food and weapons in. This was very risky, and they were often caught. When discovered, they would face brutal torture, and usually were killed.

Men in certain camps were also used as Sonderkommandos, a special unit of Jewish men who were forced to work within the gas chambers. Their primary job was to maintain order before their peers entered the gas chambers, remove the bodies after being gassed, and sort through them for personal belongings. Abraham Bomba, a worker in the Sonderkommando at Treblinka, stated that he took all of the clothes to big places…six and seven stories high…and we had to put together cotton with cotton and silk with silk. Bomba also worked as a barber in the camp. He said that he had to cut off women’s hair so they were not suspicious that they [were] going to be killed. This work was extremely beneficial for the Nazis, because it helped them conclude the killing process in a more efficient way. It was the Nazis’ intention to murder the Sonderkommando after a certain amount of time, so that there would be no witnesses left after the war. This process was very disturbing for the Jewish men in the Sonderkommando. This form of labor was difficult both physically and mentally, and in the end, most did not survive.

Rather than physical labor, woman’s hardship included mental, medical, and sexual abuse. Specified harm was typically seen in the all female prison camps, such as Ravensbruck. Upon arrival at Ravensbruck, Holocaust survivor Blanka Rothschild stated that the women were stripped of their clothes, and went to a medical examination[they] were humiliated at every moment. Rothschild recalled a violating and abusive gynecological exam. She suggested that the men in control used their power to humiliate the victims through forced nudity and aggressive sexual acts. She also stated that after the war, it was especially difficult for women who could not have children due to the harm and assaults performed by the Nazi doctors and guards.

After the initial entry process, if one was clearly pregnant, they were sent straight to their death or taken to the Nazi doctors. Although a rare occurrence, if women fell pregnant while in the camps they would be physically beaten and most likely killed. To avoid these consequences, often the pregnant women would attempt to self abort, which sometimes severely harmed the women. Additionally, Nazi doctors would experiment on women through testing. In one instance, Ruth Elias entered the camps as a pregnant lady. She was chosen to be observed in a special unit throughout her pregnancy. Once she gave birth, Joseph Mengele directed the Polish midwife to put a bandage over [Elias’] breasts, she must not feed the baby. [Mengele] want[ed] to see how long a baby [could] live without food. In the days following the birth of her child, Elias secretly fed the baby soft bread and soup, but it was not enough nourishment to keep her alive. A nurse brought Elias a syringe of morphine, because if the baby died, Elias would be saved. The baby died hours later, and Elias was transported. This is only one example of the physical and mental effects the Nazi doctors had on the women prisoners. Another example, perhaps the most prevalent of all experiments was sterilization methods. These experiments would often result in permanent physical damage, or even death. Although women faced these harsh, unpredictable conditions in the concentration camps, they used their inherent coping and bonding skills to motivate each other to live.

Compared to men, women’s coping skills were more advanced. Women were typically seen as homemakers. Their values and roles were centered around being a mother, and a protector. Unique variables such as coping skills and bonding abilities gave women the strength needed to protect their families. Women often bonded over starvation. They would talk about food, and their favorite meals from home. Imagining the taste, sharing recipes, and creating menus helped women cope within the harsh conditions. This food talk, called ‘cooking with the mouth,’ was a gendered form of nostalgia which helped women create a sense of community. Eva Oswalt, a survivor of Ravensbruck, wrote a cookbook that survived the Holocaust. Two recipes of apricot dumplings and a Hungarian omelette were written down. This was ironic because all of the ingredients in these dishes were difficult to find during the war. In the concentration camp, these recipes acted as a reminder of Eva’s past. Exchanging cookbooks and recipes were very comforting to women, and truly helped them survive. While many were bonding through gender, other women were being sexually targeted and abused based on their gender.

Rape and sexual assault was prevalent, and often women thought it as a chance to ensure their loved one’s survival. There [was] an emphasis on women’s sexual and reproductive experiences…because they carried the next generation of Jews. Traumatic memories of torture, abuse, and rape were not usually documented, but have been discovered through the victim’s stories. On the other hand, many turned to sexual slavery, which was referred to as prostitution during the Holocaust, in hopes of achieving safety. Prostitutes found themselves faced with what Lawrence Langer termed a ‘choiceless choice’. Women exchanged sex for food, possessions, and safety. Jewish prostitution and rape by German soldiers was forbidden when camps and ghettos were established, but the soldiers continued to engaged in sexual relations. Sexual assault often occurred in the barracks, at labor sites, and in medical units. These forms of violence was done for to manifest power, as a form of gratification, and to display an alternative form of anti-Semitism. Specifically, the Warsaw ghetto was known for prostitution and sexual assault. A document was found after the war that was addressed to Heinz Auerswald, a German SS officer and lawyer, stating that it is the poverty of the females, rather than the desire of the males, that leads to new prostitutes…who want in this way to provide a livelihood for themselves and their relatives…through sex, women and girls could gain a greater chance of survival. Other instances of sexual violence appeared in death camps. Jankiel Wiernik, a prominent figure in the Treblinka resistance, recalled seeing countless acts of sexual assault. He stated that the Ukrainian guards would select the most attractive Jewish girls, drag them into barracks, raped them, then brought them to the gas chambers. The role of women as a protector and nurturer, quickly developed into giving up themselves in hopes of survival.

Men and women’s experiences throughout the Holocaust were very different. Men were typically targeted through forced labor, which included both mental and physical abuse, whereas women were attacked for vulnerability through medicine and sexual assault. One’s gender definitely impacted his or her experience throughout the camps and ghettos, and it is important to acknowledge these differences, to ensure a more holistic understanding of this horrific event in history.

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