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Violence And Sexuality As A Theme In Memoirs By Women Survivors

Among the documents about the Holocaust are hundreds of memoirs by survivors. Many, such as those by Aharon Appelfeld, Primo Levi, Ida Fink, Elie Wiesel, and Charlotte Delbo, are, paradoxically, beautifully written literary works about atrocity. Others, also gripping accounts of unspeakable horror (though less artistically narrated), are no less substantial as primary source material. Memoirs written by women survivors share certain characteristics with those written by men, such as a narrative structure that begins with belonging (to the Jewish family or community) and then moves to humiliation, isolation, deprivation, and finally annihilation.16 Men and women survivors both describe gratuitous and deliberate violence by Kapos and SS, but the differences in responses by Jewish men and women to Nazi deprivation and cruelty are illuminating although, up to very recently, ignored or neglected. Jewish women "belonged," as Marion Kaplan explains, "to a sex-segregated religion and a sex-segregated society."17 The complexities of religious activity, class, and gender had, by the time of the Holocaust, already diminished women’s social and political status. The growing number of survivor narratives by women and the testimony taken in preparation for war crimes trials testify to the differences.18

Women’s narratives echo several themes that are unique to women’s biology, such as amenorrhea and its psychological effects, vulnerability to rape and other sexual offenses, pregnancy, and childbirth. Gerda Klein feared that she would never again menstruate and thus, even if she did survive, would eventually give Hitler a victory. Desperately wanting to have a baby, the possibility of forced sterilization and the reality of amenorrhea terrified her. She "would endure anything willingly so long as that hope was not extinguished."19 Isabella Leitner opens her memoir with a chilling understatement that she had not "menstruated for a long time," introducing the idea of the Final Solution as planned sterility.20 Ironically, these women, and indeed most women in the Western world during this era, accepted their biological destiny unquestioningly. Few women, however, measured themselves as completely in biological terms as Hitler proposed. Fear of rape permeates 16-year-old Judith Isaacson’s memoir. Hyena, the name she and her bunkmates gave to the sadistic Kapo of her work Kommando, understood Isaacson’s tensions and taunted her:

I can read your face. But dreaming is all that’s left for you, bitch. After the war, you’ll be transported to a desert island. No males - not even natives. Much use will be your fancy looks, with snakes for company. Do you suppose the Americans will win the war? That would be your death sentence. We’ll shoot you Jewish bitches before the Americans come - it’s the Fuhrer’s decree. Your fate is sealed either way: No men. No sex. No seed of Sarah.21

Many years later, when Isaacson and her daughter returned to Hungary, her daughter asked about the fate of her mother’s friends. Isaacson explained that most had been raped and killed, by Russians if not by Nazis. When her daughter sighed that "thousands of women were raped during the war, but no one hears about them," Isaacson answered, "The Anne Franks who survived rape don’t write their stories."22

Prior to being murdered in Einsatzgruppen actions, single girls and young women were often raped,23 despite the fact that the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor prohibited intercourse between Aryans and Jews.24 Although some autobiographical Holocaust fiction deals with rape and the bartering of sex for temporary rescue,25 very few memoirs or other historical sources discuss actual rapes, and owing to the age of the survivors and to the seriousness of the crime of Rassenschande ("race defilement"), there is virtually no likelihood that extensive Nazi documentation will be found.26

In rape situations, women were victims of their biology and their social and political status. In sexual bartering, women controlled the use of their bodies as if their sexuality were a commodity. The difference is subtle but significant. Though seldom written about, forced sexual activities were common in ghettos and in partisan camps and were not infrequent in concentration camps. In ghettos and concentration camps, "women prepared to sell their bodies for food" for their children.27 In Terezin, and presumably other places, Kapos, seduced women and gave them food in return; neither was prostitution unknown. Male prisoners who had jobs to do in the women’s sections of the camps sold food for sex, but some survivors also note that starvation caused a striking absence of the sex drive. Others confide that there was "everlasting talk about sex and smut [which] may be considered as compensatory satisfaction."28

After her parents both died from starvation, 17-year-old Lucille Eichengreen was left to take care of herself and Karin, her 12-year-old sister. Trying to find her place in one of the Lodz ghetto factories that fronted for schools, she encountered a manager who offered Karin a place but demanded something in return. When Lucille "explained that [she] had neither money nor valuables, he laughed and said that that was not what he had in mind." Lucille, in her naivete was stunned. The realization was sudden and painful: there were favours to be bought, but they had to be paid for by one way or another - even among our own."29 But later in a labor camp, she could not resist stealing a "dirty piece of cloth in splashy shades of rust red and olive green" from the rubble she was supposed to clear. She wanted the threadbare cloth" to cover her bald head. She hid it between her thighs. When her SS guard ordered her to a secluded place where he could rape her unseen, he found the scarf and disgustedly flung her aside with the words, "You filthy, useless bitch! Pfui! Menstruating!"30

Felicia Berland Hyatt, raised in strict Orthodoxy in Chelm, was cautioned by her mother to "do anything anybody asks you to do, just so you save your life." Hyatt and her mother parted, convinced that separation increased their chances to survive. She was grateful for her mother’s parting words, which stunned her at the time: {The instructions she gave me when we parted were truly a revelation and they became even more meaningful, when months later I was faced with a situation in which I had to make a snap decision about bestowing a sexual favour in exchange for a temporary rescue from the German authorities."31 Ironically, the same sexual vulnerability that victimized women also provided them with a small but significant measure of control.

In the concentration camps, the Nazis perfected a process of sexual humiliation that disoriented girls and women at the very same time that they were separated from their families. Girls and women who, on their arrival at a camp, were not chosen for immediate death, underwent a gamut of humiliations, including exposure, crude body searches for hidden jewelry, painful body shaves and sexual ridicule. Even at the moments before death, SS men tried to demoralize Jewish women. As a member of the Sonderkommando, Leib Langfuss wrote his observations of such activity and hid his manuscript for posterity. One SS officer, he wrote, "had the custom of standing at the doorway… and feeling the private parts of the young women entering the gas bunker. There were also instances of SS men of all ranks pushing their fingers into the sexual organs of pretty young women."32 An SS officer explained that "mothers with small children are on principle unfit for work. [After they were gassed, they] were searched to see if they had not hidden jewelry in the intimate parts of their bodies, and their hair was cut off and methodically placed in sacks for industrial purposes."33 Not only were they violated in life, but they were violated in death as well.

Many women describe their horror at being required to undress in front of leering SS men and at being shaved by male prisoners. Rose Meth, one of the women who smuggled gunpowder to the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, said, "They made us undress completely naked in front of the Nazi soldiers. We wanted to die. They shaved our heads. They shaved all our hair, everywhere."34 Sarah Nomberg-Pryztyk, an Auschwitz prisoner, explained that they were treated like cattle and hit and kicked as they were processed: "in silence with tears streaming down our cheeks," they were made to spread their legs and "the body hair was shorn too."35 Fifteen year old Livia Bitton Jackson was too embarrassed to expose her breasts, "two growing buds, taut and sensitive", until the sound of rifle shot jolted her and she removed her bra quickly.36

The ordeal of deliberate humiliation began in the ghetto for Cecilie Klein, just before loaded into the cattle cars: We were marched off in groups to a brick factory near the station for a degrading body search. First we were ordered to strip naked, men and women together. Then the women and the girls were lined up on one side and were ordered to lie on our sides on a wooden table. While an SS officer gawked and jeered, a woman with a stick poked around our private parts. My burning cheeks betrayed my sense of shame and humiliation. I sobbed for my mother, subjected to this bestial invasion.

Klein was to endure more degradation upon arrival at Auschwitz, where she and other naked women were required to stand on stools: "Five male prisoners appear alongside the stools, scissors in hand… In seconds, the men cut off their (the women’s) hair, shave their heads, then their intimate parts. The cut hair around the stools was collected by three male prisoners".37

Although Klein’s narrative focuses on the violence endured by the women, it is quite reasonable that the Jewish men, from the same culture as the women, felt humiliation at having to inflict degradation on the women at the cost of their own survival. SS men, on the other hand, extended sadism to the slave labour sites. A non-Jewish political prisoner recalls overhearing the lewd boasting of an SS officer to his fellow officers about Jewish women, stripped to their underpants, who "stood barefoot, knee-deep in muddy contaminated water, sore all over the body, exposed to the burning sun and stinging mosquitos" and who drowned or sand as he speeded up the rate at which they were to mow the reed in the water."38 Although malaria claimed the lives of fifty per cent of the Kommando, 100 per cent of the victims experienced sadism. In another account, a survivor reported the chilling story she heard from a "mother who told her that she was forced to undress her daughter and look on while the girl was violated by dogs whom the Nazis had specially trained for this sport." That particular brutality was not an isolated event, but rather a "favourite form of amusement" of the SS guards in Auschwitz.39


16. Goldenberg, "Testimony, Narratives and Nightmare.

17. Kaplan, Making of the Jewish middle class. P.ix

18. Goldenberg, "Different Horrors", pp.150-66; idem, "Testimony, Narrative, and Nightmare.

19. Gerda Klein, All But My life (New York: Hill & Wang 1957) pp.155-56.

20. Isabella Leitner , Fragmants of Isabella, p. 14.

21. Judith Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor (Urbana University of Illinois Press, 1990) p.108 22. Inid., pp.144-45

22. Ibid., pp.144-45.

23. Y. Eliach "Women and the Holocaust: Historical Background," p.8

24. Rittner and Roth, Different voices, p.23

25. See for example, Ida Fink, "Aryan Papers", A scrap of time (New York: Schocken Books, 1987) Arnost Lustig , The Unloved, (New York: Arbor House, 1985) idem; Indecent Dreams, (Evaston:Northwestern Illinois Press, 1988.)

26. An interesting and ironic side note is the eyewitness accounts of Nazi use of blood from Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz for donations to the army. See Gisela Perl, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz (1948; Salem, NH.Ayer, 1984), pp.74-75

27. Elie A. Cohen, Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp (1954; London Association Books 1988) p.135

28. Inid.,p.141

29. Lucilee Eichengreen, From Ashes to Life, My Memories of the Holocaust (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994) pp.48-49.

30. Ibid., pp.105-7

31. Felicia Berland Hyatt, Close Calls, the Autobiography of a Survivor, (New York: Holocaust Library, 1991) pp.76-77.

32. Leib Langfuss, "The Horrors of Murder" in The Scrolls of Auschwitz, ed. Ber Mark (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1985) p. 209.

33. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds. Nazism 1919-1945: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), 2:1178-80.

34. Oral History from interview by Bonnie Gurewitsch , 28 Oct. 1985, in Women of Valor: Partisans and Resistance Fighters, 6,(4):38-41, (Spring 1990.)

35. Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk, The Tales from a Grotesque Land (Chapel Hill: Univ. Of North Carolina Press, 1985), p.14

36. Livia E. Bitton Jackson, Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust, (New York: Times Books 1980,) pp.59-61.

37. Cecile Klein , Sentenced To Live, (New York: Holocaust Library 1988), pp.73, 77.

38. Shelley. Ed., Auschwitz, pp.50, 66.

39. Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys, (1947; New York: Granada, 1972), p. 193.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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