| Sexual Violence and the Holocaust: An
Myrna Goldenberg, Ph.D.
Dr. Myrna Goldenberg is a professor emerita and an independent scholar
This paper was given at the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) conference, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina, July 2007. This paper is still a draft, to be cited as a Presentation/Draft typescript, IAGS Conference.
Catharine MacKinnon’s statement about the rapes in B-H identifies the Holocaust as the absurd extreme of anti-Semitism, leapfrogging from “everyday anti-Semitism”--the genteel variety that may be somewhat benign—if one can say that about any antisemitism--to annihilation that was almost accomplished through the Third Reich’s government mandated murder. Similarly, the 1992 mass rape in B-H redefined systematic sexual violence, even the age old wartime rape that was commonly considered a “right” or “reward,” and escalated it to the status of official policy. For the first time at the ITCY, it was treated as a crime against humanity. Such a use of rape, experienced earlier in the twentieth century by the Australian aborigines, brings into question the function of mass rape and other forms of sexual abuse during the other attempted genocides in the last one hundred years. I will focus on the cataclysmic genocide of the twentieth century, the Holocaust. This paper investigates the relationship of rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women by German men in the face of Nazi policy and practice and to Jewish men in the genocidal conditions of hiding places, murder squads and concentration camps. I consider the function of sexual violence and its relationship to survival in each context and finally pose questions for further investigation.
While the Holocaust was a genocide that subsumed what is now called ”ethnic cleansing,” I find it difficult to support the proposition that sexual violence against Jewish women by non-Jewish men was genocidal rape.
Though “genocide and rape are separate atrocities” and can be examined as such, combined they constitute a relatively recent phenomenon that demands attention. 2 Genocidal rape is an act of dominance and power, a physically and emotionally abusive act on a mass scale intended to eliminate a targeted group, to take revenge on the perceived enemy’s male population, to humiliate the enemy’s males, to terrorize, and, as Scheissl states, to prove newly won superiority to women and their male relatives and demonstrate that the victorious men have “symbolically castrated the defeated men.” 3 Wartime rape, in contrast to genocidal rape, is a “ritual” of war, an act that communicates, from the men in one group to the men in the other, that they are incapable of protecting their women. MacKinnon describes it as “extracurricular, as just something that men do as product rather than as a policy of war.” 4 Brownmiller explains that
Brownmiller’s analysis is aptly applied to the conquering Russians when they overran German lines and proceeded to rape one woman after another, but not to the Nazis’ violence against Jewish women.
If it is not genocidal rape, then how should we characterize rape during the Holocaust? The rape of Jewish women by non-Jewish men, especially German men, was clearly one proof of their power and a reiteration of their complete dominance over a group that had already been made powerless and already targeted for elimination. These rapes, unlike those in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur, were not instruments of genocide. Nor were they “routine” wartime rapes. The fact is that during the Holocaust, rape was eclipsed by the Final Solution, the systematic plan to murder all European Jews; the Final Solution was the Nazi instrument of choice by which to achieve their goal. In the face of planned total elimination of Jews, rape and other forms of sexual violence were redundant tools of terror and unnecessary expressions of dominance. Rape, whether in war or not, is an act of “extreme violence implemented… by sexual means.” 6 The death camps, forced labor squads, deliberate starvation and overcrowding, psychological and physical torture, and inhuman medical experiments were effective and nearly successful means of achieving what they set out to do.
Thus, if rape was not a tactic designed to achieve their goal although we have a long list of documented and anecdotal rapes, and if we agree that rape is not a sexual act but rather a violent one, and, finally, if we agree that the Final Solution was the official means by which to implement the German objective of genocide, what purpose did these acts serve? Moreover, in the eyes of the Reichstag, it was prohibited. In the eyes of the soldier-rapist, however, rape was an acceptable, even routine exercise of male superiority and aggression. 7 For the average German soldier, it would seem that rape was one of many reasonable steps towards establishing themselves as the Master Race, to be accomplished in part by “total humiliation and destruction of ‘inferior peoples.’” 8 Note, too, that humiliation often preceded rape although not all instances of humiliation were followed by rape.
For the female victim, the combination of both elements of the phrase “Jewish woman” was lethal. The Nazis assaulted Jewish women through degradation, physical violence, and murder, in planned riots, at murder sites, in the ghettos and in the camps. Though there are reports of degradation and violence, coupled with rape, throughout the Holocaust, early reports of large scale “campaigns” of (sexual) violence started in Kristallnacht and continued for the next 6 and a half years throughout the Reich. From the Einsatzgruppen reports, we can even deduce that rape and other forms of violence were the specialty of the murder squads that began in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. 9 Einsatzgruppen reports and photos show women stripped naked and abused in front of their husbands, fathers, and sons before they were shot into pits. Thus, terror was accompanied by the humiliation of public nakedness and made all the more painful by the presence of their male relatives and friends who were forced to stand by helplessly. In these actions, both men and women suffered the leers and laughter of the killers. For the sadistic, murder itself was not enough.
As was true of other Nazi strategies, the record of sadism by the Einsatzgruppen is not to be found in official reports. These reports, found by American soldiers in the Gestapo offices of Berlin, detail the trumped up charges of crimes that the Jews perpetrated on the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Bylorussians, and so forth—possibly to justify the murders for posterity. Of course, the Reports also boast about the statistics—the lists of the number and place of dead Jews—and say nothing of the crimes committed by the Germans. For that, we look at The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, a contemporaneous compendium of eyewitness reports, letters, and diaries of the victims and survivors of the Einsatzgruppen. They tell harrowing tales of mass executions, rape, and other sexual abuses that are not and would not have been covered in official reports to Berlin Headquarters. For example, in early July 1941, in Riga, the Nazis celebrated their successful mass murders by herding
The Einsatzgruppen seemed to have no end to their perversion. In the Minsk ghetto, Hauptscharfuhrer Ribbe selected 13 beautiful Jewish women and led them down a street that led to the cemetery. “The animals stripped the women naked and mocked them. Then Ribbe and Michelson personally shot them. Ribbe took Lina Noy’s [one of the women] bra and put it in his pocket: “To remember a beautiful Jewess,” he said. 11 In Brest, Osher Zisman testified that he “saw the Germans [through a ventilation opening in a hiding place] herd the young girls into a shed next to the graves and rape them before the execution. I heard one girl call for help; she hit the German in the snout, and for that the Germans buried her alive.” 12 Part of a chain gang in Bialystok that was ordered to dig up and cremate the bodies, Nukhim Polinovsky reported digging up a “pit with 700 women. .. The bodies were absolutely naked. The breasts of many of the victims had been cut off…. 13 Mutilation is thus added to the breadth of Nazi crimes against Jewish women.
German-Aryan soldiers’ rape of Jewish women flies in the face of Rassenshande, promulgated in 1935 as part of the Nuremberg Laws: “Extramarital intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood is forbidden.” 14 Rassenshande forbad Jews and Aryans from having sex because, according to race theory, intimate contact would contaminate the Aryan bloodline for generations, thereby nullifying racial purity, a key principle of Nazism. Thus, rape of Jewish women was not a crime; rassenshande was. It was a crime more serious than murder, according to Major Walther Buch in his report on Kristallnacht, because it violated a Nuremberg law. 15 Yet, we have proof that German bureaucrats and soldiers demanded sex in return for favors. Soldiers raped women, for the most part, with impunity. For example, posing as a pitiable Belgian mother who was smuggling food from Lille to Antwerp, Flora Singer’s mother Fani Mendelowitz took a calculated risk and approached a German officer over dinner in an inn in which she usually stayed. She fabricated a story that her husband was a Belgian prisoner of war and that she was a helpless, innocent Belgian woman, desperately trying to feed her children. She needed his help to assure a safe crossing over an ever increasingly strict crackdown on smugglers. He agreed. Fani had not expected to see the officer till the next day when they would meet to cross the border. Instead, that evening he forced his way into her room and raped her, after ordering Flora, ten years old at the time, to wait outside. From the stairwell where she was hiding, she saw the officer leave and returned to the room and found her mother sobbing. 16
In spite of Rassenshande, “the Germans, most of them young bachelors,…approached Jewish women.” In the several labor camps of Radom, there were rumors of “forbidden sexual liaisons” with Jewish women…. The inmates of …knew the identity of their foreman’s lover but turned a blind eye because he had been decent to them. ” 17 Using Yad Vashem testimony, Karay describes other violations of racial purity. She tells us that ”manager Walter Glaue…occasionally picked out a young woman in addition to his steady lover. When [One such woman] Bella Sperling was executed on charges of sabotage, rumor had it that Glaue had impregnated her and therefore wished to get rid of her.” Without victim testimony, there is no crime. Karay reports another famous case in the labor camp: foreman Hugo Ruebesamen “loitered excessively in the vicinity of the most beautiful Jewish woman in the department. The supervisor was informed, and he flayed the women until she bled in an attempt to force her to admit that she had had sexual relations with Ruebesamen. When she would not, she was sent to the SS hq in Radom, from which she disappeared without a trace. Although Ruebesamen also refused to confess, he was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.” 18 In September 1944, French prisoner Marie, assigned to the Canada detail in Birkenau, was raped by a Wehrmacht soldier on his return from Russia to home. He had been eyeing her, and when she returned to her barrack alone, he overcame her in her bunk. 19
Survivor-scholar Susan Chernyak-Spatz spoke almost casually about being raped in Birkenau —no “rape” entry in the index--although she confesses that she did not divulge this in her many lectures on the Holocaust. Assigned to work in the construction department as a typist and cleaning woman, she was invited by a German kapo named Jupp to follow him to the store room where he would give her food. Because she was starved, she went: “What followed was a plain quick rape on the floor of the store room and a bit of sausage thrown at me for payment.” Jupp, an Aryan who was imprisoned as a habitual criminal, was unafraid that Chernyak-Spatz would report him, for to do would incriminate herself and she would assuredly suffer more consequences than he, possibly by gassing or another form of murder. 20
A compilation of 1946 survivor interviews (*conducted by David Boder, an American psychologist who went from one DP camp after another to collect the unexceptional or typical stories of survivors) includes narratives that reveal episodes of sadism and rape. Before the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, Roma T. was deported to Majdanek. She talks about being “processed” into the camp:
Roma T. was then sent to a labor camp which manufactured munitions, guarded by SS and Ukrainians. Her workshop was supervised by Ukrainians and Germans: “There was a German foreman by the name of Krause, the most terrible in the factory. When Krause would go by, even the machinery would run differently. Sometimes he would get drunk, pick a few women and rape them, and later they were shot so that there would be no evidence of “race pollution.” 22
In their memoirs, women, almost uniformly or universally, described the processing they endured when they arrived at Auschwitz. Their dignity was assaulted by the Ubermenschen, who exercised unrestrained power over Jews and, in this segment of the internment into Auschwitz-Birkenau, over women as well. Baumel describes the humiliation of the intake process at Auschwitz as targeted to women and designed to be “particularly sexually humiliating….” “For many women this phase remained the most psychologically traumatic one of their entire wartime experience: the first time many had ever stood naked before a member of the opposite sex; the horror of being taunted by SS men who came to watch the procedure as the women stood unclothed; the degradation of having their body hair removed by a male barber,….” 23
Some Jewish women who were not caught and deported, were able, for a time, to pass as non-Jews, to avoid rape when it threatened. After a succession of short stays in various Polish towns and cities to dodge the Gestapo, Hannah Bannett found a job with Sep Wirth – a good friend of Hans Frank. Wirth complimented her work but when he made advances, she had to leave. She then got a job with Dr. Prof. Helmut Sop, a psychiatrist and director of a hospital, and he permitted her and her daughter to move into the house. When Dr. Sop told her to dress better, she explained she needed money to pay the people taking care of her son in the country and pleaded with Sop to let her bring her son to the house. Sop agreed. On once occasion when both Dr. and Mrs. Sop weren’t home, she went into the living room to straighten up. Facing her was “the Gestapo man half dressed, sprawled on sofa.” He teased her and when she tried to leave the room, he demanded not only food but also her presence while he ate. He began to interrogate her about her husband, who by then had been picked up in an action, never to be seen again. In order to escape what she knew would be rape, she said she had to prepare lunch for the mistress of the house and the children. “’Well done,’” he said, and then I understood that he knew I was Jewish.” 24
Not only were Jewish women vulnerable to abuse and worse, young Jewish girls also faced horrors. Eva Slonim and her younger sister Marta were the only children without parents in the train that took them from Sered to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which, she remembers was seven days. They “felt alone, orphaned. A man offered to throw me out of the train wrapped in a blanket in return for a sexual favor which at the time I did not understand.” She was about 10 or 11. She and Marta were taken to the Familienlager and there the blockelteste, a Jewish man, “approached [her] to sleep with him.” Again, she didn’t know what he was asking for. 25
The narrative of one child, Anne, has haunted me. Born in Paris, in 1937, her parents and two siblings were picked up by French gendarmes—maybe in 1941 or 42. She does not know for sure. The concierge took care of her for a short while and then turned her over to an underground organization that hid Jewish children. Taken from one peasant family to another every three months, she was violated over and over again—hideously and very painfully and to the point of torture. Each family received food and clothes coupons as well as a stipend, but, in some of the homes that took her in, she was tied up to a chair in just her underwear all day, day after day. She was released each evening when they returned from work and told to use the yard as her bathroom although they had indoor plumbing. She was a vulnerable little girl who needed adult protection and, at first, accepted the abuse she suffered as the norm but began to blame herself. However, after repeated painful and bloody vaginal, anal, and oral sex, she felt brutalized and began to distrust the adults with whom she was staying. She had had very little memory of “normal” but, at one point, she preferred to die than to keep suffering and cut her wrists. She was unaware of the war, had no notion of a German, or, as she says, of anything in the world. At war’s end, she changed her name because she wanted to forget the nightmare that was her past. In 1948, when she was 11 years old and was adopted by an Australian family, she had never had fruit or chocolate and she couldn’t read. She continues to suffer and, more than fifty years later, she still does not say her name. 26
Anne’s experience was extreme and atypical, even in the world of “Planet Auschwitz” where the extreme was both the norm and the typical. Moreover, her trauma and guilt are likely to have shaped her memory of these experiences; undoubtedly she suffers extraordinary pain in the process of remembering. Her memory of the four years before she was orphaned is hazy, if not unreliable, and she can’t recall her parents’ or siblings’ faces. She says she endured all the neglect and violence because she was waiting for her parents, mainly her father, to retrieve her. She can recall the sound of her own voice, but not theirs. Her inability or unwillingness to say her name speaks to her difficulties about her identity.
The Nazis and other non-Jewish men were not the only men to take advantage of Jewish women. Memoirs and scholarly works relate the occurrence of sex by Jewish men in both ghettos and camps, that is, Jewish men requiring sex in return for food.
As we know, the Nazis reversed the traditional hierarchy of the family soon after they came to power, by first stripping Jewish men of their role as the protector and provider. This diminution of their status was, in effect, emasculation. They were powerless and unable to fulfill the most basic obligations of husband, father, and son. Even when husbands and fathers were not conscripted into forced labor or deported to labor and concentration camps, for the most part, they were denied the means by which they could take care of their families. Thus, Jewish women were left vulnerable and unprotected. Not only did they have to take on unfamiliar and previously male responsibilities to provide for themselves and their children and sometimes even their parents, but they were also prey for Germans, and, as the war progressed, other men.
Perhaps Jewish men were unconsciously responding to their humiliation and trying to restore or re-assert their dominance by requiring sex in return for bread or similar survival tool. Again, we see sex as an instrument of power—only now, without violence. In the latrines in Auschwitz-Birkenau, surely starved, filthy, scab and lice-covered women were not sexually attractive. But hunger rendered them vulnerable and thus instruments by which Jewish men were able to regain their status as protectors and dominant figures in a heterosexual relationship. Consciously or otherwise, they did so at the expense of women.
Sex in exchange for food is neither rape nor prostitution, but it is NOT consensual sex. We see this trading particularly when male prisoner work crews visited the women’s camp at Auschwitz –Birkenau regularly to do necessary repairs. These men had access to food, whether by stealing or by trading, and exchanging sex for food was, for Jewish men, a measure of control, a means of restoring oneself as head of the house, as primary breadwinner, as a person of status. Assignment to these work or “trades” crews privileged the men through an exercise that proved their dominant position in the male-female relationship.
The exchange of food for sex was also seen in the relationship of the men in the work crews and the women who were the Blockelste or kapo or similar position of relative power or importance, i.e., “prisoner-functionaries.” In these cases, according to Pawelcznska, “more or less permanent bisexual relationships started up among the prisoner-functionaries … who had food supplies and separate quarters, and the men [on the work crews] who were interested in the material aid (regardless of the allure of an erotic relationship).” These relationships helped the men improve the conditions of the prisoners in the women’s camp by influencing the prisoner-functionaries: “The men used their influence to shelter the mass of women prisoners from the functionaries’ aggression and also to see that camp functions were handed out to the prisoners.” 27 Work crews also delivered messages to and enabled visits between family members who were in contiguous parts of the camp that were separated by barbed wire. Obviously, these connections and fleeting visits “fortified the prisoners’ inner strengths and hardened their resistance to camp destiny.” 28
In all of these prisoner relationships, we see a coupling of two basic drives, but we must note that the “sex drive was completely subjected” 29 and was supplanted by or rendered irrelevant by hunger and thirst. On the other hand, the men on these work crews had access, whether by trading or stealing, to food and were therefore were less likely to be as motivated by hunger as were the women. Hunger does account for the willingness of Jewish women prisoners to trade sex for food. Hunger, the ubiquitous topic for discussion as well as the abiding physical need, was the primary motive of “survival sex.” The men had food and other necessities and the women had their bodies. Women paid for their smuggled food with the bodies.
I take issue with those who characterized these relationships as paid prostitution. Terminology appropriate for normal society can hardly be applied to the world of the concentration camp. While sex for money or its equivalent may have similar motivations in both worlds, it must be remembered that Jewish women who accepted food for sex did not have the choices that women have in the concentration camps. While survival may have been the same motives for both groups of women, the women in the concentration camp were victimized and scheduled for death—in other words, women whose control of their lives was forcibly taken—and had absolutely no alternatives in order to live. 30 Thus, normal is relative. Clearly, “normal” morality of pre- concentration camp days was not the morality of the camps. Hunger drove prisoners to behave ruthlessly and immorally, only if judged by pre Nazi days. 31 Jewish male prisoners who took advantage of the weakness of their sister prisoners added to their misery. Their opportunism was not benign. Women’s memoirs almost always relate these occurrences as happening to some other woman, from the perspective of a passing onlooker, possibly because of embarrassment, the measures women had to take to survive, and shame they might feel now. But the fact that they are part of the narrative indicates that it was part of their suffering.
We can say that in these relationships, both partners benefited: men regained status and women got sustenance. Moreover, women could and did use their sexuality to sustain themselves and their dependents. Clearly, this behavior is as old as civilization and not limited to times of war, but the devastation of war has always “normalized” the exchange of sex for food and shelter. The circumstances in Nazi Germany and its occupied countries, however, were different. Jews were not a conquered nation although the Nazi machine made them its enemy. Jewish women were not an enemy’s lifeline to the future, in the form of a labor force that would, in time, support the victorious nation. Jewish women were targeted because they were Jewish. Succinctly stated, Jewish women were a danger to Aryans and were left without the resources necessary for life. They faced “choiceless” choices.
However, given the opportunity, not all Jewish and non Jewish male prisoners exploited sister prisoners. For example, Shelley, Eva Brewster remembers kindnesses:
Sophie Sohlberg, also in a Laundry Detail, tells a similar story. Her barrack was close to the railways, where Willy Reich, a Jewish friend from Neuendorf, a camp to prepare people for emigration from Germany to Palestine, worked pushing wagons. Her story is touching but sad:
On September 14, 1944, the camp was attacked by either British or Russian planes. When bombs fell, the prisoners and the SS went to an inner hall. She continues: “A bomb made a big hole in the floor exactly through the roof and the floor in front of the bed with my prayerbook, and it was impossible to get there to retrieve it. When I told Willy that my prayerbook was “bombed,”…he brought me a new one, a very small one which I cold hide on my body—and I have it still. I met Willy on the first night of the Death March. He gave me a loaf of bread and a stick of margarine. That was the last time I saw him. He did not live to see the liberation. 33
I call this paper an intermediate analysis because the recently acquired Bad Arolsen files are bound to reveal more truths about the violations of rassenschande, possibly trial records, that will help us complete our knowledge base. Regrettably, because of the deaths of many survivors and the scant number of gendered interview questions until recently, much information is already lost, irretrievable. Interviewers right after the war did not ask questions relative to sexual violence and abuse; thus, this opportunity was lost. Why was the issue of rape so marginalized in the history of the Holocaust? Does this vacuum reflect the presumed marginalization of women? Does it protect men from culpability? Was it simply that women of that generation were unlikely to describe rape because of the shame attached to it –then and now. (Note: Comfort women of Korea finally went public about sex slavery for Japanese in 1992 –nearly 50 years later.) What accounts for the paucity of interviews with child survivors? What accounts for the energetic research about Nazi reproductive policies and the impact of this and other Nazi policies on German women and on sexuality, but comparatively little work on or analysis of sexuality and the prisoner victims. How are we to understand the Nazi “obsession” with sexuality in the context of mass murder? Will these inquiries diminish the fact that Jewish women were victims first of racial theory and secondly of misogyny. Only for those who deny the influence of sexism and consider rape a sexual crime!
We need to continue research into the intersections of sexuality and violence in the context of mass murder and genocide. We will continue to investigate these issues not only to flesh out the knowledge base but also with an eye towards understanding so that we can work to eliminate further degradation and murder under the cover of war. Our approach should focus on aggression rather than sex because rape is not the “aggressive manifestation of sexuality but rather a sexual manifestation of aggression.” 34
Footnotes1 MacKinnon, in Stiglmayer, 186. ▲
2 Copelon 198. ▲
3 Scheissl, 197, 199. ▲
4 MacKinnon, in Stiglmayer, 80. ▲
5 Brownmiller, 31. ▲
6 Seifert, 55. ▲
7 Seifert, 59. ▲
8 Brownmiller, 44. ▲
9 Einsatzgruppen Reports. ▲
10 Ehyrenberg 302 (Report by USSR Capt. Yefim Gekhtman, war correspondent for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda during the war). ▲
11 Ehyrenberg, 173 (based on information provided by A. Machiz, Grechanik, L. Gleyzer, P.M. Shapiro. Prepared for publication by Vasily Grossman.) ▲
12 Ehyrenberg, 221. ▲
13 Ehyrenberg, xxx ▲
14 Hochstaddt 44; Szobar, ▲
15 Shirer, 431 ▲
16 Singer, 33-35. ▲
17 Karay, 289. ▲
18 Karay, 290. ▲
19 Goldenberg, Krakow, 1. ▲
20 Cernatz-Spatz, 178-179. ▲
21 Niewyk, 217. ▲
22 Niewy,, 221. ▲
23 Baumel 11, 22. Sa Bos, 33-34, Kremer 263- 264 ▲
24 58-62 Gurewitch’s book includes several stories of lucky breaks in the face of propositions. ▲
25 Vallent 23-25. ▲
26 Vallent, 249-265. ▲
27 Pawelcznska, 99. ▲
28 Pawelcznska, 99. ▲
29 Cohen, 134. ▲
30 Cohen, 135. ▲
31 Cohen, 139. ▲
32 Shelley, 158. ▲
33 Shelley, 170. ▲
34 Seifert, 55. ▲
Arad, Shmuel Krakowski, Shmuel
Spector. Eds. The Einsatzgruppen Reports.
Holocaust Library; Jerusalem: Yad