Sex, Rape, and Survival: Jewish Women and the Holocaust

Myrna Goldenberg Ph.D.

Ida E. King Distinguished Visiting Scholar
           of Holocaust Studies,
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Now Professor Emerita and Independent Scholar

Every rape is a grave violation of physical and mental integrity. Every rape has the potential to profoundly debilitate, to render the woman homeless in her own body and destroy her sense of security in the world. Every rape is an expression of male domination and misogyny, a vehicle of terrorizing and subordinating women. Like torture, rape takes many forms, occurs in many contexts, and has different repercussions for different  victims. Every rape is multidimensional, but not incomparable.

Rhonda Copelon, “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes Against Women in Time of War”

“I was raped,” she said matter of factly. In the fourth hour of our interview, Marie S., a young French woman whose entire family of six siblings and both parents was murdered, simply and quietly, said that she was raped by a Wehrmacht soldier. After two years of hard labor and several months in Block 25, Marie had been assigned to Birkenau’s Kanada commando, when it had been expanded in the spring of 1944, to “handle” the belongings of the Hungarian Jews. This older soldier, as she described him, had been on his way back from the Russian front and had stopped off in Auschwitz for a few days. He had been watching Marie, who was nineteen at the time, and sometimes followed her. One day in September, her friends warned her that he was after her, so she fled to her bunk, where he caught her and raped her.

Marie had been a virgin, innocent, modest, protected before she was picked up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  She had “never even kissed a boy…never saw my father undressed.”  This rape was her first encounter with sex, but obviously not her first encounter with violence. “It was the deepest defilement,” she said and one of her loneliest moments. Her friends told her to get washed and forget it.  She had been resilient enough to recover from all the other physical debasements because she had experienced them collectively, as part of a group that had suffered the same humiliations. She suffered the rape alone and was traumatized for decades.  Yet, it was not the most horrific Nazi violation she endured, not nearly as horrific as the murder of her large family (Interview November 1996). 

Like many other women, Jews and non-Jews, Helen L. feared liberation because of the Russian soldiers who,

the minute they saw a female, whether you were young or old, whether you were 8, 80, 18, or 28, they didn’t care. They raped you whether you were pretty, ugly, fat, skinny, it didn’t matter. It was a female. And so with us [Helen and her sister Toby] it was a matter of, can we outsmart them in that department. Our survival as far as eating or sleeping was almost secondary.

Helen and her older sister Toby were Hungarian women who were deported to Lodz and then to Auschwitz, Stuthof, and a succession of labor camps until they were forced to join a Death March.  Totally exhausted after a few weeks on the March, they chose to die by lying in the snow where they expected to fall asleep and subsequently freeze to death. They assumed that such a death would be easy. But they were soon found by Nazi soldiers and concocted a story about being good Nazi children who had been orphaned by the advancing Russian Army. They were then invited to join the soldiers as washerwomen. Apparently, each battalion was allowed two washerwomen. As such, Helen and Toby were protected and never assaulted. During a Russian advance, they ran from the Nazis to the Russian soldiers who, of course, wanted to sleep with them.  Somehow they talked their way out of it (Holocaust Oral History Project, 13 February  1989).  Other women tell harrowing stories of trying to escape rape by the Russians who had liberated their areas or camps: “the Russians were animals. They were wild animals and we were afraid of them. We put chairs and tables against our doors not to be invaded by them. They [had] invaded the barracks the night before…(Gurewitsch 97).

Born in Bialystock and deported to Majdanek and later to Blishjen, a work camp, Helen Schwartz needed shoes:

The man who usually made shoes for us would not give any to me unless I would have intercourse with him. At Blishjen, if a man had extra food, he would ask girl for sexual pleasures and pay her in food. This was common, but not for me. This shoemaker could not understand that I wanted only shoes and nothing more.  …Some of the girls were so desperate that they used their body to pay for the bare necessities that they needed. (Schwartz III and IV) 

Sex for survival or bartered sex was not uncommon: the practice was “linked to networks of power” and a strategy “to improve…material circumstances” (Hutton 107). A male survivor of the Lodz ghetto reported on prostitution for a piece of bread: “for a slice of bread they [young girls] would go into a yard or somewhere. Possibly the mother was working, so the daughter would use the opportunity” (Niewyk 304-05).  Nehama Tec, in non-judgmental language and tone, describes the sexual expectations of male partisans in return for protection. She further corroborates the assertion that women’s responses to “sexual advances were motivated by the promise of food” (Tec305-335, 146).   Undoubtedly, bartering sex for food was a life saving though degrading tactic.

These vignettes speak to the larger issue of sex in the service of violence and survival during the Holocaust. Sexual coercion, whether in the form of rape or bartered sex, was one more humiliation, one more degradation, one more indignity that many Jewish women experienced. Traumatic and horrible, to be sure, but not on the same scale as the horrors of the murder of their families and friends.

Although we have little documentation about rape, forced sexual slavery, sex for survival/ bartering for food or other necessities from which to draw conclusions, we do have isolated reports. For example, Vera Laska observed that rape and forced prostitution of Jewish women in camp brothels were rare because, if caught, the SS would risk severe punishment or transfer to the Russian front.  “Most SS,” she said, “cherished their camp job which was a sinecure with power.”[*]  One exception she cited was the case of a Ravensbrueck SS doctor Rolf Rosenthal who performed an abortion on his nurse/ mistress Gerta Quernheim.  Rosenthal was sentenced to death but committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out (Laska 265; Tillion 73).  A report from the Russian section of Auschwitz says that SS guards raped young, pretty, and healthy girls “until they were half dead. From there they went to the ovens.” Father Joseph Tyl testified that a “certain SS guard” who was a “pervert who killed people for pleasure …was also a sex maniac who satisfied his lust with young Jewish girls, whom he murdered immediately afterwards” (Aroneanu 30, 34).  A very early interview in a DP camp, 1946, revealed that German civilians and soldiers, including SS, committed rape:

…all of this [gynecological examinations] was perpetrated not just by the SS but German foremen [civilians] as well. 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 be no “race pollution.” There was a well known SS [officer who] did the same thing.(Niewyk 221)

Felicia Karay also reported “known cases of individual and collective rapes of Jewish women” by “German commanders [who] were reluctant to deprive themselves of any of life’s pleasures” even in forced labor camps. She cites “dozens of testimonies” about officer Fritz Bartenschlager who chose “escort girls,” including five whom he took to a party in his apartment where he ordered them to serve his guests in the nude. They were raped by these same guests. A few months later, at another party/orgy that  included high ranking officers, such as the SS commander of Radom, the guests raped and then murdered three other Jewish women (Karay 290-91).

Though we might expect otherwise because rape was a serious racial purity issue, rape happened, but was and, to some extent, still is—ignored or neglected. Ruth Seifert argues that rape and other abuses are another expression of male dominance: suppressing the mention of rape reinforces the marginalization and diminution of women’s importance (66-68). Indeed, a quick survey of the indexes of Holocaust history books suggests that rape and sexuality are not a significant part of the history.[1] One exception is The Holocaust Chronicle, which mentions the rape of two Jewish teenagers in Warsaw in a Jewish cemetery by two German non commissioned officers on February 18, 1940; and, on August 25, 1943, SS troops at the Janowska labor camps forced 24 Jewish girls at an all night SS orgy, and finally that “victims of sexual abuse have largely kept silent” (191,474, 484).

Women’s silence about their victimization is influenced primarily by cultural norms, the need to protect oneself from painful memories, and a desire to restore one’s sense of control over one’s person.[2]  Joan Ringelheim recognized women’s ambivalence to disclose sexual abuse as “split memory,” or the difficulty of reconciling one’s personal memory with the public, traditional versions of Holocaust history. Ringelheim wrote about Pauline who was abused while she was in hiding and about Susan who was unsuspecting in her willingness to accept bread by a Polish inmate in Birkenau who expected sex for this bread. He raped her when she did not submit to him willingly. Both women were reluctant to relate these incidents and thereby challenge the master narrative of the Holocaust that doesn’t include women’s sexual victimization. Moreover, said Ringelheim, interviewers may be protecting themselves and avoiding discomfort by not asking questions that would encourage the transmission of these stories (Ringelheim 18-33).[3]

Recently, in woman to woman interviews, we began to learn about rape in the ghettos and the camps, by both German and Jewish men. We are also learning more  about sex for survival, for lack of a better term, which refers to trading sexual favors in order to survive. Sex for survival is not consensual sex, but one can argue that it is technically not violent. Far more frequently than they are part of memoirs or interviews, rape and “sex for survival” are subjects of film and fiction. In the absence of sufficient documentation, we may very cautiously consider some of the fictional accounts as imaginary accounts or aesthetic interpretations of historical occurrences. For example, see the House of Dolls, The Kommandant’s Mistress, and White Hotel. We see, in these and other works, narratives that reflect the commodification, hence dehumanization, of women. (For obvious reasons, Holocaust films are, more often than not, sexsational.)[4]

In a groundbreaking work, Roger Smith analyzes the history and context of rape in genocide and demonstrated the fact that rape is ubiquitous in warfare. Its purposes include exercising control or dominance, rewarding soldiers, “destroying a group’s identity by decimating cultural and social bonds,” “expulsion of entire ethnic groups” (as in Bosnia-Herzegovina), imposing terror and humiliation, and, most recently, as an instrument of war by proving the dominance of the men rapists in the victor group over the men of the defeated group in that they were not able to protect their women (Card 18).  Smith found that the only two instances in which rape was neither taken for granted nor used as a strategy of war were the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide (13-15).   Although rape was not a policy of Nazi Germany, its close cousins, sexual abuse and humiliation were part of policy.  In fact, domination, degradation, and commodification were just as prevalent in the sexual abuse of Jewish women as it has been and still is in other cases of genocide. Thus, an inherent cruel irony underlies the discussion of the rape of Jewish women by Germans and, moreover, it takes no stretch of the imagination to consider that a pervasive and persistent culture of patriarchy “permitted” Jewish men to demand sex for food in ghettos and camps.  Just as rape has extensive physical and psychological repercussions for the woman, so does sexual abuse in the form of sex for survival, though perhaps not as much.  And just as rape by a friend or relative results in a profound sense of betrayal, so did abuse by a fellow Jew constitute an act of betrayal in the minds of Jewish women. While their need for food was stronger and more elemental than their need to protect their dignity, they were nevertheless victimized and exploited by Jewish men.  To be fair, at the same time, we must recognize that women’s lack of awareness about their rights prior to the human rights and women’s rights movements contributed to their acceptance of a certain amount of exploitation.  Clearly, in the ghettos and camps, women’s status—or lack of status—“compounded their vulnerability to violence” (Human Rights Global Watch Report).

In Nazi Germany, though, rape and other forms of sexual violence were not crimes, not from the German point of view nor, at that time, from an international perspective.[5] From a Nazi perspective, the crime was rassenschande, not rape. Ironically, any sexual involvement with a Jew was rassenschande, or “race mixing.” Paragraph 2 of the Nuremberg Law, 1935, reads, “Extramarital intercourse between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood is forbidden” (Hochstadt 44). For the Nazi, Jewish women were subhuman, thereby not subject to victimization of a punishable crime. Thus, the act of rape was inconsequential; the act of rassenschande, however, was a grave crime of race defilement and the perpetrator faced punishment. Marion Kaplan reports that ultimately the “judiciary viewed ‘race defilement’ as seriously as ‘high treason.’” By 1939, the average sentence was 4 to 5 years. Not surprisingly, Jewish men received harsher treatment than Aryans (Kaplan 80). Raul Hilberg explains that the courts gave no leniency in these cases and did not allow for mitigating circumstances. He cites the case of Lehmann Katzenberger and Irene Seiler, dramatized years later in the film, Judgment at Nuremberg. Katzenberger, in his late sixties, was executed (45-46).  Indeed, by 1945, rassenschande was one of the 43 crimes punishable by death in the Reich (Botwinick 104). However, the only rape case reported in a Croatian concentration camp in 1941 and 1942 resulted in sentencing the rapist, a German guard, to six months in prison for “desecration of the race” (Lengel-Krizman 15).

What conclusions can we draw?

Rape of Jewish women by German men was insignificant in the eyes of Germany’s judicial system. Jews, men and women, were “life unworthy of living” so that no violent act against them was problematic from a Nazi point of view. Rape was never state policy as it later became in the former Yugoslavia, when it became an official weapon of war. Indeed, genocidal rape was not declared a category of crime until after Bosnia. Rape, as a weapon of war, was repeated in Rwanda, largely unpunished. More recently, news reports from and about Darfur include descriptions of women who are raped as punishment for their Blackness and then are branded so that they carry the insult to their bodies and souls publicly and irrevocably. According to the Human Rights Watch, “rape, nonetheless, has long been mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders—those in a position to stop it—as a private crime, a sexual act, the ignoble act of the occasional soldier; worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace” (1).

Nevertheless, Jewish women were raped by Jewish and non-Jewish men in ghettos and camps though evidence to substantiate such occurrences is usually anecdotal. What has been substantiated by sheer repetition in and concurrence of testimony is the bartering of sex in ghettos, camps, and resistance groups – for food, clothing, shelter, and protection. Sex exchanges, or sex for survival, at the latrines in Birkenau cannot be judged by us, the scholars, or by anyone, two generations removed.  However, such sex smacks of sadism.  Again, we turn to the concept of gender and genocide and find that women are almost always victimized in war and genocide because of their gender.[6] In the Holocaust, Jews were victimized because they were Jews.  But, also in the Holocaust, Jewish men exploited the vulnerability of Jewish women—perhaps not unforgivably but certainly unethically and unjustifiably and in violation of a woman’s right to dignity.  Perhaps such exploitation was an extension of the dominance of men in “normal society.” If so, the abundance of such occurrences speaks to a deep need to re-humanize society so that it protects men and women equally and its most vulnerable members, especially. Sexual abuse, including rape, in the contexts of both war and peace, is a violation of human rights and needs to be addressed as such.  Furthermore, the shift from traditional warfare that, for the most part, excluded women, to warfare that targets civilians demands a reassessment of the conventions of war and a reinforcement of human rights, a process that began with the Nuremberg Tribunal (Philipose 46-62).  At the same time, the congruence of the conventions of war and the laws protecting human rights suggests that women and men need to be protective of each other and that dominance of one sex over another diminishes the strength and spirit of both.

[*] Ravensbrueck Trial records indicate that there was a total of 35,000 women in  the brothel system and that women assigned in such brothels may have had to “accommodate” as many as 7 to 8 men a day. [Back to essay]


[1] For example, in the section on women, in Walter Laquer’s The Holocaust Encyclopedia, there is no mention of rape or any other type of sexual coercion. [Back to essay]

[2] See also Barbara Engelking. Holocaust and Memory, especially Chapter 4, “The Psychological Consequences of Holocaust Experiences.”  [Back to essay]

[3] See also Engelking’s discussion of “bystander guilt,” a concept introduced by Yael Danieli, History and Memory, 251. [Back to essay]

[4] For gendered analyses of sexuality in Holocaust novels and films, see S. Lillian Kremer, “Women in the Holocaust: Representation of Gendered Suffering and Coping Strategies in American Fiction,” and Rebecca Scherr, “The Uses of Memory and Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Film, Fiction, and Memoir.” [Back to essay]

[5] Rape and forced pregnancies are included in the UN Definition of genocide and thus crimes that can be tried. Humiliation per se is not. [Back to essay]

[6] Roger Smith. “Genocide and the Politics of Rape.” The exceptions, cited by Smith, are women guards hired by the SS and women perpetrators in the Khmer Rouge. [Back to essay]



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Felicia Karay, “Women in the Forced Labor Camps.” Women and the Holocaust. Eds. Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.  290-291. 285-309.

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Lengel-Krizman, Narcisa. “A Contribution to the Study of Terror in the So-Called Independent State of Croatia: Concentration Camps for Women in 1941-1942,” Yad Vashem Studies 20 (1990): 15.

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ingelheim, Joan. “Genocide and Gender: A Split Memory,” Gender &  Catastrophe. Ed. Ronit Lentin. London: Zed Books, 1997. 18-33.  See also Engelking’s discussion of “bystander guilt,” a concept introduced by Yael Danieli, History and Memory.  251.

Scherr, Rebecca. “The Uses of Memory and Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Film, Fiction, and Memoir” Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Eds Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 2003. 278-297.

Schwartz, Helen. “Personal Reflections,” Parts III and IV.  Estimates of rapes in Berlin alone after the war run from 110,000 to 900,000.

Seifert, Ruth. “War and Rape: A Preliminary Analysis.” Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 54-72.

Smith, Roger. “Genocide and the Politics of Rape: Historical and Psychological Perspectives.” Paper presented at Remembering for the Future, International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, 13-17 March 1994.  Berlin.

Tec, Nechama. Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Tillion, Germaine. Ravensbrueck: An Eyewitness Account of a Women’s Concentration Camp. New York: Anchor/ Doubleday, 1975.