Gender Differences: The Holocaust

What springs to mind at mention of the Holocaust? The mass suffering and oppression of the Jewish people? Displacement? The gas chambers, the ghettos or the concentration camps? So many of these aspects of the Holocaust have been explored by scholars, however in many studies the division of experience along gender lines is often not considered. The suffering and prosecution is discussed as a universal experience, when in fact gender did have a profound impact in how men and women experienced this horrific event, particularly in the concentration camps.

How did the experience in the concentration camps differ between men and women?


A fundamental factor in the difference of experience between men and women is due to the biological makeup of the sexes. Men and women are built differently; as a result men did not suffer the consequences that women did in regards to pregnancy and menstruation.

Pregnancy was an automatic pre curser for death for women. In the initial selection a pregnant women was sent directly to the gas chambers. [1] There was minimal interaction between the sexes in the camp and so there are few instances of pregnancy occurring while in incarnated in the camps. However, in cases where this did occur the women were beaten or mauled by dogs and later thrown in the crematorium alive. [2] Additionally, the women who fell pregnant, in fear for their own lives, underwent abortions as late as five months into the pregnancy. [3] While the child was successfully aborted, in many cases the mothers themselves did not survive.

“To the left [to the gas chambers]: women with children, pregnant women, older women.” [4]

Menstruation caused two main concerns for women: excessive bleeding or amenorrhea. Holocaust testimonies reveal that women ceased to have their period within a few weeks of incarceration in the camps. This was cause by severe malnutrition and in some camps by a chemical mixed with the food called Bromide. [5] The cessation of menstruation was a psychological assault on women. Additionally excessive bleeding was a problem. Women were not provided with sanitary products. Elisabeth De Jong recalls the intense humiliation women felt in having the blood streak uncontrollably down their legs. [7] Often the presence of bloodstains on the tunic had worse consequences. Stains were against the aesthetics of the camps and women who were found to have bloodstains on their tunics were gassed. [8]

It was embarrassing, you saw but you tried to pretend you didn’t” [9]


The sexuality of men and women additionally altered their experience of the camps from one another. In particular sexual humiliation and rape are two main aspects of the differentiation of experience.

The women testimonies reveal a more acute sense of humiliation in the initiation into the camps. Upon arrival those who were chosen to remain in forced labour, both men and women, were stripped naked, shaved and showered before being send to roll call. The women were forced to strip naked in front of SS men, their entire bodies were shaven by men and the sadistic SS guards would come watch them shower and degrade them. [10] For many it was the first time they had been seen naked in front of a male and to be met with this kind of humiliation crippled the women’s sense of sexual identity and self-respect. Of course the men suffered humiliation in this way, for the traditional Jewish men having their beards and curl shaven was also humiliating. However from the female testimonies this process is focused on and described as more intensely humiliating for their female sensitiveness, whereas the male testimonies do not appear to dwell on this process and describe it only in passing as a fact of initiation.

“Shortly after our arrival and the deadly “selection”… we were ordered to undress… they stripped us of our clothing and shaved off all our hair.  We felt humiliated and degraded by being forced to stand naked in front of all those SS men and women.  Our feminine sensitivities were callously trampled on.” [12] Judy Cohen

“When the selection was over we were stood to the side. We stood there naked, wondering what they were going to with to us.” [13] David Leitner

Additionally women were more subjected to rape and sexual assault than males. Rape was relatively rare in camps because of the separation of the sexes, The Aryan Blood Honor Law and the fact that the guards degraded the Jews to such a point that they were not even considered human let alone sexual objects. [14] However rape exists in the testimonies and as a part of the sexual experience within camps. Of course rape is not absent from male testimonies, but it is quite rare. One story emerged of a 15-year-old boy being raped by another male prisoner, or of male homosexuals becoming concubines to the Kapos. [15] Of course rape is more common within female testimonies, proving women where more venerable to rape in the camps then males.

“Five soldiers held her down and took turns raping and sodomizing her. They spilled alcohol on her. They laughed. They said they’d kill her. She didn’t yet have breasts for the dog to attack.” [16]

Male and female experience can be distinguished in a number of ways, among those is biological and sexual distinctions which provided for different experiences, or displayed females to be more venerable to an experience than males because of their gender. Gender impacts and changes the experiences of men and women in day-to-day life. It is important to recognise the differences in how the sexes experience events in order to recognise their unique histories, learn from them and apply them to future events.


[1] Marlene Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986), p.19.

[2] Gisella Perl, Child Birth in Camp C” in Women and the Holocaust, ed Ritter & Roth, p.113.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Judy Cohen, “Personal Reflections”.

[5] Jackson, “The Coming of Age” in Women and the Holocaust, eds Rittter & Roth, p. 80.

[6] Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and the Nazi Politics (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987), p. 406.

[7] Ibid, p. 404.

[9] Judith Jaregerman “Personal Reflections”

[10] Heinemann, Gender and Destiny, p. 139.

[12] Judy Cohen. “Personal Reflections – in camps”

[13] David Leitner, “Holocaust Survivor: David Leitner”

[14] Heinemann, Gender and Destiny, p. 15.

[15] Zoe Waxman, Writing the Holocaust: Identity Testimony, Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 89.

[16] Jessica Ravitz, “Silence Lifted: The Untold Stories of Rape During the Holocaust”, CNN World, Junes 24 2011,


9 comments on “Gender Differences: The Holocaust

  1. Joanna Irving says:

    Dear Sian,

    Your topic was fascinating. I honestly never considered how difficult it would be for women specifically in the Holocaust. While both men and women had terrible experiences, it is difficult to consider the effect gender roles and experiences in that time. Your post effectively explains why we should consider both the experiences of males and females in the Holocaust and refrain from merely considering that they had the same experience and felt the same way about it. When I read your paper I felt like I wanted to read more on the subject more because I felt that it is a topic that needs to be discussed more by scholars when studying the Holocaust.
    Your topic is such that can be interesting to any audience. I like the way you incorporated quotes, which brought a more personal feel to your post. By having those quotes you encouraged the reader to connect with the victims. I knew that there were some rape cases in the camps but not about any of the other experiences women went through at the camps.
    Well done

  2. keziadorazio says:

    Hi Sian,

    I must say – What an interesting blog. Much like Joanna, I had never considered the issue of gender difference in relation to the Holocaust and how this would impact on individuals. I was not aware of some of the issues you raised such as the gassing of pregnant women or the issue of menstruation. In relation to the “cessation of menstruation acting as a psychological assault on women” I find it questionable how not having a period acted as a psychological assault. It would seem from what you have argued that not to have the embarrassment, the discomfort and not to mention the unsanitary conditions that ensue from not having the correct sanitary products that the absence of a period would be considered a positive – rather than an psychological assault, as women would not need to be overly concerned about these issues.

    I would be really interested to read your opinion on this matter.

    • sianlimberg says:

      Hi Kezia,

      I think in interpreting the situation these women found themselves in it definitely seems beneficial for them not to have experienced their period. However in reading the memoirs most regarding menstruation expressed concern that they were no longer having regular periods and might be sterile. I think for one it was considered an important part of womanhood and femininity which the women felt stripped of. Additionally having children and raising a family was an important part of the Jewish culture, even the 1930/40s society at large, and to many they feared they were sterile and would never be able to bear children. In one memoir I read a women even expressed concerns over how her husband would react to the fact that she could not bear children and in this sense i think it was a psychological attack upon women.
      Thanks for your comments, it really was an interesting topic to research!


  3. hannahquayle says:

    Your topic is really interesting and you wrote this well! I have done a bit of research on the holocaust at university, but this really shocked me, especially the parts about menstruation – something that didn’t occur to me to be an issue at all. This is definitely a different perspective on the concentration camps during the Holocaust and it is a very interesting read, I’d definitely like to read more into it. On the topic of pregnancy, did they mostly occur as a result of rape by the guards? Or between prisoners (despite their segregation)? I’d also like to read more into the male experiences and across different age groups too to compare experiences as a whole. A good topic, well done.

    with concern to the above reply about psychological assault. i think it definitely is. because their bodies are shutting down due to the severe conditions they are subject to, and to lose that part of womanhood would have a significant psychological effect, especially something so natural. However it is arguably a physical assault as well as it occurs due to the conditions they are put under. Just a thought i suppose.

    • sianlimberg says:

      Hi Hannah,
      Thanks for your comment. There really is an expansive and diverse experience of the Holocaust, between men and women, age groups, different social groups and between the people who experienced concentration camps, ghettos or where in hiding. In regards to your question about pregnancy it seems, from my research, to have occurred in a variety of ways. I read instances were pregnancy was a result of rape by male prisoners or guards, some women where forced into prostitution in camp brothels and pregnancy occurred this way. Additionally there is was an instance i read were pregnancy occurred as a result to women trading sex to privileged prisoners in exchange for extra rations. The male and female prisoners were separated, however in memoirs there are still testimonies that refer to sexual encounters.

      I hope this answers your question!

  4. Interesting blog Sian, which I’m sure was also an interesting essay to write and read.

    I would have liked to see in your blog mention of rape through the brothels and the impact or significance these had in relation to The Aryan Blood Honor Law. Were they put aside to reassert the dehumanisation of Jewish and to punish other women prisoners? Or were there exemptions to the Aryan Blood Honor Law? And what were the effects of these experiences for the women forced into prostitution, and the conditions they lived in – were they given extra food, better sleeping barracks? Additionally, we must ask what the ongoing psychological affect were on these women as privileged prisoners (many the same race as the women being abused) also had access to these brothels. Dehumanisation was a desired outcome for the SS officers, but how did the abuse received from fellow prisoners further effect the women used in this position.

    It would also be interesting to note if there were any consequences and punishments for rape in the male (and female) barracks as Nazi policy strongly opposed homosexuality because it was not a desired Aryan characteristic. Kapo’s and other prisoner functionaries (Lager- and Blockälteste) would no doubt be in the position to rape others, as you note above, but I wonder whether there would be any consequences for prisoners raping other prisoners, and what the punishment would be. We can extend that question to what the punishment was if the sexual interaction was mutual between prisoners, and how these relationships created developed after “liberation” of the concentration camps.

    A fascinating topic that opens up a series of questions we can explore.

    On a more general note, the use of a sub heading makes it very easy for general audiences to read that is not so confronting for such a big topic. It shows that you’re guiding them through the different reasons for the different experiences of individuals. I would have liked to see pictures to make it even more attractive to the general audience.

    Well done.

    • sianlimberg says:

      Dear Sarah,

      In regards to your question about the Aryan Blood Law, guards found to have raped Jewish women were often punished by being transported to the front, as a punishment for violating the ‘pure’ race not for the rape itself. This was undesirable for the guards who wanted to keep their position in the camps. For the guards raping a Jewish women was dangerous, although it did still occur.

      I did touch on prostitution and camp brothels in my essay, although unfortunately i did not include them in my blog as evidence was scarce and the word limit did not permit. Due to the Aryan Blood Laws the brothels were kept top secret. Although of course there were other non-jewish women used in the brothels. I read of a Brothel set up in Auschwitz where 10 prisoners from the female camp Ravensbruk were kept. I did not find any testimonies from the female prostitutes there, the evidence came from Nazi Office documents, as it is not an issue many women like to communicate in their memoirs (if any of these women actually survived). The source which referred to these brothels did mention that these women were given extra food and kept separate from the other prisoners. After a few months in the brothel they were exchanged for other female prisoners, the women were sent back to Ravensbruck, pregnant or with an STI. If they were not gassed they were demoted to the asocial level in the camp social order. The asocial level was the lowest level in the camp system and received the worst treatment and even abuse from other prisoners.

      Privileged prisoners were permitted into these brothels. Unfortunately there are no accounts from the women themselves or the men who used the brothels and therefore unfortunately it is difficult to provide an answer to the question of how these women felt being violated by other prisoners. I think this is a good example of how experiences of gender can sometimes fall in the gap and not be recorded in history.

      These are the answers I can provide you with based on my research. However you do raise some interesting questions which I did not focus on in my essay such as if the prisoners were punished for rape and how consensual relationships formed within the camp developed following liberation. These are interesting points for further research.

      Thanks for your comment!


  5. awebber1 says:

    Hi Sian,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, although I do find it quite a depressing topic! I once wrote a research essay on rape as a weapon of war, and as a woman, I often found it quite upsetting to read some of the eye-witness accounts and their testimonials. As you mentioned rape can also happen to men, and many of the issues surrounding these sexual exploits, such as emotional and mental damage, continue to impact their victims long after the wars are over. I found it particularly disturbing reading about the effects of menstruation on the women in camps in your post, as others have mentioned in their comments also, and especially about the Bromide. Was the Bromide intentionally mixed in their food for the purpose of stopping their menstruation cycles?

    A very interesting topic!

    • sianlimberg says:

      Hi April,

      This essay was quite depressing to research, mostly in regards to the memoirs which are really personal and distressing. In reference to your question about the Bromide, Yes it was intentionally mixed with the food. It seems to have started merely as an experiment for the Nazis, however they were pleased with the results it provided, the cessation of menstruation and a decrease in sex drive.


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