Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Jewish Women's Sexual Behaviour and Sexualized Abuse during the Nazi Era

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Jewish Women's Sexual Behaviour and Sexualized Abuse during the Nazi Era

Article excerpt

Consideration of Jewish women's lives and experiences during the Holocaust became a priority only late in the 20th century. Scholars focused on women's roles as homemakers, wives, breadwinners, supporters and resistors, with little, if any, attention paid to their reproductive or sexual lives. Many considered that the Rassenschande laws shielded Jewish women from the worst horrors of rape and sexual abuse leading to little investigation of this issue. Women were reluctant to speak of such intimate events, and researchers were hesitant to ask about them for fear of causing further hurt. Concern for the sensationalizing of women's experiences also inhibited investigation of this aspect of women's lives. Significant acts of emotional, sexual and physical abuse of women, were, however, perpetrated by the Nazis and others against men and women, Jews and non-Jews, including humiliating nudity, rape and physical abuse. This article focuses on Jewish women's sexual experiences as expressed in diaries, memoirs and testimonies. It explores the variety of interactions that occurred, ranging from loving relationships that emerged despite extremely difficult living conditions, to sexualized humiliation, sexual exchange, rape and sexually related brutality. Recognizing the extent of women's adverse sexual experiences, and their aftermath, acknowledges their lives and honours their experiences.

KEY WORDS: Holocaust, Nazi, Jewish women, Women's voices, Rape, Sexual exchange, Sexual brutality


Literature on the Holocaust has repeatedly focused on the genocide of the Jews by direct means such as gassing, torture, deprivation and disease in ghettos and camps and at the hands of the Einsatzazgruppen, the mobile killing units that followed the German armies to Poland in 1939 and to the Soviet Union in 1941. The Nazis, however, also manipulated both reproductive life and sexuality to achieve their goal of eliminating Jews and others deemed not to meet racially desirable, so called Aryan standards, and to promote the attainment of the so-called, Master race among German women who met these standards

Methods of study

Jewish and German women's experiences of both reproduction and sexuality or related events are explored in more detail in Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women's Voices Under Nazi Rule (Chalmers, 2015). The current article is based on material from this book, but is limited to considering Jewish women's experiences rather than German women's history, and focuses on sexual behaviour rather than reproduction. Relying heavily on diaries written during the war years, or memoirs penned shortly after the war by survivors, as well as testimonies recorded decades later, this article avoids the academic analyses that may have clouded perceptions of women's experiences by later understandings or interpretations of what transpired. Archival searches conducted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Massuah International Institute of Holocaust Studies in Tel Aviv, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the online resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington revealed several testimonies and reports relating to women's experiences of birth, sex and abuse during the Holocaust and provided additional information to that obtained from memoirs and diaries.

As Shik (2009) notes, testimonies and books written shortly after the end of World War II engage directly and openly with the harsh realities of life during the war and in ghettos and camps, unlike later writings which may soften the impact of the events examined or protect both the survivors and their audiences. Along with other issues relating to the Holocaust, the decades following the war were characterized by a lack of focus on Jewish experiences and when present, were directed primarily toward the experiences of all Jews, but particularly men rather than women. It was only after the Eichmann trial of 1961 and the production of the American television mini-series 'Holocaust' that significant interest in the subject of women and the Holocaust emerged. …

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