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Reckoning with Sexual Violence, Sexual Terrorism, and Sexual Trauma in the Holocaust

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Trigger Warning: Detailed Descriptions of Sexual Assault, Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, Antisemitism, White Supremacy, Forced Sterilization, Forced Abortion, Murder, Genocide, and Violence. 

A note to readers: Each year the Jewish calendar marks the observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). This day, signified on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, is commemorated by Jewish communities around the world and honors victims of the Holocaust by remembering the unfathomable crimes and atrocities committed. This blog specifically examines sexual violence and the many structured, systematic ways adults and children were abused and violated with the intent to torture, degrade, humiliate, and dehumanize them. It is crucial to understand the various ways rape and sexual violation are used as weapons of violence and oppression in the context of genocide, conflict, and war. Throughout this piece you will be seeing the terms "sexual violence" and "sexual terrorism" repeatedly. These terms are used to encompass the large umbrella of sexual violations experienced during this time period that range from harassment to rape, medical experimentation, and more. Although these facts and topics are devastating and difficult, it is important for us to recognize their relevance both historically and to the present day. In publishing this blog, it was important to our team to honor first-hand accounts and voices seeking to represent them, even at times when the details are graphic and disturbing. Still, we encourage readers to take care of themselves and honor their limits when engaging with such triggering and sensitive information. 

Between 1933 and 1945, Germany led a fascist regime that employed a series of discriminatory policies which eventually resulted in the murder of six million Jews along with Romas, Sintis, Black people, people with disabilities, gay people, “asocials”, and others. This period, the Holocaust, is an unforgivable stain in modern human history.

For those who know what the Holocaust was, they may think of yellow stars and cattle cars. Shaved heads and ghettos. Numerical tattoos and emaciated bodies. Firing squads and gas chambers. Mass graves and crematoriums. Yet, there is one area often undiscussed: sexual violence.

In 1940s Europe, sexuality was a taboo subject and sexual violence even more so. While our modern-day society still has a long way to go concerning what we know, how we talk about, and how we protect victims of sexual violence, victims of this era were disadvantaged because of how much more limited the language, legal protections, and cultural understanding was at the time. For those who survived the Holocaust, they lived in victim-blaming societies that didn’t have the capacity to understand or sympathize with the trauma they experienced. The book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, which is a collection of essays on the topic, provides much needed insight into this era of sexual violence. Eva Fogelman’s essay, “Sexual Abuse of Jewish Women during and after the Holocaust: A Psychological Perspective” says the following: “Because people often like to blame victims instead of perpetrators, there is a long history of silence about sexual abuse during the Holocaust and the post-liberation period.”

For the researchers in the years following World War II, investigating sexual violence during the Holocaust wasn’t a priority. It wasn’t until 1994, in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, that rape became internationally recognized as a method of genocide. While this led to an increased interest in studying this area of the Holocaust, historians were reluctant to include how sexual violence was used during the Holocaust. As Helene Sinnreich explains in her essay, many researchers were reluctant to use victim testimony and instead focused on utilizing “official documents” (which were not available to document sexual violence) in an effort to combat Holocaust deniers.

However, Sinnreich refutes that perspective wholeheartedly: “Favoring German documentation over victim documentation is problematic in general, and in rape cases, where Nazi documentation is scarce or nonexistent, it is even more so.”  

Because sexism is everpresent in our lives, there is the perception that sexual violence is a lesser, “feminine” crime. The late Director of Education and Director of Oral History at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Joan Ringelheim, worked tirelessly to have this line of research recognized for the importance it held. She, “observed what she termed ‘the banality of sexism’, suggesting that sexism is so ubiquitous in our daily lives that it does not seem worthy of exploration as it does not, it is assumed, add anything to our understanding of the genocide.”

While this event may have happened decades ago, it is still important to examine how sexual violence was very much a part of the atrocities at the time. In times of great human crises, be they war, genocide, or disasters, it is easy to overlook highly prevalent crimes like sexual assault because we have been desensitized to its severity. Yet, by not examining it, we fail to fully understand these events and exactly how they impacted survivors. We must learn about these stories and this history, because it deserves to be understood.

At the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), we fully understand the value of researching and understanding sexual violence, its historical context, how it impacts the world today, and which prevention efforts are vital to create a safer tomorrow. It is for this reason that on Yom Hashoah we are taking this moment to recognize the legacy of sexual violence during this time period. Additionally, our Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) theme this year, “Drawing Connections: Prevention Demands Equity,” compels us to use this day as an opportunity to examine and understand the interconnections that white supremacy, patriarchy, war, and poverty have with sexual violence.

Rassenchande (Race Defilement)

The Holocaust is a unique example of genocide in that its leadership created policies that explicitly forbade certain sexual relations. Laws against rassenschande (race defilement) prohibited Aryans from having any sort of sexual relations with non-Aryans (particularly Jews), whom they deemed as inferior races. However, these laws did not stop Nazis and their allies from committing sexual violence, such as rape, against Jews and others. 

For example, a German soldier named Frank Rothe was interviewed after raping a 21-year-old Jewish woman in front of her family with his comrades. He felt confident in committing his crime because he thought it wasn’t punishable to have forced sex with her at gunpoint. He further, “argued that the rape was part of the attack on the Jews, and thus part of the military operation.” This proves that soldiers deliberately misunderstood Nazi law or outright rationalized breaking it in order to sexually violate Jews. 

Oppression thrives when systems enable the oppressors within. Despite official policy, sexual violence was permitted by the Nazi system and actively committed by its representatives. Women were raped by soldiers both inside and outside of concentration camps, despite race defilement laws. The German government had little interest in prosecuting these crimes, and non-German allies who worked with the Nazis had little knowledge of these laws. In addition, acts of sexual violence that did not involve genital intercourse were typically not covered under these laws.     

Sexual Terrorism

Terrorism is, “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” These perpetrators acted unlawfully to reinforce their political party’s racist desire to subjugate those deemed “lesser”, which is why it is fair to refer to their actions as “sexual terrorism”.

These terroristic acts were not hidden in the shadows, in or outside of Germany. In October, 1941, an underground newspaper published the following description of Nazi violence supported

 in the city of Lvov: “Women were raped in the middle of the streets. The murderers dragged Jewish women out of their apartments and cut off their breasts in the middle of the street. It is estimated that the number of victims reached a few thousand.”

After Nazis captured and delivered their prisoners to concentration camps, certain acts of sexual violation began immediately as part of processing them at the camp. Prisoners were stripped naked and their body hair (including the pubic area) was shaved, reinforcing to all that their display and maintenance of the intimate parts of their bodies were taken out of their control.

This dehumanizing effect was exactly what the Nazis wanted to impart. In Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land, survivor Sara Nomberg-Przytyk writes: “We ceased to exist as thinking, feeling entities. We were not allowed any modesty in front of these strange men. We were nothing more than objects on which they performed their duties, non-sentient things that they could examine from all angles. It did not bother them that cutting hair close to the skin with dull scissors was excruciatingly painful. It did not bother them that we were women and that without our hair we felt totally humiliated.”

However, the terror comes from the types of acts that their captors committed with that power. When a person is “owned”, or has their bodily autonomy revoked, they are incapable of giving full consent. Survivors have relayed incidents of sexual assaults they or their fellow prisoners experienced at the hands of officers who enacted sexual violence to instill fear, create punishment, or because they felt entitled to sexual gratification at the expense of others.

The incapability to consent also holds true for prisoners who were coerced into having sex to survive. Those who had sex with guards for basic needs like food or soap, or who did so to protect their families, are still victims of sexual violence. Many of them were executed after their respective guards and officers were done with committing their sexual violations. 

Camp Brothels

One little known fact about concentration camps is the existence of camp brothels. The Nazis' warped perception of sexuality made them feel that they could "motivate'' prison leaders and other forced laborers, and cruelly attempt to "cure" gay men, by compelling them into these institutions. Tens of thousands of women were trafficked (or grew desperate enough to volunteer in order to gain access to life-sustaining resources such as food, soap, and shelter) and raped at these sites. By taking away their ability to choose, or by trapping them into this situation as a means of survival, these institutions were centers for sexual violence.

Disturbingly, Nazi guards would spy on these sexual relations in a peep hole to make sure that they occurred and that they were in the missionary position. The women were compelled to have sex with up to 20 men a day.

In these official institutions, race defilement wasn’t permitted, and as such Jewish prisoners were forbidden. Nazis only allowed sexual pairings in these institutions to be of the same “race”, so the men and women inside of these brothels were prisoners of higher racial status, like German and Slavic people. This is just one circumstance that shows that inequity never stays contained to one group. Oppressive systems find a way to harm everyone living in them.

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic masculinity” is “an attitude or set of social guidelines stereotypically associated with manliness that often have a negative impact on men, women, and society in general.” This does not mean that what is considered “masculine” is inherently harmful, but that it being an ideology and set of behaviors that harms others in the name of masculinity is what makes it toxic.

While white supremacy is a core tenet of Nazi ideology, the role that toxic masculinity played in how they shaped German society and how they treated those they already considered “lesser” is just as important to acknowledge.

Felicja Karay addressed in her book Death Comes in Yellow that the camp she was at was a place in which, “‘the rites of manhood’ were expressed” through “gang rapes of Jewish girls”. They mostly targeted “newly arrived Jewish women to serve them as room cleaners or meal servers, and then raped the women and killed them immediately afterward.”

They affirmed their masculinity by directly aligning that identity, and male pride amongst their peers, with depraved acts of sexual violence. Emil G., a male Holocaust survivor, recalled that in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Germans made a public display of taking “twenty Jewish women prisoners and rap[ing] them in front of one of the labor groups. Emil added that the male prisoners were supposed to stand and applaud.” 

The intent behind this is clear: asserting male dominance by humiliating and brutalizing women to demand respect and obedience from the surrounding men. This is just one example of many illustrating how toxic masculinity influenced the regard and treatment the Nazis and their collaborators imparted over those they oppressed.

Sexual Violence Against Children

When children in the Holocaust are discussed, most frequently it's about how they were immediately murdered upon camp entry since they couldn't be used as forced laborers. However, an often unknown part of these children's history is the sexual abuse they faced in those who hid them. 

Persecuted parents would fight to aid their children in finding refuge from the Nazis. Children would get separated from their guardians into the care of those who sometimes, unbeknownst to their families, would prey upon their vulnerability.

In Rachel Lev-Wiesel and Marianne Amir’s study, “Holocaust Child Survivors and Child Sexual Abuse,” they note, “Jewish children during the war were completely dependent on their sexual persecutors, who were often foster parents or other adults who hid them, for their lives.”

Lev-Wiesel and Amir’s study examined the interviews of child sexual abuse survivors of the Holocaust and found amongst the participants were feelings of self-hatred, self-blame, depression, fear, and anger that permanently shaped the trajectory of their lives.

One respondent was handed to a Christian school headmaster and faced a decade of sexual abuse, beatings, and being treated as a slave. This child and survivor remained in the home of the abuser well after World War II ended, and it is likely many other children who experienced various forms of trauma, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse were similarly trapped in abusive situations.

These abusers targeted these children because they were vulnerable and unprotected. They used their bigotry to justify their abuse, and the children were forced to listen and absorb all of that damaging messaging and mistreatment. The abuse these children faced, and the whole world around them, shaped their view of their own self-worth. Lev-Wiesel and Amir conclude: “Being sexually abused, whether by Jewish or non-Jewish strangers, biological parents or foster parents, was perceived as part of their overall suffering as Jews. Some thought that they deserved the abuse, both physical and sexual, because of their Jewish origin (i.e., God’s punishment for having been born as a Jew or for the murder of Jesus). Others explained that the perpetrators used abuse as a means of ‘educating’ the Jews to their suitable social status. They, as Jewish children, were expected to serve and satisfy their ‘saviors’ any way they could.’”

All of this goes to show that one does not have to be in a traditional position of power to reinforce unjust, bigoted systems.

Attacks by Aid Workers/Rescuers

Similar to those who took Jewish children in, we don’t like to think about the possibility of liberators, aid workers, and rescuers creating further harm to Holocaust survivors. Yet, like how there are still aid workers who are found to sexually abuse the people they rescue, some liberators used their power and protected position to abuse and retraumatize the survivors who sought their protection.

Fogelman uncovered some statistics from the USC Shoah Foundation. The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute of Visual History and Education (USC Shoah Foundation) conducted 52,000 interviews. Of those, 1,040 testimonies from mostly women describe fear of rape and sexual molestation. It was found that most of the rapes were committed by liberators (508 incidents).    

Of course, since we know that sexual violence is underreported, it is likely that there are additional instances of sexual violence that can never be accounted for.

Medical Sexual Violence

Sexual violence can also occur outside the act of sex. At its core, physical sexual violence is the violation of a person’s right to govern the sexual parts of their anatomy. By having a forcible attack on a woman’s reproductive system and organs, the Nazis took part in medical sexual violence, all in the name of eugenics (fake science that prioritized the white race through false ideas about public health and morality).

Ellen Ben-Sefer wrote in her essay, “Forced Sterilization and Abortion as Sexual Abuse” that: “Both forced sterilization of women and forced abortion can be viewed within the context of the Nazis’ plans to selectively control breeding. These procedures that negated women’s rights to a sexual life that would result in pregnancy and childbirth were forms of sexual abuse, because they interfered with a woman’s right to control her own body and sex life.”

These sterilization efforts were done with the goal of learning how to sterilize people as quickly and effortlessly as possible, negating any physical and emotional pain that the victim on the receiving end felt.

They wanted to advance these sterilization methods, as well as impose forced abortions, for the sole purpose of ensuring the domination of the Aryan race.

Bridget Halbmayr remarked in her essay, “Sexualized Violence Against Women during Nazi ‘Racial’ Persecution” that, “The propagation of those regarded as inferior was prevented as much as possible-both inside and outside the concentration camps. Abortions were not rare in concentration camps, and as with forced sterilization, the victims were primarily (although not exclusively) Jewish and Gypsy (Roma and Sinti) women.”

Depending upon the stage of the pregnancy, the physical and psychological trauma experienced by the pregnant woman was even further exacerbated. Forced late-term abortions induced labor so that they could kill the child immediately, often in front of the woman who was pregnant. Ben-Sefer drew the distinction that, “Early-term pregnancies would be considered abortion, but late-term pregnancies involved labor and delivery and therefore can be considered infanticide.”

Drawing Connections: The Holocaust, American History, and Antisemitism Today

For both the Holocaust survivors in America and their descendants, the Holocaust has a lasting impact. Approximately a third of American-based Holocaust survivors currently live in poverty. Survivor descendants who have inherited emotional trauma were even found to have genetic changes in their hormones. This time period in Europe still leaves its mark on people all over the world.

However, we cannot regard the Holocaust as an isolated, foreign event. While NSVRC is a United States-based organization, we know the importance of understanding the interconnected nature of oppressive systems throughout time across regions, states, and even countries. While the Holocaust did not take place in America, the roots of oppression are interconnected and must be understood as such in order to be combatted.

In 1449, the first recorded set of racial discriminatory laws were passed in Spain against Jews and Muslims. Spain banned converseros (Spanish Jews and Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity) from holding public or private office. From there, it spiraled to marriage restrictions, exclusions from schools, and outright exile. They did so because they were convinced that Jews were the killers of Christ (a myth which has been disproven), and that sin would be passed down by blood. Thus, the idea of “blood purity” was born. If one’s blood was “impure”, they were evil and abuse against them was just. This “blood purity” concept inspired the African slave trade, which evolved into Jim Crow laws, which influenced the Nazis. Ken Burns’s documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust, further interrogates America’s history of antisemitism and how it contributed to its response to the Holocaust and the Jewish community at home.

All bigotry under white supremacy, regardless of its perpetrator, is interrelated. Today, this can be seen in its newest form, the Great Replacement Theory.

The Great Replacement Theory is the idea that Jews (whom white supremacists perceive as non-white) lead a global network that seeks to destroy the Aryan bloodline through, amongst other things, promoting immigration and interracial marriage. That’s why the Nazis in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and the original Nazi slogan drawing on blood purity, “Blood and soil!

Antisemitism is a prejudice that has gained a surge in popularity in the United States since 2017. 2021 was the highest year on record for antisemitic acts, with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism. After Kanye West’s (also now known as Ye) antisemitic tirade, New York City saw a 125% rise in antisemitic hate crimes. Overall, the Jewish community experiences the highest rate of hate crimes of any religious group in the United States.

There is much to be learned about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Learning about sexual violence within it, however, holds importance because of what it can indicate about crises in our world today. In this nation, and around the world, acts of hate-motivated sexual violence are committed. In both war-torn countries and circles who embrace bigotry, there is an everpresent element of sexual violence that's undetected or unacknowledged. So, for all who are invested in combatting sexual violence, it is incredibly important to be an active audience to the goings on in the world. Always ask the questions, “How can I commit to staying aware? What is in my power to do to help? What are the consequences if I don’t?” When societies allow misogyny and other forms of bigotry to go unchecked, the disempowered will always bear the brunt of inhumane treatment.

We all have a collective responsibility to continually educate ourselves about the consequence of letting hate run rampant. In honor of those whose lives were cut short and those who survived the Holocaust, never forget the importance of staying vigilant and preventing others from committing these types of atrocities ever again.


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