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Women and World War II: Concentration Camps

Gender and the Holocaust


Jewish women, gypsy women, and other women including political dissidents in Germany and in Nazi-occupied countries were sent to concentration camps, forced to work, subjected to medical experiments, and executed, as men were. One Nazi concentration camp, Ravensbrück, was created especially for women and children; of 132,000 from more than 20 countries incarcerated there, about 92,000 died of starvation, illness, or were executed.

A woman's gender in the camps could subject her to special victimization including rape and sexual slavery, and a few women used their sexuality to survive. In a world in which women are often valued for their beauty and their child-bearing potential, the shearing of women's hair and the effect of a starvation diet on their menstrual cycles added to the humiliation of the concentration camp experience. Just as a father's expected protective role over wife and children was mocked when he was powerless to protect his family, so it added to a mother's humiliation to be powerless to protect and nurture her children.

A number of writers have examined the gender issues involved in the Holocaust and concentration camp experiences, with some arguing that feminist "quibbles" detract from the overall enormity of the horror, and others arguing that the unique experiences of women further define that horror.

Certainly one of the most famous individual voices of the Holocaust is a woman: Anne Frank. Other women's stories such as that of Violette Szabo (a British woman working in the French Resistance who was executed at Ravensbrück) are less well-known. After the war, many women wrote memoirs of their experience, including Nelly Sachs who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Charlotte Delbo who wrote the haunting statement, "I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it."

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