SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THE HOLOCAUST
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel around Poland and visit some of the most notorious Holocaust sites in the world. As a Jew, this was a profoundly powerful experience for me as I have family members who were murdered in the Holocaust during World War II by the Nazis. While murder and forced labor are the crimes most commonly associated with the Holocaust, I was also interested in learning more about the role that sexual violence played. Rape and sexual violence is widely documented in other genocides, such as the Rwandan Genocide, but there are few conversations around sexual violence and exploitation during the Holocaust.
During my visit to Poland, the only site in which my tour guide mentioned sexual violence and exploitation was at the Auschwitz concentration camp. In one of the buildings at Auschwitz, there was a floor dedicated to the sexual exploitation of female prisoners. These “brothels” were set up in many concentration camps to reward Nazi officers and male prisoners kept in the concentration camps. Some women who worked in these brothels were promised an early release from concentration camps while others were forced into this sexual exploitation. These promises were not honored by the Nazis. The use of these brothels was not extended to prisoners who were deemed the most inferior (i.e. Jews, Roma, etc).
In Auschwitz, due to extreme malnourishment of female Jewish prisoners, Polish women were most typically sexually exploited. Furthermore, the racialization of sex by the Nazis meant that male Polish prisoners were only supposed to have sex with women of Polish descent, and the same went for Nazi officers exploiting women of German descent. However, it is unknown to what extent officers and prisoners in concentration camps truly adhered to this racial philosophy.
Sexual exploitation of children was rampant during the Holocaust. There are documented cases of Nazi SS officers taking young boys as sex slaves. In many of these cases, the alternative for these children would have been death in gas chambers. Nazi officers in concentration and death camps had ultimate power over who lived and who died. This power meant that these officers could make prisoners do essentially anything that they wanted including all forms of exploitation.
The stigmatization around sexual exploitation has caused many survivors of the Holocaust to remain silent. Most have been impacted by PTSD which makes opening up about their experiences even harder. It is difficult enough for many Holocaust survivors to speak out about the murder and other atrocities that they witnessed, so many remain silent about sexual exploitation which they might not deem as paramount.
As the last Holocaust survivors continue to pass away, we have an obligation to tell every story. Concentration camp prisoners who were sexually exploited were dehumanized and used as cogs in the organized and systemized Holocaust. This is why sites of sexual exploitation in the Holocaust need to be marked the same way that work camps and gas chambers are. We have an obligation to tell survivors’ stories so as to honor those who suffered. We also need to learn from the past so that we can fight back against mass sexual violence and exploitation. With reports of widespread rape against Rohingya women perpetrated by the Myanmar military, looking back at the legacy of the Holocaust is more relevant than ever.
Liffey, Editing by Kevin. “New Book Reveals Horror of Nazi Camp Brothels.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 Aug. 2009, www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-nazis-brothels/new-book-reveals-horror-of-nazi-camp-brothels-idUSTRE57G45X20090817.