Women and World War II: Concentration Camps

Gender and the Holocaust

Jewish Women and Children in Belsen Concentration Camp
Jewish Women and Children in Belsen Concentration Camp. Bettmann/Getty Images

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. The Nazi "Final Solution" for the Jewish people included all Jews, including women of all ages. While the women who were victims of the Holocaust were not victims solely on the basis of gender, but were chosen because of their ethnicity, religion or political activity, their treatment was often influenced by their gender.

Some camps had special areas within them for women held as prisoners. 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.  When the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was opened in 1942, it included a section for women. Some of those transferred there were from Ravensbrück. Bergen-Belsen included a women's camp in 1944.

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. Women who were pregnant or who had small children were among the first to be sent to gas chambers, identified as not capable for work. Sterilization experiments targeted women, and many other of the medical experiments also subjected women to inhumane treatment.

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. 

Some 500 forced-labor brothels were established by the German army for soldiers. A few of these were in concentration camps and labor camps.

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."

Roma women and Polish (non-Jewish) women also received special targeting for brutal treatment in concentration camps.

Some women were also active leaders or members of resistance groups, inside and outside of concentration camps.  Other women were part of groups seeking to rescue Jews from Europe or bring them aid.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and World War II: Concentration Camps." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/women-world-war-ii-concentration-camps-3530684. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2016, August 29). Women and World War II: Concentration Camps. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-world-war-ii-concentration-camps-3530684 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women and World War II: Concentration Camps." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-world-war-ii-concentration-camps-3530684 (accessed November 25, 2017).