The state of research into the experience of women in concentration camps during the Holocaust is fraught with controversy. Since the most prolific and famous voices of Holocaust survivors have tended to be men, such as Victor Frankl and Elie Weisel, scholars have wondered if the voice of the female survivor has been ignored. However, some, including famous feminists like Hanna Arendt, have questioned this claim as possibly detracting from the overall atrocities committed by the Nazis, and negating the fact that it was not men or women who were targeted for death, but Jews. Despite this controversy, it can be argued that significant differences did exist between the experiences of male and female victims in the Nazi concentration camps.
Victor Frankl, and many other male survivors reported that after the demoralization of the camps, men became individualistic, concerned only for their own personal survival. Many female survivors, such as Lucille E. claim that the experience of women was quite different. Women in the camps tended to work together, trying to maintain some semblance of the nurturing role they had held in their previous lives. Women in the notorious female concentration camp Ravensbruck cared for one another and had a social network that included holding classes in language, geography, and music. Some theater was staged, and drawing scenes of camp life was a common activity as well. In the first few years of the camp, the women even published a secret newsletter.
Womens experience in concentration camps was also different from that of the men because of simple physical differences. Many women who arrived at the camp were pregnant, and pregnant Jews were immediately gassed. Poles, Slavs, Russian, and German pregnancies were ended by forced abortion if possible. Women who gave birth in the camps usually watched their newborns die immediately, and those that survived were killed by the camp doctors or nurses.
Amenorrhea, or loss of menses, was a common part of life in the camps because of the lack of food and hard labor. This, along with the loss of hair (a potent symbol of sexuality to Jewish women at the time) combined to make most survivors report a wrenching loss of femininity and individuality. Survivors reported that the shaven heads especially led to an assimilation of the female identity into a single mass of naked, ugly bodies. Despite their own perceived lack of sexuality, women were also victimized sexually in a way different from men. Though male survivors also report rape and molestation being common, for women, sexuality was a much more defining characteristic. Physical beauty could have a direct effect on survival for women in the German concentration camps, despite the fact that most were emaciated and clothed in rags. Himmler, Adolf Hitlers head of the Nazi SS, even set up a brothel system, taking around twenty women from Ravensbruck for each of the camps that housed men. These women were used as sexual rewards for the most valuable and cooperative non-Jewish male prisoners.
Interestingly, the survival rate of women who were not immediately executed was higher than that of men, though the reasons for this are debated. Some theories point to the higher percentage of body fat to muscle as a main contributing factor to their ability to survive starvation. Ravensbruck itself was eventually liberated while the camp was still mostly a labor intensive facility and not an annihilation camp. But many of the women survivors themselves point to a different reason: sheer tenacity and the ability to nurture each other in the face of demoralizing humiliation. Though scholars and feminists debate whether or not this was actually true, it is clear that women formed bonds within the concentration camps that they believed helped them to deal with the emotional and physical torture they suffered.
Nazi concentration camp pictures are available for for a first hand look at the human experience of the Holocaust.