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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust

How do gender roles transform during times of war and genocide? How do understandings of sexuality and desire intersect with notions of race, gender, politics, and power? From Jewish women who took on traditionally male responsibilities, to testimonies of sexual violence, to gay and lesbian perspectives of Nazi rule, this collection explores how a focus on gender and sexuality can broaden our understanding of Jewish perspectives on the Holocaust.

Since the 1980s, scholars have begun focusing more on women's Holocaust experiences that had previously been minimized or neglected. By examining experiences during the Holocaust that were unique to women, scholars began exploring how traditional gender roles were transformed as a result of Nazi persecution and genocide.1 Exploring these changing gender roles provides a richer understanding of the experiences of Jewish women—and Jewish men.

In addition to trying to frame Jews as a separate and "inferior race," Nazi rhetoric also used ideas of gender and sexuality to cast them as threats. For example, Nazi propaganda sometimes portrayed Jewish men as sexually aggressive, animalistic creatures trying to violate the German nation–which was often represented as an innocent, delicate blonde woman. At the same time, other propaganda also portrayed Jewish men as “degenerate,” weak, and effeminate. Therefore, whether Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as overly sexualized and aggressive (masculine) or weak and timid (feminine), the rhetoric of gender and sexuality were used as tools of dehumanization and persecution.2

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Exploring the Holocaust through the lens of gender and sexuality can also highlight certain perspectives and stereotypes that we bring to the material today. We might expect documents to reflect our own contemporary vocabulary and understanding of these terms, but this is rarely the case with historical documents or postwar testimonies. In the decades following World War II, most female survivors of the Holocaust did not speak in contemporary feminist language.3 Similarly, male survivors typically did not often focus on ideas of masculinity or manhood as they told their stories. As we examine these sources, it is important to remember that understandings of gender and sexuality change over time—and survivors' postwar testimonies might not match our own understandings of these issues. At times, this may mean closely examining a survivor's language around a particular experience. At other moments, it may mean checking our own assumptions about survivors' experiences.4

Exploring women's experiences and gender dynamics can shed light on issues such as pregnancy, abortion, childcare, rape, and sexual violence during the Holocaust. Studying these experiences can provide insights into Nazi ideologies of race, gender, politics, and power.5 Looking into issues of gender and sexuality can also help us understand how men's and women's traditional roles within the family were affected by ghettoization, deportation, and genocide.6 Many Jewish women during the Holocaust assumed roles and responsibilities that had traditionally been performed by men. On the other hand, social traditions can assume heightened or exaggerated importance for some people during times of upheaval as they try to keep a sense of their identities and normal daily routines.7

This collection also features many sources that discuss gendered sexual violence in different ways. For example, there are several postwar oral testimonies recorded in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. These testimonies reflect the different periods in which they were recorded. In the first few decades following the end of World War II, women seldom spoke about experiencing sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, or forced abortions due to mistrust, shame, and social pressures not to discuss such things. In these earlier interviews, women simply were not asked about these types of experiences.8 The testimonies of Ruth Elias, Gertrude Schneider, and Dora Goldstein Roth are strong examples of the changing contexts of women's Holocaust testimony over the years. Elias' and Schneider's interviews were conducted at a time when topics such as sexual violence, forced abortion, and infanticide during the Holocaust were still rarely discussed. Roth, by contrast, gave her testimony in the late 1980s when interviewers were beginning to ask women about experiences of sexual violence. Each of these survivors has their own perspective and their own ways of understanding what they experienced.

The sources in this collection also explore sexuality and gender identities as they were expressed and understood in the 1930s and 1940s—a very different era than today. Although we might be tempted to apply our own frameworks to these accounts, it is important to try to grasp how people understood their own identities and experiences at the time. Sources that we might read today as gay, lesbian, or trans Holocaust narratives should be considered within this context—as well as the broader historical context of homophobic persecution in Europe. Nazi ideology considered men (and to a lesser extent, women) who engaged in same-sex relationships or sexual acts to be part of a larger problem of "degeneracy" facing the German people. According to Nazi ideology, gay relationships could produce no offspring for the Fatherland and therefore represented a racial threat to the future of the so-called “German racial community” (Volksgemeinschaft). In this way, Nazi ideology viewed same-sex attraction as a “disorder” of the national body that needed to be "cured." As with Jewish men, Nazi propaganda often portrayed gay men as weak and feminine.

Two sources featured here demonstrate the layers of persecution experienced by gay Jewish men living in Nazi Germany. Gad Beck grew up in a prewar Germany that criminalized male same-sex relations under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code—a law that was expanded and enthusiastically enforced by the Nazis.9 His persecution and survival are the results of his "racial" status as a Jew and his identity as a gay man. While Nazi ideology did not consider lesbian women to be as much of a threat to Nazi racial policies as gay men, many were imprisoned in the Nazi camp system as "asocials." The story of Frieda Belinfante, a Dutch Jewish woman who survived the German occupation of the Netherlands, provides insight into the ambiguities of lesbian identities at this time. Beck's and Belinfante's sources both show how the Nazi regime attempted to define and police sexuality.

The sources in this collection raise questions about the complicated relationships between gender, sexuality, and Jewish identity during the Holocaust. Gender affected Jewish experiences of Nazi persecution, but the Holocaust also upended many traditional gender roles. Ultimately, gender and sexuality offer another lens through which to understand the brutality of the Holocaust by complicating our understandings of Nazi persecution and Jewish experiences.

Historians Lenore J. Weitzman and Dalia Ofer take this position in Weitzman and Ofer, "Introduction: The Role of Gender in the Holocaust" in Lenore J. Weitzman and Dalia Ofer, eds., Women in the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 1–18.

See Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Rochelle G. Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 204.

Lawrence L. Langer, "Gendered Suffering? Women in Holocaust Testimonies" in Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, eds., Women in the Holocaust, 351–363.

Joan Ringelheim, "The Split Between Gender and the Holocaust" in Ofer and Weitzman, eds., 340–350; Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1998).

Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984); Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

To learn more, see Pascale Rachel Bos, "Women and the Holocaust: Analyzing Difference" in Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg, eds., Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2003), 23–50; and John K. Roth, "Equality, Neutrality, Particularity: Perspectives on Women and the Holocaust" in Baer and Goldenberg, 5–22.

Brigitte Halbmayr, "Sexualized Violence against Women during Nazi 'Racial' Persecution" in Sonja M. Hedgepeth and Rochelle G. Saidel, eds., Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010), 29–44.

Geoffrey J. Giles, "Legislating Homophobia in the Third Reich: The Radicalization of Prosecution against Homosexuality by the Legal Profession" in German History 23 No. 3 (July 2005): 339–354.

All 15 Items in the Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust Collection

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