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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust

How do gender roles transform during times of extremity? How do understandings of sexuality and desire intersect with notions of race, gender, politics, and power? From women who take on traditionally "male" responsibilities, to testimonies of sexualized violence, to gay and trans identities under 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 focused on women's Holocaust narratives that had previously been minimized or neglected. How, they asked, did gender impact a person's experience of the Holocaust? They addressed this complicated question by examining experiences during the Holocaust that were unique to women. They also explored how gender roles were transformed during persecution and genocide and within the power structure that Nazi rule imposed.1 With this type of analysis, we gain a richer understanding of the experiences of Jewish women—and Jewish men.

While this approach is how Holocaust studies first explored female narratives, "gender" as a term means more than simply "women’s history." Rather than labelling certain experiences as "male" or "female," gender as a category of analysis now explores the broader nature of these different roles and positions, and the resulting power dynamics. When applied to the Nazi context, gender becomes a new lens through which to understand persecution. In addition to seeing Jews as an "inferior race," Nazi rhetoric also framed them in gendered terms to further cast them as enemies. In some cases, propaganda portrayed Jews as an animalistic men who aimed to violate the innocent and pure German nation, often represented as a delicate, blonde woman.  Sexuality too was linked to this worldview. Jewishness was equated with social "deviancy" and "degeneracy." The so-called "degenerate," physically or mentally "disabled," were marked for extermination. Therefore, whether the Nazis portrayed Jews as overly-sexualized and aggressive (masculine) or weak and timid (feminine), the rhetoric of gender and sexuality became brutal tools of disempowerment, dehumanization, and persecution.  Ultimately, just as the Nazis racialized antisemtism, they also gendered it—and carried out genocide in its name.2

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In addition to shaping and shifting our perspective, approaching the Holocaust through the lens of gender and sexuality can highlight certain perspectives and stereotypes that we bring to the material today. We expect documents to reflect our own contemporary vocabulary and understanding of these terms. This is rarely borne out in historical documents, or even postwar testimonies. As Rochelle Saidel notes, most female survivors of the Holocaust do not speak in contemporary feminist language.3 The same can be said of male survivors, who typically do not tell their stories with "maleness" in mind. As we examine these sources, we must balance our own twenty-first century vocabulary with the words of a contemporary document, or a survivor's postwar testimony. We must also recognize that our understanding of gender and sexuality change over time. 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 the impact of these often harrowing experiences.4

Asking questions about the role of gender in the Holocaust leads to questions about gender and victimhood. As a result, experiences like pregnancy, abortion, care of children, rape, and sexualized violence during the Holocaust became important. These experiences serve as a means of fully understanding Nazi ideologies of race, gender, politics and power.5 Gender and sexuality also served as lenses through which to view how men and women's roles within the family were affected by ghettoization, exile, and genocide.6 By addressing these issues, Holocaust scholars do not seek to imply a hierarchy of victimhood. Indeed, the Nazis targeted all Jews as Jews (men and women alike). Instead, this perspective highlights the specific positions of men's and women’s Holocaust experiences. In the process, we begin to understand how the Holocaust was, like all human experiences, informed by gender identity and gender expression.

Studying gender is not simply about discerning the differences between men and women's experiences, but, as Pascale Rachel Bos notes, "ask[ing] ourselves critically what conclusions we mean to draw from perceived differences."7 The socially constructed roles of the time have a role to play here. Bos points out that "in a situation as extreme as the Holocaust, such socialization does not become irrelevant. On the contrary, it may become strengthened, even exaggerated, as a survivor seeks to hold on to the last vestiges of decency and normalcy."8 Gender as a category teaches us about the preexisting power relations between men and women, their social positions in relation to one another, and how this framework can become heightened times of crisis.9

In addition de-centering gender roles and expectations, this collection also features many sources that discuss gendered sexual violence in both explicit and implicit ways. For example, we include several postwar oral or video testimonies recorded in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. These testimonies reflect the times in which they were recorded. In the first few decades following the end of World War II, women seldom spoke of experiences of sexualized violence, pregnancy or forced abortion for fear of social stigma. In these earlier interviews women simply were not asked about these types of experiences.10 The testimonies of Ruth Elias, Gertrude Schneider, and Dora Goldstein Roth are strong examples of the changing contexts of women's Holocaust testimony. Elias's and Schneider's interviews were conducted at a time when topics such as sexualized violence, forced abortion, and infanticide during the Holocaust were still seldom discussed. Roth, by contrast, gave her testimony in the late 1980s when interviewers were beginning to ask women about experiences of sexualized violence. In all three examples, the viewer must keep in mind that each survivor has their own perspective and interpretation of their stories, and their own ways of understanding the meaning of what happened to them.

The sources in this collection also explore sexuality and gender identity as they were expressed and understood in the 1930s—a very different era than today. We thus must read gay and lesbian Holocaust narratives within the broader context of gay persecution in Europe. The Nazis considered men (and to a lesser extent, women) who engaged in homosexual acts to be part of a larger problem of "degeneracy" facing the German people. Gay relationships produced no offspring for the Fatherland and therefore represented a racial threat to the future of the Aryan national community. In this way, homosexuality was seen as a disability plaguing the national body that needed to be "cured." Like Jewish men, gay men were construed as construed as weak, and their alleged feminine demeanor denoted an inversion of their natural, masculine gender.

Two sources featured here demonstrates the layers of persecution experienced by gay Jews in Nazi Germany. Gad Beck grew up in a pre-war 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.11 His persecution and survival are the result of a complicated interplay between his "racial" status as a Jew and his identity as a gay man. While lesbians were not regarded as a threat to Nazi racial policies, many were imprisoned in camps as "asocials." The story of Frieda Belinfante, a Dutch Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, provides insight into the ambiguities of lesbian identity at this time. Beck and Belinfante demonstrate how sexuality is about both sexual orientations and biological politics, or, how sexuality is defined, and often policed, by those in power. What makes these sources so complex is the ways in which gender, sexuality, and Jewishness are intertwined.

Depending on biological sex, sexual orientation, or hereditary illness, the body became the site of persecution during the Holocaust in ways that force us to rethink categories of gender and sexuality. We have therefore included the story of a Jewish boy named Eric who was physically disabled and thus faced difficulty in immigrating to the United States. The inclusion of Eric's story stresses the link between the Nazis' murderous racial and sexual policies. As the work of Dagmar Herzog has argued, the link between gender and sexuality also connects gender, sexuality, and race: the Nazis' repressive policies targeting various aspects of sexuality were carried out in aid of their campaign to "cleanse" society of all "undesirable" subjects.12 Indeed, Nazi racial science aimed to preserve and improve German life while deeming other lives "unworthy of living"—a task it accomplished through forced sterilization and murder. Nazi "racial" antisemitism becomes genocidal precisely because of its link to a "disease" on the German people—a link that has its roots in the racial persecution of the physical body.13

The sources in this collection raise questions about the nature of human aggression and human suffering propagated by a genocidal regime in which racial thinking, extreme prejudice, and degrading murderous practices both destroyed and operated within the existing social order. Ultimately, gender and sexuality offer another lens through which to understand the brutality of the Holocaust by complicating our understandings of victimhood and power dynamics.

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).

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. See also: John K. Roth, "Equality, Neutrality, Particularity: Perspectives on Women and the Holocaust" in Baer and Goldenberg, 5–22.

Bos in Baer and Goldenberg, 63.

See the following theoretical texts which explain the discursive power of gender and sexuality: Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" in The American Historical Review, Vol. 91 No. 5 (1986): 1053–1075; Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

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 Vol. 23 No. 3 (July 2005): 339–354.

Dagmar Herzog, Sexuality and German Fascism (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004); Dagmar Herzog, ed., Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe's Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

See Detlev Peukert, "The Genesis of the 'Final Solution' from the Spirit of Science" in David F. Crew ed., Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945 (London: Routledge, 1994); Edward Ross Dickinson, "Biopolitics, Fascism, Democracy: Some Reflections on Our Discourse about 'Modernity'" in Central European History Vol. 37 No. 1 (2004): 1–48.

All 16 Items in the Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust Collection