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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust

How did gender roles transform during times of war and genocide? How did sexuality and desire affect people's experiences? 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 gender and sexuality shaped Jewish experiences during 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.

Nazi propaganda tried to frame Jews as a separate and "inferior race" while often using ideas about 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 a delicate blonde woman. But Nazi ideology also claimed that Jewish men were “degenerate,” weak, and effeminate. Jewish masculinity was often targeted during the Holocaust. Many Jewish men experienced rituals of public humiliation as German forces and their allies and collaborators attempted to emasculate them.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to reflect our own contemporary vocabulary and understanding of these things, but this is rarely the case with historical documents or postwar testimonies.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 provides insights into how Nazi ideologies of race and gender impacted people's lives.5 Primary sources like a letter from Zbigniew Kelhoffer to his wife Sydonia show the challenges to the traditional family roles of men and women.6 Many Jewish women during the Holocaust assumed roles and responsibilities that had traditionally been performed by men. Some people also found security or comfort by observing traditional roles and rituals as they tried 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. The testimonies of Ruth Elias, Gertrude Schneider, and Dora Goldstein Roth 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, trauma, or social stigma. In early interviews, women simply were not asked about these types of experiences.8 Elias's and Schneider's interviews were conducted at a time when topics such as sexual violence or forced abortion were still rarely discussed. But Roth gave her testimony at a time 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 also be considered within the broader historical context of homophobic and transphobic discrimination in Europe. Nazi ideology considered same-sex relationships or sexual acts to be part of the supposed "degeneracy" threatening the German people. According to Nazi ideology, same-sex relationships could produce no offspring and therefore represented a racial threat to the future of the so-called “Volksgemeinschaft” (German racial community). 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.

Some of the featured sources explore different aspects of these complex issues. Gad Beck grew up in a prewar Germany that criminalized sexual relations between men under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code—a law that was expanded and enthusiastically enforced by the Nazi regime.9 His persecution and survival are the results of both his "racial" status as a Jewish man and his identity as a gay man. Nazi ideology did not consider sexual relations between women to be as much of a threat, but many women were still targeted for same-sex relationships. The story of Frieda Belinfante—a Dutch Jewish woman who survived the German occupation of the Netherlands—challenges us to think about how people understood their own identities at the time.

The sources in this collection raise questions about the complicated relationships between gender, sexuality, and Jewish identity during the Holocaust. Gender was a factor that greatly affected Jewish experiences of Nazi persecution, but the Holocaust also challenged or transformed many people's traditional roles. Exploring gender and sexuality can deepen our understandings of the nature of Nazi persecution while adding complexity to how we understand people's experiences during the Holocaust.

For more, see Lenore J. Weitzman and Dalia 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.

To learn more about how ideas of gender and sexuality were used to marginalize and persecute, see Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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

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

To learn more, see 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.

See 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.

See 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 18 Items in the Gender, Sexuality, and the Holocaust Collection

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