Gender and sexuality were major influences on Jewish experiences during the Holocaust. These factors could shape individual experiences, and they even affected people's chances for survival. Traditional roles were also challenged and transformed during these years. When exploring the Holocaust through the lens of gender and sexuality, it is important to remember that certain ideas we bring to the material today might not have applied at the time.
In the decades following World War II, most female survivors of the Holocaust did not use modern feminist language to describe their experiences.1 Similarly, male survivors typically did not focus on ideas of masculinity or manhood as they told their stories. Postwar testimonies might not match our own understandings of these issues. At times, this could mean thinking about a survivor's word choices—or questioning our own assumptions about survivors' experiences.
Sources in this collection show how traditional gender roles changed during times of upheaval. Many Jewish women during the Holocaust assumed roles and responsibilities that had traditionally been performed by men. Primary sources like a letter from Zbigniew Kelhoffer to his wife Sydonia show some of the challenges to the traditional family roles of Jewish men and women.2
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. Gendered roles and traditions in Judaism shaped people's experiences in different ways, as shown by the tefillin owned by Alexander Kuechel and the widowhood release of Golda Leitman Weiss.
Exploring women's experiences can shed light on issues such as pregnancy, abortion, childcare, rape, and sexual violence during the Holocaust.3 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 did not often speak about sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, or forced abortions for a variety of reasons.4 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.
Nazi propaganda also used ideas about gender and sexuality to attack and dehumanize Jews. For example, Jewish men were often portrayed as sexually aggressive beasts trying to violate the German nation. But Nazi ideology also taught that Jewish men were supposedly weak and effeminate. Jewish masculinity was often targeted during the Holocaust. Many Jewish men faced rituals of public humiliation as German forces and their allies and collaborators tried to emasculate them.5
The sources in this collection explore sexuality and gender identities as they were expressed and understood in the 1930s and 1940s—a very different era than today. Sources that we might read today as gay, lesbian, or trans Holocaust narratives should be considered within this broader historical context. Nazi ideology considered same-sex relationships and 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. People who did not dress in the clothes of the gender assigned to them at birth were also targeted as social outsiders.6
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.7 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.8 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.9
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 these events through the lens of gender and sexuality can deepen our understandings of Nazi persecution—and of Jews' individual experiences of the Holocaust.