Every person imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp system faced the possibility of physical abuse, but women often experienced particular forms of violence and humiliation because of their gender. In addition to rape and other acts of sexual violence, women often faced sexualized forms of aggression during camp inspections and disinfection procedures. These sexualized forms of intimidation and violence included forced public nudity, the shaving of all body hair, and forced medical examinations.
In the featured oral history, Blanka Rothschild describes a sexually violating experience she and her fellow female prisoners had upon their arrival at Ravensbrück. Rothschild was born into a well-educated, closely knit Jewish family in Łódź, Poland in 1922. After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, Rothschild was forced into the Łódź ghetto, where she worked in a kitchen and a hospital. In November 1944, she was deported to Ravensbrück before being sent to Wittenberg, Germany, for forced labor.
In this clip, Rothschild discusses how she and her fellow prisoners were processed upon arrival at Ravensbrück. This selection from her oral history discusses her experience during a medical examination conducted by camp guards and medical staff. The examination process described by Rothschild mirrors experiences common to women throughout the Nazi camp system. She explains how the women were stripped of their clothes and forced to undergo an invasive and traumatizing "medical examination" conducted under the guise of searching for contraband. She recalls that this was the first time she had ever even seen a gynecology chair and struggles to express how humiliating the experience was.
Rothschild also reflects upon the ways in which women's bodies biologically responded to conditions in the camp. Like many women, she stopped menstruating as a result of the lack of nutrition. This physical response to nutritional deprivation jeopardized women's potential future ability to bear children, which introduced challenges to many women’s self-identities. Men also experienced profound changes to their bodies that challenged their self-identities. After the war, many male survivors in Displaced Persons camps sought to reclaim their masculinity by becoming the stereotypical muscular man. Some even participated in sports that featured their newly healthy physique, like wrestling or body-building. Although it was sometimes possible for male survivors to reassert their masculinity in this way, women who had lost the ability to bear children were not able to reassert their feminity by assuming the traditional gender role of motherhood in the years after the war.
Rothschild's testimony speaks to the many layers of bodily humiliation experienced by female prisoners in the camp system.1 Her story also prompts us to consider the ways that different forms of domination and force were used by those in power to intimidate, humiliate, and dehumanize people under their control.