Blanka Rothschild was born in 1922 in Łódź, Poland. 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 and then sent to Wittenberg, Germany, for forced labor. This is the only segment of a nearly three hour interview in which Rothschild discusses sexualized violation. In this clip, she discusses how she was 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 that Rothschild describes mirrors experiences common to women throughout the concentration camp system. She says: "We were stripped of our clothes. We went through a medical examination which was—I cannot even say the word embarrassing, because the people who conducted it were less than human, they were less than animal." Rothschild describes a forced, aggressive, and abusive gynecological examination upon arrival at Ravensbrück conducted under the guise of searching for contraband. She recalls that this was the first time she had ever seen a gynecology chair, at age twenty-two. Rothschild's testimony speaks to the many layers of bodily humiliation experienced by female prisoners in the camp system.1
By emphasizing the physical dehumanization embedded within the concentration camp system, Rothschild's story also prompts us to consider the way that domination and control were exercised by those in power, and the types of humiliation used against both men and women. Forced nudity in the presence of male guards, the shaving of all bodily hair, and forced medical examinations were among the various ways in which the dehumanization of female prisoners took on an explicitly sexualized form of aggression.
Rothschild also reflects upon the ways in which women's bodies biologically responded to the physical deprivation in the camp. Like many women, she stopped menstruating as a result of the lack of nutrition. This physical response to nutritional deprivation held specific implications for women and their own sense fertility and potential future ability to bear children. Men, too, experienced profound changes in their bodies. Indeed, after the war, many survivors in displaced persons camps sought to reclaim their bodies by becoming the stereotypical muscular man, some even participating in sports events (like wrestling or body-building) that featured their newly healthy physique. The fact that it was possible for male survivors to reassert this masculinity in ways that women might or might not be able to physically "reclaim" their fertility demonstrates another important way in which experiences of persecution and recovery are always, at least to some degree, gendered.
Both male and female victims existed within preexisting power structures that dictated the ways in which they experienced physical change and violation—and, to a greater or lesser extent, dictated the ways in which they could respond in various situations. As sociologist Brigitte Halbmayr has pointed out in her studies of sexualized violence against women in concentration camps, "the SS had complete power over prisoners, and extreme exploitation, abuse, and dehumanization, often leading to annihilation, characterized daily life."2 In the moment that Rothschild describes here, she was literally under male control—control that was dictated by both the power structure granted to the doctor as a member of the SS and as a man with authority over her body in that moment.