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USHMM Oral History with Blanka Rothschild

Rothschild Oral History
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Every person imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp system faced the possibility of physical abuse. Women often experienced particular forms of violence and humiliation because of their gender. In addition to rape and sexual assault, women were targeted with other forms of sexualized aggression during camp inspections and disinfection procedures. Kapos and camp guards tormented and dehumanized camp prisoners through forced public nudity, the shaving of body hair, and medical examinations.

Blanka Rothschild was among the relatively few survivors who documented their experiences of sexual violence in an oral history. 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 imprisoned in 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 camp guards and medical staff subjected her to sexual abuse upon arrival at Ravensbrück. She explains how she and other women were stripped of their clothes and forced to undergo an invasive and traumatizing "medical examination" under the guise of a search for contraband. While she struggles to express the humiliation she endured, Rothschild's description mirrors the experiences of women throughout the Nazi camp system.

Rothschild's oral history points to other ways that gender and sexuality shaped prisoners' experiences in the camps. Like many women, Rothschild stopped menstruating as a result of the lack of nutrition. This physical response to starvation could later jeopardize a person's ability to bear children and damaged some women's sense of feminine identity. Men also weathered profound changes to their bodies induced by starvation—an experience that some found emasculating. After the war, many male survivors in Displaced Persons camps sought to reclaim their masculinity by building a muscular physique. Some even participated in sports that showed off their newly sculpted bodies, like wrestling or body-building.1

Rothschild's testimony speaks to the range of physical torments and humiliating violations used to dominate women prisoners in concentration camps.2 Her reflections also point to the ways in which these forms of violence and the brutal conditions of the camps could leave lasting impacts on survivors' gender identities.

Some of these survivors were seen to inhabit the masculine archetypes of farmers and soldiers in the postwar state of Israel. See Sarah Imhoff, "A Redemptive Masculinity: American Images of Jewish Men from the Holocaust to the Six Day War” in The Holocaust and Masculinity: Critical Inquiries in to the Presence and Absence of Men, ed. Bjorn Krondorfer and Ovidiu Creanga (SUNY Press, 2020), 267–284.


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 embrace their feminity by assuming the traditional gender role of motherhood in the years after the war.

See Brigitte Halbmayr, "Sexualized Violence against Women during Nazi 'Racial' Persecution," in Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust, Sonja Maria Hedgepeth, Rochelle G. Saidel, eds. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press), 29-44.

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Ravensbrück was mainly a women's camp. It was large, we never knew about it. We didn't go to Auschwitz. We were the only transport from Lódz Ghetto that did not go to Auschwitz; he kept his word about that. Ravensbrück, though, was a hell. 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. We were many young girls who never undergone gynecological examinations, and they were looking for, God knows, diamonds or whatever. We were subjected to that. I had never seen chairs like that before in my life. We were humiliated at every moment. Our clothes was taken away from us, and we were directed to a heap of clothes which probably was left from the group that was killed previously. I received some sort of a dress. I tried hard to remember, but I can't remember. But there was some sort of a dress that was a little warmer. My mother, on the other hand, was given a long, silk dress, and it was November and it was cold. I don't know what kind of... the food we were given was, of course, of no nutritional value, no value whatsoever. It was watery soup, one slice of bread. We had no possessions. All of us stopped menstruating because we had no nutrition in our bodies. We started to resemble skeletons.

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number 50.030.0281
Date of Interview
September 24, 1994
Duration 00:02:39
Blanka Rothschild
Sandra Bradley
Washington, DC, USA
Reference Location
Ravensbrück, Germany
Łódź, Poland
Interview Type Oral History
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