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In this essay I will address the problems that women, mothers and their children faced while living in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. This paper will also briefly examine the background of how the Holocaust began, and then I will address the treatment of the women in the camps including some of the specific problems women faced, for example: pregnancy, the horrific medical experiments, and responses of women to their terrible circumstances. When the Nazis came to power, members of various groups were sent to concentration camps. These included: Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups deemed to be inferior by the Nazi Party. In addition to the constant threats of death and starvation, women, mothers, and children suffered while in the camps. These victims faced emotional problems: “they missed their friends, their lively communities, and the lives they had once known” (Kaplan, 173). Mothers longed for their children: missing, dead, or safe and away from the life of the concentration camps. On a more physical level: women and children suffered from gruesome experiments. But there was also a great distinction in the concentration camps between the problems and treatment of men and women. For example, for women, pregnancy was a life-threatening event. When women lost all hope, and saw no other way to freedom, they chose suicide.
Hitler came into power in 1933, and almost as soon he arrived, concentration camps were established. In the beginning, the camps “were designed for men, and there were relatively few women in the camps” (Katz, 105). It wasn’t until 1939, “shortly before the start of WWII, that a permanent concentration for women opened at Ravensbruck in Mecklenburg” (Katz, 107). Once the war began, the number of women in concentration camps increased. By this time there was hardly, “a [Jewish] family that had not been violently torn apart, whose members had not been scattered over the entire world, parents without their children, wives without their husbands, and all without news of one another, without knowing whether their family members were alive” (Kaplan, 162). Inside the concentration camps, the “high death rates were the result of the inhuman conditions -- violence, starvation, and spiritual and physical degradation of the prisoners -- which were intended to break the human spirit and the will to live” (Ofer and Weitzman, 267). Not only did the Nazis physically abuse their victims, but they tortured them mentally as well.
Like the men in concentration camps, women fell victim to various disasters: loss of relatives, disease, work accidents, backbreaking labor, beatings, and more. But women faced issues that differed from those of men because of their gender. Women faced the danger of rape, losing their menstrual cycle due to starvation and other stress, pregnancy leading to their death and death of their newborns, lack of the availability of safe abortion (if the availability existed at all), and the care and murder of newborns and young children. During their imprisonment women were:subjected to indignities such as the ugliness they felt because of their shaven heads and the lack of femininity due to cessation of menses. Many were forced to undergo involuntary sterilization and still suffer because they were never able to create new life. Most couldn’t even control what became of their own bodies due to constant danger of rape or other sexual, physical, and verbal abuse (Plotkin, 250).
The biggest distinction between men and women was how the Germans treated pregnant women. Pregnant women faced many problems while in the concentration camp. According to Ofer and Weitzman, “hard physical labor, scarce food and medical supplies, and the threat of selections made pregnancy a life-threatening event for the mother, the baby, and the community. In the camps, visibly pregnant women and women with small children were selected for immediate killing” (Ofer and Weitzman, 371). In the concentration camps, being a mother could cause a woman’s death. Survivors recall how “mothers in the prime of their life were sent to the gas chamber because they were holding the hands of their children” (Ofer and Weitzman, ???). It was unfortunate, but children did not have much of a survival rate within the camps: “they were generally too young for manual labor and as such were killed upon arrival” (holocaust-history.org). Because of the emphasis on forced labor within the camps, the elderly, young, sick, and weak perished.
Pregnant women were then left in a horrible situation. Abortion was impossible because although there were doctors, there were no instruments or medications available to perform the operation. So pregnant women that survived selections were forced to hide their condition. They would wear loose clothing, and their fellow women prisoners “attempted to conceal the enlarged abdomens” (Plotkin, 15) of the pregnant members of their concentration camp community. When a woman gave birth, it was in diseased and filthy conditions. They were not taken an infirmary; “births took place in secret, in complete silence, in the women’s barracks” (Plotkin, 15). To prevent the mother of the newborn infant from being sent to the gas chamber, the newborn would be killed. The methods of killing newborns included drowning, injections and other methods of murder. The dead baby would then be discarded in the back of barracks, where other dead bodies were placed. As gruesome as this sounds, this practice saved the lives of many women. If they had not ended their child’s life, both mother and newborn would have been sent to immediate death. One case where the newborn baby survived was when Ruth Elias gave birth in Auschwitz. Her baby was only allowed to live because Dr. Mengele wanted to use her and her newborn as part of one of his experiments: “to see how long a newborn could survive without nutrition, so he bound the mother’s breasts. After seven days a sympathetic physician gave Mrs. Elias a syringe filled with morphine; she killed the suffering infant before Dr. Mengele had the opportunity to send them both to the gas chamber” (Plotkin, 15). It’s absolutely inconceivable that a mother would have to face that kind of decision!
The medical experiments are one of the most horrific events of the Holocaust. The victims were involuntarily made into guinea pigs for the entertainment of the Nazis. One type of experiment that was done to women was sterilization, which was ordered out by Hitler to stop the spread of the inferior race. This experiment involved injecting:chemical substances into wombs during normal gynecological examinations. Thousands of Jewish and Gypsy women were subjected to this treatment. These injections totally destroyed the lining membrane of the womb and seriously damaged the ovaries of the victims (nizkor.org-faq-14).
Another sterilization experiment was the use of x-rays. For this experiment an,X ray station was set up at Auschwitz in 1942, in the woman's camp. Here men and women were forcibly sterilized by being positioned repeatedly for several minutes between two x-ray machines, the rays aiming at their sexual organs. Most subjects died after great suffering, or were gassed immediately because the radiation burns from which they suffered rendered them unfit for work (nizkor.org-faq-17).
Children also suffered from being used in experiments. One example of experiments done to children was Dr. Mengele’s experimentation on dwarfs and twins. Mengele took twins and dwarfs aged two and above and exposed them:Such gruesome experimentation on twins had no medical basis. Dr. Mengele performed such experiments because of his own interest in twins: this was a well known fact among the prisoners, who would hide twins from being singled out for experimentation. But Dr. Mengele claimed his purpose was to “establish the genetic cause for the birth of twins, in order to facilitate the formulation of a program for doubling the birthrate of the 'Aryan' race. His experiments on twins affected 180 persons, adults and children” (nizkor.org-faq-16).to clinical examinations, blood tests, and X rays. In the case of the twins, he injected his victims with various substances, dripping chemicals into their eyes (in an attempt to change the color). He then killed them himself by injecting chloroform into their hearts, so as to carry out comparative pathological examinations of their internal organs (nizkor.org-faq-16).
After [hearing about all] the horrors mothers were forced to go through, it is no surprise that “nervous breakdowns, depression, and suicide became more and more common” (Kaplan, 180). Women driven to despair sometimes saw no alternative but death. In one suicide case, “a Jewish tennis champion killed herself shortly before 1935 in order to spare her Aryan husband difficulties” (Kaplan, 182). Suicide was also high among elderly women, who knew their fate if they were sent to concentration camps. In addition to suicide by hangings, poisoning, or leaping out of windows, “there was a passive form, simply losing the will to live. As long as there was there was hope that somebody might need them at the end of the war, the women held on to life” (Ofer and Weitzman, 321). For example, women with living children had something to look forward to at the end of the war.
Because of this hope, women were able to live through the most unbearable circumstances and conditions. Women created artificial families, “based on need and proximity rather than blood relationships” (Katz, 19). Together, women within their new families would search for food, share what they found, and maintain support. This bonding within the camps is another area where gender made a difference within the concentration camps. Women were separated from the husbands and children inside the concentration camps. Most of their family was either missing or dead, but women kept their hope for freedom and life after the Holocaust by:This new family allowed women within the concentration camps to have some hope for the future and a social outlet.developing close relationships and devised ways to help each other: either pairing by age, or forming camp families composed of four or five women who shared a shack, their labor, and their possessions. In some groups the oldest woman took several younger women under their wing (Ofer and Weitzman, 295).
Living in the concentration camps, women suffered because of their gender. They were separated from their husbands and were forced to watch their children walk the last steps of their lives. If pregnant, they were lucky to survive, even if it meant having to kill their newborn baby. Women were forced to undergo horrific experiments. Those who were sterilized within the concentration camps would suffer even more once the camps were liberated: they would never be able to bring a life into this world. Even within these horrors, there:But the Holocaust shows us that “life had to go on. That life did go on” (Plotkin, xii). These women were and are an inspiration. They were forced to endure unimaginable events and conditions.remained a glimmer of hope. Those who were capable and willing were sometimes able to help others live, thereby retaining a measure of value in their own lives as well as contributing to that of their fellow prisoners. In this way they were able to maintain a semblance of their own humanity (Plotkin, 3).
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