What Happened to Jewish Women in the Holocaust?

Updated April 17, 2017

The Nazi regime targeted all Jewish people during the Holocaust, so the experiences faced by Jewish women were often not too different from those faced by men. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Jewish men and women were treated exactly the same way all the time. While Jewish men and women faced brutal persecution for the "crime" of being Jewish, gender-specific treatment was not at all uncommon during the Holocaust.

Women-only Concentration Camps

The Nazi regime had areas within concentration camps designated for female prisoners. They even had some camps that were entirely designated for women. The largest such camp was Ravensbrück, which was opened in May 1939. By the time the camp was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, more than 100,000 women had been incarcerated there. In 1942, a compound in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was established to hold female prisoners, the first of which were transferred from Ravensbrück. Another women-only camp was established at Bergen-Belsen in 1944.

Different Treatment from German Soldiers

Originally, the Nazi regime mainly targeted Jewish men for arrest and incarceration even though it quickly became clear that the Nazi ideology stated that all Jewish people were to be exterminated. That being said, women faced many gender-specific forms of harassment and punishment. Jewish women were forced to perform humiliating tasks such as cleaning streets in their underwear and being forced to undress in front of groups of German soldiers. Jewish women in concentration camps received the same horrible treatment as Jewish men, but since practically all German soldiers stationed at these camps were male the treatment of women became especially humiliating. Strip-searches that were performed when prisoners were processed were akin to sexual harassment, and although it was taboo for a German to have sexual relations with a Jewish person, sexual assault and rape against women was common.

Pregnant Women during the Holocaust

Pregnant women were often the victims of special treatments in the form of brutal medical experiments. One particularly horrific experiment performed on women who had just given birth involved "doctors" taping the woman's breasts so she could not give milk to her baby. The purpose of this was to test the endurance of both mother and child. This was incredibly painful for the mother and often resulted in the baby starving to death. Painful experiments to discover new sterilisation techniques were also performed on female prisoners, and clearly pregnant women were often the first to be executed.

Women in Resistance Groups

Many women played crucial roles in various resistance activities during the Holocaust, especially women involved in Socialist, Communist and Zionist movements. They often acted as couriers to deliver messages to ghettos in Poland, and many served in armed partisan units in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. Other women were members of aid and rescue operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some notable women involved in resistance movements included Slovakian Jewish community leader Gisi Fleischmann who helped many Jewish people escape to Palestine, Jewish parachutist Hannah Szenes, and five women who smuggled gunpowder to resistance leaders who used it to blow up a gas chamber in Auschwitz and kill several SS officers.

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