Monday, September 23, 2019

The Holocaust and the Destruction of Femininity

Read and weep. From History Today:
After deportation to camps and ghettos, due to malnutrition and shock, a significant number of female Holocaust victims of reproductive age stopped menstruating. Many were afraid that they would be left infertile after their bodies were forced to their limits, making the intrinsic link between periods and fertility apparent and increasingly central to their lives. Gerda Weissman, originally from Bielsko in Poland and 15 years old during her incarceration, later reflected that a key reason she wanted to survive was because she wanted to have children. She described it as ‘an obsession’. Similarly, the French publicist, resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo mentions a discussion that took place among a room full of women:
It’s upsetting not to go through those unclean period … You begin to feel like an old woman. Timidly, Big Irene asked: ‘And what if they never come back afterwards?’ At her words a ripple of horror swept over us … Catholics crossed over themselves, others recited the Shema; everyone tried to exorcise this curse the German were holding over us: sterility. How could one sleep after that?
These reactions reflected both religious and cultural diversity, showing that regardless of faith, culture or nationality, it was a worry all could relate to. The historian of Holocaust literature S. Lillian Kremer argued that, in addition to the fear of becoming infertile, the prisoners’ uncertainty over whether their fertility would return if they survived made the loss of menstruation a ‘dual psychological assault’ on female identity.

Upon entry into the camp, prisoners were given shapeless clothing and had their heads shaved. They lost weight, including from their hips and breasts, two areas commonly associated with femininity. Oral testimonies and memoirs show that all of these changes compelled them to question their identities. When reflecting on her time in Auschwitz, Erna Rubinstein, a Polish Jew who was 17 when in the camps, asked in her memoir, The Survivor in Us All: Four Young Sisters in the Holocaust (1986): ‘What is a woman without her glory on her head, without hair? A woman who doesn’t menstruate?’ (Read more.)

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