Caught in an Ancient Rite of Sex and War: The Sexual Abuse of Women during World War II

By Magdalena Kubow, PhD, ABD
Western University

It is hard to believe that rape and sexual violence have only been recognized as a crime against humanity since 1998. When it comes to war, history tends to focus on tales from the battlefield, both heroic and grim. What is less known is the impact of war on women and children.

We have tales of heroic feminine efficiency on the home front, including rationing, growing freedom gardens, upholding morale, and working in the factories – Bomb Girls comes to mind. Stories of women on the front lines are usually confined to the realm of Nightingale-esque nurses. Rarely do we hear of civilian women as targets in war, a means of ethnic cleansing.

July 30, 2012 marked the seventieth anniversary of the Day of Protest against the victimization of Polish women by the Nazis. The Day of Protest was initiated by the Polish Mideastern Women’s Auxiliary Corps in Jerusalem and marked the plight of women, both gentile and Jewish, with a moment of silence. (Polish-Americans similarly observed one minute of silence on July 30, 1942 as a “solemn protest against the unspeakable outrages inflicted on Polish women by the Germans.” Read the New York Times coverage here: NYT re Day of Protest 1942-07-30.)

Three months earlier, the first transport of 127 women, mostly political prisoners, had arrived at Auschwitz, but women had been directly victimized since the start of war in 1939. Countless thousands of women, including teenagers, were captured by the Nazis and sent to German factories as forced laborers, and worse.

On May 20, 1941, a letter written by a seventeen-year-old Polish girl to her mother in Poland reached the Polish Information Center in London, England. The girl had been sent to a German “public house” (the euphemism for a brothel) and described the fate that she and thousands of other women faced: “Farewell, Mother dearest, I will not see you again. We Polish girls in Germany serve only as mattresses for Nazi soldiers. We are all infected. There isn’t a night that goes by where one of us isn’t executed. I know what awaits me. I am very sick, and cannot walk.”

The tragedy of mass rape was well documented by the Polish language press in Canada and the United States. News reports made plain the fact that rape was used to breed out the Poles. Polish women were classified as inferiors, but their children by German men received German citizenship rights. And because the targets of these rapes were primarily gentiles, some women tried to hide their true identity by wearing the Star of David to avoid being targeted as sex victims. Remarkably, even in the midst of the Holocaust, some women believed it was safer to be a Jew than a gentile.

Many articles have been written on the experience of women, both Jewish and gentile, during the Third Reich. Some well-known titles are included in Ofer and Weitzman’s Women in the Holocaust and deal with topics such as Ordinary Women in Nazi Germany, Women among the Forest Partisans, and Gendered Suffering? While sexual abuse is discussed in articles such as Women in the Forced-Labor Camps and The Split between Gender and the Holocaust, it is neither dealt with exclusively nor extensively. The introduction to this monograph suggests that “ [a]lthough the incidents of rape by the Nazis appears to have been rare –at least that is [the book’s] impression, based on the diaries and testimonies [the authors] have read- it is clear that many Jewish women were terrorized by rumors of rape.”

Millions of women (some estimates project 2 million women) were sexually abused during the Second World War; the reality was worse than fear based on rumors. Although German men were forbidden from having sexual relations with Jewish women – such behavior was deemed Rassenschande (racially shameful) – the law certainly did not stop many German soldiers from sexually abusing Jewish women also, with some participating in collective rape.

For example, Dr. Felicia Karay, herself a survivor of the Holocaust, notes that several testimonies speak of rape committed by the Werkschutz commander Fritz Bartenschlager who attended selections with the purpose of choosing “escort girls.” Karay says that in October 1942, five such escort girls were taken to Bartenschlager’s apartment where they were forced to strip nude and serve his guests who raped them.

A similar occurrence happened in January 1943, when SS commander Herbert Boettcher and Franz Shippers (SS commander of Radom) were among Bartenschlager’s guests. In this case three young women, including nineteen-year-old Gucia Milchman, were murdered after being viciously raped. Girls who were not killed after being raped, but who became pregnant, were ‘dealt with’ by being “sent to the shooting range.”

A lack of testimony constributes to our failure to understand the experience of women during the Second World War. Testimonies that do exist act as individual microcosms of wide spread issues such as fear of rape, sexual violence, and survival. A memoir briefly utilized in Women in the Holocaust is Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor by Judith Magyar Isaacson. More attention to this truly moving piece is worthwhile when discussing the plight of women during WWII.

Isaacson recalls back to 1976 when she, then Dean of Students at Bates College, was asked to give a talk at Bowdoin College following a screening of Night and Fog. During her time in Auschwitz when she was a girl of nineteen, she vividly pictured not only recording her experiences after the war, but also fantasized about them turning into a Hollywood film. As time after the war passed, her fantasy did not come to fruition and it was at Bowdoin College when Isaacson first spoke of her experiences in public.

Following her talk, questions ensued. One young lady in the audience asked a question which inspired Isaacson to commit her experience to paper, “Dean Isaacson, were you raped in Auschwitz?” Raped? Isaacson replied, “I’ll tell you how I escaped it…”

Isaacson recalls the type of fear (of rape) previously mentioned when in 1944 German soldiers were to be billeted in their family home in Hungary. Despite the unwanted guests’ unsavory manners, Isaacson’s grandfather assured the ladies of the house there was nothing to worry about: “[D]on’t be afraid to speak to any man. Soldiers may be beasts on the battlefield, but they all had a mother, just like you and me.”

But Isaacson was uneasy, “I wanted to ask, but I was too embarrassed: could I convince a German soldier not to rape me?”

Rumours of unwed girls being sent to the Russian front as prostitutes for German soldiers in spring 1944, fueled Isaacson’s anxieties. However, it was not only the fear of rape which caused Isaacson anxiety; nudity and the feeling of exposure greatly affected her. When Isaacson, her mother, and aunt Magda came to Auschwitz-Birkenau in July of 1944, she recalls a head count where the women were forced to strip naked for a medical exam.

Naked and forced to march in circles, Isaacson felt emotionally tormented and sexually threatened: “I was nauseated by all the nudity, the breasts, the buttocks … thousands upon thousands of bald women swirling in the nude. [Was this] twenty-first-century Europe?”

Passing selection and escaping death, Isaacson’s next encounter with [the possibility of] rape happened in August of 1944 when she and her relatives were sent to Hessisch Lichtenau as forced labourers. During a routine Zähl Appell (in this case a head count) Kommandant Wilhelm Schäfer had asked the kapo (Manci Pál) for a clean girl. Isaacson agonized over the prospect of being chosen.

Suddenly the kapo pointed at Isaacson “You!” Isaacson felt paralyzed. As the Kommandant began his walk home, Isaacson hesitantly followed. During the walk she thought of the tale of the Sabine Women and of Hunor and Magor. “My plight is not unique…I’m caught in an ancient rite of sex and war” she thought. Admitting that she deeply feared rape, she pondered what awaited her:

I ruminated about the lot of all the women captured in wars, in every inhabited spot on this planet. The Sabine and Magor mothers were famous models, but similar dramas must have unfolded millions of times. I could hear Mr. Köváry’s lecture: ‘The enemy raped and plundered, they slaughtered the men and took all the women and children hostage.’ Of course, it was always the enemy who committed those detestable acts. Never one’s own nation. Never one’s own tribe.

Isaacson escaped a fate worse than death yet again, as the Kommandant had brought her to the house of his mistress who was in need of a cleaning lady.

Although the rest of the memoir reveals exactly what the introduction had promised, a story of woman who escaped rape, others whom Isaacson personally knew were not as fortunate. On a trip back to Hungary with her grown daughter Ilona, Isaacson is told of the fate of one of her classmates Marika Erdös: “The day the Russians liberated Budapest, Marika was among the first to venture into the streets. The capital was in tumult, drunken troops everywhere, hardly any women in sight, Marika was raped and shot on the bank of the Danube.”

Marika’s story illustrates that liberation for some meant danger for others as the war neared an end. Ilona reflected, “Thousands of women were raped during the war, but no one hears about them.”

Ilona’s reflection remains true. One rarely hears of the sexual plight of women in any war. The reason for this is both obvious and ubiquitous; survivors of rape [rarely] share their experience, and rape within the context of war was seen as a normal reality of the victors’ spoils – winning both “beauty and booty.”

In this regard The Seed of Sarah is unique, but very rare when considering the millions of women who have been raped in war and have not, or could not document their experience. Although few detailed memoirs exist which focus on the theme of rape, there is an abundance of primary evidence in the foreign language press and other contemporary documents.

The foreign language press provides countless stories on sexual violence during the war. Republika-Górnik, one of the largest Polish-American weeklies in 1930s and 1940s cites several dozen stories from the height of the war in 1941 until its conclusion in 1945.

Stories detailing violence against women ranged from stories of the rape of women from Lvóv to attacks on nunneries. Toronto’s Związkowiec highlighted similar stories. Furthermore, other contemporary articles including Leaflet Two from the White Rose pamphlets, describe the plight of Nazism’s victims – including women who were used as sexual victims – with a tone that suggested the information being shared was well-known, and understood:

We do not wish to address the Jewish question in this leaflet, nor do we wish to pen a case for the defense. No – we would like to mention by way of example the fact that since Poland was conquered, three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in that country in the most bestial manner imaginable. In this we see a terrible crime against the dignity of mankind, a crime that cannot be compared with any other in the history of mankind.

Jews are human beings too – it makes no difference what your opinion is regarding the Jewish question – and these crimes are being committed against human beings. Perhaps someone will say, the Jews deserve this fate. Saying this is in itself a colossal effrontery.

But let us assume that someone has said this. How can he face the fact that the entire population of aristocratic Polish youth has been exterminated (would God that the extermination is not yet complete!)? You may ask, and in what manner has this taken place? All male offspring of aristocratic families between 15 and 20 years old are sent to concentration camps in Germany as forced labor. All the girls of the same age group are being sent to the SS brothels in Norway!

But why are we bothering to tell you all this, since you know everything anyway? If you are not aware of these specific crimes, then surely you are aware of equally heinous crimes committed by these terrible subhumans? Because this touches on a question that affects all of us deeply, a question that must make us all stop and think: Why is the German nation behaving so apathetically in the face of all these most abominable, most degrading crimes?

Hardly anyone even gives them a second thought. The facts are accepted as just that and filed away. And one more time, the German nation slumbers on in its indifferent and foolish sleep and gives these fascist criminals courage and opportunity to rage on – which of course they do.(Part two of Leaflet #2, penned by Alexander Schmorell, mailed around June 30, 1942)

It is clear in these documents that sexual violence against women is something which was historically known, but which people chose not to discuss. There have been some recent developments where the issue of not discussing sexual violence is slowly being corrected.

A recent memoir published by Gabriele Köpp in 2010 titled Warum war ich bloss ein Mädchen? (Why Did I Have to Be a Girl?) is an example of a memoir which discusses rape. Köpp’s book is credited with being the first of its kind; a memoir by woman who was raped during the conclusion of the Second World War.

Previous to Köpp’s work, a memoir titled A Woman in Berlin (published in 1954 and republished in 2003) which chronicled the experience of an anonymous woman near the end of the war. After the author’s death in 2003, the authenticity of the story was questioned when it was discovered the book had likely been co-authored and not the actual experiences of the writer. Köpp’s book is a chilling first person account of her experience being raped multiple times at the age of fifteen.

An additional reason for the lack of such stories is due to the victims experiencing a “double trauma.” An article in Der Spiegel which spoke of Köpp’s work claims that “women have rarely reported voluntarily on their encounters with violence during and after the war. Experts describe this experience as a double trauma: the act of violence itself, and having to keep it hidden.” Dr. Philipp Kuwert, head of the department of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University Hospital of Greifswald in northeastern Germany and a trauma expert, began conducting research in 2009 on the consequences of sexual abuse in World War II. He interviewed 27 women, mostly teenagers during WWII, who were victims of sexual violence and stated, “It is one of the first and probably the last study of this nature, because 95 percent of the women who were affected are no longer alive.”

As survivors of the Second World War become increasingly rare and the seventieth anniversary of the Day of Protest lies in our recent past, let us remember, not only the women who suffered during the Second World War, but all women who have suffered in war. In 1942, a small group of brave women initiated a moment of silence in recognition of the plight of others. They acted, by the only means available to them, on behalf of those who were powerless.

We could do worse than to follow their example.

This project was made possible by funding from The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (CGS).


In addition to the linked books and articles above, Magdalena recommends the following for a deeper (yet still only superficial) understanding of this topic:

Professor Lenore J. Weitzman: Keynote talk on Women in the Holocaust. From the Memorial Ceremony held at the General Assembly Hall, The United Nations, February 10, 2011. International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.

Rape as a Crime of War: A Medical Perspective” Reprinted from JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. Shana Swiss, MD. Jean E. Giller, MA, MB. August 4, 1993. Vol. 270.

The Economist. “War’s overlooked victims Rape is horrifyingly widespread in conflicts all around the world.” January 13, 2011. Kubow adds: Due to a lack of existing evidence, it is unclear how many women were subjected to sexual violence during the Second World War. Statistics often cite in the millions. It is clear that rape has often been used en masse as a means of targeting women and ethnic cleansing.

 Der Spiegel Online. “Harrowing Memoir: German Woman Writes Ground-Breaking Account of WW2 Rape.” By Susanne Beyer. February 26, 2012. Accessed online July 27, 2012.

For further reference on this study, please consult: Kuwert P, Klauer T, Eichhorn S, Grundke E, Dudeck M, Schomerus G, Freyberger HJ. (2010): Trauma and current posttraumatic stress symptoms in elderly German women who experienced wartime rape in 1945. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198: 450-451. Abstract of study: The aim of this study was to determine the persistent trauma impact and significant posttraumatic stress symptoms in a sample of very elderly German women who survived the mass rapes committed by soldiers at the end of World War II. A total of 27 women were recruited, interviewed, and then administered a modified Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale.

They all reported a very severe degree of trauma exposure in 1945; 19% reported significant current posttraumatic stress symptoms indicating a possible posttraumatic stress disorder at the time of the study, and 30% fulfilled the criteria of a current partial posttraumatic stress disorder.

The results highlight the necessity for prevention and treatment programs for women exposed to wartime rapes in current conflict settings worldwide, and the need to identify and treat posttraumatic conditions in the elderly generation of all countries exposed to World War II trauma.

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