A Blog exposing the truths of menstruation during the Holocaust by Hannah Curtis.
The Nazis registered more than 130,000 women into Auschwitz alone. While this number does not account for those imprisoned within the other 20 main concentration camps and their subcamps or for the victims who were ushered to their deaths immediately upon arrival, what this figure does do is give us an unequivocal insight into the presence of female menstruation during the Holocaust.
Women in the past menstruated. Fact.
Then why have periods been avoided in our history books?
For centuries history has been written by men and as such, menstruation has been overshadowed by stories of male heroism. Periods have been deemed taboo by those experiencing them - discussing them with disgust and self-degradation, resulting in the absence of menstruation within our books.
Whilst researching for my undergraduate dissertation, I recognised the importance of acknowledging facts hidden by history (as we know it). While sometimes it felt wrong or uncomfortable to read about a topic so personal, I fought against my instincts in order to acknowledge the raw truth of the Nazi regime.
I’m certainly not claiming to be a specialist within this field, but throughout my reading I kept asking myself why I had not previously known about the pivotal role of periods during the Holocaust. This blog attempts to shed light on this issue.
For the privileged among us, sanitary products are readily available. Women incarcerated during the Holocaust were provided with no such items. With limited washing facilities and opportunities, survivors discuss the shame and disgust of public bleeding.
Trude Levi recalls: “We had no water to wash ourselves, we had no underwear. We could go
nowhere. Everything was sticking to us, and for me, that was perhaps the most dehumanising thing of everything”.
Rags, stolen from camp warehouses, formed their own micro economy as sanitary products due to demand.
“You took the undergarment slip they gave you, ripped it and made little rags, and guarded
those little rags like they were gold … you rinsed them out a little bit, put them under the
mattress and dried them, then nobody else could steal the little rags.”
The following is an innate female survival strategy: female camp ‘families’, made up of a patchwork of women of different ages and nationalities were unconsciously established throughout Nazi run camps. Menstruation became associated with sisterhood: the sharing of stories, coping mechanisms and goods whilst educating and preparing younger girls for womanhood was commonplace.
The gendered experiences of women prior to the war enabled the formation of tightly knit
communities within camp settings where inmates bonded over menstruation.
Despite stories of hope and familial bonding, menstruation detrimentally shaped the female
experience. The Nazi attack on those ‘inferior’ extended far beyond the gas chambers with the attempted control of women’s menstruation in the hope of prohibiting breeding.
Gisella Perl discusses the how camp food was seasoned with saltpetere, a mineral intended to disrupt menstruation.
Olga Lengyel supports this. She acknowledges the “mysterious chemical powder” which was dosed in the food, used for the “stoppage of menstruation”. Interestingly, she notes how the “Lageraelteste, the Blocovas, and the Stubendiests as well as the kitchen employees” never consumed the ordinary camp soup and were, therefore, free from menstrual problems.
Scholars have coined this intervention as a ‘second genocide’ due to the intentional killing of those yet to be born through menstrual sabotage. The ceasing of periods, known as Amenorrhea, was a source of anxiety and a reality for some female survivors.
There is a significant lack of the female voice within history generally, let alone when it comes to menstruation. There has been a huge push, and rightly so, to include the female perspective within the historical record within recent years.
With regard to menstruation, women’s voices must too be heard. They provide us with a personal, unique and nuanced account.