Dr. Beverley Chalmers’ latest book is not the kind people want to read. Yet, it’s one they should.
Titled, “Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule,” it is filled from cover to cover with horrifying accounts of countless Jewish and non-Jewish women being raped and brutalized, experimented upon, forced into prostitution or compelled to undergo sterilization or abortion against their will. Some German women successfully gave birth and had their babies taken away for adoption. Jewish women had theirs ripped away and murdered in front of them.
These actions were all part of the Nazi agenda to create a master race, but until Chalmers set about writing this book, no single work had thoroughly examined and comprehensively consolidated evidence of this aspect of the Holocaust.
More than a decade of non-stop and singularly focused research on the subject took an emotional toll on Chalmers, a 65-year-old expert on pregnancy and birth in difficult social, political, economic and religious settings. She had previously published on women giving birth under Apartheid in South Africa and having babies in the former Soviet Union under Communism. Others of her books reported on women with prior experience of female genital mutilation giving birth in Canada, and on women giving birth in highly medicalized settings.
“It was emotionally draining. My children suggested I write about something happier, but I kept going because these stories needed to be told. These women’s experiences needed to be brought to light and honored,” the author told The Times of Israel in an interview from her home in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
The time had arrived for this book
A professor at the University of Ottawa until a year ago, the South-African born and educated Chalmers read some 600 books and articles and combed the archives of Holocaust and World War II-related institutions in Israel, the US and the UK in search of documentary evidence and personal testimonies.
She wasn’t surprised to find that the memoirs and diaries from the war and the period immediately following were more open and blunt about what women endured in the ghettos, camps and elsewhere under Nazi occupation. However, hardly any attention was paid to these, because at the time, people didn’t want to hear this kind of testimony or couldn’t conceive of the extent of the atrocities that had been committed. It was also an era in which open discussions of sex and sexuality were still generally taboo.
Conversely, testimonies given decades later about what had happened during WWII were often sanitized.
Testimonies given decades after WWII were often sanitized
“Survivors didn’t talk about anything having to do with sex because they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to know what had happened to them,” Chalmers explained.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Holocaust scholars even began taking interest specifically in the experiences of women under Nazi rule and during the war. Additionally, the emphasis at that point was on how women had kept their families together and functioning after their husbands and fathers had lost their jobs, been arrested, sent to concentration camps, or killed.
“I think there was also very little mentioned about birthing experiences because of the strong feminism and spotlight on women’s careers in the 198’s,” Chalmers noted.
All part of the Nazi agenda to create a master race
“Birth, Sex and Abuse” has two parts. The first deals with pregnancy and childbearing, while the second focuses on sexuality and sexualized abuse. In both parts, the author addresses the experience of both Jews and (non-Jewish) Germans.
“I knew that this was a rare and potentially controversial perspective to take. But I felt strongly that I had to look at the Aryan side of things, as well as the Jewish side because they fit together into the Nazi agenda to create a master race,” the author said.
350,000 to 400,000 German men and women were victims of compulsory sterilization at 250 centers
“There were hardships imposed on both sides, though the Jewish experience was far worse. The Jewish experience was horrifically unspeakable,” she added.
The Nazis implemented eugenic sterilization and euthanasia programs within six months of coming to power in 1933. Members of the medical professions were partners in this, having adopted the Nazi-introduced and Nazi-enforced concepts of Rassenkunde (the study of race and theories of racial superiority) and Rassenschande (racial pollution, race defilement, or racial treason).
Ultimately 350,000 to 400,000 German men and women were victims of compulsory sterilization at 250 centers devoted specifically to this purpose. They were sterilized either because they were “non-Aryan” or deemed to be mentally or physically unfit in some way.
On the other hand, tremendous pressure was put on German women of desirable racial background to bear many children for the Reich. The feminist movement was targeted and women were expected to stay at home and become baby machines. Aryan men whose wives could not or could no longer have children were encouraged to divorce them and take younger wives with which to procreate further.
Sex outside of marriage was encouraged and teens in the Nazi youth movement became sexually active at young ages. Illegitimate births were not frowned upon. At the same time, abortions for Aryan women were outlawed.
Reich Leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, introduced the Lebensborn Program in 1935 as a means of breeding the SS into a biological elite. It provided financial support for SS families and maternity care for unwed mothers. In some cases, pregnant women were forced into Lebensborn homes. In others, babies were judicially kidnapped from undesirable German families and given to Aryan parents.
German women and women from German-conquered territories were forced into prostitution to serve either German soldiers or foreign workers
German women and women from German-conquered territories were forced into prostitution to serve either German soldiers or foreign workers. There were even brothels inside concentration camps, including Auschwitz. In these camps, some of the prostitutes were selected from among the camp inmates. There is some controversy as to whether Jewish women were used as prostitutes. It was assumed that because of Rassenschande, Jewish women were not used, but some historians point to reports that Jewish women were used in brothels established by the Germans for all categories — military, SS, civilian population and foreign workers.
It should be noted that rape was never an official Nazi policy — hence the brothels. Yet, it was condoned after the fact. This was different from the Soviet-sanctioned mass rape of hundreds of thousands of women in Germany and Austria by soldiers of the triumphant Red Army in 1945.
‘The Jewish experience was horrifically unspeakable’
Chalmers goes into great detail about the experience of Jewish women in ghettos, hiding, and concentration and labor camps in terms of pregnancy and childbirth. In all these settings, women were forbidden from becoming pregnant on pain of death. Consequently, most — though not all — pregnant Jewish women underwent abortions (no matter how advanced the pregnancy) in dangerously unsanitary settings.
The author quotes Dr. Gisella Perl, a Jewish doctor in Auschwitz-Birkenau who testified in 1948 about how she aborted fetuses to save mothers’ lives:
‘I delivered women in the eight, seventh, sixth and fifth month, always in a hurry, always with my five fingers, in the dark under terrible conditions’
First I took the ninth-month pregnancies, I accelerated the birth by the rupture of the membranes, and usually within one or two days spontaneous birth took place without further intervention. Or I produced dilation with my fingers, inverted the embryo and this brought it to life… After the child had been delivered, I quickly bandaged the mother’s abdomen and sent her back to work. When possible, I placed her in my hospital, which was in reality just a grim joke… I delivered women in the eight, seventh, sixth and fifth month, always in a hurry, always with my five fingers, in the dark under terrible conditions… By a miracle, which to every doctor must sound like a fairy tale, every one of these women recovered and was able to work, which, at least for a while, saved her life.
All visibly pregnant women and mothers of babies and young children were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival at the various death camps. Here is how the infamously sadistic Dr. Josef Mengele rationalized this:
When a Jewish child is born, or a woman comes to camp with a child already… I don’t know what to do with the child. I can’t set the child free because there are no longer any Jews who live in freedom. I can’t let the child stay in the camp because there are no facilities… that would enable the child to develop normally. It would not be humanitarian to send a child to the ovens without permitting he mother to be there to witness the child’s death… That is why I send the mother and child to the gas overs together.
Mengele and other Nazi doctors performed all sorts of medical experiments on camp inmates. Many of them involved trying to determine ways of mass sterilization. Jewish women (and men) underwent tortuous experiments involving drugs, x-rays and chemicals. The human guinea pigs were often brutally cut open so doctors could examine the effects of the treatments on the reproductive organs. Not surprisingly, this more often than not led to death.
Chalmers quotes Aliza Barouch, who gave testimony about her being sterilized at Auschwitz. She was exposed to two different x-ray machines for 20 minutes at a time in three instances. She lost all her hair, her skin turned black, and she had blood in her stools. A Jewish prisoner doctor was ordered to do an ovariectomy on her.
The doctor removed only one ovary and and part of the uterus, which enabled Barouch to later have two children — though she also gave birth to four other babies who died within days of birth. The Jewish doctor was sent to the gas chambers after the Nazis discovered that he had been trying to protect Barouch and other girls.
According to Barouch, the stitches put into her abdomen did not hold because of the damage done to the skin by the radiation. She had a terrible infection, but all they did for her was put paper on her wounds, which they closed with a safety pin.
“Aliza lay there for 11 months in excruciating pain and with a terribly high fever. She did not know what they had done to her,” Chalmers quotes.
Other sections of the book deals with rape and sexualized brutality and include many graphic examples, such as a report from the Jewish underground newspaper Junge Stimme in October 1941 of Jewish women being dragged out of their apartments in Lvov with the help of Ukrainians. Some had their breasts cut off in the middle of the street, some were raped, and some had both done to them.
‘We don’t have the right to say it’s too difficult to read’
“Birth, Sex and Abuse” is filled with innumerable stomach-churning examples such as these. It is obviously not an easy book to read.
“The women who went through these experiences need to be honored by our having the courage to face their testimonies. We owe it to them. We don’t have the right to say it’s too difficult to read,” Chalmers said.
‘Birth, Sex and Abuse’ is filled with innumerable stomach-churning examples
But it was only in recounting the reaction of an elderly Holocaust survivor to her book that her voice betrayed emotion.
“At a Canadian Jewish Literary Award event, a woman came up to me. She pulled back her sleeve and showed me the number tattooed on her arm. Then she said, ‘I can die in comfort now. My story has been told.'”