samedi 18 janvier 2020

Menstruation and the Holocaust

L'article le plus lu de History Today en 2019.

Menstruation is rarely a topic that comes to mind when we think about the Holocaust and, until now, has been largely avoided as an area of historical research.

Jo-Ann Owusu, a recent History graduate from the University of Warwick, @ History Today:
Untitled drawing by Nina Jirsíková, 1941. Remembrance and Memorial Ravensbrück/SBG, V780 E1.
[…] Periods impacted on the lives of female Holocaust victims in a variety of ways: for many, menstruation was linked to the shame of bleeding in public and the discomfort of dealing with it. Periods also saved some women from being sexually assaulted. Equally, amenorrhoea could be a source of anxiety: about fertility, the implications for their lives after the camps and about having children in the future. 
[…] 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?’ […]

The reality of the camps, however, meant that menstruation was hard to avoid or hide. Its suddenly public nature took many women by surprise and made them feel alienated. An additional obstacle was the lack of rags and the lack of opportunities to wash. Trude Levi, a Jewish-Hungarian nursery teacher, then aged 20, later recalled: ‘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.’ Many women have talked about how menstruating with no access to supplies made them feel subhuman. It is the specific ‘dirt’ of menstruation more than any other dirt, and the fact that their menstrual blood marked them as female, that made these women feel as though they were the lowest level of humanity. […]

Rags could almost be considered to have their own micro-economy. As well as being stolen, they were given away, borrowed and traded. Elizabeth Feldman de Jong’s testimony highlights the value of second-hand rags. Not long after she arrived at Auschwitz, her periods disappeared. Her sister, however, continued to menstruate every month. Experiments involving injections in the womb were common, but if a woman was on her period doctors often avoided operating, finding it too messy. One day, Elizabeth was called to have an operation. There were no clean clothes as opportunities to wash were limited, so Elizabeth put her sister’s underwear on and showed the doctor, telling him that she had her period. He refused to operate. Elizabeth realised she could use her sister’s situation to save herself from experimentation and did so another three times at Auschwitz. […]

Doris Bergen’s classic discussion of sexual violence in the Holocaust includes an interesting example of two Polish-Jewish women assaulted by Wehrmacht soldiers:
On 18 February 1940 in Petrikau, two sentries … abducted the Jewess Machmanowic (age eighteen) and the Jewess Santowska (age seventeen) at gunpoint from their parents’ homes. The soldiers took the girls to the Polish cemetery; there they raped one of them. The other was having a period at the time. The men told her to come back in a few days and promised her five zlotys.
[…] Similarly, Lucille Eichengreen, a young German-Jewish prisoner, recalled in her memoir that during her imprisonment in a Neuengamme satellite camp in the winter of 1944-5, she had found a scarf and was thrilled: she planned to use it to cover her shorn head. Worried that she would be punished for owning a prohibited object, Eichengreen hid the scarf between her legs. Later, a German guard took her aside and, while attempting to rape her, groped her between her legs and felt the scarf. The man exclaimed: ‘You dirty useless whore! Phooey! You’re bleeding!’ His error protected Lucille from rape. In discussing these stories, we must discern the irony at hand: it is rape that should be viewed as disgusting and menstruation as natural and acceptable. 
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