The effect of menstruation on females in concentration camps has often been omitted from popular research. Until recently, the history of the body has been somewhat omitted from historiography regarding the Holocaust, yet menstruation must be recognised as a feature which defined the female experiences of the Holocaust. Menstruation became a symbol of the horrific atrocities and struggles imposed upon the female body. This article will therefore explore whether menstruation in concentration camps was a gender identity crisis, or whether it facilitated female solidarity within the camps.

From the moment they entered concentration camps, female individuals were subjected to both severe regulation and systemic violence. The foundations of female identity were attacked, and a socially compromised space was created. On arrival to camps, women had to abandon their appearance-related rituals. Women also lost weight due to malnourishment, and particularly relevant to this gender discourse is the loss of weight many women experienced from ‘feminine’ regions such as their breasts and hips. Such aesthetic changes fed into a crisis of gender identity, and Erna Rubinstein, a Jewish woman from Poland who was incarcerated in Auschwitz, wrote in her memoir, ‘what is a woman without her glory on her head, without hair? A woman who doesn’t menstruate?’.

This crisis in the gendered identity of the female body was further exacerbated by the mass occurrence of amenorrhoea, more commonly known as the loss of menstruation. In her research surrounding menstruation, Anna Hájková draws on the connection between shock, starvation, and the loss of one’s period.  Such experiences of amenorrhoea caused fertility-related anxieties to spread around concentration camps, and many women in the camps began to worry about their futures as mothers. Lilian Kremer argued the fear of infertility resulted in camp-induced amenorrhoea becoming a ‘dual psychological assault on female identity.’  

Amenorrhea was commonplace in Nazi concentration camps. Kleinplatz and Weindling interviewed 93 female Holocaust survivors, reporting that 24.4% of their pregnancies ended in miscarriages and 6.6% of their children were stillborn. These statistics reveal the difficulties and complications that female camp survivors suffered. The social expectation for women to bear children placed immense pressure on the female victim of the Holocaust. The mass extermination carried out in the concentration camps can be partly understood through the lens of the violation of the female body and the annihilation of pre-existent gender identities. 

In a similar manner, women had their dignity exposed in concentration camps. Many oral testimonies demonstrate how women felt ashamed about bleeding in public. The absence of female sanitary facilities infringed upon the privacy indebted to these women. Trude Levi, a Jewish woman from Hungary, remarked ‘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.’ 

Women expressed the common opinion that menstruating without access to adequate supplies made them feel ‘subhuman,’ and part of the ‘lowest level of humanity.’ Not only did the Holocaust attack the foundations of womanhood, but it also eradicated the female body of basic human dignity. 

However, this discourse can also be examined from an alternative perspective. Despite the degradation of the female body in concentration camps, some female survivors suggest their experiences of menstruation facilitated female solidarity within the camps. Many orphaned female survivors would approach older women for help with menstruation issues, meaning older women took on maternal roles within the camp. Although amenorrhoea can be considered a threat to gender identity, it can also be deemed an in-camp source of the reconstruction of maternal dynamics. 

To summarise, menstruation, or the lack thereof among the female population, was a symbol of the neglect of the female body within concentration camps. There were no considerations of privacy or the provision of adequate supplies in the camps. Such affairs resulted in the collapse of femininity with women feeling further degraded in an already degrading environment. However, it is also interesting to consider that, for some, menstruation was a medium through which female power, solidarity, and resilience were reconstructed.