Concentration Camp Bordellos 'The Main Thing Was to Survive at All'

Concentration camp brothels remain a hushed-up chapter of the Nazi-era horrors. Now a German researcher has probed the dark subject -- and has revealed the meticulous cruelty of the so-called "special buildings."
Von Mareike Fallet

Kicking them with his boots, the SS soldier drove Margarete W. and the other women prisoners out of the train and onto a truck. "Move the tarpaulin, put the flap down. Everyone get in," he yelled. Through the plastic window in the truck's canvas side, she watched as they drove into a men's camp and stopped in front of a barracks with a wooden fence.

The women were taken into a furnished room. The barracks were different from the ones Margarete W., then 25, knew from her time at the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. There were tables, chairs, benches, windows, and even curtains. The female overseer informed the new arrivals that they were "now in a prisoners' brothel." They would live well there, the woman said, with good food and drink, and if they did as they were told, nothing would happen to them. Then each woman was assigned a room. Margarete W. moved into No. 13.

The prisoners' brothel at the Buchenwald concentration camp opened on July 11, 1943. It was the fourth of a total of 10 so-called "special buildings" erected in concentration camps between 1942 and 1945, according to the instructions of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. He implemented a rewards scheme in the camps, whereby prisoners' "particular achievements" earned them smaller workloads, extra food or monetary bonuses.

Himmler also considered it beneficial to "provide the hard-working prisoners with women in brothels," as he wrote on March 23, 1942, to Oswald Pohl, the SS officer in charge of the concentration camps. Himmler's cynical vision saw brothel visits increasing the forced laborers' productivity in the quarries and munitions factories.

"Especially Perfidious"

It remains one of the lesser known aspects of Nazi terror that Sachsenhausen, Dachau and even Auschwitz included brothels, and that female concentration camp prisoners were forced into prostitution. Berlin-based cultural studies scholar Robert Sommer, 34, has scoured archives and concentration camp memorial sites around the world and carried out numerous interviews with historical witnesses over the past nine years. His study, which will be published this month, provides the first comprehensive, scientific survey of this "especially perfidious form of violence in the concentration camps." His research has largely informed a traveling exhibition "Camp brothels -- forced sex work in Nazi concentration camps," which will tour several memorial sites next year.

Sommer delivers plenty of evidence to counter the legend that the Nazis forbade or resolutely fought prostitution. In fact, the regime enforced total surveillance of prostitution, both in Germany and its occupied territories -- especially after war broke out. A comprehensive network of state-controlled brothels covered half of Europe during that period, which Sommer says consisted of "civil and military brothels, as well as those for forced laborers, and at the same time they were even part of the concentration camps."

Austrian resistance fighter Antonia Bruha, who survived the Ravensbrück camp, reported years ago that, "the most beautiful women went to the SS brothel, the less beautiful ones to the soldiers' brothel."

And the rest ended up in the concentration camp brothel. In the Mauthausen camp in Austria, in the 10 small rooms of "Barrack 1," the very first camp brothel began operation behind barred windows in June 1942. At that point there were around 5,500 prisoners in the Mauthausen work camp, hammering out stone in granite quarries for Nazi buildings. By the end of 1944, over 70,000 forced laborers lived in the entire camp complex.

The SS had recruited 10 women for Mauthausen, following the government security agency's guidelines for erecting brothels in forced labor camps. This meant between 300 and 500 men per prostitute.

Altogether some 200 women shared the fate of the Mauthausen prisoners in the camp brothels. In particular healthy and good-looking women prisoners between the ages of 17 and 35 caught the eye of SS recruiters. More than 60 percent of them were of German nationality, but Polish women, those from the Soviet Union and one Dutch woman were transferred into the "special task forces." The Nazis didn't allow Jewish women for "racial hygiene" reasons. First the women were sent to the camp hospital, where they were given calcium injections, disinfection baths, better food and a stint under a sunlamp.

Between 300 and 500 Men Per Prostitute

Just under 70 percent of the female forced laborers who were coerced into prostitution had originally been imprisoned for being "antisocial." In the camps, the women were labeled with a black triangle symbol. They included former prostitutes, whose presence was supposed to guarantee the "professional" running of the camp brothels, especially at the start. It was very easy for a woman to be judged as "antisocial," for example if she failed to comply with instructions at work.

To what extent the women knowingly volunteered for these "special task forces" is debated. Robert Sommer cites Spanish resistance fighter Lola Casadell, who was brought to Ravensbrück in 1944. She said the head of her female barracks threatened: "Whoever wants to go to a brothel should come by my room. And I warn you, if there are no volunteers, we'll fetch you with force."

Historical witness Antonia Bruha, who was made to work in the hospital area of the concentration camp, remembers women "who came in voluntarily, because they'd been told they would be set free afterwards." That promise was rejected out of hand by Himmler, who complained that "some lunatic in the women's concentration camp, while selecting prostitutes for the camp brothels, told the female prisoners that whoever volunteered would be released after half a year."

The Last Hope of Survival

But for many of the women living under the threat of death, serving in a brothel was their last hope of survival. "The main thing was that at least we had escaped the hell of Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbrück," said Lieselotte B., who was a prisoner at the Mittelbau-Dora camp. "The main thing was to survive at all." Whatever made them go along with the regime, the suggestion that they did so "voluntarily" is one reason "why the former brothel women are still stigmatized today," explained Insa Eschebach, head of the memorial site at Ravensbrück.

In keeping with the Nazi's racist hierarchy in the camps, first it was only Germans were allowed to visit the brothel, then foreigners as well. Jews were strictly forbidden. It was predominantly foremen, heads of barracks and other prominent camp occupants who were given this "bonus." And they would first have to have the money for a ticket which cost two Reichsmarks. Twenty cigarettes in the canteen, meanwhile, cost three Reichsmarks.

Brothel visits were regulated by the SS, as were the opening hours. In Buchenwald, for example, the brothel was open from 7 to 10 p.m. They remained closed at times of water or electricity shortages, air raid warnings or during the transmission of Hitler's speeches. Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a prisoner at Dachau, described the system in his concentration camp journal: "You wait in the hall. An officer records the prisoner's name and number. Then a number is called, and the name of the prisoner in question. Then you run to the room with that number. Each visit it's a different number. You have 15 minutes, exactly 15 minutes."

Privacy was a foreign concept in the concentration camps -- and the brothels. The doors had spyholes and an SS soldier patrolled the hall. The prisoners had to take off their shoes and were to speak no more than absolutely necessary. Only the missionary position was allowed.

Often it didn't even get as far as intercourse. Some men were no longer physically strong enough, and according to Sommer, "some had a greater need to talk with a woman again, or to feel her presence."

The SS was very afraid of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The men were given disinfectant ointments in the hospital barracks before and after each brothel visit, and doctors took smear samples from the women to test for gonorrhea, and tested their blood for syphilis.

Contraception, on the other hand, was one aspect that the SS left up to the women. But pregnancies rarely occurred since many women had been forcibly sterilized before their arrest and others had been rendered infertile through their suffering in the camps. In the event of an "occupational accident," the SS would simply replace the woman and send her to have an abortion.

Those who withstood the hardship of brothel life did have more chance of escaping death in the camps, according to Sommer's research. Almost all the women in forced prostitution survived the Nazis' terror regime. It is largely unknown what became of them or whether they were ever able to recover from their traumatic experience. Most of them remained silent about their fate for the rest of their lives.

Robert Sommer's book, "The Concentration Camp Bordello: Sexual Forced Labor in National Socialistic Concentration Camps," is scheduled to be published in German ("Das KZ-Bordell") by Schöningh Verlag, Paderborn, in July. 492 pages; €39.90.

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