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Nazi brothels

August 19, 2009

Though not widely known, it was never really a secret that the Nazis ran brothels in many concentration camps. But never has there been as comprehensive an account of the fact as in a new book by a German researcher.

Members of Germany's Sinti and Roma communities pass through the gate bearing the words 'Arbeit macht frei' at a former concentration camp near Berlin
Author Robert Sommer says the brothels were meant to provide incentives to forced laborersImage: AP

"Das KZ Bordell" (The Concentration Camp Brothel) has been hailed as the first comprehensive account of a little-known chapter of Nazi oppression during World War Two.

Robert Sommer’s 460-page book is the result of four years of painstaking research in all 10 former concentration camps where the Nazis ran brothels between 1942 and 1945.

It is based on numerous interviews with a small group of survivors.

According to Sommer, Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS bodyguard, was convinced that forced male laborers would work harder if they were promised sex.

”The women who were recruited for the brothels mostly came from the concentration camps of Ravensbrueck and Auschwitz,” Sommer said.

The German social scientist says about 70 percent of these women were Germans. The rest came from Ukraine, Poland and Belarus.

Branded anti-social

Beginning with the Austrian camp at Mauthausen in 1942, the SS opened 10 brothels, the biggest of which was in Auschwitz in modern Poland, where as many as 21 women prisoners once worked.

Nazi death camp survivor Anna Stachowiak crying during the 56th anniversary of the camp's liberation
The issue has remained a taboo topic, even for many survivorsImage: AP

The last brothel opened in early 1945, the year the war ended.

Sommer estimates around 200 women inmates in total were forced to work in the brothels, initially offered the prospect of escaping the brutality of the concentration camps.

He says the promise of freedom was never honored.

“A large majority of those forced into prostitution in the concentration camps were branded socially undesirable or anti-social by the Nazis. But there were no Jewish women among them, nor were any male Jewish inmates ever admitted to the brothels,” Sommer said.

Also excluded from the brothels were Soviet prisoners of war.

Tens of thousands of captured soldiers, political prisoners and people branded socially undesirable by the Nazis, including Roma and homosexuals, were held in camps alongside the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Topic remained taboo

Insa Eschebach, director of the Ravensbrueck memorial site in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, says the topic of forced prostitution had been avoided for decades, as nobody seemed prepared to talk in the same breath about sex and concentration camps.

A candle is being placed at a loading ramp of former German railway company Deutsche Reichsbahn in Berlin to remember the Holocaust victims on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-era Auschwitz death camp
The biggest of the 10 Nazi camp brothels was in Auschwitz in modern PolandImage: AP

“There’s of course a positive image of concentration camp inmates, and this is (viewed the same way) in both eastern and western Germany. The subject of forced prostitution within concentration camps tends to destroy this positive image,” Eschebach said.

“Camp inmates were regarded as, and were in fact, victims. But in that special situation, male inmates could suddenly turn into perpetrators,” she added.

Information hard to come by

Sommer says that getting first-hand information about this little-known chapter of Nazi history remains extremely difficult.

”On the one hand, most women who were recruited for the brothels never really overcame the stigma of being considered anti-social, and hence didn’t want to talk in public about what they experienced,” he said, adding: “It must be said that none of them ever received any compensation for their suffering after the war.”

Moreover, Sommer, like Eschebach, points out that the issue of camp brothels was taboo for several decades.

“The topic of brothels and sexuality didn’t quite fit into the picture of what Nazi concentration camps always symbolized to the public,” Sommer said.

“It needs a lot of explaining to put it in the right context, and only a few responsible people at present-day memorial sites have ever attempted to do so.”

A sketch of prisoners drinking soup at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Sommer says few prisoners were physically fit enough to go to the brothelsImage: presse

Sommer says that while the idea behind the brothels was to raise productivity by providing incentives to prisoners, the strategy did not really work. He says few prisoners were physically fit enough to go to the brothels.

The publication of the book coincides with an exhibition which is currently traveling across Germany that highlights the plight of forced prostitutes in Nazi concentration camps.

Sommer's book is due to be presented at the Berlin state parliament on Wednesday.

Hardy Graupner (rb/Reuters)

Editor: Kyle James