KAMPEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - For decades no one wanted to remember the concentration camp “special blocks” where the Nazis forced female inmates to entertain their male peers.
Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler had ordered the creation of camp brothels in 1941. His logic was chilling -- male prisoners would work harder if offered the incentive of sex, and if only a few had this privilege it would crush solidarity.
As the horrors of Hitler’s death camps emerged, the brothels swiftly became taboo. The mainly German women who had staffed them were too scarred by the experience to speak of it, whereas the male inmates who used them remained silent in shame.
Now an exhibition in Ravensbrueck women’s concentration camp north of Berlin aims to shed light on the brothels and expose the Nazis’ sinister attempt to manipulate prisoners’ sexuality.
One man who tried to break this enduring silence is former Buchenwald prisoner Albert van Dijk, a Dutchman from the town of Kampen, close to the German border.
“Often I raised the subject of the ‘special block’ at meetings of former inmates of Buchenwald, but nobody ever wanted to discuss it or they said I was mistaken,” said Van Dijk.
The 83-year-old still vividly recalls how at the age of 18, among the despair and degradation of the camp, he fell for a blonde prostitute called Frieda and lost his virginity to her in the “special block”.
Although prostitution was officially forbidden by the Nazis, the elite SS guards had set up a network of brothels catering to German soldiers, forced laborers and prisoners, which they intended in part to stamp out homosexuality.
From 1942 onwards, 200-300 gentile prisoners from the camp were forced to work in 10 camp brothels across Germany, Austria and Poland. Almost all had been imprisoned as “anti-social”.
At first some women volunteered for service as prostitutes, falsely informed they would be released after 6 months. Later they were forcibly recruited during roll call or even from the camp sick bay.
Although the women got slightly better rations and could wear civilian clothes, the work reduced most to physical wrecks. Many caught sexually transmitted diseases, were subject to medical experiments or were forced to have abortions.
Each woman used a small room where male prisoners, after a brief examination, were allowed 15 minutes. Guards looked through peep holes to check sex only took place lying down, as stated in the rules.
After a full day of work in the camp, women spent two hours each night entertaining male prisoners, who paid two Reichsmark. Those who came to them held the most privileged positions among the hierarchy of prisoners, and had the best rations. The vast majority of the male prisoners were much too weak for sex.
Frieda was the first woman Van Dijk had seen in 6 months. He was a teenager, sent to Buchenwald for fleeing a forced labor troop and smuggling rations to Kampen’s Jews and was in awe of her. She appreciated his youthful coyness.
“One day I was sent to clean in the block and I found myself alone with her... She gave me some Schnaps, blew cigarette smoke in my mouth and we landed in bed. It was my first time and you never forget.”
Later he had to pay like the others to see Frieda, a privilege allowed him as he was imprisoned neither on racial nor political grounds.
“You could let your relatives send you money which was written on an account to spend in the camp,” recalls Van Dijk.
With grotesque efficiency, the SS camp administrators sometimes billed prisoners’ families for services rendered in the brothel.
Other prisoners told him he should be ashamed for spending his mother’s money in the brothel, but in an environment where sexual exploitation was rife and young men sometimes bartered with sexual favors, Van Dijk saw nothing wrong.
“Some young guys slept with older prisoners for an extra morsel of bread ... I was young and naive and thought Frieda was interested in me,” he recalled.
After liberation, forced laborers began their fight for compensation. But women who had worked in the brothels found they were unable to claim damages, because of the supposed “voluntary” nature of their work.
Others, fearing stigmatization and the scorn they had already attracted from other prisoners, simply fell silent.
The exhibition in Ravensbrueck, where tens of thousands of women were murdered or died of hunger or disease, has video extracts of former prisoners remembering the brothels and their victims, as well as vouchers which were handed in for sex.
“The theme invites voyeurism,” said Insa Eschebach, head of the Ravensbrueck memorial site, which is why the exhibition relies mainly on the written word.
Concentration camps have featured as a backdrop in some erotic films and a realm of sexual fantasy, exploiting the extreme power gulf between SS guards and prisoners, she said.
Also on display are the few remaining photographs of the special blocks, where the rustic German furniture, vases of flowers and tablecloths belie the horror of what took place.
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