May 25, 2019

Telling the Stories of Experiments at Auschwitz

The story of medical atrocities inflicted on women in Auschwitz-Birkenau finally ought to be told. 

Alongside its gas chambers and crematoria, Auschwitz served as a mass scientific laboratory with a vast number of Jewish women used as live specimens. Women young and old were forced into large medical trials aimed at advancing the study of the female reproductive system. Most of those who survived suffered the long-lasting tragedy of having their womanhood forever compromised.

It started after selection at the unloading ramps, when women who were not condemned to the gas chambers often had an unknown substance injected into their breasts. Many female Jewish prisoners in the camp were subsequently forced to ingest food or liquid that likewise contained an unknown substance. Neither during nor after the Holocaust did the women learn what was being put into their bodies, and to this day it remains a challenge to conclusively state what kind of reproductive procedures the Nazis were practicing.

But what is known for certain is that Jewish women in Auschwitz stopped menstruating. Most missed their period for months. Many didn’t live long enough to ovulate again. Some who survived went years before their next menstrual cycle. Others remained permanently infertile. 

“Neither during nor after the Holocaust did the women learn what was being put into their bodies.”

These developments have long been considered to be the inevitable outcome of surviving the horrendous existence that was life in Auschwitz. Extreme malnutrition and immeasurable levels of physical and emotional trauma were the norm, and it has been commonly accepted that the fertility issues many women experienced after the Holocaust were a byproduct of those conditions.

However, over the course of decades of working with survivors of Nazi medical experiments, we have come across ample evidence that the cessation of Jewish women’s menstrual cycles in Auschwitz wasn’t simply a byproduct of the physical and emotional conditions in the camp. It likewise has become clear that survivors’ wrenching postwar fertility issues were tied, at least to some degree, to the unknown substances injected or ingested in Auschwitz.

It is hard to overstate the trauma that followed many female survivors throughout their lives. Losing their womanhood robbed these women of hope for a future — hope that they could ever have children, that those children could ever be healthy, that their family could somehow go on after the Holocaust.

Many survivors were unable to have children. Others suffered through multiple miscarriages or early onset of menopause. Some succumbed to gynecological cancers, while others gave birth to children with severe physical disabilities. 

Seven decades after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to determine the degree to which hormone trials at Auschwitz contributed to survivors’ lifelong physical and emotional suffering. The victims themselves, who never learned what exactly was done to them or why, rarely perceived the routine injection or the forced ingestion as a medical experiment, and therefore never connected it to their reproductive health issues.

But the women we have worked with all remembered. They remembered when their periods stopped shortly after arriving in Auschwitz. They remembered the tiny reprieve of not having to suffer their monthly menstruation in a place where privacy was nonexistent, sanitary napkins were unavailable and hygienic conditions were beyond appalling. 

Every woman would.

There are still survivors alive who remember. We owe it to them — and to the many, many more whose voices have already been silenced — to actively seek out and document their stories. We can only hope that it is not too late for them — and us — to finally understand what was done to their bodies in the name of “reproductive science.”


Ruth Jolanda Weinberger is a historian at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and can be reached at ruth.weinberger@claimscon.orgPeggy Kleinplatz is a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa and can be reached at (613) 563-0846. Paul Weindling is a professor of the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University and can be reached at pjweindling@brookes.ac.uk.