My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

03 February 2007

Speaking of sex workers...

I visited the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück today. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the Holocaust and the Second World War. I've read a lot--scholarly sources, survivor testimonies, literature--been to concentration camps, studied the period, but this place just blew me away.

Did you know the Nazis set up a huge network of brothels throughout Germany and its occupied territories that was "staffed" with female prisoners?

I didn't think so.

(Read about here.)

There were brothels for SS men, for Wehrmacht-soldiers, and for concentration camp inmates (as part of a reward system for the more privileged inmates). It hasn't been talked about in Germany and for years was not recognized as a war crime, since women's "work" in the brothels was somehow seen as voluntary. Only recently has it come to light and become the object of scholarly inquiry.

The exhibit at Ravensbrück outlines the history of the "Special Barracks," as the brothels were called, assembling a large amount of documents and a massive collection of scholarship, as well as some firsthand accounts of the brothels by Holocaust survivors. What is missing from the exhibit are pictures. There are some photos of the outsides of these "special barracks" and a handful of interior shots, but that's all. I assumed this was because there weren't many extant photos, but I guess I was wrong. According to Der Spiegel, "Photos are on the whole not included in the exhibition 'to avoid possible voyeuristic expectations.'" Personally, I don't think that's a good enough reason. "Out of respect for the victims" would be a good reason; fear of what visitors will think is not. But the Germans' need to protect people from information and control their thoughts is a topic for another day.

Apparently there was some debate about the terminology to use in the exhibit. Ultimately they decided on calling the women who worked at the bordellos Sex-Zwangsarbeiter ("forced sex workers," alternatively "forced sex labourers"). On one hand this isn't an unreasonable term. Zwangsarbeiter is a term you hear a lot in connection with WWII Germany: most concentration camp prisoners were forced laborers, and many more forced laborers were imported from occupied territories to work in industry and free up men for the front lines. But I still don't like it, largely because the term Sex-Zwangsarbeiter was chosen out of a desire to be "PC."

You know what? There's nothing politically correct about forcing or coercing a brutalized, starved woman to have sex with other concentration camp inmates, and we shouldn't try to act like there is. I think Der Spiegel chose a more appropriate term: sex slaves. What happened to these women was brutal and ugly, and we shouldn't try to sanitize it.



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