Did the Holocaust make Jewish women infertile? -study

Trauma and malnutrition could be contributing factors to why 98 percent of women in concentration camps quickly stopped menstruating—but maybe not the only ones.

women holocaust 311 (photo credit: German Federal Archive)
women holocaust 311
(photo credit: German Federal Archive)

It has been known that Jewish women sent to concentration camps under Nazi rule ceased menstruating, but new research is among to the first to examine the reason beyond chalking up infertility to trauma and malnutrition.

Featuring testimonies from 93 female Holocaust survivors (average age 92) or their offspring who could provide thorough reproductive histories for survivors, the research was published this month in Social Science & Medicine.

Their testimonies revealed that though many of the survivors resumed menstruation within a few years, 98 percent of the women interviewed reported that after the concentration camps, they had been unable to have as many children as they would have liked.

 THE GATE to Auschwitz, photographed in January 2021, 76 years after the camp’s liberation: There are still countless Jews who say about the Shoah, ‘If this could happen, how can anyone still believe in God?’ (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS) THE GATE to Auschwitz, photographed in January 2021, 76 years after the camp’s liberation: There are still countless Jews who say about the Shoah, ‘If this could happen, how can anyone still believe in God?’ (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Reportedly, 24.4 percent of their pregnancies ended in miscarriages and 6.6 percent of their children were stillborn. Only 15 of the women were successfully able to have more than two children.

“So, my question was: What was happening to these women in the death camps that was distinctive, causing it to occur immediately, and couldn't be explained fully by the hypotheses of either trauma, or malnutrition, or both?”

Peggy Kleinplatz

Lead author Dr. Peggy J. Kleinplatz of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine suggests the sudden cessation of menstruation among Jewish women at concentration camps was too uniform to be the sole result of trauma and malnutrition—a set of explanations commonly accepted by the late 1940s and rarely investigated further.  Sexual health, fertility, and menstruation have been things often left unspoken in past decades.

Furthermore, she notes that purposefully stopping Jews from reproducing would align with the well-documented Nazi eugenics program.

"What was happening to these women in the death camps?"

"So, my question was: What was happening to these women in the death camps that was distinctive, causing it to occur immediately, and [that] couldn't be explained fully by the hypotheses of either trauma, or malnutrition, or both?" Kleinplatz said. "That was when I began to investigate whether there was some deliberate attempt to cause cessation of menstruation in these Jewish women."

Combining the testimonies with historical data, Kleinplatz came to the conclusion that synthetic steroids were being given in the daily rations to female captives in an attempt to stop their menstrual cycles and perhaps hinder their ability to have children altogether.

According to the findings, the only women who did not stop menstruating attributed it to detecting something added to the soup on some occasions and refused to eat on those occasions.

"More questions than answers" 

Kleinplatz noted that the research gives women a chance to tell their previously untold stories, which is especially significant as the living memory of the Holocaust fades with each passing year.

"At this juncture, we are left with more questions than answers," she said. "It is incumbent on medical researchers, other scientists and historians to continue the search for the answers deserved by each of the women interviewed in this study."