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The Mystery of Lost Periods During the Holocaust

Why did 98 percent of women in concentration camps quickly stop menstruating?

Key points

  • It has been known that women placed in concentration camps ceased menstruating, but no one ever questioned the mechanism.
  • Amenorrhea can be caused by stress and malnutrition, but may also be induced through hormone treatment.
  • It is documented that the Nazis sought a surreptitious way to sterilize large populations.
  • Interviews with female survivors reveal that not only did they stop menstruating, but most experienced lifelong impacts on their fertility.
dimitrisvetsikas1969 / Pixabay
Auschwitz
Source: dimitrisvetsikas1969 / Pixabay

An extraordinary, heretofore unrecognized chapter in the tragic history of the Holocaust has now been revealed, and it involves secret strategies used to affect female fertility. Clinical psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz is a brilliant and influential sex researcher at the University of Ottawa. Her work on optimal sexual experiences is required reading for clinicians who want to help people improve their sex lives. Now, Kleinplatz and co-author Paul Weindling have uncovered an almost unbelievable and terrifying secret from the past. Their paper, "Women's Experiences of Infertility After the Holocaust," was recently published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

In the history of the Holocaust, it has been known that 98 percent of the women placed by the Nazis in concentration camps suffered amenorrhea, or the cessation of their menstrual periods. This experience was chalked up to the incredible psychological stress of being in such camps, along with the physiological effects of malnutrition and starvation. These are certainly plausible causes, though to have them occur almost instantaneously, and almost universally, seems highly unlikely. However, it appears no one ever asked the women themselves, who survived these experiences. Kleinplatz did, and the answers are terrifying.

“It looked like wet sand,” dissolved into the rations so that “women don’t get their periods,” one woman described during interviews. Other women reported that white powder was commonly seen in “soup” that was fed only to women. Some women reported that they were made to ingest pills if they were known by camp staff to still be menstruating, and others received unknown injections.

During the Nuremberg trials, documentation was produced that the Nazis were specifically seeking effective means to undetectably sterilize the entire population of Jews.

“Topic of discussion was the sterilization of Jewesses. The Reichsfuhrer SS has promised SS-Brigadefuhrer Professor Clauberg that the Auschwitz concentration camp will be at his disposal for his experiments on human beings and animals. By means of some fundamental experiments, a method should be found which would lead to sterilization of persons without their knowledge. The Reich Leader SS wanted to get another report as soon as the result of these experiments was known so that the sterilization of Jewesses could then be carried out in actuality.” (Memorandum of SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Brandt on discussion July 7, 1942 with Himmler, Gebhart, Gluecks, and Clauberg, cited in Kleinplatz & Weindling 2022)

Birth control pills were not introduced until 1960, but many years before that, chemical laboratories had developed the processes to synthesize human hormones. Kleinplatz and Weindling found that some laboratories under German control at the time were producing very high amounts of female sex hormones such as estrogens and progestins. In 1969, kitchen staff from Auschwitz confirmed to investigators that they had been instructed to put chemical additives from a German chemical manufacturer into the rations of women prisoners. Unfortunately, the Nazis involved in this project had apparently given strict directions that few records were to be kept, in order to keep their plans and intentions secret.

Kleinplatz and Weindling successfully interviewed 93 female Holocaust survivors. These women told horrific stories of their times in the camps, but worse, they reported that the effects of whatever treatments they received lasted far beyond their internment. Though many of them 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 desired. Instead, they reported that 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, despite the fact that most of them wanted children desperately. Beyond problems with pregnancy, many reported experiencing great difficulties conceiving.

During their interviews, some women told stories of their sisters, who had remained in hiding and never were put in the camps. Though also under enormous stress, these women never stopped menstruating and had no problems with later fertility.

Unfortunately, there’s no real way of knowing now, so many years later, what the chemicals used were, or what physiological effects the unknown substances had on the women’s bodies. And unfortunately, because Kleinplatz seems to have been the first person to ask the few last survivors about these experiences, there are few records or testimonies on the subject from all the Holocaust survivors who died before they were asked about these specific experiences. Sexual health, fertility, and menstruation have been things best unspoken for many decades. This social tendency to shy away from such discussions may guarantee that the details of this tragic experiment will remain forever shrouded in mystery.

But Kleinplatz and Weindling finally gave voice to these women’s experiences, pulled back the curtain, and asked, “Why did 98 percent of women stop menstruating immediately?” We now get to hear the answers that the researchers received. Those women now get to tell untold stories, to their families, to us, and to the world. We can only hope that such stories of horror, inhuman treatment, and grief help us to prevent any such actions in the future.

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