Czesław Kempisty, MD, PhD, 1925–1987, Gray Ranks conspirator during WW2, Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor (prisoner no. 16686), Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen survivor, public health, internal medicine, and geriatrics specialist.
Zdzisława Leszczyńska, one of the contributing authors of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim (Medical Review – Auschwitz), member of prof. Karol Jońca’s medical research team from University of Wrocław which carried out research on Fascism and Nazi atrocities on which the article below is based.
One of the consequences of the generally known principles of Nazi German policy, especially of the implementation of the programme of depopulation Hitler formulated already in 1934 (Rauschning, 350–356)—alongside the mass extermination of millions of individuals belonging to other nations in the German concentration camps—was the plan to curtail or stop their biological propagation. To achieve this aim the Germans applied a number of criminal procedures, such as sterilisation, which have been described in the publications, including articles in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. Needless to say, one of the measures which were to help achieve this aim was the confinement and isolation of women and girls in concentration camps.
We do not have exact figures, but some scholars estimate that women made up roughly 30% of all the inmates of the Nazi German concentration camps, at least in their last years of operation. In some concentration camps, for example Auschwitz-Birkenau, women were imprisoned with their children, which reduced their negligible chances of survival even more. The work which has been published hitherto gives us a good idea of what women went through in concentration camps like Ravensbrück or the Jugendlager (concentration camps for young people); for instance we know about the little girls who were tormented to death in the Polenjugendverwahrlager (concentration camp for Polish children) in Łódź. Women and girls from many countries were due to be exterminated. Only a few survived and left the concentration camps in a state of utter exhaustion.
Assuming that about 400 thousand Polish inmates survived, we may say that about 120 thousand were women (Kempisty, 12 ff.; GUS; Panasewicz, 3–17). Of course, this estimate requires verification, yet the chances for that are getting smaller and smaller as time goes on.
The pathological aftereffects observed in survivors due to their confinement in Nazi German concentration camps have been described in numerous publications including those in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. One of the effects was a rise in survivors’ morbidity and mortality rates. We may say that by 1969 that there were approximately only 155 thousand survivors still alive in Poland out of the original 400 thousand; and 46 thousand women survivors out of the original 120 thousand (GUS).
For 12 years our Wrocław medical centre has been in contact with many women survivors, who have come to us for diagnosis and treatment. This has enabled us to observe the survivors’ community and assemble a growing collection of records, helping us to address this difficult research subject. One of the very problematic issues in the range of pathologies due to the War was the fertility of women survivors. We were daunted by this subject, putting it off to a later time to examine it in comparison with data on the fertility of the general Polish female population and the factors determining it (biological factors such as age and health, and socioeconomic factors such as work and professional activity).
This subject called for a long period of observations, especially of family structure and marital stability. We had to ask awkward or embarrassing questions and look at certain types of behaviour, including their moral aspects (for this problematic aspect of sociological research see, for instance, Fichter and Kolb).
Onto the Wire. Marian Kolodziej. Photo by Piotr Markowski. Click to enlarge.
It is generally known that a number of endocrinal disorders have been observed in women survivors in outcome of the idiosyncratic somatic and psychic traumas they experienced in the concentration camps and the extensive damage caused by factors such as starvation disease. One of the symptoms was amenorrhea during their time in prison or in a concentration camp, and for many women continuing for several years in the post-war period. The pathological developments which ensued in the bodies of these women, such as the infectious diseases they contracted, sometimes recurrently, and the local inflammation of their reproductive organs could have had a detrimental effect on their fertility. Many could not have children, and their infertility prevented them from starting a family or gave rise to personal tragedies such as divorce, aggravating the post-concentration camp psychic disorders they already had.
This paper is a follow-up to our earlier work on pathological conditions due to the War. In this paper we present data we collected during our research, which may serve as an additional indictment against the Nazi German atrocities and their aftereffects. We have tried to make our research and conclusions as objective as possible.
In our research we used the following materials:
- The medical records of a group of 3,240 survivors resident in Poland, including a group of 520 resident in Lower Silesia; this data was regularly updated during patients’ scheduled medical examinations and also when they came to us on spontaneous visits.2
- Questionnaires on issues concerning survivors’ societal and socio-economic circumstances.
- The results of research carried out by Egon Vielrose of the Polish Academy of Sciences on the fertility of Polish women and published by PWN in 1967, and a 1968 publication entitled Kobieta w Polsce (Women in Poland), issued by GUS (the Polish Central Statistics Office, now Statistics Poland).
The subjects of our study were female survivors who were aged 7–36 at the time of their confinement in a concentration camp, and 9–38 at the time of their release. In 1963, the first phase of our research programme, our subjects were aged 25–55; in the second phase, carried out for comparative purposes after a lapse of 3 years (i.e. in 1966), they were aged between 28 to 58. We focused chiefly on married women, but also considered unmarried women: widows, divorcées, and spinsters resident in towns and cities.
To make an objective determination of a potential cause-and-effect relationship between survivors’ fertility and the fact that they were incarcerated in a concentration camp where they contracted diseases caused by microorganisms and their chronic aftereffects, we disregarded the data for survivors who had been guinea pigs in the criminal pseudo-medical experiments the Germans conducted in their concentration camps.
The medical records were kept by a physician working in the Wrocław ZBoWID3 clinic; and the questionnaires were filled in individually by patients during their visits for a medical examination.
Out of a population of 1,820 medical records, numbered in the chronological order in which individual patients presented to us, we selected a representative sample of 300 persons (16.4% of the total population), after having disregarded the men and the female “guinea pigs.” To make the random selection, we used Hugo D. Steinhaus’ method.4
We arranged the data in tabular form, which enabled us to examine and present issues such as the number of children each of the survivors in the randomly selected group had, her civil status (married, unmarried, widowed, divorced), age, educational background, the length of time she had spent in a concentration camp, her health, the type of accommodation she lived in, and her professional or occupational activities.
a. Survivors’ age, civil status, and time held in a concentration camp versus number of children
The age breakdown of the examined group shows that we made a good selection of subjects for the study. 2/3 of the women in the group were at the peak of their fertility in the period we conducted the study. There were not so many older women: only 22 out of the group were past their child-bearing age in the post-war period (after their release from the concentration camp). See Table I.
|Table I. Age breakdown of sample group of female concentration camp survivors|
|Age group||Number of survivors||Percentage|
|Table II. Civil status of sample group of female concentration camp survivors|
|Civil status||Number of survivors||Percentage|
The next aspect of the sample population favouring our study is the fact that 87% of the individuals in it were married women, and 212 of them had been married for at least 10 years when the study was conducted (Tables II and III). This helped us to obtain an answer to the main research question—the influence the subjects’ confinement in a concentration camp had on their fertility. Our project would have been much harder to carry out if we had not had such a high percentage of married women in the sample group.
Another auspicious circumstance working to the advantage of our study is the fact that many of older widows taking part—11 out of the 15 widowed participants—had several children. The reproductive period in their lives had come to an end before their arrest and incarceration. Likewise, the presence of younger subjects (unmarried girls) in the study was a good point, allowing us to examine the data in comparison with the other subjects in the study as well as with the reference group.
|Table III. Length of time the female survivors taking part in the research had been married for|
|Number of years married||Number of survivors||Percentage|
|21 and over||44||14%|
|Table IV. Percentage of childless women survivors compared to Vielrose’s data for the general female population of Poland|
|Age group||Age range||Percentage of childless women|
|In women survivors||In general population|
As we see in Table IV, the number of childless women survivors was incommensurately higher than for the control group, i.e. than the figures for the general female population of Poland. The statistics are particularly high for women survivors in the 30–39 and 40–49 age groups, i.e. those women who spent 3 to 5 years of the most fertile part of their lives in concentration camps.
The fertility rate we observed for women survivors in the 30–39 age group at the time of our study was 1.4, as compared to Vielrose’s figure of 2.2 for the control group. Likewise, there was a low fertility rate for survivors in the 40–49 age group (Group III)—just 1.8, as compared to 2.5 for the control group (Tables V and VI).
|Table V. Age of female survivors versus the number of live-born children they have had|
|Group||Age range||Number of women survivors with live-born children|
|childless||1 child||2 children||3 children||4 and over||Total|
|Table VI. Average number of children versus mother’s age for female survivors and control group|
|Age range||Average number of children|
|female survivors||control group (general female population)|
A higher fertility rate was observed for Group I, women who spent their childhood in a concentration camp, but reached puberty and went through menarche in the post-war period following liberation from the camp. The average number of children for Group I survivors was slightly higher than the figure for the corresponding age group in the general female population of Poland. Survivors in Group IV, i.e. older women (aged between 50 and 55), who had the peak of their fertility in the pre-war period and the first two years of the War, were observed to have had the same number of children as women in the same age group in the control group.
We observed an interesting correlation between the number of years our subjects spent in a concentration camp and the number of children they had (Table VII). Only 55 women survivors, those who had spent less than 2 years in a concentration camp, had a fertility rate matching the figure for the corresponding control group. Women survivors who had been imprisoned for over 2 years had a lower fertility rate, which fell from 1.5% for those held from 2 to 3 years, to 1.0% for those held over 4 years.
|Table VII. Duration of women survivors’ imprisonment in a concentration camp versus the number of children they had|
|Time held in a concentration camp||Number of women survivors||Total number of children they had||Percentage index|
|over 4 years||45||49||1.0%|
On the assumption that the youngest survivors in our study, the women in Groups I and II, were still in the reproductive part of their lives—the Group I women were aged between 28 and 32, and Group II women were 33 to 42—we decided to re-examine them 3 years later (i.e. 1967). The results of the repeated test are presented in Table VIII, and they show that the probability of women survivors having more live-born children after 28 was much lower than the corresponding probability for the control group. The values for the survivors’ groups would be even lower if we consider the fact that the age range in the control group covered an additional five years—three years at the younger end of the scale (25–27, the peak reproductive period), and two more years at the end of the reproductive period.
|Table VIII. Comparison of average number of live births to women survivors in 1965–1967 with corresponding figures for the general female population|
|Women survivors||General female population|
|Age group||Average live births to survivors||Age group||Average live births in general female population|
b. Survivors’ education, professional and occupational activity, and housing
Research on female fertility has shown that a woman’s socio-economic environment, and factors such as her education, her professional and working life, and the type of housing in which she lives have a considerable influence on her fertility (cf. Fischer, 10–24; Vuletić, 81–92).
|Table IX. Percentage relationship between female survivors’ education and the number of children they had|
|Education||Number of survivors||Total number of children||Percentage|
|Did not finish primary school||60||131||2.1%|
|Finished primary school||123||169||1.3%|
|Did not finish secondary school||24||38||1.1%|
|Finished secondary school||78||126||1.6%|
As the women taking part in the study said, and research on survivors’ morbidity confirm, the somatic and psychic disorders, and the aftereffects that concentration camp inmates sustained impaired their intellectual potential and had an extremely detrimental effect on the education they managed to complete (Kempisty, 12–20).
In the group of women survivors we studied, the education of as many as 183 (61%) stopped at the level of primary school, and 60 of them did not even finish primary school. This was the group for which we observed the highest fertility rate. The university and college graduates had the lowest fertility rate.
241 of the 300 female survivors were working, and 208 were in blue-collar jobs. 236 said they took up a job to improve their poor financial situation (Table X).
|Table X. Female survivors in employment and reasons for taking up a job|
|Reasons for taking up a job||Number of female survivors||Percentage|
|On a disability or retirement pension||31||10.3%|
|To improve a poor financial situation||236||97.8%|
In our research we also obtained data on the housing conditions in which our subjects lived. As they were all resident in a municipal or urban environment (cities and towns which were the provincial capitals of their respective voivodeship [top-tier] or powiat [second-tier] administrative districts), there were only small differences in the technological standards of their accommodation, except for a certain, limited extent of variance in the fittings of their bathrooms and sanitary installations. Only five women’s families were living in very primitive accommodation.
c. Female survivors’ chronic diseases and the number of children they had
Notwithstanding the undeniable contribution of random occurrence to conception and procreation, there is also a set of established factors which exert an effect on fertility, and one of the main ones is the woman’s state of health. In the present study we were interested in the effect of the particular chronic diseases diagnosed in our subjects during our research project, as well as the infectious diseases they contracted in the concentration camp which may have had an impact on their fertility. Our observations showed that the disease incidence rate was much higher for the survivors taking part in our study than for women in the control group (i.e. the general female population of Poland), and the answers we collected in the questionnaires confirmed this. Only 23% of our respondents said they were “generally healthy,” while 57% of the women in the control group said they were “in good health.”
|Table XI. Infectious diseases contracted by female survivors and by women in the control group|
|Disease contracted||Survivors||Control group|
|Number of survivors||Incidence rate||Number of women in the control group||Incidence rate|
|Typhus or typhoid||211||0.70||115||0.04|
|Never contracted an infectious disease||12||0.04||411||0.17|
|Table XII. Chronic diseases suffered by female survivors and by women in the control group|
|Chronic condition||Survivors||Control group|
|Number of survivors||Incidence rate||Number of women in the control group||Incidence rate|
|Never suffered from a chronic condition||23||0.07||1,346||0.57|
|Circulatory system diseases||56||0.19||331||0.14|
|Respiratory system diseases||14||0.05||54||0.02|
|Other chronic conditions||14||0.05||205||0.09|
So the survivors had a high morbidity rate; there were particularly high rates of incidence for gynaecological disorders, pulmonary tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and circulatory disorders. The corresponding rates of incidents we observed for the control group were much lower. Interestingly, as many as 28 of the 78 women survivors suffering from chronic disorders of the reproductive organs were childless.
The data we collected for infectious diseases call for a separate discussion. Many of our respondents turned out to have gone through typhoid, typhus fever, scarlet fever, and infectious inflammatory bowel diseases. The younger ones, including those imprisoned in the children’s concentration camp in Łódź, had been through virtually all the paediatric infectious diseases. The average number of children for the female survivors who did not contract any of the infectious diseases was approximately the same as for those who contracted the paediatric diseases when they were children. On this point our results agreed with those reported by Egon Vielrose. We may conclude that paediatric diseases contracted in childhood in the hard conditions of the concentration camps did not have much of an effect on the fertility of these women in their adult life. On the other hand, we observed a noteworthy phenomenon: the average number of children for all the groups of female survivors who had contracted epidemic typhus was much lower than for those who had not gone through typhus (Tables XI and XII).
d. A review of survivors’ marriages and divorces, and the causes of marital breakdown
An examination of the results of this research project coupled with the observations of the survivors’ community which we were able to collect over the many years of providing preventive and therapeutic care for them gave us an insight into the family bonds this community has developed. We have already addressed this issue in a previous paper (Kempisty), where we wrote that
Survivors’ families are characterised by the specific stigma left on them by their past history in the concentration camp, involving a curtailed ability to cope psychophysically on the part of the parents, especially the mothers, which has a detrimental effect on the relationships in the family and the allocation of the diverse roles within it.
In that paper we discussed some of the signs of disorganisation in the life of the family from the viewpoint of a child, its state of health and problems in its upbringing. Now we want to continue with these socio-medical issues, looking at the institution of marriage in the light of the opinions declared by spouses, one or both of whom are concentration camp survivors.
|Table XIII. Spouses’ opinions of their marital relationship|
|Hard to say||20||9.5%||16||7.6%|
|Total number of respondents||212||100%||212||100%|
As we have already said, 212 of the women out of the population of 300 female survivors we examined had been married for over 10 years, and 14 of them were married to men who were survivors, too. Table XIII presents the answers we received to the questionnaire, as well as during an oral interview which we conducted with each respondent confidentially and in private. It shows that there was general agreement between the spouses who said their marital relationship was very good or good. There was only a weak correlation between the answers given by spouses who assessed their marriage as bad. 8.9% of the women survivors said their marital relationship was bad; while many more of the husbands (16.6%) said their relationship with their wife was bad. 51 of the husbands who were not survivors and said their marital relationship was bad or assessed it as “hard to say,” were asked for the cause of the breakdown of their marriage. 39.2% said it was due to their wife’s chronic health problems; 35.3% attributed it to their wife’s hyposexuality or diminished sex appeal; 15.7% blamed their financial and material conditions; 5.9% said it was because the couple could not have children; and 3.9% gave other reasons.
The wives of this group of husbands gave different reasons why their relationship had deteriorated. 41.1% said it was due to the husbands’ egoism and brutality; 37.2% attributed it to the husbands’ failure to understand their past experiences in the concentration camp and the poor state of health that was a result of the camp; 11.8% said their husbands were not caring enough for them and the children; 5.9% blamed the husbands’ alcoholism; and 4.0% blamed the husbands’ infidelity. Interestingly, 26 of the spouses out of the 14 couples where both partners were concentration camp survivors said their marital relationships were “happy” or “very good,” and the other two said their marital relationships were “good.”
The group of divorced female survivors gave an interesting set of reasons for the breakdown of their marriage. 15 of the 21 divorcées blamed their ex-husbands; 4 said both partners were to blame; and only 2 attributed all the blame to themselves. The reasons they gave for the breakdown of their marriage were as follows: their husband’s egoism and brutality; his failure to understand her concentration camp past and her own reduced sexual attractiveness; their poor financial and material situation; and (to a lesser extent), infidelity and alcoholism.
To complete the picture of survivors’ marital relationships, we put the same questions to a group of 30 male survivors whose wives had not been held in a concentration camp. 21 of the male survivors said their marital relationship was very good, 3 said it was good, 2 said it was bad, and 4 thought it was hard to say.
The wives of this group of 30 male survivors had a similar opinion of their relationship. 17 out of the 30 said it was very good, 5 said it was good, 3 said it was bad, and 6 found it hard to say. However, these women attributed the success of their marriage to their own sympathy and appreciation of their husband’s concentration camp past, his poor state of health, complexes etc.; to their own caring attitude looking after their husband’s well-being; and to their husband’s loving approach to the children and concern for the family’s financial and material welfare.
Of the three types of marital relationship we examined, it turns out that the happiest were those where both spouses were concentration camp survivors. These couples were characterised by a strong sense of companionship and mutual sympathy regarding the aftereffects of the concentration camp. Couples where both partners had survived a concentration camp shared the same experience, and very often they took the same, highly critical view of themselves.
The next group with a fairly happy marital relationship were those couples in which the husband was a survivor married to a woman with no experience of Nazi German concentration camps. In these marriages the key factor relating to some of the man’s negative personality traits caused by his tragic past was his ability to make a good choice of a marriage partner. These men tended to choose women who managed to ttransform the husbands’ shortcomings into a mutual sense of sexual attraction, aspirations and life plans, while at the same time assuming the dominant role in the family, with the husband’s tacit consent. An additional, very important factor corroborating the emotional bond in these relationships was the wife’s attitude of care and concern for a husband who was a former concentration camp inmate. This point was stressed in several of the answers, and it gained in importance as time went on and the sexual aspect of the relationship declined.
The couples in which the wife was a concentration camp survivor offered a far more disturbing picture. Surprisingly, one in four of the wives in this group blamed themselves for the failure of their marriage, sharing their husband’s opinion on this point. These women, who had been through the concentration camp ordeal, did not try to shift the blame for the lack of marital harmony to the husband, but instead blamed their own past experiences, their limited, psychophysical ability to cope, dwindling as time went by, and their diminishing sex appeal.
As we have already said, there were 21 women in the group who obtained a divorce after five or more years of married life. Twelve of them regarded their divorce as a major failure in life, and associated the marriage that had preceded it with the conditions in the concentration camp. Perhaps their expectations of being recompensed in their married life for the traumatic experiences of the camp had been too high, so they encountered a lot of disappointments. Despite the social vacuum in which they found themselves after the divorce, they were not making an effort to remarry.
Divorce was a particularly painful experience for the four women survivors whose husbands divorced them because they could not have children owing to the wife’s infertility.
An element of marital ethics was involved in the divorces of the women survivors we examined, and it came to the fore particularly in those situations where the husband left the wife who was chronically ill and prematurely ageing due to her concentration camp experiences, to “start a new life” with another, usually more attractive woman.
Our research on the fertility of female concentration camp survivors shows that there was a strict functional and mathematical correlation between certain specific features of the population we examined and the number of children these ladies had.
The chief factors determining the fertility of these survivors were the length of time (in the reproductive part of their life) they spent in a concentration camp, the infectious diseases they contracted and the chronic conditions they developed there, especially diseases of the reproductive organs and general endocrinal disorders.
The percentage of childless women in this population amounted to 12%, as compared to 8% for the general population of women who has never been confined in a concentration camp.
The average number of children for an individual in the 3–49 age group of female survivors (i.e. those who had spent the best part of their reproductive years in a concentration camp) was between 1.4 and 1.8, while the corresponding figure in the control group ranged from 2.2 to 2.5.
Our research showed that one of the post-concentration camp factors which had an effect on our subjects’ childbearing history was their education. The lower the level of their education, the more live-born children they had.
Our review of the marital relationships of women concentration camp survivors showed that the happiest couples were those where both spouses were concentration camp survivors. The next happiest were the marital relationships of male survivors with women who had had no experience of a Nazi German concentration camp. A third group, of women survivors with men who had not been through a concentration camp, were mismatched in terms of marital concord.
We observed the following causes of marital disharmony in the population of female survivors: their chronic health problems, hyposexuality and diminished sex appeal. The factors contributing to marital disharmony on the part of their husbands were egoism, brutality, and a lack of sympathy and understanding for their wife’s past experiences.
Factors which made a smaller contribution to the breakdown of some of these marriages included a poor financial and material situation, the husband’s alcoholism, and infidelity. These were the factors which had a fundamental effect on a major social problem, the fairly high rate of occurrence of divorce we observed in the population of survivors of the Nazi German concentration camps that we examined.Notes
- This paper was published in the 1974 edition of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. The research for it was carried out in a project on Fascism and Nazi German atrocities conducted by Prof. Karol Jońca’s team at Wrocław University.a
- The original article gives “a group of 3,240 survivors resident in Lower Silesia, including a group of 520 resident all over the country,” clearly a typographical error.a
- ZBoWiD—Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy, the official war veterans’ association in the People’s Republic of Poland.
- Hugo Steinhaus was one of the authors of the concept of stochastic independence, one of the basic tenets in probability theory. The article refers to the tables of random numbers proposed by Steinhaus.b
a—notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, translator of the article and Head Translator of the Medical Review Auschwitz project; b—note by Maria Ciesielska, Expert Consultant on medicine and history of medicine for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.
- Fichter, Joseph H., and Kolb, William L. Ethical Limitations on Sociological Reporting. American Sociological Review 1953(18): 544–550.
Fischer, Ronald A. The Theory of Natural Selection. Dover Publications, Inc.; 1958.
- GUS [Główny Urząd Statystyczny, The Polish Central Statistics Office, now Statistics Poland].Kobieta w Polsce. Warszawa; 1968.
- Kempisty, Czesław. Wyniki socjo-medycznych badań potomstwa byłych więźniów obozów hitlerowskich. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1973: 12–30.
- Panasewicz, Józef. Niektóre zagadnienia naukowe z zakresu patologii wojennej i patogenezy chorób z deportacji. Pamiętnik II Krajowego Zjazdu Lekarzy ZBoWiD. Warszawa: PZWL; 1969: 3–17.
- Rauschning, Hermann. Gespräche mit Hitler, Zürich, Wien, and New York: Europa Verlag; 1940.
- Vielrose, Egon. Wyniki badań nad płodnością kobiet w Polsce. Warszawa: PWN; 1967.
- Vuletić, Silvije. Płodność kobiet w Chorwacji. Badania socjologiczne w medycynie. Magdalena Sokołowska (ed.). Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza; 1969.
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