Why women stopped menstruating upon arrival at Nazi death camps

Credit: Karsten Winegart

In a study from the University of Ottawa, scientists found out why women stopped menstruating upon arrival at Nazi death camps.

The horrific toll of the Holocaust, with its crimes against humanity amid the state-sponsored mass murder campaign that killed six million Jews and millions of others during World War II, has been scrutinized in numerous academic studies, books, films, and other works over the decades.

But one aspect of the extreme cruelty and suffering during this rock-bottom point of human history was never fully examined:

Why did roughly 98% of women imprisoned at Nazi concentration camps experience amenorrhea—or the absence of menstruation—shortly after their arrival?

In the study, the team suggests the sudden cessation of menstruation among Jewish women at concentration camps was too uniform to be affected only by trauma and malnutrition, a set of explanations readily accepted by the late 1940s.

They suggest synthetic steroids were being administered in the daily rations given to female captives in a bid to stop their menstrual cycles and perhaps impair their ability to have children altogether.

Evidence for the theory put forth by the team is backed up by interviews with female Holocaust survivors across the globe.

From 2018 to 2021, they conducted interviews with survivors in four languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, English and French.

Ultimately, 93 complete testimonies were collected from female survivors—their average age 92½—or their offspring who could provide complete reproductive histories for the survivors.

The Holocaust survivors told the team they suspected that something in their food rations caused them to suddenly stop menstruating at the camps.

One woman, who had worked in the kitchen at Auschwitz for months when she was a teenager, even described packets of chemicals that were brought each day under armed guard and dissolved into foul soups the female captives were fed so that “women don’t get their periods.”

This narrative of tainted rations is corroborated by findings in a 1969 report that questioned cooks at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.

There was a long-term impact on the survivors. Nearly all the interviewed women—98%—were unable to conceive or carry to term their desired number of children.

The findings report that of 197 confirmed pregnancies, at least 48 (24.4%) ended in miscarriages, 13 (6.6%) in stillbirths and 136 (69.0%) in live births.

The rates of primary infertility, secondary infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth were disturbingly high and not in keeping with the general population.

The team says the sex steroids, which would have produced immediate amenorrhea, existed in abundance at the time in Germany during the WWII era.

This is not a well-known fact. In contrast, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only approved a hormonal birth control pill in 1960.

The study was conducted by Dr. Peggy J. Kleinplatz et al and published in Social Science & Medicine.

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