On the Wikipedia page Jewish Women in the Holocaust, it says:

Of the estimated six million Jews who were killed1 during the Holocaust, 2 million of them were women.2

Conversely, this means that approximately 4 million Jewish men died in the Holocaust. Even if this statistic does not include the females among the 1.5 million Jewish children killed during the Holocaust (whom I'd think it odd not to include), that would still leave about 2.5 million men killed.

This was very surprising for me to read as I have heard much about how Jewish men were often able to survive the war by doing hard labor, but have never heard of the Nazis ever sparing jewish women, or mechanisms by which they could increase their chance of survival relative to men. Given that this was a genocide against a largely civilian population, it seems that men's much higher rate of military service would not be relevant.

Are there any known mechanisms by which this happened, or any known large-scale killings of Jews that targeted only men?

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    I don't see a large discrepancy here. If you remove the 1.5 million children, you have a ratio of 2.5 million men to 2 million women. A quick look for sex ratios at birth (US statistics however) shows there is often an 'excess' male population. – justCal Jan 20 '20 at 2:00
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    Doesn't the Wikipedia article give an explanation? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Allure Jan 20 '20 at 3:20
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    @justCal Do the maths. The sex ratios at birth gives about 5% more boys than girls. That comes to about 2.1 million men to 2 million women. So this effect is to small by a factor of 5 to explain the difference. – quarague Jan 20 '20 at 14:13
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    @justCal In the chart you linked the male excess varies between 4.5% and 6% over a period of 60 years. To use the difference in sex ratios at birth to explain the difference here, one would need an excess of around 25%. The difference at birth might explain some part of the difference, but the effect is just to small to be the major or dominant reason. – quarague Jan 20 '20 at 16:35
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    This paper addressing the gender issue may be relevant. (Upshot: While there is a gender bias in who was deported and who survived, difference should not be that large.) – 0range Jan 20 '20 at 19:20

Short Answer

There is no straightforward answer here. Some factors aided the survival of women, others the survival of men, but it is plausible that those factors favouring women outweighed those favouring men. In short, the relative advantages held by women included:

  • initially, only men were targeted for extermination
  • in the rounding up of victims, Jewish men were more easily identifiable then Jewish women
  • women had better survival strategies in the camps than men.

Relative advantages held by men included:

  • Jewish families felt that men were more at risk and thus greater attempts were made to hide them and to help them emigrate
  • men with young children were less vulnerable than women with young children; the latter were targeted for immediate extermination, as were pregnant women.

In considering these factors, it is important to note that they are at best only partly quantifiable. Further, as pointed out by Will and Moishe Kohen, the total number of victims has an error margin. This error margin comes at least close to equaling (and at times exceeds) the difference between the number of adult male and adult female victims cited in Wikipedia. Also, significant differences in the estimates of the number children murdered further underline the uncertainty concerning the 2 million women estimate given by Wikipedia.


The picture is somewhat complicated by a number of variables which worked against men in some cases but against women in others. On the one hand,

Biological, psychological, sociological, and other differences left women at times more vulnerable to beatings, rape, forced abortions, and exploitation. Women with children were often killed first.

while on the other hand,

women’s differences also gave them certain advantages for survival. Because circumcision did not reveal their Jewishness, women could pass as non-Jewish more readily. Women coped with hunger differently and often provided mutual support to each other in the unsanitary and overcrowded camps.

The Jewish Women's Archive article Women in the Holocaust also outlines some of these variables which, in the early stages of the war, worked more against men than women.

One difference was the initial targeting of Jewish men for arrest and incarceration— in both Western and Eastern Europe. In Germany, for example, in the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, only Jewish men (some thirty thousand of them) were arrested and only Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

Similarly, in the early days of the war in Poland, Jewish men were much more likely to be harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Men were also more likely to be executed in the systematic targeting of community leaders. A typical example was the fate of the first members of the Lodz Judenrat: all except Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877–1944) were murdered. In many other cases the Germans targeted the traditional Jewish leaders—such as rabbis—for humiliation and murder to terrorize the rest of the population.

Similarly, in Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, the order to liquidate all Jewish men was given some two months before women and children were also targeted. However,

As the war progressed, it became clear that German brutality was not confined to men.

In particular, in the camps pregnant women and women with young children were targeted for immediate extermination. Other women were used for slave labour so a pregnant woman would either have to abort or somehow hide her pregnancy if she were to survive as a labourer. Perhaps counterbalancing this brutally exploited vulnerability that women had is that men were probably more likely to die doing forced labour, in part because many were doing hard labour.

It has also been argued that, in Eastern Europe, Jewish women were more 'acculturated" and that this gave them an advantage during the war:

Out of economic necessity, more Jewish women in Eastern Europe assumed responsibility for contributing to the support of their households and more of them actively participated in the secular and economic sphere. As Celia Heller and others have shown, in many families, especially middle-class families, it was the women who were the “engines of acculturation,” bringing Polish culture into the home and introducing it to their children.

This greater acculturation of Jewish women in Eastern Europe provided them with important skills and contacts during the Nazi era. Because Jewish girls were more likely than Jewish boys to attend regular Polish schools, learn the Polish language and become involved in secular activities, they had contacts for securing false papers, trading clothes and food, locating jobs and finding a place to hide or live (illegally) outside the ghetto. This was evident among Jews who passed on the Aryan side.

On the other hand, Jewish families perceived that their menfolk were more likely to be targeted by the Nazis and went to greater efforts to hide them and to help them emigrate. For example,

One vivid example of the extent to which families believed it was only the men who were in danger—and therefore marshaled their resources to save them—is provided by the arrest statistics from Paris on “Black Thursday,” July 16, 1942....Because it was assumed that women and children were safe, they remained at home and thus turned out to be the disproportionate victims of the sweeping arrests. On that day 5,802 women and 4,051 children were arrested (compared with 3,031 men) and they were also disproportionately represented in the subsequent deportations to Auschwitz.

Once inside camps, though, it appears that women had better coping strategies than men, and this gave them a greater chance of survival. For example,

the formation of “Camp Sister” relationships in which two women supported and sustained each other like sisters, by sharing food and other resources, trying to protect each other from threats and assaults, and taking care of one another when one became sick. This was especially important during roll call when women were required to stand for hours on end and those who were sick needed a camp sister to hold them up.

In short, it's a complicated, but the above is not necessarily inconsistent with the overall statistics cited in Wikipedia. The difference (2.5 mil vs. 2 mil as per justcal's comment) is not so large that it can't be explained by the circumstances favouring women's survival outweighing those of men by a fairly small degree. Note also that the differences in the estimates of total numbers killed further complicates the overall picture. The Wikipedia numbers have to be treated with caution; none of the academic sources cited here (nor any of the others I've looked at) give a gender breakdown. Dalia Ofer, in The Holocaust Encyclopedia (cited in Moishe Kohan's answer) asserts that more than half of the holocaust victims were women, but this seems unlikely unless she is including female children, or not considering children at all (unlikely), or is using 'victims' in a much broader sense than just deaths.

The variable estimates are also evident for children, with from 1 to 1.5 million cited by Zoe Waxman and "more than 1.2 million" cited by Projetaladin, while Wikipedia's Children in the Holocaust gives 1.5 million. Given the uncertainty over the numbers of children murdered, it seems unlikely that those for women can be stated with any more certainty.

However, it seems reasonable to surmise that, initially, the proportion of men murdered far exceeded that of women, but that the gap narrowed as the exterminations came to include all Jews from around mid-August 1941.

Other sources:

SHOAH Resource Center (UN.org)

Jenny Piasecki, 'The Experiences of Jewish Women in the Holocaust' (2001) (link downloads pdf)

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    In other words, there was an initial bias against men/for women, and the war didn't go on long enough for the other biases for men/against women to balance out or overtake it. Compare for example flipping coins. If you force the first ten results a Head, then the eleventh a Tail, and then carry on normally, your results will look weird until you've done enough flips to hide the initial bias. – Nij Jan 20 '20 at 9:53
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    @Nij I think that's a fair summary of what happened (and you've expressed it more clearly than I managed!). – Lars Bosteen Jan 20 '20 at 12:54
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    It's only possible to summarise accurately when provided a thorough explanation of the issue and facts available. Feel free to include the text of that comment in your answer, to whatever extent it might help. @LarsBosteen – Nij Jan 21 '20 at 1:32
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    @RonJohn if your goal is genocide, it would make more sense to get rid of military aged men first so that they won't be a detriment to your "efforts" for long. Not to say women, children and elderly wouldn't put up a fight, but it would take longer for them to train and organize. – Maciej Stachowski Jan 21 '20 at 9:49
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    @RonJohn: Gun control wasn't a given; gun laws were poorly enforced for a long time leading up to the Holocaust, with quite a few guns left over from the WW1 days and before (before a decade-long "total ban" on gun ownership that was poorly enforced, and rescinded in favor of registration in 1928, 10 years before the ban on Jewish gun ownership was passed in 1938). And that's in Germany proper; Jews in the countries they invaded weren't subject to German laws until after the invasion, and often had access to firearms. – ShadowRanger Jan 21 '20 at 21:07

The numbers cited are not an adequate basis on which to estimate the relative numbers of men and women who were killed.

The "2 million" figure referred to in the referenced Wikipedia article is sourced from Hedgepeth, Sonja (2010). Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust p.16.

This source itself presents the figure as a quotation from Ruth Bondy, who remarked, in a lecture she gave at the conference "Women and the Holocaust: Gender Issues in Holocaust Research," September 5-7, 2005, Beit Berl, Beit Terezin, and Beit Lohamei Hagettaot, Israel, while discussing the subject of sexual molestation of women during the Holocaust (emphasis added is mine):

Everything in me is outraged at the mention of this concept. It was [done] for hunger. They did not do this for the sake of the small amount of food they would get for themselves but for their husbands and their children . . . The theme of sexuality during the Holocaust has been blown out of all proportion dating from the time of Ka-Tzetnik. This subject attracts far more attention than that of the slaughter but is inconsequential compared with all that happened. If two million Jewish women were murdered during the Holocaust, sexual molestation was the lot of a few but violence was the lot of the many.

I think two things are clear from this quotation:

  1. The speaker did have adult Jewish women, as distinct from female Jewish children, in mind when referring to this number, because she was doing so to make a point illustrative of the context of experiences specific to adult Jewish women, not one about the demographic breakdown of the death toll of the Holocaust as a whole.
  2. The figure cited asserts no degree of precision higher than the first significant figure. To cite a more precise figure would have interrupted the rhetorical flow of her lecture without adding anything of value to the point she was making. So even if the number of children you cite is suitable to subtract from the total number to conclude that exactly 4.5 million adults were killed (and I haven't checked the sourcing for this), a 50:50 balance between male and female victims would still amount to 2.25 million women killed, which Bondy could quite justifiably have referred to as "two million" in the context she did without being guilty of misrepresenting the facts.

Notwithstanding the clear qualitative differences in how men and women did experience the Holocaust as detailed in Lars Bosteen's answer, if numbers killed are to be compared directly then such a comparison would have to be based on sources appropriate for such an analysis.

  • Thank you for clarifying the source wikipedia used – Kornja Jan 22 '20 at 4:21

This is not an answer but is too long for a comment. Here is what the Yad Vashem, a Holocaust Museum in Israel, says about the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust:

There is no precise figure for the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The figure commonly used is the six million quoted by Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS official. All the serious research confirms that the number of victims was between five and six million. Early calculations range from 5.1 million (Professor Raul Hilberg) to 5.95 million (Jacob Leschinsky). More recent research, by Professor Yisrael Gutman and Dr. Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, estimates the Jewish losses at 5.59–5.86 million, and a study headed by Dr. Wolfgang Benz presents a range from 5.29 million to six million.

The main sources for these statistics are comparisons of prewar censuses with postwar censuses and population estimates. Nazi documentation containing partial data on various deportations and murders is also used. We estimate that Yad Vashem currently has somewhat more than 4.7 million names of victims that are accessible. This figure is based primarily on some two million and a half Pages of Testimony, which often contain information about more than one Jew who perished in the Holocaust. As of early June 1999, more than 1.6 million Pages of Testimony had been computerized. In addition, we have thousands of documents containing names from the Holocaust era, many of which are those of victims. This body of documentation has yet to be fully researched and added to our computerized database. Eventually we hope, through our computerization project, to provide as much information as possible about each victim.

The references they give, I think, are:

  1. Wolfgang Benz, Dimension des Völkermords. Die Zahl der jüdischen Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. 1996

  2. Israel Gutman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (4 Volumes). 1990

  3. Robert Rozett (Ed.), Shmuel Spector, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. 2009

I looked briefly at the parts of these books available in Google books, but did not notice a gender breakdown.

I checked another source, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, Eds. Judith Tydor Baumel, Walter Laqueur. 2001.

On page 354 they say:

More than half of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were women...

The higher death rate among Jewish women than Jewish men in Eastern Europe has to do with other factors than the slight prevalence of women in the ghettos. Men were more useful to Nazi goals—such as to meet the need for heavy physical labor—so their deaths were sometimes delayed. Most women with small children were immediately sent to the gas chambers, as the children were nearly useless to the Nazis, and the commotion that separating the women and children might have caused would have jeopardized the orderly killing process. Women were singled out for so-called medical experiments in contraception and fertility.

However, they do not provide any further references for this estimate (more than half).

If you are sufficiently motivated, you can get access to the books 1-3 above through your library and try to find out if either one contains a detailed gender breakdown of victims. Until then, I suggest you disregard the number supplied by the linked Wikipedia article as a very rough estimate, insufficient to make/test any conjectures.

  • and then there's the POWs. men were conscripted, women weren't. – Genli Ai Jan 21 '20 at 16:47
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    @GenliAi: I am not taking sides in the argument on the gender breakdown of Holocaust victims. My point is that (a) better references to serious demographic studies (such as items 1, 2, 3 above) are needed before one can make any conjectures, (b) some estimates in the literature (such as the one in the book by Baumel et al) contradict OP's assumptions. As far as I am concerned, one can make convincing arguments for all three incompatible statements regarding the gender breakdown: M>F, F<M, and M=F (within the current margin of error). – Moishe Kohan Jan 21 '20 at 18:00
  • Ok that does muddy up the arithmetic even more. So maybe not much can be said with what's out there – Kornja Jan 22 '20 at 4:23
  • @Kornja: I would not be so pessimistic, as I said, it requires one to go to a library and get the right book, the answer (at least an estimate) might be there. One thing I am sure about is that one cannot trust a number (especially a round one) not supported by a reference to a serious demographic study. – Moishe Kohan Jan 22 '20 at 20:38

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