Women in the Holocaust | International Women’s Day 08 March 2019
“While the Nazis viewed all Jewish people as unworthy of life and targeted them for death “along the stations towards extinction… each gender lived its own journey.”
– Mary Felsteiner
International Women’s Day will fall on Friday 08 March 2019. While the experiences of women and men during the Holocaust were similar in many ways, they were not the same. In many instances, a person’s experience was shaped by their gender. Just as with groups who were targeted for their religious and ethnic backgrounds, or their political affiliations, gender identification brought with it specific repercussions.
In 2017, Dr Zoë Waxman published Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History. She outlines how gender could influence a person’s chances of survival. When it came to camp selections, pregnant women; those with young children and those deemed not strong enough for hard labour, were more likely to be sent to the gas chambers.
Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J, Weitzman was published in 1999. It gathers the work of Holocaust historians, sociologists and literary experts who explore the examples of gender differences during the Holocaust. Their introductory essay highlights the gender-based roles women and men had in society before the Holocaust and how these roles informed all aspects of their lives. Women held a secondary position to men, one that was viewed as weaker and passive, a belief held by the Nazis. This led Jewish communities to believe that men were in greater danger as they were more valuable, and so a greater focus was placed on developing strategies to protect men in Jewish communities. This belief was given credence by the different work regulations the Nazis put in place for women and men.
For many women, their femininity was a fundamental aspect of their personality. The use of make-up, wearing high heeled shoes, adorning their camp uniforms with decorative beads or material were all done to allow women to feel like themselves in an impossible situation. It boosted morale in the ghettos and camps and pushed them to survive. Caretaking and homemaking skills, personal hygiene, hair and make-up, were all skills and resources that women used, even in the most basic and simple of ways to strengthen their will to cope and survive with the material conditions they lived in.
An article by Stefanie Gerdes in 2015 for Gay Star News, asked about the experience of lesbian women. For lesbian women, the experience of life in Nazi Germany was different from that of gay men. Gay men were identified and systematically persecuted because of their sexuality. They were forced to wear an identifying pink triangle on camp uniforms. Lesbian women were regarded as “asocial” (beggars, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, pacifists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roma and Sinti), people who did not conform to the Nazi “norms” and were imprisoned on this basis rather than because of their sexuality. The Nazis dismissed them as a threat because they believed they could still be useful; they could still carry out their primary role of having children and so could serve the Nazi state. When women were needed to increase the numbers of the workforce, they faced economic discrimination by being forced to work low-paying jobs. Lesbians were affected in particular as they were generally unmarried and could not rely on a husband’s income for support.
In 1939, a concentration camp for women was established north of Berlin called Ravensbrück concentration camp. Between 1939 and 1945, 130,000 women had been held in the camp. Women from Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds were sent here, including the women classified by the Nazis as “asocial”. Many of the guards who worked at the camp were also women. As journalist Sara Helm recounts in her book, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, there were many heroic figures among the prisoners in Ravensbrück. Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, a Soviet POW, who encouraged her fellow POWS to reject offers of preferential treatment from the guards and who also sabotaged the military equipment they were forced to make in a plant near the camp. Elsa Krug, a prostitute, held power in the camp as a kapo (supervisor of other inmates). She worked in the kitchen supplies cellar and was able to smuggle out much-needed food for others. She disobeyed orders to beat her fellow inmates and was sent to the gas chambers as a result of this.
Many women were involved in various resistance activities. They acted as couriers who brought information to the ghettos and were active in ghetto resistance organisations. They served in armed partisan units in the forests of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union and were involved in aid and rescue missions of Jews in German-occupied Europe. During the revolt of the Jewish Sonderkommando in Auschwitz in October 1944, five Jewish women deployed at the Vistula-Union-Metal Works detachment supplied gunpowder used to blow up one of the gas chambers and kill several SS men.
The Holocaust is largely incomprehensible to imagine. When we try to understand what happened during these years and how people lived, we need to look at all people who were the victims of Nazi atrocities. This means taking time to explore the narratives of all groups affected. By presenting the experiences of women in the Holocaust in our research and in our conversations about the subject, we are giving a more complete account of what occurred.
There is a lot more to be said about the varying roles women held during the Holocaust. Holocaust Education Trust Ireland would recommend further reading of the personal testimonies of women from this time. United States Holocaust Memorial, USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem are all excellent resources with testimonies, photographs and video interviews in their online archives. There are numerous female scholars and experts who have written about this subject including Deborah Lipstadt, Deborah Dwork and Doris L. Bergin.
“… The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to the Jewish woman in the war. She will take up an important page in Jewish history for her courage and steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times.”
Information for this article drawn from these sources:
Women in The Holocaust: A Feminist History; Waxman, Zoë (Oxford University Press, 2017)
Women in The Holocaust; Ofer, Dalia; Weitzman, Lenore J. (Yale University Press, 1999)
Spots of Light: Women and the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/women-in-the-holocaust/womanhood/index.asp
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lesbians and the Third Reich. Holocaust Encyclopaedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lesbians-and-the-third-reich
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Women During the Holocaust. Holocaust Encyclopaedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/women-during-the-holocaust
What happened to gay women during the Holocaust? Gay Star News,
Life Inside the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women; Helm, Sara. Review by Karen Iris Tucker https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/04/remembering-the-lesbians-prostitutes-and-resisters-of-ravensbruck-concentration-camp.html