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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Continuation and Renewed Role of the Jewish Wife and Mother

Wartime Warsaw as a Test Case

By Ms. Rinat Maagan-Ginovker


In the period between the two world wars, the typical Jewish family in Poland – as in any society – was influenced by many factors. According to an article by Dalia Ofer and Linor Weizman, the lives of Jewish men and women before the war were conducted according to traditionally defined models. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the majority of Jewish families, similar to that of non-Jewish families, married men were responsible for financially supporting the family. Women, even those who studied a trade or worked in the family business, were responsible for household tasks and for the care of the children. Since the family and the home fell under the responsibility of the woman, and public life was limited to that of the man, this is a good opportunity to discuss the activities and characteristics of women and their influence on the family. Notably, the traditional roles of women and men provided each gender with different experiences, different social networks, and granted them different areas of knowledge, skills, and qualifications, all of which they used during the war.

Were the effects of war felt every day? Were there ever “normal” routine days during the war? Even with their problems, routine days continued, albeit with different emphases considering the wartime situation. Indeed, there was no way to escape day-to-day life, because the cycle of life continued.

The Roles of Women: Cecelia Slepak's Study

It is possible to find a connection between the roles of women in the years prior to war, and the roles of women during the war. However, it is important to point out that these roles changed and widened with the onset of war. Many women were forced to take on the financial burden of the family and look for work outside of the home and not within their small family businesses. This was in addition to the traditional role of maintaining the home, which became increasingly difficult. Many girls of the period attested to the capability of women to adapt in the Warsaw Ghetto and painstakingly search for work in order to support their families, including risking their lives to smuggle food and other goods. During this period, there was a great level of courage, ingenuity, and perseverance, which was remarkable, considering the unprecedented pressures. The responsibility to fulfill their traditional roles was difficult, and yet women were motivated to fill their long days with exhausting work, to assemble items to sell, to try and divide the small amount of food allotted to them, disregarding their hunger, and needing to cope with diseases in the ghetto. In these examples, we find a natural broadening in their traditional roles as mothers.

Throughout 1941, Emanuel Ringelblum, founder of the archive “Oneg Shabbat,” commissioned Cecelia Slepak, a journalist and translator, to conduct research on Jewish women in the Warsaw Ghetto. For the purpose of obtaining a broad study, Slepak chose women from different social standings, varied levels of education, and different professions, including some who worked solely in the home. The first purpose of the study, which was conducted from December 1941 to June 1942 (until the large deportation of Jews to Treblinka), was to understand the metamorphosis that occurred among women from the beginning of the war and during different stages of the establishment of the ghetto, until the spring of 1942. Slepak conducted interviews based on questions about these women’s lives before the war, their daily lives after the Nazi invasion, and at the center of the interview were questions that touched upon transfer to the ghetto, the influence of the ghetto on their daily lives, and on the struggle for survival. This study exhibits the voices of women in 2 ways:

  1. The study is centered around interviews with women.
  2. The interpretation of the study was done by a woman.

For example, there is the story of Mrs. Kar, one of the women who Slepak interviewed. Mrs. Kar was a greengrocer by profession. Before the war, she owned a stall in the open-marketplace, and together with her husband, who made leather coats, they supported their family of four in a three-room apartment. With the outbreak of war, their apartment was bombed and destroyed. Since the couple had no way to rent a new apartment, they lived in the kitchen of her brother’s apartment, presuming that they would be able to rent an apartment again, once they saved enough money. During this period, her husband lost his workshop and tried his luck in commerce. He did not have much luck and returned home, stayed with the children and switched places with his wife to do the household chores, so she could support the family. Mrs. Kar worked in a vegetable stall in the market, but due to a lack of vegetables, she was forced to join her sisters who had a fish stall. Mrs. Kar and her sisters worked hard, from the break of dawn until curfew, and she was happy that she could successfully support her family.

This story provides us with an example of the ever-broadening role of women during the Holocaust. Mrs. Kar worked both before the Nazi occupation, and until she became the sole supporter of her family. From Slepak’s research and from additional testimony collected by people who worked in the archive “Oneg Shabbat,” we learn that women in the ghetto were varied and essentially connected to the burden of livelihood. Following, are some examples of the fields in which women worked in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Women's Fields of Work in the Warsaw Ghetto

According to Ringelblum’s theory, many women sold the contents of their homes in exchange for food. Some women interviewed by Slepak conducted this exchange immediately after being moved into the ghetto, and some waited until a bit later. One such example is that of a woman known as “F,” whose husband was a shoemaker who sold shoes both before and after the Nazi occupation. Since her husband became ill, “F” began selling her household goods, even though the marketplace was flooded with similar items and the demand was low. However, at the beginning of 1941 she became pregnant and understood that selling these items would not earn enough money to support and raise a child, so she entered the “business” of smuggling.

Women also minimally supported themselves and their families by selling candies and cigarettes in stores and on the street. Trade of this type posed the threat of theft, or of informants telling the authorities which could result in death. There was an additional danger in obtaining merchandise. For this, the women needed to go to the Aryan side. When women left the gates of the ghetto or the surrounding area in order to acquire merchandise to be sold in the ghetto, they relied on their previous connections with Poles, which was critical to their success but was also dangerous.

During the German invasion of Poland, ghetto residents were provided a minimal amount of food per person (approximately 184 calories per day in December, 1941). Since the allotted amount of food was not enough to sustain a person, some food in the ghetto was obtained via smuggling. It was thought that the smugglers were divided into two groups: organized smugglers (mainly criminals) and independent smugglers. However, Slepak points out that there was also a third group of smugglers, namely women, who smuggled food in quantities to feed their families.

Professional Occupations
Out of the sixteen women Slepak interviewed, six were educated. This was a high percentage relative to the population of women in the ghetto. Two women were dieticians, one was a nurse and a sex-education teacher, another woman was a librarian, one an agronomist, and the final woman was a philologist. Some of these women used their education and professions during the first three years of the war, when a public kitchen was opened and a children’s library was established.

Additionally, different diaries note the important place of women in the field of medicine, mainly as nurses. Since her arrival in Warsaw, the interviewee who worked in agriculture took over part of the organization Toporol that dealt in agricultural training, and was chosen to be head of the agricultural school for youth that worked in small gardens established in the ghetto, in order to grow vegetables.

Factory Work
A large part of the population in the ghetto worked in the weapons factory, in “shops,” and other factories that were under German supervision. The workers produced different products such as clothes for the army and the German market, leather goods, furniture, and other wood items. The conditions and the pay were difficult and awful, even with the relatively good compensation of bread, soup, and coffee, allotted to workers there. Such factories were also relatively safe from the “actions” that began in July, 1942. Working hours were from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and a significant amount of factory workers were women. For example, women comprised 80% of the workforce in the undergarment factory. One can only imagine the many hardships that a mother in the ghetto was forced to endure. Beyond the difficult labor, she had to cope with the continuous anxiety plaguing her family and a lack of certainty regarding their fate during her long work hours. In addition to these difficulties, she also had to cope with little to no time with her children and family. Dalia Ofer notes that most of the women explained that they were able to manage these difficulties because of the strong ties they had with their families and their desire to protect their husband and children. Raquel Hodara adds that the women’s will to be mothers pushed them to work.

Family Unity for Stability and Security

Even as they fulfilled their new roles, the traditional female roles of being a wife, mother, and caregiver, still remained central. Together with this, and despite the burden imposed on women and mothers to fulfill their duties, this continuity was used as an anchor for relative stability in their lives. Family unity provided the basis for fulfillment of life and the continuity of Judaism. Honoring parents, educating children, obligations to relatives, the sacred home – these were factors that provided stability and security for the individual. In dangerous times, the Jewish family became a sanctuary of strength, of comfort, and of ethical strength. Together with this, when we analyze the role of the Jewish wife and mother, it must be taken into account that the traditional duty of worrying about food, education, etc., received renewed meaning, and the tragic times during the war created changed family relationships.

  • Dalia Ofer, “Her View Through My Lens: Cecilia Slepak Studies Women in the Warsaw Ghetto,” originally published in Hebrew in Yalkut Moreshet, 75 (April 2003), pp. 111-130.
  • Raquel Hodara, “The Polish Jewish Woman from the Beginning of the Occupation to the Deportation to the Ghettos,” Yad Vashem Studies XXXII, Yad Vashem, pp. 397-432.
  • Dalia Ofer, “Cohesion and Rupture: The Jewish Family in East European Ghettos during the Holocaust,” Coping with Life and Death, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Dalia Ofer, “Gender Issues in Diaries and Testimonies of the Ghetto,” Women in the Holocaust, ed. Dalia Ofer & Lenore J. Weitzman, New York: Ballou Press, 1998.
  • Paula E. Hyman. The Jewish Family: Myths and Reality, ed. Steven M. Cohen & Paula E. Hyman, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986. Cited from the book's afterword.
  • Paula E. Hyman, ”Gender and the Jewish Family in Modern Europe,” Women in the Holocaust, ed. Dalia Ofer & Lenore J. Weitzman, New York: Ballou Press, 1998.
  • דליה עופר ולינור ג. וייצמן, "תפקיד המגדר בחקר השואה", ילקוט מורשת ס"ז, אפריל 1999.
  • דן מכמן, "חיי היום-יום של היהודי הדתי בתקופת השואה". חיי יום יום בתקופת השואה, מאסף י'. (חיפה: אוניברסיטת חיפה, 1993).
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