The International School for Holocaust Studies
"They Each Made a Difference"
Teaching about Women and Resistance
By Yael G. Weinstock
In defining resistance during the Holocaust, we see a wide range of acts that directly or indirectly defied Nazi laws, policies, or ideology. Such activities always endangered the lives of those engaged in it, and were taken by both non-Jews and Jews, by men and women. The Final Solution did not distinguish between men and women, however women experienced the degradation and humiliation differently, and are therefore worth studying as a separate group.
Under Nazi domination, women sometimes benefited from the stereotypes perpetuated by Nazi ideology, which relegated women to the spheres of child rearing, the home, and religion. The still extant stereotype of the passive, homebound wife dominated by her husband sometimes prevented Nazis from immediately suspecting women of “subversive” activities that did not fit this stereotype. In addition, Jewish women often had more contact with non-Jewish neighbors and were therefore slightly more familiar with Christian mores, which facilitated their assuming a false identity. For these reasons, and others, women were able to resist the Nazis in different ways than men, both spiritually and physically.
Women played an important role in various resistance activities. This was especially the case for women who were involved in Socialist, Communist, or Zionist youth movements. In Poland, women served as couriers who brought information to the ghettos. Many women escaped to the forests of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union and served in armed partisan units. Women even played an important role in the French (and French-Jewish) resistance. Some women survived the Holocaust to tell remarkable stories of heroism, determination, and courage. Most, however, were murdered by the Nazis; their stories of resistance have become their legacy.
Teaching about women specifically, and how they resisted during the Holocaust provides a new angle in approaching the topic of the Holocaust in the classroom. This subject can be addressed in terms of gender roles during the Holocaust or general resistance against the Nazis. It can also be categorized by spiritual resistance and armed resistance, or by non-Jewish women and Jewish women.
Some women were leaders or members of ghetto resistance organizations, such as Haika Grosman in Bialystok. Others engaged in resistance inside the concentration camps. In Auschwitz I, five Jewish women deployed at the Vistula-Union-Metal Works detachment – Ala Gertner, Regina Safirsztajn (aka Safir), Ester Wajcblum, Roza Robota, and one unidentified woman, possibly Fejga Segal – had supplied the gunpowder that members of the Jewish Sonderkommando (Special Detachment) at Auschwitz-Birkenau used to blow up a gas chamber and kill several SS men during the uprising in October 1944.
Other women were active in the aid and rescue operations of the Jews in German-occupied Europe. Among them were Jewish parachutist Hannah Szenes and Zionist activist Gisi Fleischmann. Szenes parachuted into Hungary in 1944. Fleischmann, the leader of the Working Group (Pracovna Skupina) operating within the framework of the Jewish council in Bratislava, attempted to halt the deportations of Jews from Slovakia.
There are many sources that can be used to learn about these heroic women, and following is a small selection of materials available on this topic.
Mothers, Sisters, Resisters, edited by Brana Gurewitsch, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998.
The third section of this book contains interviews of women who resisted the Nazis in different forms. These women felt the need to do something, however small, to resist the Nazi evil. The oral histories in this section include interviews with non-Jewish women such as Emilie Schindler (the wife of Oskar Schindler) who worked hand-in-hand with her husband in setting up the factory that protected 1,200 Jews, and used her connections and strong will to provide for those Jews until the end of the war. It also includes Jewish women such as Gertrud Groag who persisted in establishing improvised nursing facilities to care mainly for Jewish children in her town. Zenia Malecki and her father smuggled food and guns into the ghetto to prepare for possible physical resistance in Vilna. Eight women are highlighted in this book as resisters, each with several pages telling their story, and accompanying photographs. In the classroom, this lends itself well to group work, or to individual projects on these individual women and on types of resistance during the Holocaust. Learn more about this book in our Featured Books section.
Outwitting the Gestapo, by Lucie Aubrac, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
This book tells the story of one Catholic woman, Lucie Aubrac, married to a Jew, as she chronicles nine months of activity in the French Resistance, from May 1943 to February 1944. Told in the first-person, this is a primary source that introduces students to one person’s experiences, can be used as a lesson is using diaries and memoirs for research, and as a tool for learning about resistance in general. Divided by date, the book may also be divided for purposes of group work.
Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust, by Michael Phayer and Eva Fleischner, Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1997.
This relatively short book (143 pages) sheds light on rescue by Catholic women. Each of the first seven chapters focuses on the story of one rescuer, and the final chapter on the general question of rescuers making a difference. While gentile rescuers faced different circumstances than Jews who resisted, it is nonetheless important to take note of the unique place of women as resisters, and the fact that people of varied faiths felt this an important endeavor.
Women and the Holocaust, edited by Esther Fuchs.
A more academic piece, this book contains a few articles on the topic of women and resistance that can be used with the higher grades. One article discusses the choices that women made regarding pregnancy and birth, issues specific to women, and ones which they had control over whilst in concentration camps.
The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, by Rochelle G. Saidel.
Ravensbruck was the only Nazi concentration camp for women. Drawing upon more than sixty interviews and testimonies of survivors, this book examines the prisoners’ thoughts about food, friendships, fears, hygiene issues, punishment, and resistance.
Teaching students about the Holocaust can be a daunting task, and it is helpful if the subject is broken down into manageable categories. In addition, it is important to spend time focusing on Jews who resisted the Nazis as best they could given the degrading, humiliating, and dire circumstances. They strove to live despite the horrors they faced, and that choice is worth teaching and discussing. Furthermore, the non-Jews who risked their lives to defy the totalitarian dictatorship that occupied their countries are examples of extraordinarily brave moral behavior. Different forms of resistance stemmed from different experiences, some of which were explicitly gender-based. Looking at how women reacted and resisted the Nazis can broaden students’ perspective of the human story within the Holocaust, approaching this tragedy from a new perspective.