Women are identified with caring for others. The origins of this identification lie in the perception of women as those responsible for care of the family, a perception that is broadened to include others. As such, it was legitimate even when the society was patriarchal.
Women discharged a range of functions during the pre-Holocaust period. They helped to support the household, sometimes even as sole breadwinners. They assumed roles that entailed academic attainments, such as doctors and nurses, social workers, and university lecturers. Most working women, however, were kindergarten teachers, schoolteachers, shopkeepers, childcare providers, cooks, seamstresses, and the like. Few women had economic power and none, to be sure, were among the leaders of European Jewry. Even in settings that allowed women to rise to key positions as a matter of course, such as the Zionist Movement or the youth movements, women in the leadership echelons were few and far between.
This behavior pattern persisted during the Holocaust; one may even say that it expanded. Almost all women had to work, either to support their families or in German factories under Nazi duress. During the ghetto period, women accepted miscellaneous jobs that came their way, but many sought public functions that involved helping and caring for others.
Some had performed such tasks before the Holocaust as well, but many others utilized the skills they had acquired as housewives and extended them to community activity. Women managed public kitchens, ran children’s homes, and built networks for care of the elderly. They served as teachers and caregivers for children whose parents had been deported or mobilized for forced labor. Women cared for other women who were no longer able to care for themselves and their families. They worked as doctors and nurses in the ghettos, with the partisans, and in the camps.
At a certain point, some who had lost their families found some consolation in caring for others. They risked their lives and health by treating contagious patients and children in hiding places. Many went to their death with the children although they could have been saved. They toiled from morning to night as the situation deteriorated with each passing moment, not allowing their physical weakness to abate their efforts.
All of this notwithstanding, they were not able to attain key positions in the communities. The few women who served on the Judenräte held caregiving posts. The same may be said about those who had already attained unique positions. A woman who had been ordained to the rabbinate, for example, became a social worker in Terezin. On the other hand, the resistance put the image of woman as caregiver to practical use: when women were tasked with transferring resistance materials from place to place, they disguised themselves as social workers who were involved in child care. Their role, however important, did not help to improve others’ behavior toward them. Among the partisans, for example—a movement that assigned women an inferior status to begin with because few of them were fighters—had to mop floors, wash men’s laundry, and endure sexual harassment even if they established hospitals, performed surgery, and engaged in other lifesaving actions.