About a million and a half children perished in the Holocaust. Each of them had parents who stood by helplessly, unable to avert his or her murder. The murderers also identified the mothers as closely bonded with children and treated them accordingly. The fate reserved for mothers was integrated with that decreed for the children—death, of course.
One of the initial dilemmas that the family faced was how to find a hiding place, especially for the children, while it was still possible. Arranging a hiding places for a child was a complicated, expensive, and relatively uncommon process. Parents could not marshal the psychological will to take such a step, knowing that they would never see their child again, unless they sensed that the alternative was death. Since such an insight was difficult to internalize, many parents did not surrender their children to others even when they could have done so.
In the ghettos, mothers were preoccupied with daily survival, mainly in providing food and maintaining hygiene in order to stave off illness. Pregnant mothers wished to abort in most cases, knowing that they could not feed and care for the newborn with the rest of the family barely hanging on. Even so, here and there the very ubiquity of death infused women with the wish to create new life. Later on, the Nazis forbade pregnancy; any woman who became pregnant risked immediate murder or deportation to the death camps. Since contraceptives did not exist, women became pregnant anyway and their fate was sealed unless some means of abortion was available.
When the Nazis employed the method of murder by gunfire at killing pits, the entire population was taken and murdered together, usually after men women and children had been forced to undress. In some cases, however, men were led away separately and women and children were murdered in their absence.
Mothers of children in selection queues may have been the only ones to whom the murderers offered a choice—that of going to death with their children. Even there, however, at moments of difficulty unparalleled in human history, children were sometimes torn from the arms of the few women who were selected for lives of slavery and were handed to grandmothers or to those next to them and went with them to their deaths.
As a rule, there were no children in the camps. Pregnant women sometimes attempted to conceal their condition and in a few cases managed to abort. Births were almost unknown in the camps, and such children as were born were murdered by the Nazis or put to death by their mothers or other women. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, experiments in the sterilization of women and men were performed for the purpose of subsequent mass sterilization of elements that the Nazis wished to render childless.
Amidst all this violent terror, women found the mental fortitude to continue loving their children, caring for them until the moment of death and making decisions about their fate that people until that time had never had to confront. Some mothers, impelled by the survival instinct, made decisions or took actions that clashed with the accepted social norms that govern the mother-child relationship. They were driven to this by the immense distress that had been imposed on them: after spending months if not years struggling for their lives and those of their family members, their strength failed them. Other mothers, however, elected to die with their children even though they could have chosen differently—and this, too, was a choice that is not always comprehensible in ordinary times.