The Auschwitz concentration camp was one of the most horrific places ever conceived of by man--a place of constant torture. The experience was uniquely terrible for women, who were forced into some of the most unimaginable of circumstances. Even years later, the mothers who survived couldn't escape the memory.
Women in Auschwitz, Podcast Transcription
[00:00:01] Produced by PI Media
[00:00:06] From Tova Berger, an Auschwitz survivors, quote:
"They told us to get undressed and they shaved us. They shaved my beautiful blonde hair and my two sisters' hair and we were standing naked before the soldiers and for me it was a shock because I was a religious girl. I never was undressed in front of a man and they made all kind[s] of dirty jokes about our bodies and they looked at us and I was standing there shivering, naked, without hair on my body, and I was exposed. I felt like an animal... and the way they treated us already there was so terrible, then I said, "Where is G-d? Where is G-d?..."
[00:00:44] Hi, I'm Nate Nelson. Welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. The Auschwitz concentration camp was an absolutely horrific place where terrible acts were committed against innocent Jews. But the experience was not the same for everybody. Children and the elderly were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Men of able body were put to hard labor, toiling day and night. For the women who weren't immediately killed upon arrival, life in Auschwitz was uniquely punishing. For those like Tova, for example, shaved and stripped for the entertainment of Nazi guards. This is especially true for mothers. In today's episode, Dr. Na'ama Shik, researcher and director of the E-Learning Department at Yad Vashem speaks about the particular experience shared by women held in Auschwitz.
[00:01:41] Dr. Shik, hello. We're all familiar, at least to some extent, with the atrocities that occurred at Auschwitz. But can you talk about how the camp was experienced differently by men and by women?
[00:01:53] One of the main differences was during the selection. Men, women, and children who arrived to the camp, they came from ghettos from other places like Western Europe and other parts of Europe. They arrived after the very short imprisonment in transit camp. And while arriving to the camp, they were immediately separated by the Germans. So we have these two columns. One of them is men and a younger men until the age of 16, and the other column contain women and children. More women and children were murdered in Auschwitz than men. And I can say that the answer to the question, why is it embedded actually in Nazi ideology, because children under the age of 16 were sent immediately to the gas chambers and where men and women above the age, usually of 45, we're not considered fit to work and they were sent also to the gas chambers. Why women and children were murdered more than men in Auschwitz? Children were perceived to be, of course, by the Nazis, as the next Jewish generation, so they were not allowed to live. And women mainly between the ages of 20 to 40 were considered to be the next Jewish generation because they can, if in the German perspective, God forbid, they will survive, they will be able to bring more Jewish children to the world. And also embedded in Nazi ideology is a form of sexism, which sees in women, I would say, less of a work power. They were considered to be less good, less effective work power. Because of this, we can say that more women are being sent to the gas chambers. What we can also see is that since the midst of 1943, the Germans are doing kind of, I would say, even though it sounds horrible and it is horrible, kind of, I would say ideological discount for them. And because they were losing in the front, mainly in the eastern front, and they needed more work power, they actually did this kind of ideological change. And they entered, they decided that they need more work power and more women would enter to the camp as prisoners in order to serve, I can say as work power. But the thing was that at this stage that mothers were first, that these mothers, the young mothers between the age of 20 to 40, were sent immediately with their children, most of the time to the gas chambers. In many cases, they were forcibly separated from their children. And here we are having for women, actually, I can say, when we're talking about the camps, kind of the first time, when they encountered this what is called 'choiceless choices'. This is a term that was coined, I can say, by an American scholar, Lawrence Langer, exactly when he was talking about these dilemmas in the Holocaust. And he termed them 'choiceless choices' and when talking about these women, there were not exactly given the choice to stay with their children or not to stay with their children. In many cases, their children were turned away from them forcibly. In other cases, they would keep on a hearing from the Germans and from prisoners who were standing on the ramp: "Give the children to the old people". We have it in so many testimonies, in so many memoirs. This ongoing horrible sentences. "Give the children to the old people" and the Germans in many ways were very, I can say, good psychologists. And they were forced to say to the new arrivers: you've arrived to a work camp in the east, you will see your children later, you will meet your husbands and brothers later. If they would have said the truth, which actually the truth was at that stage, that in two hours most, the majority, of your family and most of the transport which just arrived will be gone, will be dead, will be murdered, they would – these prisoners, if they (Germans) would say the truth, taken by the German immediately and shot quietly behind the train, which just arrived. But many of them tried to save the life of the mothers in many times. They were actually approaching the mothers and telling them in different languages: "Give the children to the old people" or "Give the children to your mother". This is in many perspective, this is a survival strategy because what they are actually doing, they knew, of course, the Jewish children will not live in Auschwitz. They also knew that these young women have a chance to enter the camp as prisoners and may be a chance to survive. They are trying to help them by risking their life. And in most of the cases, Jewish mothers, even they didn't know, of course, that they are in an extermination camp and that the separation from the children means that they are being sent, that the children are being sent to murder and they will enter the camp as prisoners. But most of these mothers didn't leave the children. And if they had a choice, they went with their children. In many cases, they didn't have a choice. In one of the cases, for example, Esther Goldstein. She arrives to Auschwitz from Carpathian Ruthenia, from our perspective, is Hungary at that time. And it is June, 1944. And she arrives with her three sisters and they're arriving to Auschwitz. And of course, the men and the women are being separated. And they are standing in column in front of the German doctor, SS doctor who is performing the selection. It's always a German doctor out of the perception that a doctor or an M.D. doctor will be able to decide, I will say, in a second who is fit for work and who isn't fit for work. And Esther and her sisters are standing there. And Piri, one of her sisters, she has two children. One of them is Dina. She is a baby. She is a 13-month-old baby. And she is holding her in her arms and her second child, her oldest child, his name is Eli and he is five. And he is actually holding her skirt in the way children are holding, I would say, their mother's skirts, especially when they're afraid. It's something that we don't talk often when we talk about the Holocaust, about the fear. But it was, it was really, really frightening, especially when thinking about these young children and the SS doctor who is asking Piri if the older woman who was standing behind her is her mother and she is saying, yes, she is my mother. And he's saying: well, give your children to your mother. And she's saying: no, they are mine. I mean, I'm not going to give them to anyone. And they begin to argue. And, you know, many times we are talking about heroism, we think about the heroic, of course, uprising or Warsaw ghetto. And we think about our about weapon and about partisans with guns, we don't always think about what I can call daily life heroism and heroism, which is performed by, I can say, you know, regular people, just people. And she is standing there and she is arguing with this SS doctor, which is just something, of course, never heard of. And she's standing in the midst of Birkenau at that stage, surrounded by Germans with their dogs, with their weapons. And she is arguing with him and he is calling one of the prisoners who is standing there. And he's calling this prisoner and he tells him that he thinks that maybe in Yiddish, maybe she would understand better. And he's ordering the prisoner to approach Piri and to tell her to give the children to her mom. And this is what the prisoner is doing and is also adding in Yiddish, which he hopes that the German doesn't fully understand. And he added: If you want to live, give your children to your mother. And she's saying to him, too: these are my children. I'm not going to give them to anyone. And eventually what happened is that the German doctor is, he's getting very furious, and he is like forcibly separating, between Piri and her children. And the four sisters are entering the camp. The children are, of course, being taken to the gas chamber on the same day and being murdered there.
[00:11:44] What happens to the mother after that?
[00:11:47] What is Esther telling in her testimony after the Holocaust that the three sisters were keep on struggling in the camp trying to keep Piri alive because after she lost her children, she didn't want to live anymore. And she kept on trying to commit suicide by running to electric fence in the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eventually the four of them survived. But of course, when we are talking about this, what we can call this is 'reverse worlds'. Okay, when a woman, when a mother kind of has to choose between her life and her children's life. And she is forced to be separated from her children and she's losing her two children. This is this is something which, of course, nobody can forget this trauma. And the question is, of course, how do you live after that with this trauma?
[00:12:47] And in addition to the psychological torture, there is also immense physical toil for the Auschwitz prisoners. In what ways were the physical conditions of Auschwitz experienced differently by men and women?
[00:12:59] We can think immediately, and this is logically, of course, about the monthly period and about pregnancies and also, I would say, about forms of abuse, other abuses that women suffer from them more than men. If I'm talking about the monthly period, as I was saying, most of the women who enter the camp as prisoners, were between the ages of 16 to 40, and most of them, of course, still have their period. Almost all of them lost it. It says, it stopped usually two or three weeks after entering the camp, mainly because the combination of the shock and of the malnutrition that was in the camp. And we can see, I would say, a dual approach to it. The women keep on talking about, among themselves. And we have a few interesting, interesting and touching things that… Mainly, they are happy. Kind of happy that they don't have their period anymore cause there are no hygienic conditions in the camp. There is, there's a woman, as they're saying, keep on saying, can't take care of her own hygiene. And so, in a way, it's a relief. Also, the fact that the Germans sometimes, when they were actually unlucky women whom their monthly period did not stop and some of them, the Germans would actually, beat them to death just because they were what they call in German "verfluchte Jude", it was like "filthy Jew", and they were beating them to death. So we can see that in most of the cases, they are saying, OK, it's good that we don't have our period because we can't take care of it. But from the adult perspective, again, they keep on talking among themselves about this fear, this huge fear that if they will survive, maybe because they don't have their period for such a long time and maybe they will not be able to have children after the Holocaust if they will survive. And this is this is a huge fear. There is also interesting thing about it about this losing the period, because many survivors were thinking that the Germans enter, put actually, bromide or other or other chemicals into their food in order to stop the menstruation and in order that if they will survive, there will not be able to have children anymore. This is not right. I mean, it's not correct. The Germans didn't have to put anything in their food, the menstruations stopped. But this is the thing that's female survivors and prisoners at that time will keep on thinking that the Germans are doing it.
[00:16:24] How did the fate of the mother affect their fate upon arrival at the camp?
[00:16:28] Jewish pregnant women who arrived to the camp and were sent immediately upon arrival in the selection to the gas chambers. Unlike non-Jewish women, there were in Auschwitz, there were also non-Jewish women prisoners. There were Polish women, political prisoners, there were Sinti and Roma gypsy woman. And there were German political (prisoners) women who were imprisoned into camp. These non-Jewish women who were pregnant until 1943, they were murdered like Jewish women. After 1943, they were not murdered. And after a few months, they were also allowed…they were not only allowed to give birth, but also their babies were not murdered immediately. In most cases, these children did not survive. Going back to Jewish women and because Nazi ideology, of course, Jewish women were for the entire period of the camp's existence, were murdered, if they were pregnant immediately upon arrival. We do know about a few hundred Jewish women and probably there were more, but we guess that most of them, that these other women did not survive or they didn't give testimony after the Holocaust. But we know about, about hundreds of women, Jewish women who managed to enter the camp even though they were pregnant. And the question, of course, is how? The answer is kind of simple, kind of simple, okay, because all of them were in the very early stages of the pregnancy and you couldn't see the pregnancy. But then the question is, so how come they didn't say that they were pregnant? Because many times the German asked: are there any pregnant women among you? The answer will be that some of them didn't know they were pregnant. The pregnancy was in its very early stages. Others knew that they were pregnant even it was very early stage of the pregnancy. But they knew that they were pregnant. But I think that kind of out of intuition or maybe they thought that even if this is a work camp and not an extermination camp, we've talked about this deception process. They still thought that it wouldn't be the brightest idea to declare that they were pregnant. Of course, that eventually the pregnancy was discovered by the Germans. And the fate of a Jewish pregnant, of pregnant Jewish women in the camp was, actually, it was bad or worse. Bad would be, she was sent, she was murdered or in the gas chambers, or in other ways, usually very cruel. The worst situation was that when these women gave birth and the Germans knew or discovered the fact they gave birth, in many cases they were actually also torturing the newborn and the mother in different ways. Either it will be what they termed as medical experiments or other abuses. In order to prevent, I think, this suffering and in order to try and save at least the mothers, again, we are talking about what was termed as I was saying, 'choiceless choices' - it's not a choice between good and good. Okay. It's a choice, many times when bad and worse. And in order to save at least the mothers, we have a phenomenon of Jewish doctors and Jewish midwives. And it's important to note here, they were prisoners as every other female prisoner in the camp. They were not, what we can say, privileged prisoners. They were just prisoners in the camp who risk their life in order to save these mothers.
[00:21:06] Can you give me an example of how this occurred? I'm thinking specifically about the story of Ruth Elias. Could you share with our listeners who she was?
[00:21:22] She was a Jewish woman. She was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. She was sent with her family to the Theresienstadt ghetto and from the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1943, at the end of 1943, she was sent to Auschwitz. She was 21, almost 22. And she got married in the Theresienstadt ghetto. And she arrived to Auschwitz pregnant. She was in a very early stage and she was a prisoner in Auschwitz and she couldn't find anyone who would perform an abortion on her. And eventually she gave birth to a baby, to a baby girl in one of the blocks in Birkenau. And Mengele was one of the SS doctors who are performing what was called medical experiments. He performed them on twins, on people who had one green eye and one blue eye and also on pregnant women. And he decided to do this kind of horrible, of course, medical experiment, which had nothing with medicine and experiments, of course. And he kind of decided how long a Jewish baby will survive with no eating. And he did it. And, of course, the baby…The baby suffers horribly and Ruth, her mom suffers horribly and eventually a medical doctor, a Jewish medical doctor who was a prisoner in the camp, too, she heard about the suffering. And she managed to obtain by risking her life, a morphine injection. And she came to Ruth, to Ruth's block again by risking her life. We are not often asking the question, I would say, about goodness, you know, when we talk about the Holocaust and think about the Holocaust, we often, of course, asking the question about bad and about the question how is it humanly possible we don't often ask the question. Not that they have to answer about good acts and about people who are risking their life for other people, for strangers. And this Dr. Maca Steinberg is managing, she's a prisoner. She is managing to obtain this morphine injection. And secretly, she's coming to Ruth and she's talking to her. And Ruth is describing and she's saying: she talks, she talks to me with an angel's voice. And she told me that I have to live. My baby will not live. That was the reality of Auschwitz and that I have to redeem, she was using the phrase 'the baby from her suffering' and Ruth is saying that she said to the doctor, to this Jewish prisoner doctor: what do you want me to do, she said, do you want me to kill my baby? And the doctor was saying: I took the Hippocratic Oath, I can't kill, I have to save. I'm a medical doctor and I have to at least I have to save you. Cause if the baby will keep on suffering and Mengele will keep on doing it until you and your baby will die. She speaks to Ruth for hours and eventually Ruth is injecting this morphine to her baby, redeeming her from, her suffering. There isn't any other expression for it.
[00:25:10] Doctor Shik, these are honestly some of the most disheartening stories I've ever heard in my life. What becomes of a human being after going through such experiences?
[00:25:21] These are experiences, of course, that nobody can forget or put behind you. You are keep on living. I would say after this Ruth, Ruth kept on leaving. She survived the Holocaust, she immigrated to Israel and, she brought, she remarried and she has two sons. And, you know, she kind of, what we can say, of course, returned to life, but we can't forget. And she of course, did not forget. And also the doctors, who are doing and what are they doing in Auschwitz, did never forget. There was a very interesting research which was done about, it was kind of, that the researchers, psychologists were checking nightmares. They were comparing between male nightmares camp survivor and female nightmares, female who survived the camp. And this gender differences came along. It was amazing. You could see that men who were camp survivors kept on talking about this ongoing nightmare, or repeating nightmare, which was around, I can say, starvation, it was around hunger. They will keep on describing, like Primo Levi describes it so beautifully, I would say, in his amazing book, if this is a man he was talking about, this nightmare that you have, you are very, very hungry. You are starving, and you have in front of you a table which is full with food. And you, like him and other prisoners, are kind of approaching this table in order to have this food. And something is always happening before they are eating. Someone is coming and taking the food, the table is collapsing, they are awake or something happens or they never get to eat is a very specific, horrible nightmare. Most of the men were talking about their nightmares, will talk or recall starvation. Women will again, generally speaking, will dream and their nightmares will be about the horrible, the horrible hygienic condition, about the fact that you can't take care of your own body or on a hygienic condition and that you are feeling very, I would say, a stranger to yourself and disgusted by yourself. So this is, for example, gender differences. The most striking and beautiful thing to see is that most of the women, as the men, close to the men, are rebuilding their life. They are choosing to live after the Holocaust. And there is a choice here. We were talking about 'choiceless choices' during the Holocaust. And we can see after the Holocaust, the choice to live, the choice to live a life which are not, I would say, kind of instrumental life, like waking up in the morning. I'm going to work. I'm just living the life because I'm living, okay, because I'm an organ. No, there is a choice of life, the choice to re-love, to re-trust, to regain the trust in human beings and in humanities. The choice, the choice to be happy. The choice to trust, the choice to regain, I would say, your innocence and the way you perceive the world. That was done by Holocaust survivors. It took a lot of courage, a lot of effort, but it was done. And it's beautiful, because we can say that most of Holocaust survivors are rebuilding their life in a positive, beautiful, I would say, a loving away.
[00:29:40] Thank you, Dr. Shik, for describing some of what it was like to be a woman in the Auschwitz concentration camps. This has been "On the Holocaust", a podcast from Yad Vashem. Thank you for listening.