Spots of Light - Women in the Holocaust



At this time of darkness, there was an extraordinary need for signs of normalcy. One such sign was creating art. Some cultural endeavors, such as concerts, operas, cabarets, and dramatic performances, were public social activities that included an audience. Others, such as writing and painting, were intimate. Both types were practiced on very large scales.

Women were active participants in this phenomenon. They performed in concerts and plays in ghettos and camps. In the domain of painting—at least as measured in the extent of material found—women were a minority, as they had been before the war. Writing of prose, insofar as is known, was not widespread beyond material that was produced for performances. Women, mainly young women, kept diaries. Parts of these diaries and in some cases entire diaries may be considered quality prose; sometimes they are important as historical documentation. Women members of the staff of historians at Ringelblum’s archive in Warsaw played an active role in documenting the ghetto. Poetry was written much more intensively and much evidence of it, including many poems by women, survived. Women were also represented in art forms that were relatively new at the time, such as photography. Even though very few Jews took pictures during the Holocaust, several women photographers documented what they saw and even did so officially in the service of the partisans or the resistance.

Most artistic endeavors, as stated, were an expression of a psychological and social need. In this sense, the artists may be likened to children who busied themselves at play. In both cases, an imperative of survival was involved, a source of oxygen amidst suffocation. Anything that one could use to express one’s pain or, in contrast, the use of laughter and irony to escape reality, provided a vehicle that people grasped and used to express the essence of their talents. In certain cases, artistic talents even abetted women’s physical survival. The case of the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz is the best known, but there were others. Sometimes a woman’s prowess in painting or writing gave her a slight advantage in her confrontation with the murderers, who asked her to produce a portrait of them for their families or to write a letter to someone they loved. In return, the victim received a brief respite from her ordeal and, at times, some consideration in the form of food and the like. The Jewish public, too, was occasionally willing to offer consideration for various artistic acts.

Women’s artistic creativity is manifested in each and every segment of this exhibition by the use of unique materials to portray the relevant themes that they represent: paintings, photographs, and poems created by women that illustrated various themes from that time, such as motherhood and work. The theme of women’s writing during the events and their after-the-fact composition of memoirs is given special emphasis. Notably, women’s writing is an important way to expose very grim aspects of their lives that visual media such as photographs or paintings cannot reveal.