Spots of Light - Women in the Holocaust

Everyday Life


The Holocaust occurred in Europe in many different countries, in many different languages, and under the conditions that typified each and every area at different times. As a part of World War II, it was influenced by the events of the war. Equally, however, it was a phenomenon in and of itself, linked not necessarily to the war but rather to the Nazi ideology and Antisemitism on the part of the collaborators that was also grounded in economic expediency.

Accordingly, the Holocaust was different in every geographical area and in every country. Still, it had many characteristics that ran through all these places like a thread. The historian Saul Friedländer stated that the history of the Holocaust can be written only through the prism of personal stories. Indeed, since our inquiry concerns the victim and not the murderer, very little original documentation remains and one must rely mainly on memoir documentation—especially when it comes to women. Contemporaneous visual material is scanty and the little that exists deals mainly with public events. To explore matters that occurred at the intimate level, at the whispering level that underlies the mass events, we have to base ourselves mainly on works of art that were created during the time, on writing, and, foremost, on personal memoirs.

Even these, however, elicit only an incomplete picture of what happened. We are denied the full picture for various reasons. One of the main reasons is that people tended to conceal matters of sexual assault, abuse, and other topics that—in the survivors’ opinion—would not be received understandingly by a society that lives under reasonable norms. Instead, the victims preferred to recount historical events and places where they had been. Let us bear in mind that in the Holocaust, sexual abuses of various kinds were manifestations of the ghastly violence that lined the road to death. In any event, such matters lay on the fringes of the violence and were not widespread, especially since the Nazis’ racial laws prohibited sexual contact with Jews.

Thus, the phenomena shared by most localities were the social expulsion of Jews, ghettoization (foremost in Eastern Europe), and abuse and mass murder by gunfire and in death and labor camps. In their attempts to survive the events of 1933–1945, women underwent physical and psychological ordeals that resembled nothing that they had known before the war. They found various ways to cope with the grim reality, mainly by developing physical and mental survival mechanisms. An important mechanism in resisting the surrounding inhumanity was human contact in its various forms—especially with family members and friends but also with any human being. It was this that gave them the “strength to live” even when only death awaited them.

In the ghettos, women’s main pursuits concerned food, social life, and education. In the camps, they performed all types of grueling labor, including the manufacture of equipment, weapons, and munitions for the German army.

This exhibition describes, in addition to various aspects of daily life, several mechanisms that supplied the victims with “air to breathe” in their struggle for survival. Examples are companionship, food recipes, and various kinds of creative and cultural activity—all of which cut broad swathes through the themes of the Holocaust.

Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, New York: HarperCollins, 1998.