Spots of Light - Women in the Holocaust



Growing up took place very quickly during the Holocaust. Girls who we would consider very young in terms of age functioned as adult women. The transition sometimes took place within a few days if not hours. From innocence and sheltered childhood in the bosoms of loving families, they were exposed to ghastly violence, severe physical assault, and horrific spectacles of humiliation-of themselves or of those close to them. These girls were often forced to take responsibility for their fate and that of their parents, younger siblings, and others. In many cases parents ceased to function or to be breadwinners. Some girls were sent unaccompanied to places of hiding or refuge. Others remained alone or with younger siblings after their parents had been murdered. They developed survival mechanisms and took their fate in their hands.

Nevertheless, many retained parts of their personalities as young girls in every respect - girls who yearned for a friend who would support them and to whom they could give of themselves. They played together, dreamed about an optimistic future, and experienced first love. They derived strength from memories of home, friends, and the very fact of discovering inner strengths of which they had been unaware. Some of their writings and memoirs indicate that these girls, due to their bond with other girls, regarded at least some parts of this dark era as positive experiences despite the grimness that enveloped them.

By the time they were ghettoized, many young women had already assumed social responsibility by enlisting in underground or social activity, usually via youth movements or similar entities to which they belonged. These activities include diverse large-scale actions such as forwarding information and secret material, actual warfare, care of children as social counselors, and care of the elderly in a variety of social-service mechanisms.

Adult women also needed friends—in the ghetto if they had survived without spouses, in gender-segregated labor camps, or upon the loss of the family that had been their source of strength and support. Usually the connection was with a sole friend but group companionships often occurred as well.

Group companionship in the Holocaust was a phenomenon unique to women. As stated by the historian Judith Baumel־Schwartz it was advantageous to stay “invisible” at this time; a network of friends was some thing that attracted attention. Grouping, however, provided an advantage in terms of the possibilities of support and survival that it facilitated. Small groups, composed of a couple or threesome of friends, relatives, or older women, came together to form large groups that protected a girl or girls younger than them.

Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998.