Spots of Light: Women in the Holocaust

The Holocaust was a watershed event in human history – an act of murder and violence that the Nazis and their accomplices unleashed against the Jewish people. Death awaited all who professed the Jewish faith, and the path to this denouement was paved with ghastly violence. In certain respects, however, women, men, and children followed different paths to death.

In this exhibition we attempt to reveal the human story that lurks behind the historical account of what happened. Within this story, we chose to tell about the Jewish victims and create space for the unique voice of the women among them.

More than two million women were murdered in the Holocaust. The Nazi ideology viewed women generally as agents of fertility. Accordingly, it identified the Jewish woman as an element that must be exterminated in order to thwart the rise of future generations. For these reasons, the Nazis treated women as prime targets for annihilation in the Holocaust. Jewish women inhabited a society that was largely conservative and patriarchal, with males as heads of household and women discharging traditional roles at home or helping to make a living. Accordingly, women did not participate in the leadership that was tasked with shepherding the Jewish public. Instead, Jewish women assumed the main family role that one may term the “affirmation of life”: the attempt to survive in any situation.

It is not our purpose in this exhibition to retell what the Nazis and their accomplices did to women, except to the minimum extent needed. Instead, we emphasize the actions and responses of Jewish women to the situation. The visitor should bear in mind that the event at issue elevated human malevolence to pinnacles that, viewed comprehensively, seem unparalleled. Accordingly, the range of women’s responses to this evil, which was turned against them with all its violence, was broad and diverse. In our opinion, these responses defy judgment even when they are incomprehensible and unacceptable under the cultural norms of our daily lives, because we must always remember the glaringly extreme situations in which these women lived during the Holocaust.

We group the responses by themes. Some of the responses were individual; others turn out to have been typical of many women. Children grew up very quickly during the Holocaust. By the ghettoization phase, young girls assumed the roles of adult women. By the same token, many of the elderly had already gone to their eternal rest by that time and those who remained were murdered when the ghettos were liquidated. Accordingly, the main emphasis in this exhibition is on the adult woman: women old enough to make decisions and committed to caring for groups of people around them. Women of this age were torn between dual commitments: to their families—husbands and children—and to their elderly parents. Often they also assumed responsibility for needy population groups. For the most part, they looked out for themselves in only the most extreme cases, acting on what one may term instinct and not as a consequence of their personalities.

One of the situations that typified the initial phases of the war, foremost in Eastern Europe, was the mobilization of men for forced labor or their escape to the east. This happened due to the widely held belief that the occupation endangered men but would not affect women and children. In both cases and in others that followed—such as flight to the forests or, in certain instances, the murder of men—many women remained alone with children and elderly, and it was they who constituted much of the ghetto population in subsequent stages.

Even when men remained, their inability to continue serving as breadwinners often left them psychologically shattered and impaired their traditional role as heads of household. As a result, the women took upon themselves the duties of obtaining food for their households and assuring a minimum level of family functioning despite the grim situation. The explanation for this shouldering of responsibility was their ability, acquired due to their traditional family roles, to function in situations of existential pressure. Furthermore, they attributed no importance to the notion of self-respect; instead, the goal of keeping the family fed and maintaining basic hygiene became their motive force. Sometimes, as one may see, this made them much, much stronger.

Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who documented the Warsaw ghetto, commented about this: “... The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to the Jewish woman in the war. She will take up an important page in Jewish history for her courage and steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times.”

The identification of woman with children, both by the surroundings and by the women themselves, became a motive force but also delivered them to extermination together.

Women who survived the annihilation campaign and became part of the Nazis’ slave-labor force entered the world of the camps. There, usually in women-only camps that offered their inmates a life expectancy of approximately three months, they attempted to rehabilitate their psychological identities after having been deprived of all the ingredients of individualism, family, and life culture that had made up their prior identity. In these “other planets,” administered under rules that the human mind refuses to comprehend, women attempted to survive by establishing human contact with other women in what has been called “alternative families.” The tie that bound them was a craving for life no matter what.

Women in the Holocaust applied their minds to a place that deprived them of their minds; brought strength to a place where they had no strength. And in a place where they and their families had no right to live, they marched all the way to death and invested every additional moment of life with meaning.
It is these women’s voices that we wish to sound and whose stories to tell.