Spots of Light - Women in the Holocaust



There is no contrast more glaring than that between Holocaust and womanhood. The Nazis aimed to deprive the Jews of their lives; the Jews tried to survive. The struggle was waged around the most basic things: death, life, food, parenting. Things such as womanhood were indulgences at such times. Nevertheless, femininity among women was a basic component of personality. Even at the most difficult moments, they kept themselves busy at this, too. An affront to womanhood was an affront to themselves as complete human beings. By removing women’s hair, including body hair, at Auschwitz, the Nazis deconstructed their personalities. When the women exited the so-called “sauna,” they had to marshal all their inner forces and reconstruct their personalities so that they could feel like people.

Womanhood in the Holocaust meant, primarily, affronts to womanhood as part of the general violence that paved the road to death. The Nazis and their collaborators perpetrated this affront deliberately. Although the racial laws forbade sexual contact between Nazis and the victims, there were plenty of ways to attack women without raping them: total undressing in public places, touching of bodies, and beatings. In the camps, selections in the nude were daily fare. One way of breaking the Jewish population’s spirit was to allow local mobs to riot before the Nazis entered. When this took place, it included the raping of Jewish women. Germans also indulged in rape whenever they were not afraid of being caught by their commanders. Others did whatever they could. The Russians also committed mass rape when they liberated the camps, despite the women’s appalling state of health.

Some women used their sexuality to survive or in order to earn a favor—to save a family member, to obtain a slice of bread. From their standpoint, it was just another way to stay alive. Looking good during the Holocaust also carried the meaning of life—before selections, women smeared on their cheeks whatever remained of the rouge that they had safeguarded with extreme care and shared it with their mothers and friends. This makeup became a lifesaver. Hygiene also saved lives. A lice comb in a camp might enable a woman to live, since lice carried disease. At the least, it simply spared her from the terrible itching that embittered the prisoners’ lives. Even after it became impossible to keep one’s clothing and body clean; women continued to try, washing themselves in freezing water if they were fortunate enough to have the opportunity, even in the midst of a harsh European winter.

Nevertheless—when the murderers photographed women in the ghetto, the objects of the picture suddenly tried to look their best, to lift their heads, to look forward, to straighten their hair. A tiny orange bead embellishes a prisoner’s garment. The woman who placed it there did so in order to feel like a person and not to find favor in someone’s eyes or to be pretty. In a photograph of women at the entrance to a camp, a photograph with prisoners arrayed on three sides, women who had been ordinary women until recently, who had committed no crime, were suddenly being photographed as though they were criminals of the vilest sort. How they tied their kerchiefs in order to enhance their appearance. Sometimes a hairpin that they had managed to keep from home held what remained of their hair. In a photograph of the horrific selections, one notices a mother clutching a baby while wearing high-heeled shoes as she is sent to death. What was this woman thinking when she put on those high-heeled shoes before the transport? Were they her only remaining shoes, or did she want to look her best when they would reach her presumed destination? There are thousands of such details.