On International Women’s Day, I want to share some insights about why it’s so important to study the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives who were caught in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. Many of these women exhibited unprecedented bravery, pluck, and daring. Theirs is a type of courage we don’t always recognize as courage – but we should.
The first question is whether it’s legitimate to study women in the Holocaust, since it’s clear that the Final Solution was meant to apply to all Jews without regard to their gender. I contend that it is. One of the goals of Echoes and Reflections is to tell the human story – to give the victims back their identities and their faces and to create empathy for them. We do this by bringing the overwhelming and anonymous statistic of six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust down to the story of one victim at a time. While Jewish women were intended by the Nazis to share the same fate as Jewish men, their experiences along the way to death were not always the same. Often their ordeals were shaped by their roles as mothers or daughters, or colored by their female sensitivities. As such, examining women’s experiences creates a more finely nuanced understanding of the human story of the Holocaust.
According to traditional prewar gender patterns, women were responsible for their homes and for the well-being of their families and needs of their children. But in a world where brutal persecution, ghettoization, dehumanization, and finally, extermination, shattered the life they had known, women were preoccupied with basic daily survival. How were they to provide food for their families, maintain hygiene, and stave off illness in the midst of mass starvation, catastrophic overcrowding, and pervasive filth?
Amazingly, as the chaos escalated in the ghettos and the camps, women found the mental and spiritual fortitude to continue loving their families and caring for their children. Some deprived themselves of food so that their children would not go hungry. Others smuggled food into ghettos, risking their lives, to the same end. Women were confronted with inhuman and impossible dilemmas: should they give up their own children, flesh of their flesh, to strangers who were not Jewish on the tiny chance that the child might survive? Should they continue to care for their older parents who would clearly be deported, or strike out on their own in hopes of staying alive, leaving their parents to their fates?
Women displayed humor, courage, and incredible initiative. They played a unique and important role in various resistance activities as fighters and as couriers. Since they were able to masquerade as non-Jews more easily than male Jews (who were doomed by signs of circumcision), they were able to move from ghetto to ghetto, bringing with them news, weapons, and many times, hope. Some escaped to forests and served in partisan units. The only armed uprising in the history of Auschwitz was made possible by a handful of incredible, fearless women who smuggled gunpowder into Birkenau with which primitive bombs were made.
A story close to my heart is the story of one woman in rural Poland who refused to passively accept the death the Germans planned for her. She hid her family in haystacks in the Polish countryside rather than be herded onto a cattle car speeding towards the death camp of Belzec. When the weather turned too cold to remain outside in the fields, she turned for help to a Polish farmer named Stanislaw Grocholski who miraculously agreed to hide her entire family – 8 adults and 7 young children – in his attic. And when her baby, on the verge of starvation, endangered the rest of the family by crying, she made a decision that no young mother should ever have to make: in the middle of a dark night she left her baby on the steps of the local Church, hoping that someone would have the heart to care for her. The decision took a tremendous toll on her for the rest of her life, but protected her family – most of them survived. That extraordinarily courageous woman was my grandmother, Tsivia Engelberg.
This is one deeply personal story out of many, but for me it expresses the importance of examining the unique experiences of women in the Holocaust, to see how they behaved, reacted, and fought to resist. For me, their stories redefine courage and give inspiration to us all.
Sheryl Ochayon currently serves as the Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at Yad Vashem.