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The Holocaust Was A Watershed

The Holocaust was a watershed moment in history that witnessed the torture and extermination of more than six millions lives, both men and women. The suffering and persecution experienced by men and women in the Holocaust has often been generalized into a universal experience. But the truth is, gender had a profound impact on how men and women experienced the tragic event, especially in the concentration camps. The female experience refers to the encounters they had with the Nazi regime and the ways they reacted to such treatment. The essay also focuses solely on Jewish women, as their lives were frequently different from that of the non-Jewish women. The focus on the experiences in the Holocaust will be primarily on the events that took place from the period of persecution up till the concentration camps. In recent decades, there has been an increased focus on the female experience during the Holocaust as scholars such as Marion Kaplan and Lenore Weitzman have focused their works on the female experience. However, despite increasing attention, historians still debate the necessity to discuss experiences from the female perspective. Examining women’s experiences in the Holocaust gives us a more detailed understanding of what happened under the Nazi regime as it helps us to think about individuals. The focus on one particular group helps to break down the experience of the victims of the Holocaust thereby contributing to the history of the event. In order to learn from such a historic event, it is necessary to rely on survivor stories and primary documents such as testimonies, oral histories and documents. This essay aims to identify the factors that contributed to men and women having different experiences. In this way, the actions and reactions of women will first be considered in order to explore how Jewish women developed different way of coping in the ghettos and camps. Consequently, the experience of women will be approached from the point of view of women who resisted and survived the harsh treatment of the Nazis. The final section will focus on the experience of women who were violated through sexual abuse within the concentration camps. Thus, the Jewish female experience was different and is necessary in contributing to the history of the Holocaust.

Firstly, in order to determine why the experience of women requires a separate investigation from men, it is necessary to distinguish how and why they were different.

There were several factors that contributed to the differing experiences such as the timing that men were persecuted was much earlier than that of the women. This made the women more determined to survive than the men. Since the start of persecutions, women acted more defensively than the men, to the extent that they began acting in defense of their men. The women had been left to support their families after the departure of the men. This was a strain on them, as they became the sole caretakers of their families. Furthermore, gender segregation was notable during this period. Women were largely excluded from the public sphere including business and politics. Having not worked outside their homes prior to this, women struggled with the new situation that they were faced with. Bronka Klibanski, who was merely in her late teens, had risked her life for the sake of her family’s survival by slipping in and out of the ghetto to smuggle food for her family. This was only one out of the many great sacrifices that women were making in the absence of the men. Women were also being increasingly isolated as they lost their male partners and were also separated from their friends, whom they had spent most of their time with, prior to the persecution of Jews. They lost their connection to friends and faced a dwindling of their sociability. These factors had a vast impact on the experience that the women had as it made them stronger.

It is common to state that mothers were amongst the most commonly persecuted women. However, the experiences of women are not limited to that of mothers. Women were also wives, daughters, sisters and friends. Thus, all these relationships contribute to the accounts of women.

The gender difference was also a result of the Nazi policies that were implemented that were specifically targeted at Jewish women. Nazi persecution accentuates how the victims of the Holocaust responded in gendered ways. The treatment that the women received by the Nazi soldiers, in comparison to the men was harsher. This was largely due to the ideological factors. Women were more despised by the Nazis as they were regarded as the bearers of the next Jewish generation. This prompted a harder process during selection for camps as women were viewed as being a less efficient workforce.

Now that the factors affecting their experiences have been identified, it is necessary to consider the attributes that shaped women’s experience. Women made choices and acted differently from men. This was not merely a result of their biology but also due to their culture. Due to the difference in attitudes, female reactions tended to be different from that of men. Women also had different expectations and priorities than men.

Women were less confrontational than the men and they would rather have avoided conflict by fleeing. When the persecutions first began, women were more interested in emigrating.

Society’s prescribed gender roles affected the survival efforts of women differently from that of the men. Sybil Milton argues that women’s traditional gender roles equipped them with skills that affected their experience. Their traditional roles included carrying out activities such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. These affected the experience of women in the concentration camps, as they were able to cook using recipes that they shared among themselves, as well as cleaning that helped to prevent the spread of diseases and sewing that allowed for the mending of clothes. Women had used their experience of traditional gender roles to cope with their new situations.

Another significant difference in the experience of women relates to their relationship with children. Only women were faced with the decision whether to stay with their children and face their demise, or to leave their young ones behind. The Jewish women that successfully made their way into the camp eventually had to make the choice between their own life and that of their children. This was a conflicting reversal of natural order as a moment of giving life turns into a moment of death, as a mother’s choice to live meant death for the newborn baby. This was a betrayal of their maternal nature.

Ruth Bondy, a survivor of the Holocaust acknowledged that death swept men and women the same way. However, she still dealt with the issue of gender, as she felt that she was not entitled to keep silent on behalf of the women in the Terezin camp. Although women and men may seemingly have undergone similar encounters, they are believed to have related to their experiences and yielded meaning based on their gender. Furthermore, any experience from an individual can contribute to the history of the Holocaust.

Nazi persecution fueled resistance among the Jewish women. They resisted Nazi oppression collectively, with particular individuals who steered the movements. While there were instances of courageous armed uprisings in the ghettos and concentration camps, resistance also took form without weapons in the shape of spiritual resistance. For many, attempting too carry on a semblance of “normal” life in the face of wretched conditions was resistance. They made conscious attempts to preserve the history and communal life of the Jewish people despite Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jews from human memory.

A small minority of women, primarily those who were not mothers or responsible for their families had acted in resistance within the ghettos. They were involved in planning revolts as well as attempting to help their fellow Jewish people escape from the Nazis. Ruth Bondy was a member of the Zionist Fighting Youth. When the Nazis began invading Czechoslovakia, Bondy and her comrades were mobilized to facilitate social activities such as educating people in the ghettos.

Women had a greater tendency to express their resistance by striving for survival. The key to the idea of survival as resistance is the exercising of some choice in their lives. For the women, attempting to carry on some semblance of a “normal” life in the face of the wretched conditions was resistance. Within the ghettos, efforts to maintain a normal life included creating Jewish cultural institutions, continuing to observe religious holidays and rituals, providing education and collecting documentation. In concentration camps, women spiritually resisted persecution by uniting together to support each other in order to survive. This strategy was known as the “Camp Sister”, or the Lagerschwestern, which comprised of women sharing their food and resources as well as protecting one another from the threats and attacks from the Nazis. The camp sisters were a way for the women to keep each other alive. This strategy seems to be a gender-specific coping mechanism. Male friendships were never as significant or bonded as those of the women. Lawrence Langer argues that the relationships between women may have been a result of the different work situations of men and women. This may be true, but it does not eliminate the gendered nature. Women’s vulnerability as well as their sensitivity ensured that they formed friendships that would help them get through the tribulations.

The Jews also engaged in armed resistance, however this was more prominent amongst the men than it was with women. Bronka Klibanski, was a resister in the Bialystok ghetto. She was well known as one of the heroic couriers of the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. She worked with Mordechai Tenenbaum, the leader of the Jewish resistance in the Bialystok ghetto by obtaining critical weapons for the ghetto revolt, gathering intelligence, rescuing other Jews and saving the secret archive of the Bialystok ghetto. She continued her underground activities after the Bialystok ghetto was destroyed, working with a group of five young women from other movements to continue rescuing and helping Jews by smuggling weapons, supplies and medicine to the partisans in the forests near Bialystok. Based on these examples of resistance that women engaged in, their experiences were not completely identical to that of the men.

The conditioned traditional attitudes also made women especially vulnerable to the abuse of their sexuality in the form of rape and their maternal responsibility, which extended to their necessity to kill their own or other women’s children and forced abortion. The body is gender-related as it bears importance as part of the socio-cultural framework. Sexual abuse was a significant difference between the experiences that Jewish women had compared to the men. Although there were men, mainly youths, who suffered from sexual abuse, more women were subjected to sexual exploitation and assaults. The cases of rape may be rare and not a constant threat, but it still contributed to the women’s suffering and psychological harm. A series of memories, Still Alive, written by Ruth Kluger tells her tale of being a young girl whose happy life was destroyed, as she recalled the humiliation and terror that she suffered as a child in the camps. Her experience speaks on behalf of many other women.

This began with the entry process of Jews into the concentration camps. Women were forced to undress and bare themselves in from of male guards. There were SS guards who would deliberately come to watch the women shower and degrade them. This was a humiliating experience for women. Although men had a similar experience, female sensitivity led to more intense humiliation. For many of the women, it was their first time being naked in front of a man, and to be faced with such humiliation was crippling to the women’s sexual identity as well as their self esteems. Even Jewish men were ashamed for their female counterparts who had to undergo such a barbaric process.

Sexual relations between camp prisoners and guards have occasionally been heard of. Survivor testimonies discuss the presence of brothels within the concentration camps. They have also discussed how these acts of sexual abuse were seen as a form of exploitation. The SS guards were trading these sexual acts in exchange for the safety of the women from being gassed. Apart from being exploited for sexual favors, they were also subjected to medical experiments that were conducted on their reproductive organs in order to determine different ways of sterilizing Jewish women. Forced prostitution was also enforced in order to prevent homosexuality among German soldiers as well as to conduct experiments on male gay prisoners.

Despite these testimonies from survivors, scholar and author, Myrna Goldenberg asserts that experiences of rape should not be overemphasized and should instead be contextualized. Although rape was not a norm, it still profoundly affected the experience that women had. Furthermore, sexual abuse extended beyond rape to the biological capacity that women had as mothers.

In terms of biology, women recounted similar themes in their memories. Pregnant women, or even women with small children were automatically sentenced to death upon their arrivals to the concentration camps. Women who were pregnant within the camps had to make the difficult decision of aborting their pregnancies. Some even had their abortions conducted as late as five months into their pregnancies. The act of abandoning their children, even in the extreme and traumatic conditions of the Holocaust, is a difficult situation. It is questionable if this situation should be even termed a choice. The situation was painful for women as they were left with an incurable pain that haunted them throughout their borrowed time. This ‘choice’ was also an overwhelming act of breaking social and personal taboos. Thus, survivors have made little mention of it.

Menstruation was another issue that affected the experience of women. Women were made to cease having their periods upon their admittance into the camps. The lack of menstruation can be deemed a psychological mistreatment on women. If women were caught with bloodstains, they were subjected to being killed, as it did not adhere to the aesthetics of the camps. The loss of menstruation generated the fear of harm to fertility and the ability for women to have children should they survive. It is necessary to acknowledge that women’s experiences were also not uniform as their experience was also determined by their position within the camps. Their conditions were also worsened as a result of fewer of them being able to gain positions of power within the camps. Hence, the experiences of Jewish women as a result of the sexual assaults contributed to the history of the Holocaust as it showed the extent of barbarism of the Nazis.

In conclusion, a gendered analysis of the Holocaust is a crucial step towards understanding the complete experience of what is considered to have been the most horrific event in the history of mankind. The essay has attempted to differentiate the experience of men and women. It is evident through their resistance and the sexual abuse that the women’s experiences were largely different from that of the men, although this cannot and should not be quantified. The most significant experience of women in the concentration camps was in the form of resistance. Even their acts of survival can be regarded as a form of resistance. The analysis does not suggest that women have suffered more or less than the men. Indeed, women and men may have undergone similar experiences, but their gender impacted the way in which they were remembered or related. Each gender encountered unique emotions. However, it does support the conclusion that their experience was different and unique, making it worthy of a separate investigation. Although the essay only focused on the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust, focusing primarily on the concentration camps and ghettos, there is much more to be investigated. This essay attempts to reconstruct the memory of the female Jewish prisoners, in order to reconstruct a more holistic picture of the Jewish experience. Overall, I do not intend to privilege the suffering or survivability of the Jewish women over men. Instead, I aim to raise awareness of the gender specific differences of women’s experiences in the Holocaust. Every Jew, regardless of their gender, was equally a victim of the Holocaust.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.

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