Jewish women in the Holocaust

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Jewish women in the Holocaust refers to women who were Jewish and imprisoned in Europe in Nazi concentration camps or in hiding to prevent capture by the Nazis during the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. Of the estimated six million Jews who were killed[1] during the Holocaust, 2 million of them were women.[2] Jewish women were sexually harassed, yelled at, beaten, were victims of Nazi human experimentations and were brutally murdered.[3] Jewish women as well played a specific role in methods of resistance against Nazi persecution, which is evident through their role in the partisans, where they continued to face gender specific problems.[4]

Female and male comparison[edit]

Some scholars have argued that women were more inclined toward nurturing each other and that this might have posed an advantage to them. However, others have noted that men also created social support networks in the concentration camps. The more social women were with each other, the higher chance they had at survival.[5]:379 An interview (conducted to hear the reflections of women and the Holocaust) of a woman from the Holocaust named Rose described the bonds the women formed:

...[women were] picking each other like monkeys [for lice]…. Never remember seeing the men do it. The minute they had lice they just left it alone; the women have a different instinct. Housewives. We want to clean…. Somehow the men,… the [lice] ate them alive… [During roll call] the women holding each other and keeping each other warm…. Someone puts their arm around and you remember…. Can you imagine how much it meant to us over there! Men were crouching into themselves- maybe five feet apart [Rose demonstrated how the men she saw put their arms around their own bodies, rather than around the next person for warmth]…. I think more women survived…. As much as I saw in Auschwitz, the men were falling like flies. The woman were somehow stronger…. Woman friendship is different than man friendship you see…. We have these motherly instincts, friend instincts more…the men, no…the men didn’t do that. Men were friends there too. They talked to each other but they didn’t, wouldn’t, sell their bread for an apple for the other guy. They wouldn’t sacrifice nothing. See, that was the difference.[5]:380

Disadvantages for women compared to men[edit]

Being Jewish and female during the Holocaust doubled one's vulnerabilities.[6]:80 Women's reproductive abilities came under assault as a result of the genocidal conditions. For example, several women from the Holocaust who wrote memoirs noted that they developed amenorrhea which would ultimately reduce their chances of ever having children.[6]:82 One of the major disadvantages, which coincided with Jewish women's vulnerabilities during the Holocaust, was the possibility of rape.[7] Women were sometimes raped right before being murdered.[6]:83 One SS officer was reported to have, "had the custom of standing at the doorway… and feeling the private parts of the young women entering the gas bunker. There were also instances of SS men of all ranks pushing their fingers into the sexual organs of pretty young women."[6]:84[8]

Despite strict racial and military laws restricting the interaction between Jews and non-Jews, S.S soldiers and police units would rape Jewish women frequently. In fact it was so frequent that it was reported that "50-80% of the S.S troops and police units that operated in Eastern Europe were guilty of sexual abuse towards Jewish women."[9] These soldiers and police officers did this not only for their own sexual pleasure but also to exert their dominance over the Jewish people and dehumanize them. The Jewish people, during the Holocaust, were seen as incapable of human emotion so in many cases women would be raped and then killed in front of their husbands and families. The S.S soldiers and police units would kill the women almost immediately after raping them because the possibility of having a half-Jewish baby was dangerous. In the early 20th century, if a German person had sexual relations with a Jew it was considered Rassenschande (racial defilement) and was punishable by jail or death. The raping was also sometimes ritualistic with S.S units holding drunken parties where the soldiers would go from woman to woman and take turns raping all of them until the women were laying on the floor bleeding. Because the officers and soldiers were all men, Jewish men during the Holocaust didn't face the same risk of being raped as women did.[9]

Childbirth also came as a disadvantage to women's lives when they were in the concentration camps. This disadvantage struck them physically and emotionally. Once labor was over and the baby was born, the women vulnerable to being killed along with their baby. One memoir describes some of the sadistic acts, which were performed among those who were pregnant: "SS men and women amuse themselves by beating pregnant women with clubs and whips, [being] torn by dogs, dragged around by the hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots. Then when [the pregnant Jewish women] collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory – alive."[6]:86 :376

Gender versus identity[edit]

Double jeopardy[edit]

Several Jewish women who wrote their own memoirs reflecting on the Holocaust reported there being a double jeopardy in their everyday lives as prisoners. These vulnerabilities included the biological differences compared to men, gender-specific socialization patterns, and the obligation of being a nurturer.[6]:88 With this said, antisemitism was not the only problem. In her reflection and interview, a Jewish Woman who survived the Holocaust described this double jeopardy: "I had two enemies: Nazis and men."[5]:374 Another account mentions that besides the Nazis, men acted like "animals" too. She said that one day, the SS officers decided to let the men go to the side where the women were. At this point in time, all they wanted to do was have sex.[5]:377 Overall, the experiences that the women faced during the Holocaust were often seen more brutal to their gender rather than their identity (Jew). "Their stories demonstrate shared fears about and experiences of sexual vulnerability as women, not only about mortal danger as Jews."[5]:376

Jewish women and motherhood[edit]

It had been noted that major disparities between mother and father figures were caused by the gender roles of Jewish men and women imprisoned during the Holocaust.[10]:155 Women often described their experiences in the Holocaust in maternal ways.[10]:156 The women commonly referred to themselves as surrogate mothers.[10]:158 Women were able to use their nurturing and domestic nature to describe their experiences in the camps. To them, being a woman in the Holocaust meant that they were every type of woman. They considered themselves as a sister, a mother, a daughter, etc.[10]:175 Motherhood represented their gender as a woman, therefore, they were constantly worried and looking out for their children. One female survivor said, "We were so afraid for our children. We wouldn’t let our children out of our sight when they were going down to play or something."[10]:174

Jewish women in the Partisans[edit]

Jewish women faced distinct challenges and played a unique role through their involvement in the Jewish partisan movement, a resistance movement to Nazi Germany throughout Nazi-occupied Europe in World War Two. These Jewish women escaped from Jewish ghettos throughout occupied territory to join the partisans in the forest to escape Nazi persecution and enhance their chances of survival.[11] Many women were successful in their endeavours to join partisan units, specifically in the Bielski detachment.[11] It has been recorded that the Bielski detachment maintained the highest amount of female partisans, with approximately 364 of the 1,018 members being women.[11] However, it is evident through these figures that partisan units were largely male dominated, with engagement in military activities designated as the role for men. Due to this reason, it has been noted that when women fled Nazi persecution to reach these units, they were generally doing so "because they were looking for a rescue, not because they were fighting the enemy."[11]

The social cohesion of these partisan units in some circumstances reflected larger societal attitudes, including gendered stereotypes and expectations, and the roles relegated to female members within were influenced by these factors. Subsequently, women who joined the partisans were generally "excluded from combat duty and from leadership positions"[4] and were as well confronted with gender specific vulnerabilities. Research has revealed that many women were aware before entering the forest that they would face a series of challenges based upon their gender and that "the possibility of rape or murder was real."[12] Upon acceptance into the partisans women were often pressured into relationships with men within these units, and in some circumstances either willingly or unwillingly resorted to the comfort of a man due to the protection he could afford.[12] Importantly, under many circumstances women were not subject to discrimination and were regarded as assets that could provide valuable contributions to the partisan units. Specifically in the Bielski detachment women played a pivotal role in the running of the camp, seen through their ability to provide food to members, and to provide aid to injured or ill partisans through their work as nurses or members of the medical staff.[11]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Holocaust Timeline: Statistics of the Holocaust". The History Place. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
  2. ^ Hedgepeth, Sonja (2010). Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. Lebanon: University Press of New England. p. 16. ISBN 1584659041.
  3. ^ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Women During the Holocaust". Retrieved 29 April 2014.
  4. ^ a b Tec, Nechama (January 1996). "Women in the Forest". Contemporary Jewry. 17: 34–47. doi:10.1007/BF02965404.
  5. ^ a b c d e Ringelheim, Joan (1998). Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. Paragon House. ISBN 978-1557785046.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Goldenberg, Myrna (November 1996). "Lessons learned from Gentle Heroism: Women's Holocaust Narratives". The Holocaust: Remembering for the Future. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 548: 78–93. JSTOR 1048544.
  7. ^ Sinnreich, Helene (2008). "'And it was something we didn't talk about': Rape of Jewish Women during the Holocaust". Holocaust Studies. 14 (2): 1–22. doi:10.1080/17504902.2008.11087214. ISSN 1750-4902.
  8. ^ Sinnreich, Helene (2008). "'And it was something we didn't talk about': Rape of Jewish Women during the Holocaust". Holocaust Studies. 14 (2): 1–22. doi:10.1080/17504902.2008.11087214. ISSN 1750-4902.
  9. ^ a b Katz, Steven (2012). Modern Judaism, Volume 32, Number 3. Oxford University Press. pp. 293–322.
  10. ^ a b c d e Feinstein, Margaret Myers (Spring 2007). "Absent Fathers, Present Mothers: Images of Parenthood in Holocaust Survivor Narratives". Jewish Women in the Economy. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues. 13.
  11. ^ a b c d e Vershitskaya, Tamara (Fall 2011). "Jewish Women in the Partisans in Belarus". Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 46 (4): 567–572.
  12. ^ a b Tec, Nechama (2003). Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust. Yale University Press.