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, raped, 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]

Social Bonds[edit]

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 was 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 anything. See, that was the difference.[5]:380

Sexual Abuse[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 usually men, some surmise that Jewish men during the Holocaust didn't face the same risk of being raped as women did,[9] but it is notable that sexual abuse of men and boys was not uncommon.[10]

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 were 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.[11]:155 Women often described their experiences in the Holocaust in maternal ways.[11]:156 The women commonly referred to themselves as surrogate mothers.[11]: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.[11]: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."[11]: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 the occupied territory to join the partisans in the forest to escape Nazi persecution and enhance their chances of survival.[12] Many women were successful in their endeavours to join partisan units, specifically in the Bielski detachment.[12] 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.[12] 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."[12]

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."[13] 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.[13] 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.[12]

Jewish Women Resistance[edit]

Both men and women were a part of the resistance but women are often overlooked when talking about resistance. Women played very important parts. In groups, women would be used to attract the attention of Nazis and then kill them and sometimes women would even be the ones that killed the Nazis. Women that worked alone and resisted were also very important. Women would work by themselves to do it all. They would find the Nazis and kill them all on their own. Freddie Oversteegen was 14 when she joined the Dutch resistance group and her older sister was 16. While being a part of the resistance group the sisters meet Hannie Schaft and the three become a trio that killed German Nazis. Since the girls were young the Nazis did not suspect anything of them and it was easier for them to lure the Nazis in. This trio was very special because women did not typically shoot and kill the Nazis, they would lure the Nazis in and then men would take over and kill them. But this trio did it all from start to finish.[14] Along with resistance groups, there were also individuals that were resisting on their own. Niuta Teitelbaum was a 24-year-old Jewish woman nicknamed “Little Wanda with the braids”. Niuta Teitlbaum, a graduate of Warsaw University was on every Gestapo most wanted list for killing Nazis. Niuta Teitlbaum would dress up as a polished farm girl and always tied a kerchief around her blond braided hair. Niuta Teilbaum would act very sweet and flirtatious with the Nazis and then she would pull out a gun and shoot them. In one instance Niuta Teitelbaum shot and killed two Nazis while injuring one. That did not satisfy her so she then entered the hospital wearing a physician's coat and killed both the Nazi and police officer that was treating the man that she injured.[15]

Jewish women in Labor Camps[edit]

Many women submitted themselves into labor camps for the opportunity to work hard but other women were caught while trying to escape from the command of Hitler and his army. However, the women who submitted themselves could not have imagined the situation at these camps. Rena reminds herself saying “We are young…we will work hard and be set free” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 55). Rena Kornreich Gelissen who went into a labor camp willingly not knowing the situation had this idea in her mind of a labor camp. It was once they were in these labor camps when the real nightmare started. The women were stripped of their own clothes, belongings and even their hair. “They shear our heads, arms; even our pubic hair is discarded just as quickly and cruelly as the rest of the hair on our bodies” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 58). They take the very important aspect of women, their hair. Which represents their beauty, their marital status and their respect. Rena was embarrassed and ashamed of these changes but that did not stop her from fighting ever chance to survive.


The main goal of the Holocaust was to get rid of all the Jews. Even though, they had numerous amounts of women working in labor camps, at many times there were selections. Selections was usually on a random day when the women are lined up to be killed or at a chance of surviving one more day. However, as Rena explains it there were always new people once she woke up the next morning after a selection. Rena says “Selections are sporadic. There is no telling how often they occur…” Rena also goes on saying “There is usually one SS man who stands in judgement while the rest of them watch” and sometimes there are two SS man, “both must give you the thumb toward life” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 133). There is no way to get out of death and no appeals.


As Rena put it “if the war is going well for the Germans, once in a while [they] get a slice of meat in [their] soup or with [their] bread” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 136). She says, “we lick our open palms slowly, savoring the smear of margarine or mustard” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 136). Apart from these small portions daily they get morning tea, soup for lunch, and bread for dinner. These are not delicacies, but most of the time just water and less of what it actually is supposed to be. There are always hungry and wanting more. Rena says “I don’t know which to long for more – food or freedom” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 137).


Work in these labor camps is intense. Not only because the SS are watching but because of the different weather conditions they have to work in. Sometimes they have to work in the sun, when it is “hot on [their] heads” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 154). Every season brings a different kind of work equally as hard. “We work in the spring dirt, turning over the soil…” Rena did many jobs while she was in these labor camps. She would say the amount physical pain was incomparable to anything she has experienced. “We are working on the new blocks, digging sand out of a deep hole and sifting it through the mesh nets,” however Rena has done this work before and she says “Our hands are hard. They no longer bleed from the long hours of work…” (Gelissen and Macadam pg. 141). They work such long hours that they cannot even tell time and their bodies are used to this amount of work with little food.


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 978-1584659044.
  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. ^ Glowacka, Dorota (2020). "Sexual Violence against Men and Boys during the Holocaust: A Genealogy of (Not-So-Silent) Silence". German History. doi:10.1093/gerhis/ghaa032.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ a b c d e Vershitskaya, Tamara (Fall 2011). "Jewish Women in the Partisans in Belarus". Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 46 (4): 567–572.
  13. ^ a b Tec, Nechama (2003). Resilience and Courage: Women, Men and the Holocaust. Yale University Press.
  14. ^ Little, Becky. "This Teenager Killed Nazis With Her Sister During WWII". History. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  15. ^ Batalion, Judy. "The Nazi-Fighting Women of the Jewish Resistance". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2021.
  16. ^ Gelissen, Rena Kornreich, and Heather Dune Macadam. 2015. Rena’s Promise. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.