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Focus on Issues Women Surviving the Holocaust

March 29, 1983
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The first conference on “Women Surviving: The Holocaust” concluded an arduous and often tense two days of eliciting testimony from survivors in an attempt to ferret out what was particularly “female” about their experiences and behavior during that traumatic era, revealing both the absence and the urgency of serious research on the subject

The conference, held at Stern College here last week, was sponsored by the Institute for Research in History and Programs in Public Philosophy under a grant from the New York Council on the Humanities. Close to 400 people, the overwhelming number of them women and a goodly number of them survivors and survivors’ children, took part in the gathering, some of them traveling there from as far away as the south, midwest and London.

Dr. Joan Miriam Ringelheim, a Kent Fellow at The Center for the Humanities of Wesleyan University, convened the conference after finding little research on the subject, or indeed interest in it by scholars in the past several years she has been studying it. The history of the Holocaust, she said, was incomplete without this information.

The conference format was built around blocks of questions asked of survivor panelists by moderators as well as members of the audience. The moderators’ questions were rooted in the premise that women had experiences in or responses to the ghettos, concentration camps and resistance groups that were different from those of men.


Four major issues came up repeatedly in the questions directed at survivors by panelists and participants: were women less or more vulnerable during the Holocaust because they were women? what survival strategies specific to women did they employ? what was the nature of women’s resistance’ and, what were relationships between and among women like?

There was general agreement that women were more vulnerable than men in situations where they were involved with minor children. Dr. Sybil Milton, archivist at the Leo Baeck Institute and one of the few scholars to make a formal presentation, on “Issues and Resources,” at the conference, said that “women went to their death with children” when they underwent a selection upon arrival at a death camp. These women, she added, were not necessarily the children’s mothers, but also relatives, friends or anyone standing with a child at that time.

One survivor said that while women were killed in larger numbers than men when they arrived at the camps with children, they survived the camps in larger numbers. This statement, about survival rates, however, was not substantiated with statistical data.


There was some difference among survivors as to whether the German “purity laws,” prohibiting sexual contact between Germans and Jews, prevented the rape of Jewish women. One survivor said the laws prevented mass rape but not “sporadic cases.”

Survivors agreed that women were less vulnerable under certain circumstances because their Jewish identity could not be easily and immediately proved, as could the men’s because of circumcision. Vladka Meed, who had participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, said it was “safer” for women to go among Poles and work as underground couriers.

Vera Laska, a non-Jewish Auschwitz survivor who had served in the Czech resistance movement, added that women were generally not suspected of underground activities because of the prevailing patriarchal views of women as innocuous.


Considerable time was devoted to exploring whether women had employed specifically female survival strategies, Milton said in her presentation that women in the Warsaw Ghetto survived starvation better than men because they knew from experience about cooking nutrition and meal planning and, unlike the men, could conserve and manage food. Several survivors amplified this with stories of how their mothers had carefully rationed out the meagre supply of bread available, so it would last.

Milton also pointed to housekeeping skills and emphasis on appearance as survival strategies. Women’s concerns for their appearances and for keeping clean, she said, was a factor in spiritual resistance that “enabled them to maintain some part of their former personality” in the concentration camps. This, however, as one participant said privately, was also true of men.

Several survivors related the importance of their mothers’ “feminine wiles” in distracting Germans from looking at their papers and under other circumstances.

While most survivors seemed to view all these aspects of women’s traditional role as positive and effective, survivor Mira Hammermish pointed to its negative side. Having left the ghetto to her mother’s distress, she said, she survived because “my mother’s maternal power did not touch me. The qualities Jewish families emphasized could be our undoing.”

Obviously concerned about the focus on these strategies as a key to survival, several survivors emphasized again and again that they survived through luck and luck alone. Said one: “We are remnant of a hurricane; we survived through chance.”


There were a great many questions on relations among women, and whether “female bonding” contributed heavily to survival, especially in concentration camps. Susan Cernyak-Spatz, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, said that friendships in the camps were based on one’s work commando, which shared the same bunk. “Without the close support of this group, you couldn’t survive,” she said. Laska added; “The bonds I formed in the concentration camps will last forever.”

Several survivors told of being saved in the camps by their mothers and sisters. What the men’s relationships were like was not discussed nor indeed, has it been a subject of research.

Survivors pointed out that in resistance groups, the strong and intense bonds of friendship were not exclusive to women, and that all friendships in these groups were close. Helen Levine, a former partisan, said, “we were all like one family; we cared for each other.” Meed added that, in the absence of a family in the ghetto and under conditions of loneliness, “I don’t know if I would have survived without this closeness.”

Resistance in the camps often took the form of sabotage, which survivors said was very widespread and pervasive. Laska told of people throwing pebbles into machines to stop production; another survivor told of putting good bullets into the pile of defective ones and vice versa; a third, of destroying clothes in camp warehouses so they could not be shipped to Germany.

Very little, however, was revealed about ghetto resistance, or women’s role in it, beyond the mention that the majority of couriers were women. Some panelists expressed the view that “just living from day to day” in the ghettos constituted resistance. “Everyday life in the ghetto was full of sacrifice and heroism,” Meed said.

This tendency to glorify women’s behavior and ignore possible negative aspects of it was a characteristic of the entire conference and seemed to infuse statements by many survivors as well as members of the audience. Many of the participants in the conference appeared to seek to draw on the Holocaust for their Jewish identity or want to believe that all women were brave and kind, or both.

The moderators did not ask survivors about negative aspects of women’s behavior, such as women becoming kapos, and most survivors did not volunteer such information. The only exception was at the panel on concentration camps, where two survivors told how other women had put them in danger out of fear of collective punishment.


The most crucial omission at the conference was of presentations by scholars to put the survivors’ testimony in historical context. In addition to Milton, the only other Holocaust scholar to address the gathering was Prof. Henry Friedlander of Brooklyn College, who spoke about “The Camp Setting.” There were no introductions along similar lines to the panels on ghettos and resistance.

There was a virtually total absence of Jewish cultural and political context as well. There was no discussion of the traditional roles of European Jewish women as enablers in the family and community, nor was any information presented on the cultural, religious and political life of European Jews, and the role women played in it, before and during the war.

This tended to strand the testimonies of the female survivors in a vacuum, and made it impossible to determine the degree to which the background and milieu of Jewish women’s behavior during the Holocaust were contributing factors in their actions.

With all these limitations, the conference, whose proceedings are slated for publication, was significant as well as unique. It encouraged female survivors to think about how being women was a factor in what they experienced and did, and to bring to the fore and share in an accepting atmosphere information historians had never elicited before. Thus the conference opened up this vast and largely unexplored area, called serious attention to its urgency and, in the words of one participant, “legitimized it” as a subject of study.

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