Although Nazi brutality targeted all Jews and the “Final Solution” had no gender or age barrier, there were instances in which gender did play a role. For Jewish women and men the horrors of the Nazi regime — persecution, violence and eventually death — were the same, but the roads were different. In a number of death camps and some concentration camps there were specific sections for women prisoners. Ravensbrück — one of the largest Nazi concentration camps for women — was opened in 1939. By the time the Russian forces liberated the camp, more than 100,000 women had been incarcerated there. In 1942, a special section for women within Auschwitz II (or Auschwitz-Birkenau), was added to the existing camp. In late 1944 and early 1945, as a consequence of Allied and Russian advances into German territory, evacuations from camps close to the front (Flossenberg, Ravensbrück, Mauthausen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz-Birkenau) resulted in a massive increase in transports of female prisoners to Bergen-Belsen, inside Germany. As a result, the SS camp authorities established a women’s camp within Bergen-Belsen in early 1945.
In 1942 the SS in Ravensbrück established a program to recruit inmates to work as prostitutes for them and other army personnel. Prostitution offered better treatment to women who participated and the possibility of early release. Dozens of women ‘volunteered’ for brothel duty. The food, housing and other conditions were significantly better, and the women were promised release after six months. In fact, none of the women was released early and many, who did eventually return to the main camp, did so with venereal disease.
Pregnancy was a death sentence in the concentration camps, where all visibly pregnant women (as well as women with small children) were immediately selected for the gas chambers. If a pregnant woman escaped detection, she would have been selected for forced labour. If she managed to survive the remaining months and to deliver secretly in the camp, she risked immediate death for both herself and the child. To prevent both mother and child being gassed, Jewish female physicians or nurses tried to save the mother by drowning or suffocating the infant.
There were also non-Jewish victims in Nazi camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. Nazis committed systematic killings of Roma (Gypsy) women at Auschwitz-Birkenau and through euthanasia programs murdered thousands of German women who had mentally and physical disabilities. German physicians used both Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) women as subjects for sterilisation and other pseudo-scientific human experiments.
To survive in these camps, women prisoners often exhibited gender-specific coping skills. They shared recipes to relieve hunger and formed relationships to support and sustain each other — lagerschwestern (‘camp sisters’). Sharing of recipes and cooking techniques in the face of deliberate starvation was far from a trivial matter. It had a powerful psychological effect as it reflected a commitment to purposefulness, affirmed the will to live and assumed there would be a future.
In many cases women were blood relatives — mothers and daughters, or sisters — and sometimes pre-war friends. Survival depended also on work allocation. Sorting clothes and personal possessions in the area of Auschwitz designated as Kanada, repairing clothes and working in kitchens or the laundry or having house-keeping duties could mean the difference between life and death.
Women’s chances of survival were not equivalent to those of men. At Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942-1945 the SS deployed 381,455 deportees for forced labour; 67.5 per cent were men and 33.5 per cent were women. During 1944 405,000 forced labourers were tattooed with numbers, of whom one-third were female. Of the six Auschwitz warehouses that had been part of Effekenlager (Kanada), still intact at the time of liberation, Soviet troops found 348,820 men’s suits and 836,525 dresses. On the ramp at Auschwitz the ultimate purpose of deportation was enacted: to “deprive Jewry of its biological reserves”; to “obliterate the biological basis of Jewry”; and to eliminate the “germ cell of a new Jewish revival” — to implement the ‘Final Solution’.
Life for the ghetto inhabitants was filled with suffering and fear as they hoped to survive the war and the Nazis. In the Warsaw Ghetto, as in other ghettos, women’s efforts to obtain food and resources for their families exhibited enormous strength and resilience. Some turned to smuggling, taking great risks to feed their families.
Although superfluous to the Germans, women and young girls in the ghettos played important roles in resistance work, especially as members of Socialist, Communist, Bundist and Zionist youth movements. In Poland, in the Polish and Jewish Underground Fighting Organisation (ZOB), as well as in the French and French-Jewish resistance, they served as couriers, smuggling illegal publications, maintaining communication channels, transporting ammunition, facilitating escape and organising accommodation and false papers. Other women escaped to the forests of eastern Poland and the former Soviet Union and served in partisan units or established and led family camps.
Zivia Lubetkin was one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Fighting Organization (ZOB) and a fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in February 1943. Likewise, Chaike Grossman was one of the leaders of the BialystokGhetto Uprising in August 1943.
Although women were regarded as less valuable than men to the German war machine, there were many examples of female courage. Women such as Hannah Szenes in Hungary and Gisi Fleischmann in Slovakia, gave their lives to aid and rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Sophie Scholl, a student at the University of Munich and a member of the White Rose resistance group, was arrested and executed for anti-Nazi activities. A group called the Rosenstrasse Frauen (non-Jewish German women married to Jewish men), staged a one-week demonstration against the policies of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party).
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