Women in the Holocaust

During the Holocaust in World War II more than six million Jews were murdered, many of them women and children. It was not only Jewish women who were captured, abused and killed. Gypsies, Polish women and women with disabilities were also persecuted and taken to concentration camps. Ravensbruck was a camp designed for women and children, with more than 132,000 held prisoner there. Up to 92,000 died of starvation, exhaustion and illness or were executed.

The persecution faced by women in the camps was horrific. They were forced to work until they dropped on the floor with exhaustion; some women were raped and if they got pregnant and either had an abortion or were left to give birth in inhuman conditions, often dying alongside their babies; others were beaten to death and starved; some women were used as subjects of illegal human experiments such as medication testing or different methods of transplantation, amputations and sterilization. In 1942, the Nazis opened a brothel at Ravensbruck and about 100 incarcerated women were "employed" there. Some of them volunteered because they were promised freedom in six months, although this did not happen.

The best known voice from the Holocaust belonged to Anne Frank (1929-1945) who was born in Germany. Her family left the country and moved to Amsterdam in 1934. In 1942, the Netherlands was occupied by the German Nazis and Jewish families were hunted down. The Frank family spent two years hiding in a cramped space behind the walls of her father's office but in 1944 they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Anne and her sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen camp early in 1945. After the end of the war, her father — the only surviving member of the family returned to their home and found Anne's diary, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), which she had kept from June 12, 1942 to August 1, 1944. The diary has become one of the most widely read books worldwide.

Women played an important part in the different resistance organizations and movements. One of the most famous figures was Haika Grossman (1919-1996), a Polish Jew and an active Zionist from an early age. When she was 20, Grossman became the leader of the Jewish resistance Hashomer Hatzair. Despite the fact that she was offered a chance to escape to but she refused and stayed in Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania). When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, she returned to her home town of Byalistok to reorganize the resistance movement. Grossman was one of the leaders of the Byalistok Ghetto Uprising. After the war, Grossman was awarded the highest Polish medal for bravery and later moved to Israel to become an important politician there until her death in 1996.

Another influential woman in the Holocaust was Sophie Scholl (1921-1943). She was a German student who actively opposed the Nazi regime and the Third Reich. Scholl was a member of the non-violent intellectual resistance movement The White Rose. The movement consisted entirely of students at the University of Munich who issued anti-Hitler leaflets and papers. Scholl was convicted of high treason and executed.

Hopes that The White Rose would begin a revolt against the Third Reich proved futile. The University of Munich sponsored large demonstrations against the underground group and the Gestapo managed to kill some of its members, while the rest dispersed. The entire Scholl family was sent to prison, except for the youngest son, Werner, who was sent back to the Eastern front. He was reported missing in action and in 1944 was announced dead. Scholl's story was filmed in 2005 under the title Sophie Scholl — The Last Days.

Many women wrote memoirs reflecting their experiences in World War II, including Leonie Nelly Sachs (1891-1970), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. Sachs is perhaps best known for her poems and her first volume of poetry In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Houses of Death) was published in 1947. It tells of the suffering, persecution, exile and death of many Jews. French writer Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985) is a survivor of the concentration camps and the author of Auschwitz and After (1970), which paints a haunting picture of the atrocities inflicted on her and others.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust
Carol Rittner; John K. Roth.
Paragon House, 1993
Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and Imagination
S. Lillian Kremer.
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
Women under the Third Reich: A Biographical Dictionary
Shaaron Cosner; Victoria Cosner.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust
Marlene E. Heinemann.
Greenwood Press, 1986
"You Said the Words You Wanted Me to Hear but I Heard the Words You Couldn't Bring Yourself to Say": Women's First Person Accounts of the Holocaust
Baumel, Judith Tydor.
The Oral History Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2000
Women against Hitler: Christian Resistance in the Third Reich
Theodore N. Thomas.
Praeger Publishers, 1995
Women and the Nazi State
Stibbe, Matthew.
History Today, Vol. 43, November 1993
Berthe's Prison Diary
Diamond, Hanna.
History Today, Vol. 49, No. 8, August 1999
Filming Women in the Third Reich
Jo Fox.
Berg, 2000
Keepers of the Motherland: German Texts by Jewish Women Writers
Dagmar C. G. Lorenz.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
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