HISTORY PAPER

       This essay will discuss the effects of the Holocaust on millions of women. The Holocaust was one of the most atrocious acts committed against mankind. It is a living proof of the human condition at its worst. The Nazis chose to unleash their fury on the millions of helpless Jews of Europe during World War II. They called their method of elimination "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question." This plan of annihilation was not only limited to the Jews but affected many other groups that were deemed "undesirable" by the Nazis, especially Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, including Russians and other Slavs, the mentally or physically disabled, homosexuals, and the Roma and Sinti people (called Gypsies). Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists and political dissidents were also persecuted and murdered (Kaplan 14). This paper will focus on the millions of mothers, daughters, and sisters who were sent to the death camps. Millions of them never made it out to tell their stories to the world; however, there were those lucky few who held on for their dear lives, no matter what came across their way. Women such as the Gelissen sisters made it their duty to care for each other to make sure they would make it out alive (Waxman 672). Unfortunately others realized there was no hope left and decided there was no way out but suicide.
      
     The struggle for survival all began with the terrible journey from the ghettos (communities where the Jewish people were forced to live by the Nazis) and sometimes the families were separated even before arriving at the concentration camps. They were forced into cattle cars like animals and were often separated from their loved ones. Eva Galer was a girl who lived in Olszyce but then she and her family were moved to a small ghetto in Lubaczow. Eva had tried to hide from the German officials in her attic with her family and describes what happened  when they were eventually found and shipped off to the death camps:

   
    It was terrible. Chaotic Screams. People were caught, found in different places. They brought us to the places where cattle cars were     standing. They hit us, shouted... If anyone fell, they would kick and rush them. They treated us worse than animals. Each family             tried to stay together. We were packed tightly into the wagons and the doors were shut. The cars had small, barred windows (Tec 87).

As they boarded the freight trains, there were many attempts to escape, but most of the time the German officials were not too far away and ready to attack the escapees. Along with her teenage brother and sister, Eva tried to escape the train once they boarded, and when they jumped out, there were shots heard. As the train rushed by, Eva realized she had survived but her brother and sister had been killed by the Germans who were sitting on the roofs of the wagons (Tec 88).

      
    Eva was one of the lucky ones, because once the doors of the freight trains closed, the fates of the people were sealed once and for all. The concentration camps were the destination of every one of these trains and there was very little the unfortunate people could do to escape once they got there. Families were separated once they arrived at the concentration camps. Women and men were divided from the start, and anyone who resisted was sent to the gas chambers immediately. The mothers were often forced to separate from their children under the age of fourteen. Studies of mothers during the Holocaust show that more often than not "women clung to their children (and many young girls to their mothers) and were sent to the gas chambers with them" (Waxman 671). The mothers of the Holocaust had only two choices to make when it came to the lives of their children, and they were choices that no woman should ever have to make: "they could dissociate themselves from their children in the uncertain hope of survival, or accompany them to a certain death." This is what is known as a 'choiceless choice' according to Lawrence Langer, author of Preempting the Holocaust. The mothers could either save themselves, or choose to die along with the children.

   
    As the people arrived at the camps, they were stripped of all their belongings and clothing, and the process of dehumanizing started  there. All the men and women had their heads shaved and body hair removed forcibly. The process of head shaving did not seem to have the same effect on men as it did on women. To the women, having their heads shaved was almost as bad as being stripped of their clothing in public: " reaction of a woman to having her head shaved transcends all national boundaries. All the inmates were deeply shamed by this procedure" (Tec 125). After the agony and humiliation they suffered upon entering the camp, the Jews suffered the separation of sexes which further dehumanized the them. There was never an official explanation as to why the Nazis chose to split up the men and women, but there was the obvious fact of preventing pregnancies. Historian Claudia Koonz observes that this was just another way the Nazis "eroded emotional bonds, leaving individuals bereft in a horrifying world" (Tec 126). The Nazis saw the division of men and women as an opportunity to further break the spirits of the men and women.

  
     The conditions of the camps led to many complications, both emotional and physical,  for women of all ages. Their access to toilets was limited, and the women had no choice but to use bowls that they received for drinking water (Tec 126). They rarely got to wash their bodies, and some even used snow or coffee to wash themselves. No matter how bad the conditions were, many women made it their duty to remain as clean as possible. They seemed to associate cleanliness with better self-esteem, health and survival. However, remaining clean proved to be a difficult task for women during menstruation. The whole ordeal of getting one's period in the camp was a humiliating process for most women. There was no way to stop the blood flow because the women were denied underwear or pads. A fourteen year old girl recalls seeing another girl with "a thick red stream of blood on the inner side of each leg...I would rather die than have blood flowing down my legs. In full view! Oh, my God!" (Tec 168). Eventually most of the women just stopped menstruating all together because of the lack of food. Most often the amount of stress and lack of nourishment led to the cessation of menstruation for women. Some of the women saw this as a godsend, while others suffered deep psychological problems as a result of the loss. While some worried they would never be able to have children, others felt it "undermined their self- identification as women" (Tec 169). Many women thought their soup had been contaminated with bromide to stop menstruation, but that theory was never proved. The women of the camps knew the Nazi officials were capable of committing anything, so the bromide contamination theory was not completely paranoid. 

  
     The lives of pregnant women were even harder than the rest. By November 1941, Jews were forbidden to marry and have children. Women in their first trimester were forced to have abortions. Hence, when pregnant women arrived at the camps, they were taken to be gassed immediately. However, there were those few who were admitted to the camps because  their pregnancy was not yet noticeable. When the women did give birth in the concentration camps, there was a mixed reaction among them. Some saw the new life as another reason to continue with their lives, while others just saw the newborn child as a "tormentor who sucked her strength, snatched every crumb away" (Waxman 671). Others had the misfortune of never seeing their child because of the miscarriages they had to suffer or induce themselves.

   
    There were a few women who tried to save their newborn children but it was an impossible task due to constant Nazi observation. The mothers soon realized that keeping a newborn children alive proved to be a difficult situation because of unhygienic conditions, lack of proper nutrition, overcrowding of barracks, and absence of privacy. There were several prisoner physicians who aided women in aborting their pregnancies with nothing more than a pair of rusty scissors and a dirty towel, but they found it hard to help women who chose to hide their children in the barracks (Tec 164). The women usually had no choice but to kill the babies themselves by suffocation, strangling, or injections. 

  
     According to some people, being a mother during the Holocaust made it harder to live, because their natural maternal instincts made it impossible for them to forget about children of any age. Lucy Mandelshtam, who was eighteen at the time she arrived at the camp with her mother and younger sister who was fourteen, talks about the hardships of motherhood in the camps:

    I was lucky that I was not a mother with children...I would not have made it...Even with older children like we were, I was 18 and my sister was 14, it was hard for my mother.  My mother had all the worries. She forgot about herself...She worried so much about us,     mostly about my younger sister who was weak and sickly (Tec 165).
Lucy was eventually separated from her mother and younger sister sometime in August 1944. Her mother and sister both died at an unknown time and place.
   
    The women of the Holocaust suffered intolerable cruelty from the Nazis, but some managed to survive because of the bonds that were formed in the camps. Many of the women had lost their families in front of their eyes, yet they continued to be strong and live on even if they had nothing else to live for. A lucky few had the privilege of having a loved one by their side in times of sorrow. Studies of women during the Holocaust show great stories of mutual support especially those that were related like mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins. For some of these women the only way of surviving the unbearable situations was by caring for one another. In Brana Gurewitsch's book Mothers Sisters, and Resisters, she tells of many women who consoled each other and found hope in helping each other, "Small groups of women in the same barracks or work crews, formed 'little families' and bonded together for mutual help" (Gurewitsch xix).  These small groups helped the women in tremendous ways sometimes because they most often hard nothing else to live for.

     
     Zoe Waxman writes about Rena Kornreich Gelissen and her younger sister while in Auschwitz. Rena's memoirs tell of the horrific journey these sisters had to endure while in the concentration camp. Rena remembers the words she spoke to her sister while in Auschwitz:

   
    This is my dream, Danka - - I am going to bring you home. We are going to walk through     our farmhouse door and Mama and Papa     will be there waiting for us. Mama will hug and     kiss us, and I'm going to say, Mama, I got your baby back (Waxman 672).


Rena's determination to get her sister safely back to her mother gave her the will to carry on with her life and help her sister get on with hers. Rena made sure no one would get in the way of her and her sister. It can be said that Rena took on the role of "mother" for her younger sister in a time of necessity, and she was persistent in her care for her sister. In her memoirs, Rena tells of a time when she gets a place for her sister on the bunk, "I do not ask what will happen to who was sleeping next to me...This is a selfish act, perhaps, but I have a sister who I have to keep alive and she is all that matters" (Waxman 672). It can be said that Danka and Rena supported each other and their will to live was stronger because they had something to look forward to.

  
     The lives of women in the Holocaust were greatly were greatly influenced by their surroundings. Women were forced to endure the agony of having their children snatched away from their arms. They were presented with the 'choiceless choice' of dying with their children or living on without them. Even though women were faced with many unimaginable moments during the Holocaust, many chose not to give in to despair and to uphold their dignity. These women were the mothers, daughters, and sisters who sacrificed their own well being for their loved ones or sometimes even strangers. They formed new families even when they had every reason to lose all hope and fall into the hands of hopelessness. The women who lived to tell their stories are the heroes of the day. As we read about their experiences we might think that we can imagine what it was like living during the Holocaust, but as Anne Frank puts it, "Although I tell you a lot, you only know very little of our lives... It is almost indescribable" (Waxman 666).

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