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International Day of commemoration
in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

Memorial Ceremony
General Assembly Hall

10 February 2011


Professor Lenore J. Weitzman
Keynote talk on “Women in the Holocaust”

Excellencies, survivors, honored guests,

Why, you may ask, should we talk about WOMEN when we know that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews without regard to whether they were men, women, or children (1)?  

One answer is that concentrating on a particular group helps us break down that daunting number of six million and helps us think about individuals.

When we hear about a mother who saved the one piece of bread she was given in the ghetto factory for “lunch,” to  take home to share with her emaciated children; and when we hear about the teenage girl who was helping her grandmother, and held her arm on the ramp at Auschwitz, and ended up being sent to the gas chambers with her, we understand that these were ordinary women like us- like our mothers, and our sisters, and like our daughters and granddaughters -- ordinary innocent people who were subjected to the Nazi terror.

Thus a focus on women provides us with a more detailed, more nuanced, and more complete understanding of what happened to Jews during the Holocaust.

In this talk I will explore three spheres of gender differences:

1. First, how the roles of men and women before the war shaped their experiences during the Holocaust;

2. Second, how German policy treated men and women differently; and

3. Third, how Jewish men and women responded and coped in the ghettos and the camps.


Let us begin by looking at the roles of men and women before the Holocaust, when women were primarily responsible for their children, families, and homes, and men for their family’s economic support.

These roles provided the two sexes with different spheres of knowledge, skills, and life-experience with which to face the Nazi onslaught.  

For example, in Nazi Germany, when the first set of anti-Jewish laws were passed, and Jews were dismissed from their jobs and professions, it was Jewish men who were affected most directly.  Men who had spent their whole lives working were suddenly fired and cut off from their work, from their co-workers, and from their daily routines (2). Because they were forced to be idle and were no longer able to provide for their families, they felt humiliated by their loss of income, their loss of status, and their loss of self-esteem. It is therefore not surprising that the rate of male suicides increased dramatically during this period (3).

For Jewish women, in contrast, the early years of the Nazi regime had the opposite effect: it brought them more work and more responsibility -- as they tried to manage their households with less money and no help, shop for food in hostile stores, help their frightened children cope with harassment at school, and provide comfort and solace for their husbands (4). 

In fact, as late as February 1938, five years after Hitler assumed power, an article in a German Jewish newspaper still encouraged Jewish women “to light the candles and brighten their homes with cheer" (5).


The second source of gender differences was German policy and the many rules and regulations that specifically targeted Jewish women.

One painful example was the policy that prohibited pregnancy and the birth of Jewish children in Lithuania (in the summer of 1942). Jewish doctors in the ghettos were required to report every pregnancy and to perform an abortion to terminate it. The penalty for non-compliance was death – for the woman -- and for the doctor. (The order of July 24, 1942 in the Kovno ghetto stated that “Pregnancies have to be terminated. Pregnant women will be shot “(6)).

I want to discuss the response of some young women in the Kovno ghetto who decided to defy this order and to remain pregnant -- because I believe that it is important, when we talk about the Holocaust, that we do not just talk about what the Germans did and what they ordered as if it was a fait accompli, but that we also consider, at each point, how the Jews responded to these orders and how they tried to cope and resist.

The young women in the Kovno ghetto who decided to remain pregnant -- and refused to obey the German order that required abortions -- were engaged in a conscious act of resistance because they did not want to allow the Germans to deprive them of the experience of giving birth, and the experience of motherhood (7).

These young women were fortunate that a Jewish doctor in the Kovno ghetto, Dr. Abraham Peretz, agreed to help them – at the risk of his own life – and to shelter them through their pregnancies (even though they knew that they might be caught and killed (8)).     

Pregnancy was also a death-sentence for women in the concentration camps where all pregnant women -- and women with children -- were selected for immediate murder.
As we know, there was a selection process on the arrival ramp of the Auschwitz concentration camp to determine who would be sent to forced labor, and who would be sent to the gas chambers to die. Those Jews who appeared strong enough for work were sent to one side, while those who looked too young, or too old, or too weak to work, were sent to the other side – which lead directly to death in the gas chambers.
The one exception to this rule was for a woman who was carrying a child in her arms or holding the hands of her children. Even if she looked healthy and fit for work, if she was holding onto a child, she was automatically sent to the gas chambers.

Some of the Jews who worked on the arrival ramp at Auschwitz, who of course knew what was going to happen to these mothers, devised a way to try to save some of them. In a whisper they told the mothers “be sure to give your child to their grandmother” (and, if they had time, they added, “so she can watch them when you go to work”) because the workers knew that all the older women would be sent to the gas chambers anyway and they hoped they could save the lives of the mothers if they were not holding onto their children.


I now turn to the third sphere of gender differences, the responses of Jewish men and women in the ghettos and camps.

3a. Reactions and Coping Strategies in the Ghettos

In Eastern Europe, where the ghettos were located, the Holocaust was much more violent than in Western Europe.  For example, in Germany it took six years – from 1933 to 1939 to implement over 400 anti-Jewish laws.

But in Poland, in contrast, the same measures were instituted in a matter of months, and were accompanied by physical attacks from the very start.

Jewish men, especially those who were most visible because of their beards and traditional clothing, were immediately targeted for beatings, humiliation, harassment, arrest, and execution. Many were assaulted and had their beards ripped off, or they might be humiliated by being ordered to dance while crowds jeered and mocked them.

The Jews in Poland were then forced into overcrowded ghettos, and trapped behind their gates and walls. They were stripped of their homes and possessions, barred from their bank accounts, and cut off from their jobs, shops, offices, and businesses.

But many men were still compelled to work because they were frequently “captured” on the streets for forced labor, which was often accompanied by additional beatings. Sometimes they disappeared for weeks or months. And they often returned beaten and bruised.

It is therefore not surprising that many Jewish men were simply afraid to leave their homes during the day, and they increasingly relied on their wives to deal with the world outside.  As a result, their wives began to take over many of their husbands’ former roles.

For example, the distinguished historian of the Warsaw ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote in his diary:

 “(The) men don't go out....
She stands on the long line (for bread)....
When there is need to go to the Gestapo, the daughter or wife goes....
The women are everywhere …
(Women) who never thought of working are now performing the most difficult physical work" (9). 

But how could these women, most of whom had never worked outside the home, manage to support their families?

Most of them really could not.  While some were able to find jobs in ghetto factories or labor brigades, and some found work in homes cleaning, or doing laundry, or child-minding, but, with severe job shortages, most women simply could NOT find regular work. (In Warsaw, for example, in September 1941, about half of the inhabitants of the ghetto, 200,000 to 250,000 people, had no regular income and were starving to death: most of them were women and children).

This led many women to turn to the dangerous and illegal “occupation” of smuggling as the only way to feed their children (10). They first had to escape from the ghetto and then had to find non-Jews who were willing to buy their cherished belongings in exchange for food — little by little parting with their favorite dress, the bedding from their dowry, and, eventually, even their wedding rings.

It may be surprising to hear that many women became food smugglers, but we understand it better when we know that the daily calorie ration for people in the Warsaw ghetto was only 181 calories a day for each person  -- so the Jews would starve to death (11).

In fact, since we know that it is impossible to live on 181 calories a day, we might ask why MORE Jews did not die of starvation?  Although a significant proportion of the population did die of starvation  –  20% of the population in the Warsaw ghetto between 1941 and 1942  – the reason why many more did not die was because of  the amount of food that was smuggled into the ghetto.  In fact, about 75% of the food in the Warsaw ghetto was smuggled in (mostly by large smuggling cartels (12)).

But, in the end, we know that most women simply could not manage to support their families because the draconian odds in the ghetto were stacked against them. 

Their heartbreaking efforts show that they did everything they could to try -- including depriving themselves of food to keep their children alive.

But most of them gradually exhausted all their resources.

And most of them gradually exhausted themselves. 

This desperate sacrifice of mothers is one of the most common themes in ghetto diaries. For example, in the Lodz Ghetto (in Poland), 15 year old Dawid Sierakowiak wrote this about his emaciated mother on the eve of her deportation from the ghetto:

“My little, emaciated mother ,
who suffered so many calamities…..
(She) devoted her whole life to others …
My poor mother, who always took everything on herself....
She agreed when I told her that she had surrendered her life
by lending and giving out food,  
but … I saw that she had no regrets"(13).

3b. Women in the Jewish Resistance

While that was the fate of most women in the ghettos, it is important to take note of the small group of women who were NOT mothers or caregivers and were therefore “free” to participate in the Jewish resistance in the ghettos.

These women were typically young and single, without family responsibilities, and they became active leaders of the groups that planned the ghetto revolts.

This was one arena in which Jewish women assumed leadership roles that were equal to those of men. In fact, in several ghettos, including the Warsaw ghetto, women like Zivia Lubetkin were among the leaders of the central command of the rebellion.

I am pleased that Minister Barak just spoke about Zivia Lubetkin and her importance as a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. I will not repeat his remarks but do want to note that Zivia Lubetkin was one of the three commanders of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, and a powerful and courageous inspiration for  this historic stand for Jewish honor.  

Women also played critical roles in other forms of resistance in the ghettos, such as establishing illegal schools, secret libraries, and underground cultural events, and participating in the underground effort to rescue other Jews.

One fascinating group of women in the Jewish resistance were the underground couriers who operated outside of the ghettos, who are the focus of my current research. Known as kashariyot, these young women traveled illegally, disguised as non-Jews, and smuggled news, information, money, food, medical supplies, forged documents – and other Jews -- in and out of the ghettos of Eastern Europe. Their missions took guts, courage, -- and chutzpah -- and nerves of steel.

Once the Jewish resistance learned about the mass killings, the couriers set out to warn the Jews in far flung ghettos who were cut off from the news and information. They wanted to reach the isolated Jews before the Germans could deceive them with promises of “resettlement,” when, in fact, they were really planning to kill them.

The couriers urged the Jews NOT to board the trains, but to instead join the Jewish underground and resist. The kashariyot also carried specific information about how to organize that resistance, which included building bunkers for those who were most vulnerable, posting notices warning others about the true nature of the deportations, securing weapons, and planning revolts like the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

At the same time these energetic young women were themselves smuggling arms and ammunition into the ghettos for the planned revolts. They were also involved in rescuing children (and adults) from the doomed ghettos and providing them with false documents, homes, money, and moral support on the Aryan side (outside of the ghettos). 

Even though most women were not in a position to do what these daring young women did, it is important for us to remember their courage and heroism – and their special role in the Jewish resistance.

3c. Reactions and Coping Strategies in the Camps

I now turn to the last part of my talk, the reactions and coping strategies of women in the concentration camps.

The greatest difference in the responses of men and women to the concentration camps occurred when they first entered the camps.

As we all know, the women selected for work were first sent for so called “processing”. They were forced to undress in front of German male guards, shaved all over, and then tattooed with numbers. Women survivors described this process as traumatic -- degrading, humiliating, and mortifying. Many sobbed from the assault and shame -- which was often intensified by having to witness one’s mother or one’s daughter being subjected to the same brutality – while one was forced to stand by helplessly.

Although Jewish men also wrote about the degrading process of being stripped of their identities, they were most emotionally distraught by the ways that their wives, mothers, and daughters were treated. In fact, the men reacted as if they themselves were personally assaulted by the humiliation of their women.

Once in the camps, we find three coping strategies that appear to be unique to women. 
The first was the way that women coped with hunger. Although this may sound counter-intuitive, they talked about meals, and what they served on Jewish holidays, and they shared their favorite recipes for their mother’s gefilte fish or cholent (14).

At night, in the barracks, they told each other stories about special family dinners and how they celebrated each Jewish holiday.

Some survivors say that these conversations had a satiating effect. But whether or not they actually did, they clearly affirmed the women’s identities as mothers, wives and daughters. And that was important in a place where there was an explicit plan to destroy those identities and to dehumanize them by treating them as numbers.

A second coping strategy was women’s continued use of their homemaking and grooming skills. For example, they made an effort to improve their looks –by pinching their cheeks to look healthier, and rubbing black coal into their graying hair to look younger.

This not only improved their chances of being seen as fit for work during the endless roll calls and “selections” when they could have been seen as unfit and sent to the gas chambers, it also helped them to maintain a more human appearance and to maintain their dignity (15).       

A third coping strategy was the formation of “Camp Sister” relationships in which two women supported and sustained each other like sisters, by sharing food and other resources, trying to protect each other from threats and assaults, and taking care of one another when one of them became sick – which was especially  important during roll call when women were required to stand for hours on end and those who were sick really needed a camp sister to hold them up (16).

Camp sisters also encouraged each other when one became so discouraged that she wanted to give up. It is therefore not surprising that many survivors refer to their camp sister as the person who really “kept them alive” --- both physically and emotionally. In addition, many women spoke of feeling that they themselves had to remain alive so that they could help their camp sister.


I would like to end this talk by asking what this tells us about the larger lessons of the Holocaust.
Initially many of us assumed that if we learned from the Holocaust, it would never happen again. 
And yet we have witnessed so many atrocities and so many mass killings in the years since then, and in most of them we have seen women singled out for abuse. In addition, most recently we have seen the horrifying phenomenon of rape used as a weapon of war.

At first, this might lead us to conclude that we have not made any progress since the Holocaust.
But, at the same time, we have also seen something that never happened during the Holocaust.

We have seen the international community of nations, and the United Nations, stand up,
and speak out,

and try to stop these genocides.

And we have seen the specific targeting of women defined as war crimes and rape defined as a crime against humanity.

While we shudder at the terror of today’s genocides,

we should also think about how much worse they could have been,

and how much longer they could have continued,

had these events been ignored, as the Holocaust was,

and had these events been met with the silence of the international community that prevailed during the Holocaust.

Can you imagine what would have happened had the world not responded to the events in the former Yugoslavia? or Rwanda, or Kosovo, or Darfur?

Can you imagine what would have happened if we did not have a United Nations?

Even if we have not learned ALL the lessons of the Holocaust,

and even if we know that we can and should do better,

we have, in fact, learned some of the lessons

and the more that we can continue to learn,

and the more vigilant we are,

the sooner we will approach the day when we can proudly and confidently say



Never again”.

(1) I am indebted to Professor Dalia Ofer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the co-author of our original article on “Women in the Holocaust”, which is the basis for this talk. It was first published as the introduction to our co-edited book Women in the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 1998).

(2) Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 1999) pp. 24-29.

(3) Christian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2009).

(4) Marion Kaplan, "Keeping Calm and Weathering the Storm” in Ofer and Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust , 1998, pp.  42-43.  (Hereafter cited as Ofer & Weitzman, 1998).

(5) Ibid. (Kaplan, "Keeping Calm and Weathering the Storm”), p. 43. 

(6) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Hidden History of  the Kovno Ghetto (Little Brown, 1997) p. 245.

(7) Aharon Peretz, Ba-maḥanot lo bakhu: reshimot shel rofe (only in Hebrew) (In the Camps They Did Not Cry: A Doctor’s Notes (Masadah, 1960) p. 36.

(8) Ibid. (Peretz Ba-maḥanot lo bakhu) p. 36.

(9) Emanuel Ringelblum, Diary and Notes from the War Period: Warsaw Ghetto (Hebrew ed.) (Yad Vashem, 1992) pp. 51-52.

(10) Dalia Ofer, "Gender Issues in Diaries and Testimonies of the Ghetto”, in Ofer and Weitzman, 1998, pp. 152-162.

(11) Israel Gutman, “Warsaw: Jews During the Holocaust” in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust edited by Israel Gutman (Macmillan, 1990) p. 1609.

(12) Barbara Engelking and Jaceck Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto (Yale University Press, 2005) p. 458.

(13) Dawid Sierakowiak, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto,ed. by Alan Adelson (Oxford University Press, 1996) pp. 219-220).

(14) Myrna Goldenberg, "Memoirs of Auschwitz Survivors”, in Ofer & Weitzman, 1998, p. 335.

(15) Felicia Karay, "Women in the Forced-Labor Camps", in Ofer & Weitzman, 1998, p. 305.

(16) Brana Gurewitsch, Mothers, Sisters, Resisters (Univ. of Alabama, 1998) pp. xviii-xix.