Abstract | Background | The Couriers | The Fate of Jewish Women in Occupied Poland | Living a Double Identity in Perilous Times | Courier Profiles: Lonka Kozibrodska, and Why Women Were the Couriers | Havka Folman | Frumka Plotnicka…"Die Mameh" | Sima | Gusta Davidson Draenger | Mala Zimetbaum | The Destruction of Crematorium Number Four | What Sustained Them? | Conclusion | Endnotes | Bibliography

The Fate of Jewish Women in Occupied Poland

Pre-war Jewish society in Poland limited female leadership and participation. Women had traditionally defined roles as mothers, wives and daughters. Religious, social, and political decision-making was not traditionally in a woman's sphere. As Holocaust scholar Dalia Ofer wrote in Women in the Holocaust: "The force of Jewish traditions and their impact on even nonreligious Jewish circles were considerable; in the area of traditional gender roles they were even more powerful."12

Jewish women's workload during the early stages of the Nazi occupation of Poland was heavy. They could be selected for forced labor during the day, then have to fulfill domestic and maternal expectations at home. Women also confronted other challenges. Tens of thousands of Poles, including Jews, (the large majority of them men) fled with east into Soviet-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, at he urging of Poland's leaders, after Poland's surrender to the Germans. Husbands and other contributing male relations were no longer there to provide support for their families. The Jewish men who remained could not risk being seen in the streets where they were systematically harassed, beaten, taken away to slave labor camps, and murdered by the Nazis. Consequently, Jewish women became the sole family providers because men were eliminated from the economic and social landscape.

Courier Havka Folman related the fate of the Jewish men of Warsaw, including her father: "With the Nazi occupation, Jews were oppressed, men being the first victims. Father lost his status at home. The authoritarian father changed from a dominant figure to a hunted man."13

In addition to these challenges under the occupation, Holocaust scholar Joan Ringleheim of the United States Holocaust Museum and pioneer of women's studies in the Holocaust explained the most deadly threat to Jewish women during the Final Solution:

Jewish women were often the largest population available for the various killing operations after many men had emigrated or been evacuated or been taken away. Women and children often suffered a killing rate faster than that of men because the Nazis had even less use for Jewish women for labor purposes than for Jewish men…. Jewish women were killed because they carried the next generation of Jews.14

Despite this severely repressive environment, women emerged as essential contributors in the Jewish underground resistance organizations. They overcame significant traditional barriers and murderous Nazi policies to participate as couriers, ghetto fighters, rescuers, and in partisan groups in the forests of Poland.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
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