LESSONS LEARNED FROM GENTLE HEROISM: WOMEN’S HOLOCAUST NARRATIVES
Childbirth And Sadistic Irony | The Role Of Friendship Among Women In The Camps
The Impact Of Hunger On Male And Female Prisoners
The Practical And Political Effects Of Solidarity | Rethinking Traditional Responses
The Role Of Friendship Among Women In The Camps
Although all respected Holocaust sources by survivors and scholars emphasize the fact that survival, first and foremost, was random, virtually all memoirs by women implicitly or explicitly credit survival to some manner of women’s friendships and collaboration. Clearly, there were no strategies that could save a prisoner from sadistic Kapos or SS men and women or from inhuman and unspeakable medical experiments. Thus, given that survival was the responsibility of a prisoner in a very limited way only and that prisoners were faced with choicless choices, any strategy for coping merits scrutiny. Women had been socialized to use their domestic skills to improve their living conditions, and, writes one woman, even in the concentration camp, "men had to learn behaviours that women already knew."46 Most women describe situations in which they confronted their new reality and devised strategies that actively engaged them in fighting for their survival. Essentially, as women cleaned their surroundings, sewed pockets into their ragged clothes, created menus to mitigate their hunger, nursed and nurtured one another, they created the illusion of taking some measure of both control and responsibility of their well-being. In these efforts, they worked they worked collaboratively and, in doing so, imparted a sense of being needed by others. Indeed, they created the illusion of actively improving their chances for survival while most men conveyed a sense of passivity and defeat. Seldom does a woman’s memoir describe Musselmen;47 in contrast, men’s memoirs are replete with examples and discussions of Musselmen. Since women’s memoirs yield anecdotes that demonstrate women’s resourcefulness in the hells of the camps and ghettos, these narratives are rich sources about the characteristics of an alternative social structure based on traditional women’s values. Memoirs describe the bonding that was the natural extension of women’s caretaking roles in pre-Hitler days. Women survivors recall that they created surrogate families when their own families were separated. Survivor participants in a conference on the Holocaust, wary of generalizing, nevertheless concluded that women, whether by nature or socialization, developed friendships that contributed palpably to their survival: Men were demoralized and women went on nurturing…..I found that every woman talks about bonding in relation to somebody else; whether it is a mother or a father or a substitute mother or daughter or sister. The men are likely to talk about only me in relation to myself…..There was no men to men relationship other than (survival)…..It is somewhat mysterious to me as to why (men) can’t do some version of that role in protecting a younger person, allowing oneself to be protected by an older man? Why can women convert nurturance into nurturing other women in the camps? Why can’t the men convert their roles as protectors? 48
Friendship, bonding, nurturance, and other permutations of caring can hardly be said to be genetic and exclusive characteristic of women. Yet, in regard to the Holocaust, we read women’s narrative after women’s narrative that focuses on such bonding. For example, after her sister was deported in an action in the Lodz ghetto, Lucille Eichengreen was left completely alone. Three sisters whose parents were also deported asked Lucille to move in with them, thus offering her a surrogate family, which meant companionship and thus some level of protection.49 While the capacity for and the experience of nurturing gave women a mental or emotional advantage, other routine women’s skills also contributed to their survival. Women, it has been found, kept themselves cleaner longer than men did, thus warding off diseases for longer periods. In Auschwitz I, where conditions were much better than in Auschwitz II (Birkenau), water was often unavailable during the day, and inmates report that that they "got up in the middle of the night" to wash.50 Jewish survivors from Birkenau testify to the absence of water except for the mud and slime that characterized the grounds. After marveling about the excessive mud and wretchedness of conditions, Pelagia Lewinska came to the insight that filth and excrement were part of the Nazi plan "to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity, to return us to the level of wild animals, to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows." She rejected the Nazi plan for her and devised an alternative designed to retain human dignity and human community. Therefore she and her friends made a pact "never to leave each other dying in the mud." Although to help someone rise from the mud meant to risk staying with her in the mud, they pledged to help one another and to keep clean: I felt under orders to live. It was my duty toward those who awaited us in the free world…..I got a new grip on myself to sustain the heritage from my beloved friends and teachers. I had to keep living…. And if I did die at Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be."51
46. Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland, p.382.
47. "Musselmen" is a term if unknown and debatable origin but widely used to denote "emaciated walking corpses". Milton, "Women and the Holocaust", pp.297-333. Musselmen were those prisoners who were physically and psychologically worn out, those who surrendered their will to live.
48. Esther Katz and Joan Miriam Ringelheim, Women Surviving the Holocaust: Proceedings of the conference, (New York: Institute for Research in History, 1983), pp.172-76.
49. Eichengreen, From Ashes to Life, p.53
50. Shelley, Auschwitz, p.63.
51. Pelagia Lewinska, "Twenty Months at Auschwitz" in Different Voices, eds. Rittner and Roth, pp. 84-93.