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 Practical And Political Effects Of Solidarity
Most important, women’s narratives reflect an ethic of caring that redefines traditional definitions of courage and heroism. How are we to evaluate the courage of mothers of young children who chose to accompany their children to the gas chambers so that they would not have to suffer death alone? Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess noted that time and time again he witnessed "mothers with laughing or crying children (who) went to the gas chambers" together.57 One of the manuscripts written by a member of the Sondercommando and hidden in the ashes of Auschwitz tells of children’s transport in winter of 1943. The children were undressing in the anteroom to the gas chamber, and the head of the Sondercommando sent some of his men to speed the process. One eight year old girl resisted such assistance and cried: "Go away, you Jewish murderer! Don’t put your hand, covered in Jewish blood, on my sweet brother. I am his good mother now and he will die in my arms."58 The eight year old girl redefined the word "courage" in protection of her brother! The incident may also reflect early socialization of older sisters as caregivers, a common assignment for girls in European families. Sisterhood or solidarity often forms the organizational principle of women’s narratives. The memoirs are short tales of near death, thwarted both by luck and by women helping women. In August 1942, before Birkenau became widely known as a killing factory, Czech Lotte Frankl Weiss had been in Auschwitz about five months. Barely recovered from meningitis, she dragged herself back to the barracks from the Auschwitz hospital to join her two sisters but within a month found herself alone because her sisters caught typhus and died. Her former Kapo had heard of her loss and subsequent desperation and hopelessness, sought her out and brought her to her own barracks where she fed and nurtured her. She found Lotte and indoor job sorting clothes of Jewish victims and later a job in the SS administration offices.59 In essence , the Kapo saved Lotte’s life. In another SS administrative office, a prisoner-worker described a different kind of solidarity. "We also practiced solidarity. One night, when it was dark and almost everybody was asleep, we administered a sound beating to Boezsi Reich. We threw a blanket over her so that she would not see anything and gave her a good thrashing because she had betrayed Alice Balla who had smoked and had been punished with bunker arrest."60
In another instance, a group of Belgian women prisoners at Auschwitz formed and ad hoc insurrectionist organization founded on the principle of "mutual solidarity." Through "connections," this group became attached to the Schuh-Kommando, sorting the shoes of prisoners, a job that allowed them to "organize" shoes for themselves and their friends. A second group of Belgian women was incarcerated and attached to the Pilz-Kommando, sorting jewelry and other valuables from victims’ belongings. A third group of women who were assigned to the Union factory joined the first two groups, forming an organization devoted to resistance and survival. They made contact with the "general insurrectionist organization in the camp", but kept their cohesion through " cultural, educational, and political activities." They organized meetings and lectures, which "played an important role in encouraging the women inmates, for, by momentarily detaching them from reality of Auschwitz, they gave them additional hope and strength." Although their participation in preparation for armed revolt gave them purpose, their day-to-day existence was made bearable by their "sisterhood":
Despite the suffering, the cold, the hunger, the punishments of being forced to stand for long hours with arms raised, despite roll calls that went on for many hours, and the beatings—life in the Schuh-Kommndo was still easier, thanks to the mutual solidarity. One woman would give her slice of bread to her starving friend or another would do her sick friend’s work for her….While I had typhus, I was in a state of nervous excitement bordering on madness; I was delirious from fever and unaware of what I was saying. Out of the twilight of high fever, I once asked for an apple. My friends went and exchanged their bread rations for an apple. Thus, solidarity saved my life—and the lives of other women comrades.61
These informal surrogate families played an incredible role in sustenance: "Everyone knew everyone else, expressed concern for their fellow inmates and encouraged each other not to become depressed and to maintain personal hygiene, a matter of supreme importance." Their concern for one another eliminated "systematic thieving" within a relatively large group of women, prompted them to distribute through the group victims’ goods that were housed storerooms, motivated them to contact similar groups of women, and enabled the women t preserve in the face of random brutality. These surrogate families, bound by shared origins or ideology, "showed the most stability and perseverance in their activities and from these groups developed the camp underground…..in the hell called Auschwitz."62 Obviously, the bonding between women was an important factor in their day-to-day and ultimate survival.
While it may be reasonable to assume that such bonding was not exclusive to women, it is difficult to find consistent evidence of men caring about one another to the extent that women did. Besides, caring should not be confused with comradeship. Elie Cohen points out the "necessity" of comradeship, the fact that while survival could not be guaranteed by comradeship, "lone wolf" behaviour could almost guarantee death. In the men’s camps, Cohen quotes a very early source, "everybody demanded comradeship from the other man and only few were prepared to extend it." In fact, Cohen found that comradeship was "occasional" even rare, and that the "the absence of comradeship was most conspicuous": "I found that. If everybody’s life is at stake, very little comradeship is evident."63. Bonding between men was more a factor of political proclivities that of the ethic of caring. This is a stark contrast with women’s analyses, which uniformly describe sisterhood and caring.
We are faced with recalculating our definitions of courage in light of Helena Rotstein’s quiet challenge to uncritical thinking: "Families were broken up, crying children were taken away from their mothers and the mothers chosen for work. But the mothers didn’t abandon their children amd went with them to the gas chambers."64. For years Janusz Korczak has been lionized for his refusal to abandon his orphans as they were deported and marched to their death. The Nazis recognized Korczak’s prominence and offered him the opportunity to live on the condition that he abandon his orphans to the gas chambers. It is time to extend, not to displace, the image of protection and dedication to so-called ordinary mothers who, unlike Korczak, were young and healthy and therefore selected to live as forced labourers but chose instead to protect their children in the greatest need. In the perverted context of the concentration camps, where giving comfort was criminal and caring was an act of courage, spiritual courage is heroic.
There are also example of women’s physical courage that appeared to be motivated by a profound sense of community and pride in their Jewishness. Women were active resistance fighters, partisans and in concentration camps, insurrectionists. The women in the gunpowder unit of the Union factory supplied the Sonderkommandos with the powder that blew up Crematorium IV in the revolt of October 7, 1944 at Auschwitz.65 They never revealed the names of their contacts in the men’s camp. Mala Zimetbaum, famous for her heroic escape from Auschwitz with her lover Edek Galinski and her defiance to her executioners after she was caught, is also well known by camp inmates for her "cheerful optimism" to her Auschwitz "sisters." Using her status as a runner to arrange for lighter camp assignments for weak inmates and to "organize" help in getting medicines to the sick, "she became the living spirit of rescue in the camp and rapidly acquired a reputation among the inmates—especially the Belgian Jewish women…..(as) the embodiment of all the spiritual and physical courage of the Jewish girls and women in Auschwitz."66
Zimetbaum was mother and sister to other women prisoners and courageous hero to all prisoners. These acts of heroism and martyrdom were not limited to either men or women, but less familiar acts of courage—and women’s act of courage have until recently been largely overlooked—have much to teach us. Thus the recovery and consideration of women’s words are enormously important.
57. Quoted in Inside Hitler's Geramany, ed. Sax and Kuntz,p.445
58. Mark ed., Scrolls of Auschwitz, p. 208.
59. Shelley, Auschwitz, p.94.
60. Ibid., p.121.
61. Mark. Ed., Scrolls of Auschwitz, pp.75-77.
62. Ibid., p.79. For more descriptions of male and female groups organized to rebel against Nazi control, see ibid., pp.94-96.
63. Cohen, Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, pp.182-83.
64. Shelley, Auschwitz, p.14
65. Mark, ed., Scrolls of Auschwitz, pp.147-54
66. Ibid., pp.116-23.
65. Mark, ed., Scrolls of Auschwitz, pp.147-54
66. Ibid., pp.116-23.