Women of Valor: Partisans and Resistance Fighters
Historical Background | Women in the Ghettos | Women Who Organized Rescue Attempts Women as Partisans and Members of the Resistance | Women in the Concentration Camps Faith, Friendship, Art and Education in the Camps and Ghettos
Women in Holocaust Historiography

Women in the Concentration Camps

As invidivuals and as members of the resistance women played a significant role in several concentration camp uprisings. The stories of Franceska Mann, Roza Robota, Mala Zimetbaum and the heroines of the Union factory appear in "Women of Valour: Biographical Sketches".

At Auschwitz, the largest camp in the concentration camp universe and the one that served as a processing centre for many of the others, the women's section (Frauenabteilung) was established in 1942. The first group to be imprisoned there consisted of 999 German women from Ravensbruck and an equal number of Jewish women from Poprad, Slovakia. "Old timers" from this group were among the cruelest and most hated of Auschwitz's Stubhovas and Blokhovas (female inmates who served as barracks supervisors).

In the vast kingdom of the camps, the women who survived the initial selections of Auschwitz and elsewhere were mainly young women, without children, in their late teens and early twenties. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, mothers with young children were sent to the left, to the gas chambers. "Older" women (including those in their thirties and forties) and pregnant women, who were rarely able to pass the nude selections, were also sent to the left. Dr. Gisela Perl, an inmate doctor, terminated the pregnancies of many of those who did pass in order to save their lives. Not surprisingly, when liberation finally came, male survivors were found to outnumber the women and to be older as well.

A rare exception to the policy of death for pregnant women occurred in one of the Kaufering camps where, in December 1944, apparently on a whim, the Germans established a Schwanger Kommando (pregnancy unit). During the winter of 1945, despite all the usual horrors of camp life, seven women managed to give birth to healthy babies there.

Pregnancy was not the only gender-specific problem faced by women in the camps. Their menstrual cycles stopped during incarceration and took some time to normalize after liberation. Brutal medical experiments, including sterilization, were performed on them by doctors like Professor Carl Clauber, who initiated such experiments in Ravensbruck and later continued them in the notorious Block No. 10 in Auschwitz. Women were also forced to join camp brothels for the entertainment of German troops and the camp elite. There was even an all woman orchestra at Auschwitz under the direction of Alma Rose, Gustave Mahler's niece. As described by Fania Fenelon in her memoir, they played at selections, executions, and as accompaniment to those on their way to the gas chamber.

At the camp at Salaspils, Latvia, a stone monument in the form of a colossal female figure is now the camp's symbol, in honour of the young girls so brutally violated by the Germans and their collaborators.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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