Testimony, Narrative, and Nightmare:
The Experiences of Jewish Women
in the Holocaust


Dr. Myrna Goldenberg is a professor emerita and an independent scholar.

Through numerous sources-recently uncovered archive files, recovered diaries and journals, oral histories, testimonies, autobiographies, biographies, and autobiographical novels-Holocaust victims and survivors have told and are telling their stories. The twelve years that comprise the Holocaust, from 1933 to 1945, left a legacy of millions of victims, each with an individual story of Nazi cruelty. These sources yield the details that tend to be lost in encyclopedic general histories of the era.

From thousands of volumes of books and hundreds of hours of audio and video tapes, we know that the Nazi imagination was fuelled by a fusion of unrestrained racism, patriarchy, and misogyny. Although some scholars and survivors have claimed that it is divisive to differentiate victims by gender, Hitler's frequently repeated statement "The Nazi Revolution will be an entirely male event" betrays his goal of male Aryan supremacy.' It is especially important, then, that recently a small number of scholars have devoted their energies to studying gender differences in the behavior of Holocaust victims.2

In 1934, Hitler enunciated the link between feminism and Jews, first by denouncing the New Woman as the "invention of Jewish intellectuals" and then by exhorting German women to reject the unnatural "overlapping of the spheres of activity of the sexes as embodied in "Jewish intellectualism. 113 In spite of their (apparent) y the German ideal of womanhood in the eyes of the Nazis, women were virtually anonymous and invisible in their suffering and death during the Holocaust. But their life-stories, as told by witnesses or perpetrators or by themselves, allow us to observe the strength and courage of Jewish women who were victims of Nazism but who also were, at the same time, active agents of their own survival. In this chapter I am especially interested in women's accounts of their Holocaust experiences.

A reading of testimony, personal narrative, or survivor memoirs leads us to conclude that Jewish women used their normal skills and activities as coping strategies in the abnormal world of the concentration camp. Women who had been raised to perform routine household and family chores used those experiences in a concentration camp setting where, if they did not fall victim to the ubiquitous random brutality and murder, these same skills-the so-called female shills-helped them survive. Moreover, Jewish women's narratives reflect an awareness of the value of nurturing skills and the ability to connect as characteristics that were part of the routine socialization process fur European women. Women and girls found that this socialization, which also included sewing and food preparation techniques, provided avenues for survival that were not usually available to men and boys. Males had far less experience in settings in which "female skills" were meaningful, or, in fact, customary. The "cliché of feminine passivity" does not, therefore, hold true for female Holocaust victims who were able to transfer familiar domestic values to a setting designed to accomplish mechanized mass murder and who, as actively as possible under the circumstances, managed to survive and to help each other to survive.(4)

Treatment of Women

Very recently uncovered testimony prepared as trial evidence in 1945 and 1946, and never used, provides new and valuable information about women's lives in concentration camps and about the severity of treatment suffered by Jewish women. Deliberate cruelty and violence in all forms dominate this materials

Several sources comment on the severity of treatment reserved solely for Jewish women. In her testimony, a former Ravensbrück prisoner recalls, "Jewish women were thrown out of the dispensary . . . . The cries and the moaning of the tortured was terrible. The Jewish women had a specially hard time of it."(6) Until the recent focus on gender, literary analyses have been peculiarly insensitive to the extent of Nazi misogyny.

Physical and emotional stamina characterize much of women's testimony. Among the survivors of Dachau were four women from Rhodes who provided an astonishing record of their imprisonment, deportation, and survival. They begin their testimony, published as an article, "The Odyssey of the Women from Rhodes," with the Nazi deportation of the Jews.' The women explain that on July 20, 1944, all the Jewish males were arrested. Within hours, the women and children were also arrested. All seventeen hundred' men and women were locked up without food or water and soon afterward shipped out to Athens. Ordered to keep their "heads lowered . . . and on no account allowed to look up [because] anybody who dared to do so would be executed on the spot," these Jews were "locked in the coal storage room[s] of the ship[s]" for ten days. In Piraeus, just south of Athens, the women were "forced to strip in front of the SS men" and a "body search was conducted." One survivor recalls that SS beat men with sticks and pulled women by the hair. Reluctant women were "pulled by the breasts."9 In the notorious Athenian prison, the men and women were separated and locked into barracks again. The Nazis (identified throughout this testimony as SS) beat the Jews incessantly with clubs and leather belts and, these four women explained, whipped even the women and children in the face. Younger women were taunted to be "nice" to the SS in return for favors.

The deportees were fed by the Red Cross in Athens, where they were imprisoned for another three days before boarding cattle cars seventy or eighty to a car-for Auschwitz. After a fifteen-day trip, on August 17, they were once again separated by sex and "selected." Again, the women were forced to undress in front of the SS, and "completely naked . . . were led into a different room, where female barbers shaved their entire body." They were "disinfected with a rag soaked in kerosene, which heavily irritated the freshly shaved skin." Finally, each was issued a "ragged dress without any regard paid to length or size." Beaten by gypsy prisoners if they asked to exchange their dresses for better fitting garments, they soon understood that the one rag they wore was their dress, underwear and handkerchief. Testimony from another survivor reveals that after they were shaved, the women from Rhodes found SS men bellows and "shouting at us to bend over and pushed the bellows into our anuses and vaginas to disinfect us.'°

During the two and one half months at Auschwitz, the women from Rhodes endured daily roll call in a kneeling position for hours. The daily ration of food consisted of a litre of soup for five women some so-called coffee. They believed that chemicals had been to the soup to prevent menstruation. More likely, lack of nourishment led to amenorrhea. These four women describe some of the more common ailments, such as "swellings and patches" all over their bodies and "actual holes in their mouths and deep cracks on the tongues." They note that many women died of starvation and dysentery and further that they were shaved and disinfected one more time because they were "full of lice." In November, they were prepared to be moved west, to Germany, by standing "barefoot and without coats in snow and ice" in below zero temperature. "In this way," the four survivors tell us, the SS doctor in charge of their "pilgrimage" was able to select the strongest women: "If they turned pale and passed out they were put on the transfer list." For the next few months, they were shipped from one labor camp to another, often doing outside work that necessitated fourteen-hour stretches of marches (from eight to eighteen kilometres to and from the work sites) and hard labor, often clearing rubble. In one camp, they slept in filthy, vacated dog kennels. "Nevertheless," they report, "the women managed to stay more or less clean and free of lice by trading their bread for soap from the men. This is why the men looked bedraggled and full of lice," according to the women. Old habits of responsibility for hygiene were stronger than the satiation of hunger.

The threat of advancing American troops shortened their incarceration in a "really terrible camp" where they "received absolutely nothing to eat through the entire work-filled day." As the Germans retreated west, they set the vacated camps afire to eliminate any evidence of the brutalities that occurred there. These women's "odyssey" concludes with the description of a harrowing train transport in open freight cars. Halted next to a munitions dump, they were "bombed and shot at several times," suffered many casualties, and, during one night, fled the train because the SS set it on fire, "both to prevent it from falling into the hands of the approaching troops, and to exterminate the deportees." From the meadows and woods where they hid, they "heard the noise of an explosion: the munitions train had blown up." They saw the "brilliantly lit sky above Landsberg, which was on fire because of the air raids." In the chaos that followed, the road and tracks were strewn with dead bodies. Attempting to escape, many women deportees walked directly into German fire or were crushed by the train, which was "set in motion again. The "few surviving women reached Dachau on 28 April, 1945," one day before American troops liberated the camp."

One can hardly overestimate the importance of the testimony of these four women survivors. Describing the experience of one specific group, their narrative includes most of the issues and experiences raised separately, in one place or another, in all women survivor narratives: sadistic violence, separation of family, fear of rape, sexual abuse, amenorrhea and fear of sterility, nakedness, humiliation, vile filth, incredible deprivations, starvation, forced labor, and resistance. Their "odyssey" is typical of individual survivor testimony-largely understated reports or summaries of unimaginable cruelties. While each oral history or testimony discloses a unique nightmarish experience, the accumulated documents present a clear outline of the deportation and concentration camp experience.

Women's identity as caregivers and homemakers and their prior experience in the domestic sphere ironically enhanced their likelihood of acclimatizing themselves to the hellish environment into which they were thrown. Men, on the other hand, whether they had been laborers or scholars, were deprived of their work by Nazi deportation policies and practices. That Jewish men had dominated Jewish women through their positions in the workforce, the synagogue study groups, the shops, and the professions contributed to their perceptions of victimization in concentration camps. Denied their usual duties and thrust into faceless, humiliating slave labor, they had fewer skills, habits, and experiences with which to sustain themselves than women did. Moreover, the nature of child-rearing and housekeeping, which was the major preoccupation of the vast majority of Jewish women in the thirties and early forties, demanded more flexibility and resiliency than did men's usual activities. For mothers, infants' and children's needs take primacy, and the chores of food and holiday preparations were tucked in and around the more essential needs of children and the adult men of the household. To be sure, women learned patience and self control in their role as caretakers. Thus, it is not surprising to read one survivor's reaction to the observation that "most men had to learn behaviours that women already knew". She wrote that "men unable to control themselves,… display such a lack of moral fibre that one cannot but be sorry for them….their behaviour here is merely a natural continuation of their past.(12)

Sybil Milton investigated the treatment of German and German-Jewish women who were persecuted for "religious, racial, or political reasons," distinguishing between the verbal abuse Jewish women received in the thirties and the physical violence they suffered from 1939 to 1945. She cites Nazi documents recognizing their own underestimation of the strength of the empowerment women give one another. She quotes a 1939 letter from the first director of Ravensbrück that reveals the need to revise the plans for the camp so that the spirit of their women prisoners could be broken:

We will soon move into the new women's camp at Ravensbrück, where I have established the fact that detention cells have neither been built nor planned. Women have been placed in solitary confinement by Gestapo orders in the Lichtenburg camp. It is impossible to maintain order if the defiance and stubbornness of these hysterical females cannot be broken by strict confinement, since no more severe punishment can be used in a women's camp. Denial of food does not suffice for discipline and order in a women's camp.(13)

The implication here is that women resisted the hardships and degradation of the camps and forced the Nazis to rethink policy in the women's camps.

Further evidence of women's resiliency during the Holocaust comes from literary accounts of life in hiding or in concentration camps. Written years, sometimes decades, after the Holocaust, these autobiographical accounts are thoughtful - often well-written and artistic -reflections of experiences that have no literary antecedents. They have the curious advantage of distance and detachment mixed with unforgettable vignettes of pain and loss. Usually devoid of bitterness, they focus on details that still hurt, scenes that remain, as more than one survivor has said, on the "insides of my eyelids." They are public expressions of private nightmares; a survivor's attempts to reclaim her right to normal society.

They also disclose the unanticipated effects of gender that, decades, were ignored or denied, or, at the very least, went unnoticed. A preponderance of these works reinforce the hypothesis that Jewish women who survived believed they owe much of their Survival to their socialization as caregivers. In the broadest sense, these narratives indicate that gender accounted for differences in "adjustment" to the concentration camp experience and ultimately in survival. That is, the women who were not the targets of random or premeditated capricious murder often credit their survival to their prewar experiences. Essentially, women, accustomed to maintaining the family, transferred their behavior to the concentration camp where, in the absence of normal and natural family structures, they created and strove to maintain surrogate families. In other words, many female survivors believe that their training and experiences as traditional housekeepers and family care-givers contributed to their survival.

Most survivor narratives begin in the mid- or late thirties with a sketch of pre-deportation times but with the specter of the Nazis looming in the background. The Nazis take over and strip the Jews of their rights as citizens or residents, confiscate their goods, establish ghettos run by puppet governing bodies (Jewish Councils of Elders), limit the ghetto residents to a starvation diet, and organize mass murders and later deportations to labor, concentration, or extermination camps. The narratives describe evacuation of the camps in the face of the advancing armies, liberation, and emigration or the promise of emigration. Less frequently, the survivor-writers begin their narratives in the concentration camps and recall their days of freedom.

Female survivor-writers focus on the affection and security the family shared before the Nazi victory. In fact, precious family photographs taken before the Nazi era are often included in the narratives. The women survivor-writers also discuss violence, filthy, vicious guards (particularly female guards), lice, typhus, and dysentery. What distinguishes their works from those by men and from depositions and evidentiary testimony are the deep, unhealed wounds left by their experiences of nakedness, degradation, hunger and starvation, and sexuality (and occasionally childbirth). Almost all these works implicitly or explicitly focus on sisterhood as the sustaining of their Holocaust years.

Two authors in particular describe their arrival at Auschwitz in cinematic detail. Sara Nomberg-Przytyk relates the effect of unexpected violence and degradation. After days on a crowded, filthy transport with little or no food, water, or sleep, a vulnerable new arrival was "so surprised that she would not even shield her face [from repeated blows] and would look around innocently and ask: `Why are you hitting me? I am a human being."' Standing naked for inspection by the SS, women zugani (new arrivals) were herded before barbers, accompanied by blows and kicks, "in silence with tears streaming down [their] cheeks," as they were required to spread their legs and be shaved. Without their hair and clothes, feeling thoroughly humiliated and victimized, they were initiated into the hell-hole of the world. She later relates that she imagined "thousands of fingers . . . pointing" at her, saying, "Here is a victim you can hit; you can pour your anger out on her and she will not protest, not even if you perform unusual acts of torture on her. If she can't take it, that's even better."14

Livia Bitton Jackson, fifteen years old when she was deported to Auschwitz, is slapped and slashed by the whip of an SS guard before she begins to understand that she has to undress in front of all the deportees and the guards. Her humiliation is heightened by her age and the natural shyness of adolescent girls:

I stare directly ahead as I take off my clothes. I am afraid. By not looking at anyone I hope no one will see me . . . I hesitate before removing my bra. My breasts are two growing buds, taut and sensitive. I can't have anyone see them. I decide to leave my bra on. Just then a shot rings out. The charge is ear-shattering. Some women begin to scream. Others weep. I quickly take my bra off.

Shorn of clothing and hair, Jackson's nakedness is ironically protective: "A burden was lifted. The burden of individuality. Of associations. Of identity. Of the recent past." She and thousands of other girls and women have "become members of an exclusive club. Inmates of Auschwitz." (15)

Thoughts related to sexuality (humiliation through nakedness, amenorrhea, fear of rape, fear of sterility, pregnancy, and childbirth) were important focal points in women's minds and conversations.

Isabella Leitner opens her book with three paragraphs that set the stage for her imprisonment in Auschwitz. Writing in 1945, in New York, she is incredulous that only one year earlier she had been deported to Auschwitz. Among the details that identify her as a female narrator is the statement that she had not "menstruated for a long time." Thus, in one understated, almost casual line, she introduces the possibility of planned sterility and eventual annihilation of her people. She reinforces the Nazi attempt to reverse nature in a ghoulish chapter on the birth of a baby in the Auschwitz barracks. '6

Gerda Klein is haunted by a recurring dream-"the thought of a baby, warm, new, clean as freedom itself. How wonderful it would be to have my own baby!" But amenorrhea and the fear of forced sterilization fill her with "unspeakable horror" that does not seem to affect her barrack mates. She feels alone in her despair and decides, "I must have a baby of my own. I felt that I would endure anything so long as that hope was not extinguished.""

In virtually all the witness literature by women, we read about women caring for other women, women who "adopt" a surrogate sister or aunt or mother, women who worked at keeping one another alive. Leitner says simply, "If you are sisterless, you do not have the pressure, the absolute responsibility to end the day alive." The expectation to stay alive because others expect you to was, for her, an "awesome" burden: "Does staying alive not only for yourself, but also because someone else expects you to, double the life force?"(18) Frances Penney writes that the women in her barrack "had to drag the debilitated Roza [a sister prisoner brutally beaten by the SS] down to the courtyard, for roll call. Since she was unable to stand on her feet, we supported her and propped her up, so that her weakness would not be noticed by the German Commandant."(19)

Penney's story is not unique or even unusual. Nomberg-Przytyk tells of similar incidents-of bonding among Jews and political prisoners and of daily risks they took to manipulate the camp bureaucracy to help a friend. Autobiographical stories by women physicians and nurses assigned to camp "infirmaries" (actually, barracks to isolate sick prisoners in the process of dying) are replete with scenes of women stealing food into the infirmary to help a friend or relative improve.(20)

Hunger was the single common deprivation of all Jewish concentration camp prisoners, but witness literature reveals that there were differences in the way males and females responded to the lack of food. Men apparently fantasized about splendid meals while women, in addition to imagining plentiful meals, traded recipes and spoke about the ways they "stretched" food to feed their families. Thus, men wrote only as deprived consumers and women, more often than not, as creative cooks.(21)

In All but My Life, Gerda Klein talks about the chaos in the labor camps toward the end of the war. Prisoners were marched west, toward Auschwitz, locked in barns and empty barracks during the nights. Conditions were disgusting and "food was meager. Hungry and without anything to do, the girls began to speak of food, exchanging recipes for the richest pastries."(22) "After the war" talk in Ilona Karmel's autobiographical novel Estate o f Memory centered on food-feasts of "cakes, bowls of broth or fruit"-and fashion and vacations."(23)

Judith Isaacson and her bunkmates exchanged recipes on the Sabbath, at their menorah-less Hanukkah celebration, and on their transports from Auschwitz to labor camps: "Mostly we sang or exchanged recipes. I recall a lengthy discussion about rétes, the incredible flaky Hungarian strudel. Marcsa liked it filled with peppered fried cabbage, but the rest of us preferred it sweet, with apples, sour cherries, or creamed cottage cheese." Just before liberation, as slaves in a munitions factory, she and the other girls tried to distract one another from their misery: "We were so hungry that [for amusement we used] to tell each other what kind of soups and meats and vegetables and cakes our mothers used to make. Nobody of us knows exactly how to make, but we found out and explained very seriously."(24) Gerda Haas and her Theresienstadt friend and bunkmate tried to forget their hunger by "describing to each other our favorite foods, right down to their remembered smells. We'd rub our stomachs while imaginary feasts rose before us . . . and we'd laugh at our cleverness: Wasn't it indeed gastronomic masturbation, this futile exercise?"(25)


The lives and deaths of Jewish women during the Holocaust are, in fact, the most striking embodiment of women's potential for violence, for nurturing, and for indifference. There are stories of cruelties-incredible cruelties and unimaginable barbarities that exceed fictional accounts of atrocities and sadism, but there are also many stories of caring and sisterhood. The women [re] construct themselves in documents and narratives as strong nurturers capable of outliving and outperforming men in the most difficult of circumstances. The experiences of Jewish women during the Holocaust must therefore be examined not only as a valuable part of the historical record of extraordinary and heinous human indifference, a "metaphysical evil,"(26) or the cataclysmic event of the twentieth century, but also as equally extraordinary examples of human love and selflessness,(27) as memories that valorize the "female" experience of nurturing and connectedness. Like Ashton's Grace Aguilar and Schely-Newman's Julia as well as other women in this volume, women who directly endured the horrors of the Holocaust represented their experience in their own words, and in their own image.


I wish to thank Robert Kesting, U.S. National Archives, for his guidance and assistance with the archives documents; and Sybil Milton, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, for her thoughtful criticism and strong encouragement. Their keen devotion to historical accuracy strengthened my conclusions even as it stimulated my imagination.

1. Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), p. 56.

2. See, for example, Sybil Milton, "Women and the Holocaust: The Case of German and German-Jewish Women," in Renate Bridenthal, Ati- na Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, eds., When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), pp. 297-307; Joan Ringelheim, "Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of the Matriarch," in Judith R. Baskin, ed., Jewish Wom- en in Historical Perspective (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), pp. 243-64; Marlene Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers o f the Holocaust (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1986).

3. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism, 1919-1945: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts (New York: Schocken Books, 1983).

4. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, "Editorial," Dachau Review 1 (1988): 2. However, this does not mean that the women who survived the Nazis were generally responsible for their own survival. It is well documented that survival was random and exceptional. See Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 561-62 see also Milton, "Women and the Holocaust" pp. 311-16.

5. A short excerpt from a lengthy and graphic testimony, taken at the dose of the war, summarizes the Nazis' treatment of the Jewish prisoners in Ravensbrück: "At noon in winter, lining up for work. The old and sick women, most of them Jewesses between 70 and 80 years of age, remain in tie block as long as possible. The protective custody commander arrives, accompanied by SS men and dogs which attack the old women, tear the clothes from their bodies and bite their breasts, legs, faces. At the time, many died of the consequences" (Boxes 522 and 523, War Crimes Case File Number 000-50-11 [Records of the Deputy Judge Advocate, 7708th War Crimes Group, United States Forces European Theater, Cases Not Tried, 1945-1947]; Records of the U.S. Army Commands, 1942, Record Group 338, National Archives, Suitland, Md. (hereafter cited as Ravensbrück).

6. Lore Rolling Pert, Ravensbrück, Box 523, National Archives.

7. Rhodes, under Italian control from 1912 until September 1943, when it succumbed to German rule, is the most south-eastern island of the Aegean, very close to Turkey. The Jews of Rhodes, descended from the Jews of Spain who had been expelled in 1492, comprised a homogeneous Ladino-speaking community for over four and one half centuries.

8. Yahil (The Holocaust, p. 420) sets this figure at 2,000.

9. Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 1985), pp. 706-8.

10. Ibid., p. 724.

11. Sara Bentor, Anne Cohen, Giovanna Hasson, and Laura Hasson, "The Odyssey of the Women from Rhodes," Dachau Review 1 (1988): 23440.

12. Quoted in Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland, pp. 380-81.

13. Milton, "Women and the Holocaust," pp. 297-307.

14. Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), pp. 13-16.

15. Livia E. Bitton Jackson, Elli: Coming o f Age in the Holocaust (New York: Times Books, 1980), pp. 59-61.

16. Isabella Leitner, Fragments o f Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz (New York: Laurel, 1978), pp. 44-45.

17. Gerda Klein, All but My Life (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), p. 156.

18. Leitner, Fragments of Isabella, pp. 14, 404.

19. Frances Penney, l Was There (New York: Shengold, 1988), p. 103.

20. Nomberg-Przytyk, Auschwitz, pp. 79-82. See also Olga Lengyel, "Accursed Births," Five Chimneys (London: Granada, 1972), pp. 110-13.

21. Myrna Goldenberg, "Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust," in Roger Gottlieb, ed., Thinking the Unthink-able: Meanings o f the Holocaust (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp. 150-66.

22. Klein, All but My Life, p. 195.

23. Ilona Karmel, An Estate of Memory (New York: Feminist Press, 1969), p. 300.

24. Judith Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs o f a Survivor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), pp. 111, 152.

25. Gerda Haas, These 1 Do Remember: Fragments from the Holocaust (Freeport, Maine: Cumberland Press, 1982), pp. 43-44.

26. Joan Ringelheim, "Thoughts about Women and the Holocaust," in Gottlieb, Thinking the Unthinkable, pp. 141-49.

27. Goldenberg, "Different Horrors."

This essay first appeared in "Active Voices - Women in Jewish Culture" copyright (1995) by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press.

Additional permissions were granted by Dr. Myrna Goldenberg, author and Dr. Maurie Sacks, editor.