Women’s Roles Within the Ghettos

Hannah Goldstone© 2010

‘Women in the Holocaust’ is a relatively new subject matter within Holocaust studies and as a topic in its own right remains controversial. This however is not the reason I have chosen to engage in research in this area. I believe a lot can be gained from studying how men and women behaved differently during such a horrific time. They are after all biologically different. These biological differences must therefore lead to different experiences and it is these experiences I wish to investigate.  Whilst some scholars are worried that ‘Women in the Holocaust’ as a subject area in itself will detract from Holocaust studies in general, others strongly disagree. Ofer and Weitzmanm for example, believe that this topic will add to our knowledge of the Holocaust.[1]

Numerous primary sources, such as survivor testimonies and diaries, exist for this time period. As ‘female experience’ it is a new and controversial topic secondary sources of research are limited. The primary sources tend to fall under two categories; one being descriptions that were written at the time of the Holocaust and the other testimonies written retrospectively. They are crucial in any study of the Holocaust and allow us to capture personal histories. I will mainly be using women’s accounts of events and women’s interpretations of these events, as it is more likely that through female interpretation we can understand more closely the original concept of the female voice. As I am a female researcher, I believe that my interpretation of the primary sources, written and/or spoken by other females will be valid. The male voice will not be ignored; testimonies from the male perspective are also used, to gain their perspective on women during this time.

Issues arise when using primary sources. Tools of this nature, those reliant on memory, must be used with caution. Events may not be remembered exactly as they were; testimonies could be distorted. This is true of diary entries nearer the time of the event, as it is the memory of the event that is written down and not a document of the actual event. I am aware of these issues but as these are the only accounts of what happened and so must be used to discover their history. The issues with testimonies and interviews, often recorded years after the event, or a diary entry nearer the time, does not lessen the importance of these first hand accounts.

These primary sources will be the forefront of my research on ‘Women in the Holocaust’. There are many areas that are possible for study in their own right, such as women in the resistance, how women coped in the labour camps and concentration camps and the sexual exploitation of women. I have decided to focus my attention on women’s roles within the ghettos as there are more diary entries written at this time as opposed to testimonies after the event as is the case with concentration camps. The term ‘women’ is used to describe mothers, wives, daughters all of whom were affected and reacted differently to their own circumstances. In order to appreciate the hardships that women went through during their time in the ghettos, it is necessary to explore their life before the ghetto as this would have shaped their beliefs, abilities, skills and connections to those outside the ghetto walls.

Pre-war there are striking differences between women in Western and Central Europe and women who lived in Eastern Europe. Jewish people living in Western and Central Europe during the nineteen twenties and thirties tended to belong to the middle class [2]. Traditional Judaism had declined; men were responsible for the family economically whilst the women were responsible for the household chores and the upbringing of the children. Education of men and women was of great importance, but once women had their children, providing the family was financially stable, women tended not to return to work. Instead, women in this fortunate position involved themselves in charitable work where they met non-Jewish women of the same social standing as themselves
[3]. Through their charitable work, or social lives, they may have had non-Jewish friends who would have helped them during their times in the ghetto, acquiring food and goods.

In contrast to Jewish women from Western and Central Europe, Jewish women in Eastern Europe were responsible economically for their families. Education for girls was not thought of as important and they attended secular schools until they began work. Boys were sent to Jewish schools and they would continue to study Jewish texts into adulthood and so the burden of responsibility to raise and support the family was placed upon wives
[4]. Thea Hurst was born in Leipzig in 1925. In her testimony from 1983 she speaks of her life before the Holocaust, “My grandmother eh she had a milk, sort of a dairy business and she looked after the family while the men did the learning, you know, which is very much in the tradition of those days.”[5]  Although the levels of education and careers were different between Jewish women living in different geographic areas around Europe, there were some similarities. Eastern European women also had Aryan contacts, although their social status was of a lower standing. As women worked, they knew customs and the language spoken by non-Jewish people, making it easier to mix with Aryans when they escaped the ghetto walls [6].

Bravery was a key factor in women’s roles within the ghettos and this knowledge of behaviour and language of Aryan women was imperative for many women’s survival. One such woman who used her knowledge to her benefit is Liza Chapnick who lived in the Grondo Ghetto. She was born in Grondo in 1922 and lost all her family in the Holocaust
[7]. She was a short and skinny girl who looked younger than her actual age and she used her appearance to her advantage [8]. In the ghetto she became a member of an underground organisation[9] as did many women as it was easier for women to pass as Aryans than it was for men.  Women could dye their hair and instantly appear less Jewish looking. False documents were stolen for her and she was given a new Polish name, Maria Mrozowska, and was sent underground where she peeled potatoes and cleaned houses. Every night she returned to the ghetto to collect messages and assignments. Her role was to locate safe houses and to buy weapons for resistance groups. She was appointed chair of the Bialystock antifascist organisation. Her organisation drew detailed maps of the ghetto so ensure it was liberated without victims [10]. “We all assumed that none of us would survive, but it was our moral duty to fight the Nazis, to avenge our parents and our people.”[11]

Women of all classes and positions in life showed great bravery during their times in the ghetto. Liza and all those who fought in resistance movements showed immense bravery. The couriers, mainly young women were especially brave and must have lived in constant fear of their true identity being revealed or being caught smuggling items into the ghetto. Ringelblum, a member of the resistance who kept a diary throughout his time in the Warsaw ghetto describes what happened when a women was found smuggling, “Today…a Jewish woman was shot at the corner of Niska and Zamenhofa Streets while trying to smuggle herself across the border. But hundreds of people are successful in getting through to the other side to buy produce there.”

Despite my desire to rely on female testimonies during this research, one male account of the ghetto experience has proved a useful comparison. This is the diary of Emmanuel Ringelblum who on a number of occasions describes female acts of bravery. In an entry from December 1940 he recalls how Jewish women smuggle items into the ghetto,

“Here’s how a Jewess smuggles merchandise into the Ghetto from outside Otwock. When she returns from Otwock, she puts on her arm band and stands facing the Ghetto at the gate. Naturally, the guard tells her to go back into the Ghetto, which she does when a crowd had gathered around the guard and he is too busy to search her. When she goes out of the Ghetto, she takes the arm band off and faces the other way.”

It highlights not only the courage of these women, but the cunning tactics they employed to escape and return to the ghetto. Another extract from Ringelblum from May 1942 highlights this bravery;

“The heroic girls….Boldly they travel back and forth through the cities and towns of Poland. They carry “Aryan” papers identifying them as Poles or Ulkraines. One of them even wears a cross, which she never parts with except in the Ghetto. They are in mortal danger every day. They rely entirely on their “Aryan” faces and in the peasant kerchiefs that cover their heads. Without a murmur, without a second’s hesitation, they accept and carry out the most dangerous missions. …The girls volunteer as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Are there some comrades who have to be rescued from Vilna, Lublin or some other city?- They undertake the mission. ….How many times have they looked death in the eyes? How many times have they been arrested and searched?...The story of the Jewish women will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war…” [13]

There is no denying that women in the ghetto showed courage and fearlessness. Being female had its advantages as they could play towards men and manipulate them for survival. There were certain tasks that only a woman could perform. Baumel writes of a woman in the Warsaw Ghetto underground named Niuta Teitelboim. She used her sexuality to gain entry from a German guard outside a Gestapo building. Once inside the building she shot an important officer
[14]. It would not have been possible for a male member of the underground to compete such a mission, as the only reason Niuta gained access was through her female beauty. Another woman had a sexual relationship with volksdeutscher to keep her parents’ restaurant open and when he stopped this relationship the restaurant was forced to close [15].
Women, such as Liza and Niuta, in the resistance movements were often young women without a husband or family to support. This does not mean that women with children, or those who were unable to join a resistance movement played any less of a role in ghetto life. In the Lodz ghetto there were a higher percentage of women to men. Men were often deported and women under normal conditions had a longer life expectancy than men and the same is true under the harsh conditions of ghetto life. In 1941 there were 123 women for every 100 men and in 1944 this increased to 137 women for every 100 men
[16]. Although women performed the same tasks as men they were paid less than men, a tradition of pre-war life that continued in the ghetto [17].  Not only would women work the same hours as men, they also felt it was their responsibility to look after their house and children. They did not complain or ask husbands to help; they just continued with their domestic roles and made what meals they could out of the meagre rations[18].

 “To feed their families, women often improvised and invented “food” from the diverse commodities that they were given, some of them inedible. For example, the food rations included relatively large quantities of ersatz coffee from which women would bake “cake”. There was much room for inventiveness with potato peels.”[19]

A similar example of ingenuity was Leah Stein’s story of her mother.  Leah describes how her mother needed to make a cream for her children as they had eczema and it was not possible to purchase any so she used a mixture of pig fat, matches and mercury to alleviate the itching caused by the eczema
[20]. There are many example of mothers doing everything possible to feed their children, one such account occurred in Sonsowiec where there was a public execution of a Jewish mother who bought one egg from a Polish peasant (also murdered) to feed her starving child [21]. These mothers were not only scared for their own wellbeing, but that of their children and their husbands and they did all they could to keep a secure family unit.

As the pressure on these mothers was so great, the welfare system was initiated by Rumkowski in the Lodz ghetto. Many women took their children to work with them and shared their rations. In June 1944 women were 55.5% of the workforce and 90% of women were working
[22]. Some families grew stronger as the family structure continued because of the mother. Family meals remained still important, especially the Shabbat meal where the mother/ wife would continue the tradition of lighting Shabbat candles on a Friday evening [23]. However, in other families the harsh conditions meant the deterioration of the family unit. A diary entry of Dawid Sierakiak, a young boy in the ghetto commented on how his father would eat most of the food portions and his mother would always share her food. When she was being deported, she did not show fear, but her husband did nothing to help her, he just ate.[24]  Her son, Dawid wrote in his diary of his mother,

“Dear mother, my tiny, emaciated mother who has gone through so many misfortunes in her life, whose entire life was one of sacrifice of others, relatives and strangers…she had given her life by lending and giving away provisions, but she admitted with such a bitter smile that I could see she didn’t regret her conduct at all, and although she loved her life so greatly, for her there are values even more important that life, like God, family etc. She kissed each one of us good-bye, took a bag with her bread and a few potatoes that I forced in her, and left quickly to her horrible fate.” [25]

The love and respect that Dawid showed towards his mother is obvious. A woman did not have to be in a resistance group to be thought of as brave. Simple acts; giving away food rations, caring for family and others in the ghetto was just as important and courageous as those who crossed to the Aryan side. Dawid’s diary extract together with Ringelblum’s allow us to realise the respect that men had for women even though they were not given authoritative roles within the administration systems in the ghettos.

Another element of the female role within the ghetto is pregnancy. Although traditional roles changed, as did women’s responsibilities, the biological differences of men and women remained in effect. Anna Bergman was a Czech women living in the Theresienstadt ghetto;

“I became pregnant for the second time, this time consciously. Now listen to this marvellous philosophy! When my first child died we decided to have another- this was after the invasion of June 1944- we though that if we returned to Prague after the war there would be nothing there for us and we would think twice about having a child to care for; but if I returned pregnant, or had a baby, that child would be there. My husband was deported on 28 September 1944 and he never knew I was pregnant because I wasn’t sure then. When the men left, the Germans told us that anyone could follow their husbands of their own free will and meet them in another place, Auschwitz, which would be like Theresienstadt. I was one of the first to go. I needn’t have gone because I was in sheltered work at the time. I could have stayed there until the end of the war and I knew that; but in October 1944, I was one of the first volunteers to go to Auschwitz, a camp I knew nothing about.” [26]

This extract gives us a great deal of information about Anna, and others like her, living in the ghettos. It describes a positive attitude; hope for the future, “if we return to Prague”, bringing a new life into the world. Anna’s love for her husband is explicit; she would leave a reasonably comfortable life to follow him to the unknown.

However, not all women shared her optimism. Helen Stone tells of her pregnancy in the Kamionka Ghetto
[27]; “I got pregnant and if I hadn’t had an abortion the child would have been three weeks when I went to Auschwitz and I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”  Helen was aware that mothers and their children would be murdered. Her pessimism was in distinct contrast to the hope that Anna held. The different views of Helen and Anna could be for many various reasons; the personalities of the women themselves, the conditions in the ghettos and their knowledge of the future. These two testimonies highlight the differences between women in the ghettos. Before they entered the ghettos and whilst inside, women were different. That is not to negate the topic of ‘Women in the Holocaust’ at all, but merely a signpost to recognise that although generalisations are possible, differences do remain; not all women behave the same way under similar circumstances.

Women who had domestic responsibilities such as a husband and or children also had various positions of responsibility within ghetto life. In the Warsaw ghetto professional women were assigned various undertakings such as planning and running the soup kitchens which fed hundreds of thousands of people. Women worked in industry and in shops, making goods for the German army or items such as furniture to sell outside the ghetto
[28]. With regard to the new responsibilities that women had, Ofer notes that, “Some of the women took on responsibility and exercised initiative out of sheer necessity. Others found their situation challenging and used it to fulfil hidden potential.”[29]  The first group that Ofer describes shows the women with a more traditional role; that of taking care of the family. The latter example highlights a break with traditional roles.  “Even those who explained their motivation in traditional terms hinted at a new independence and willingness to depart from tradition.”[30]  One example of a woman who fits into this category of moving away from traditional roles is a woman who was interviewed in the Warsaw ghetto by journalist Cecilia Slepak, ‘B’. Before the war she was a dietician, once inside the ghetto she became in charge of the soup kitchens. Slepak remarks on how it is only due to these circumstances inside the ghetto that women such as ‘B’ could achieve their true potential [31]. I am not lessening in any way the atrocities of the Holocaust, but it is important to note that women such as ‘B’ had positive experiences inside the ghetto, experiences they would not have had under ‘normal’ circumstances.

It is the actions of these women pre-war that may have affected their actions, attitudes and mentality during their times inside the ghetto. Western European women were well educated and many being members of the medical profession in some capacity
[32]. Jewish women were disproportionally represented in the fields of medicine, science and teachers [33]. Medical knowledge would have been invaluable in the ghetto, especially if women had ways of obtaining medical supplies. As these middle class women had this knowledge and the possibility of supplies they may have felt a duty within the ghetto to help those they could. Liza Chapnik writes about the Grondo ghetto,

“Many people in the ghetto were starving. Some people preferred to kill themselves rather than suffer the constant assaults and humiliations. Some mothers gave their children poison (if they were fortunate enough to have some). I knew women dentists (who had access to arsenic) who poisoned their children, husbands and themselves. They were not trying to avoid the gas chambers; they had never heard of such things. Their sole aim was to avoid falling into the hands on the German murderers.” [34]

Suicide is never an easy decision to make. Not only did the women mention killing themselves, but also their husbands and children. This highlights the desperate state that these women were in. They would rather be murderers by killing their family than be killed by the Germans.

Similar to the female dentists, Adina Blady Szwajger believed it was preferable for her patients to die peacefully than at the hands of the German murderers. Adina was a Doctor in the children’s hospital in the Warsaw ghetto. There was a lack of medicine, nutritious food and so there was a high mortality rate among patients. Adina specifically attended to the children who had serious illnesses and were unlikely to survive. When the Germans began to capture the hospital, she was aware of the brutality they would show towards the sick patients and children. Although the circumstances in the hospital were poor, Adina would not allow the Germans to terrorise her patients and so she ended their lives. She injected morphine in some of the older patients and gave the children ‘medicine’ and told them to go to their beds and fall asleep, knowing they would never wake again. This example demonstrates the great responsibility that Adina (and the other Doctors and nurses who had knowledge of these activities) faced. They decided that to die peacefully was better than to die at the hands of a German killer, but the courage it took to administer the fatal drug and to feed it to the young children is unfathomable.

Although class distinctions were important before and during ghetto life, this status became unimportant during deportations. Dalia Ofer writes of a report made by journalist Slepak. Most of the authors of the diaries that Slepack used were from the middle classes in the Warsaw Ghetto beginning in December 1941 and they were still alive at the date of her last interview in the spring of 1942
[36]. Ofer notes that these women probably survived as they worked and to supplement this income, had possessions to sell. However, deportations began in June 1942 and these class distinctions became irrelevant. Although the poorer members of the population were initially deported, the richer classes soon followed [37]. Similarly Henryk Brysker wrote in his journal,

“People who were engineers yesterday are happy to get a job as a doorman today; a lawyer- a peddler of candies; one who was a rich merchant a little while ago stands in line to receive a free portion of soup from the low class charity kitchen;… and a street peddler who stuck with his vocation- that is the gallery of the reshuffled classes.” [38]

Even though this extract does not mention women, it is a first hand account which confirms the thoughts of Ofer; that class distinctions became irrelevant. Most people were striving to live on what merge rations they could find.

Throughout this work a common theme I have found is that these women did not think of themselves only as individuals; they were linked to either someone or a group of people. A mother was linked to her children, a wife to her husband, younger women linked to their family or a youth organisation. This is not a universal template that every woman in every ghetto could fit neatly in to, but the majority of women would be in at least one category.

This piece of work simply touches on the various groups of women within the ghettos and how and why they chose their specific roles whilst confined inside the ghetto walls. Regardless of class and wealth, women in the ghettos showed great courage and bravery in the face of adversity. My aims of this piece of work was to discover how women’s pre- war lives shaped their experiences within the ghetto, how their traditional domestic roles had changed, the new roles they acquired and how they coped with their changing lives.  No-one knew when or how the war would end, yet many women remained optimistic about the future, even if they would not be a part of it.


Baumel, J.T., Double Jeopardy (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 1998)

Gutman, I., The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943: ghetto, underground, revolt (Brighton: Harvester, 1982)

Offer, D., ‘Her View Through My Lens: Celia Slepak Studies Women in the Warsaw Ghetto’ in Taylor, J. and Cohen, T. (eds) Gender, Place and Memory in Modern Jewish Experience (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 2003)

Chapnick, L., ‘The Grondo Ghetto and It’s Underground. A Personal Narrative’
Hyman, P., ‘Gender and the Jewish Family’
Unger, M., ‘The Status and Plight of Women in the Lodz Ghetto’
Offer, D., ‘Gender Issues in Diaries and Testimonies of the Ghetto. The Case of Warsaw’
All in Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998)

Ringelblum, E., Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto : the Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, (New York : Schocken Books, 1974)

Smith, L., Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, (London: Ebury Press, 2006)

Szwajger, A.B., I remember Nothing More : the Warsaw Children's Hospital and the Jewish Resistance (London : Collins-Harvill, 1990)

An interview with Leah Stein conducted in 1983 taken from the collection at Manchester Jewish Museum

An interview with Thea Hurst conducted in 1983 taken from the collection at Manchester Jewish Museum

http://www.theverylongview.com/WATH/ (consulted 12 December 2008)

  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998)
2.  ibid p25 (Back)
3.  ibid pp4-5 (Back)
4.  ibid p4 (Back)
5.  Thea Hurst Interview conducted in 1983 from the collection at Manchester Jewish Museum
6.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) p25
7.  ibid p109 (Back)
8.  Offer, D., ‘Her View Through My Lens: Celia Slepak Studies Women in the Warsaw Ghetto’ in Taylor, J. and Cohen, T. (eds) Gender, Place and Memory in Modern Jewish Experience (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 2003) (Back)
9.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) p114 (Back)
10.  ibid pp114-119 (Back)
11.  ibid p119 (Back)
12.  Ringelblum, E., Notes from the Warsaw ghetto : the journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, (New York : Schocken Books, 1974) p118 (Back)
13.  Ringelblum, E., Notes from the Warsaw ghetto : the journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, (New York : Schocken Books, 1974) pp273-4 (Back)
14.  Baumel, J.T., Double Jeopardy (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 1998) pp13-14 (Back)
15.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998)  p156 (Back)
16.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) pp123-126 (Back)
17.  ibid p133 (Back)
18.  ibid p135 (Back)
19.  ibid p134 (Back)
20.  Leah Stein interview conducted in 1983 from the collection at Manchester Jewish Museum (Back)
21.  Baumel, J.T., Double Jeopardy (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 1998) p12 (Back)
22.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) pp 128-130 (Back)
23.  ibid p136 (Back)
24.  ibid p136-137 (Back)
25.  ibid p139 (Back)
26.  Smith, L., Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, (London: Ebury Press, 2006)  p151 (Back)
27.  ibid p112 (Back)
28.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) pp158-161 (Back)
29.  ibid p150 (Back)
30.   ibid p150 (Back)
31.  ibid p150 (Back)
32.  ibid p30 (Back)
33.  ibid p31 (Back)
34.  ibid p113 (Back)
35.  Szwajger, A.B., I remember nothing more : the Warsaw Children's Hospital and the Jewish Resistance (London : Collins-Harvill, 1990) pp19-66 (Back)
36.  Offer, D., ‘Her View Through My Lens: Celia Slepak Studies Women in the Warsaw Ghetto’ in Taylor, J. and Cohen, T. (eds) Gender, Place and Memory in Modern Jewish Experience (London: Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd, 2003) (Back)
37.  Offer, D. and Weitzmanm L.J.,(eds) Women in the Holocaust, (Yale:Yale University Press, 1998) p163 (Back)
38.  Gutman, I., The Jews of Warsaw 1939- 1943: ghetto, underground, revolt (Brighton: Harvester, 1982) p77 (Back)


Hannah Goldstone earned her Masters Degree in Holocaust Studies at Manchester University, UK. Her focus was mainly women's experiences during the Holocaust.

Hannah is presently working as a volunteer/resource person on the Manchester Jewish Museum's Holocaust Education as well as working on the Beth Shalom's (Holocaust Centre in Nottingham) new website.

She lives with her husband in Whitefield, Manchester, UK.

This article is re-printed here with the permission of the author.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2010.
All rights reserved.