Women In The Forest
By Nechama Tec
University of Connecticut, Stamford
Below are excerpts from a paper that appeared in the journal
"Contemporary Jewry" v.17, 1996

(Dept. of Sociology, Connecticut College, New London, CT.)

With the permission of the editors.

Whereas initially theoretical considerations lead me to believe gender would be insignificant during the Holocaust, empirical evidence about illegal life in the Belorussian forests points to significant gender differences which were particularly pronounced for Jewish women. This study examines the fate of Jewish women in the forests in different partisan groups and how it differed from that of other illegal forest dwellers. The findings call for an examination of the effects of gender during the Holocaust. Other suggestions are provided as to the meanings and implications of these differences.

As I grope for an understanding of the German destruction of European Jews I concentrate on compassion, mutual help, resistance, altruism, rescue, self-preservation and survival. Rare and easily overshadowed by the enormity of the Nazi crimes these expressions of human courage and human decency helped reduce the Jewish death toll. My study of the intricate connections between these special features of the Holocaust has a great deal of continuity. Even before I finish a research project it leads me into another one and then another one.

While following my research path, I have paid only casual attention the the differences in the fate of men and women. I knew, of course, that here and there the Germans halted the murder of Jewish men and women, particularly when they needed slave labourers for special short lived goal. I also knew that these occasional interruptions in the murder of Jewish men or women, did not affect the overall Nazi aim to totally annihilate all Jews. Similarly, I was aware that these occasional departures from the main Nazi policies of destruction failed to change the significant sub goal aiming at humiliating and degrading the Jews before putting them to death. As far as Germans were concerned, in the end, all Jews were destined to die, regardless of any other characteristics, including their sex.

Joan Ringelheim, a philosopher and feminist, was the first to advocate the study of the relationship between gender and the Holocaust. Sometimes referred to as the mother of this field, Ringelheim followed up her call for research with a special conference on women, and later in 1983, with a publication, Proceedings of the Conference, Women Surviving the Holocaust (Katz and Ringelheim 1983). I was curious enough to read the papers which grew out of this conference and found them interesting. Yet, familiarity with these papers failed to convince me that I should pay more attention to the topic.

On the contrary, whenever the idea of gender and the Holocaust came up, I felt that since the Germans aimed at total annihilation of the Jews, regardless of sex, an examination of gender and the destruction of European Jews would yield only limited results. I assumed that in the devastating context of the Holocaust the effects of gender would be overshadowed by the Jewishness of the individuals and by the effects of other conditions such as co-operation, mutual help, resistance to evil, and other efforts of survival.

However, empirical findings from my (Tec 1993) most recent book, Defiance, alerted me to significant differences in the fate of men and women who refused to submit to the German terror by escaping into the forests. Findings about how different the life of Jewish women in the forest was from the life of Jewish men convinced me that it might be important to learn more about what happened to Jewish women during the Holocaust.

Concentrating on the German occupation of Western Belorussia, now known as Belorus, findings from Defiance, (Tec 1993) tell about women in the forest and about forest life in general. Much of western Belorussia is covered by thick, jungle-like, partly inaccessible forests. Until 1939, the area belonged to Poland. By September 17, 1939, because of the German-Russian friendship treaty, it was transferred to the USSR. In less than two years, as a result of the German-Russian War, control over this territory switched hands. Under the German occupation these forests became a home for different kinds of fugitives and partisan groups. Eventually, Western Belorussia was known as an important centre for the Soviet partisan movement. Women in general, and Jewish women in particular, fit in unusual ways into these forests environments

The 1941 German attack upon Russia, a sudden massive onslaught, caused the collapse of the Red Army... Thousands of Russian soldiers escaped into the Belorussian woods. Many more surrendered to the enemy. Later, some of the Soviet POW-s succeeded in fleeing into the Belorussian forests. There they met their comrades who had come earlier.

Referring to themselves as partisans, these former Russian soldiers operated as small splinter groups. Scattered throughout the forests, they lacked weapons, leaders, and discipline. Rather than fight the enemy, these men would rob each other of anything the considered of value.. Rivalry and greed would sometimes lead to murder. These early partisans rarely attacked the Germans. Whatever partisan attacked happened, these usually involved easy targets, one or two soldiers who might have strayed into partisan territory, or a single German truck that ventures into a deserted road. The inducement in such cases was the acquisition of arms and food. Partisan encounters with local peasants were usually limited to food collections and demands for goods (p 36...)

At approximately the same time these forest inhabitants were joined by Jewish fugitives. As a rule, the Jews were former Ghetto inmates, who aspired to membership in the Soviet partisan units. Many of these ghetto inmates met with rejections, some with death. Of these Jewish fugitives only a minority was allowed successfully cooperate with non-Jewish partisans. Some of those who were rejected by the Russian partisans tried to form their own forest groups. Frequently these newly created groups became family camps. Usually, family camps would offer protection to all Jews regardless of sex, age, or state of health. Jewish family camps varied in terms of composition, size and ability to withstand the overpowering threats.

One of these groups, known as the Bielski otriad, a Russian word for partisan detachment, assumed a dual role of fighters and rescuers. The Bielski otriad eventually grew to over 1200 individuals, distinguishing itself as the largest armed rescue of Jews by Jews. The founders of this group were the Bielski brothers, Asael, Tuvia and Zus.

As former Jewish peasants, the Bielski brothers belonged to a small minority of Jews. Although they were the only Jews in an isolated village, they had strong attachment to Jewish traditions. Just like their Belorussian neighbours, they were poor, with very limited schooling.

Familiar with life in the countryside, the Bielskis were very independent. Already in the summer of 1941 the brothers were warned by Belorussian friends that they were to be arrested, because of their past employment by the Soviet authorities. They escaped into the countryside.

When in the summer of of 1942 they lost their parents, relatives and friends, the Bielski brothers with some relatives and followers, about 30 individuals, organized a partisan unit. Tuvia the oldest brother was appointed commander. A strong leader from the start, Tuvia Bielski insisted that all Jews, regardless of sex, age and any other characteristics, would be accepted into their group. His policy met with internal opposition. Some members saw this open door policy as a threat to the group's existence. But Tuvia argued that large size meant greater safety. As a charismatic leader, Tuvia never budged from this initial position. This policy prevailed.

Suspended in a hostile environment, the Bielski otriad tried to neutralize the surrounding threats by cooperating with Soviet partisans. At first this cooperation extended to food collection and to joint military ventures. Different partisan groups were assigned to different villages from which to confiscate food. Faced with armed men, the peasants had no choice but to part with their limited provisions. While food was gathered separately by each group, attacks on Germans and their collaborators were organized jointly. These military moves aimed at the acquisition of arms and goods. (p 37...)

In Western Belorussia the Russians were numerically and politically dominant. Nevertheless, most Russian partisan units were an ethnic mixture of Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians. All had come to the forest because they wanted to live, not because they wanted to fight. (p 37...)

In the second part of 1943, when the tide of the war changed, Stalin made a new, concerted effort to establish a firmer grip over the Russian partisan movement. More men from the USSR were parachuted into Western Belorussia. (p 38...)

Nevertheless, with time the Russian partisans had gained more control, not only over practically all partisan groups but also over actual sections of the forests. (p 38...) Inevitably, the special conditions of the forest led to the emergence of new cultural expectations and new social arrangements. One of these was the reflected in the pervasive anti-intellectual attitudes .(p38...) Prejudices cut across different categories of people, the Jews, the intellectuals, the pre-war rich, the old and the women. In the forest, physical strength, fearlessness, courage and perseverance were highly valued. None of these attributes was associated with being a woman. More powerful and in control, most men felt that women were unfit for combat and were therefore, burdensome. The Soviet government did not support such views. Although widely publicized and backed politically, in reality women's participation in the Soviet partisan movement was limited. (p38...)

As a rule, women who joined Soviet partisan detachments were relegated to unimportant duties. The closest they came to combat tasks was as scouts and intelligence agents (p39...)

Women in the forest knew that powerful male partisans could shield them from dangers. Not surprisingly,"....every woman in the forest dreamt of becoming the wife a commandant. Young girls would sleep with Russian commandants, political heads or whoever was in position of power." On the other hand, too"..... unless a young woman was ready to become the mistress of a Russian officer she would not be admitted into the otriad. Moreover, if a partisan, any male partisan, helped a woman, he expected to be paid with sexual favour.

While most male partisans were eager to have sexual relations with women, they accused all women of promiscuity. The very women the desired as sex partners they viewed with contempt. In male conversations, for example, the word woman was often substituted by the word shore."

Defined as sex objects, excluded from participation in valued activities, all women in the forest were in dependent positions. Nevertheless, while an overall hostility was directed to all women, this hostility was more vigorously applied to Jewish women than to other women. Over time, these negative attitudes towards Jewish women became stronger and more common. These changes can be traced to the composition of the Soviet partisans. Towards the end of the war, to prevent future punishment, some Nazi collaborators switched sides and joined the the partisan ranks. Invariably, they brought their antisemitism into the forest, which, in turn, created a more pervasive anti-jewish atmosphere.

In the Belorussian forests, the majority of women were Jewish. Unlike their Christian counterparts, Jewish women came to the forests to avoid death. Most Christian women lived in the woods because of a special attachment to a man. Only a fraction of them was motivated by a desire to oppose the Nazis. Even a smaller fraction came because their lives were endangered. Jewish women , no matter where they were, were in more dependent and more threatening positions than Christian women. Even before they reached the forest Jewish women knew that the possibility of rape or murder was real.

Of the Jewish women who came to the forest, only a minority gained entry into the Russian partisan detachments. Most of those who did, usually became sexually involved with partisan officers. Not all women who sought entry were ready to trade sex for protection. Significantly, only a fraction had the basic requirements the Russian partisan males wanted: youth and good looks. On occasion, special skills could overcome these deficits. A physician, a nurse, a good cook, would be accepted into the detachment, even though she refused to become someone's mistress, or did not qualify as one. On the other hand, too, some high officers who had Jewish mistresses were under pressure to terminate their relationships. Some refused to give in, while others broke off their connections to these women.

The situation was different for women who reached the Bielski camp. The Bielski otriad had no entry requirements. Upon entry, the same basic rules applied equally to men and women. (p40...)

However, beyond these basic expressions of equality, the Bielski otriad, like all other partisan units, was stratified. (p40...) An individual's social standing and power depended on his or her connection to what mattered the most t to the group's survival: safety and food (p40...)

As in most groups, in the Bielski otriad, people could improve their situations in different ways. (p41...) Both men and women could get more food by taking on extra work.(p41...) In the case of men, some some could acquire guns and go on food expeditions.(p41...) Some men after receiving a gun distinguished themselves as scouts and fighters and became a part of the elite.

No such opportunities were available to women. Women were discouraged from carrying arms. They were also barred from food missions. Men felt that during an expedition the presence of women would only worsen an already perilous situation.

When some women complained about their exclusion, they were told that every army needs a large supporting group and women belong to this part.

There were no official weddings. When a man and a woman shared a tent or a bunker and acted like they belonged to each other, others began to treat them as married. An estimated majority of adults, about 60%, lived as couples.(p41...)

Those I interviewed had different opinions about these forest marriages. Some think that forest unions were a result of sober deliberations. There are those who insist the in the woods the man-woman relationship was based on more than just an exchange or wish for services and goods. Pesia Bairach, who is of this opinion, argues that "even though we women did not go out to fight and did not go on food missions, we were exposed to military actions. The Germans would attack us. A woman who had a man with a gun felt more secure."

A nurse, Lili Krawitz, an upper class woman attached to a lower class man, feels that while women were totally dependent on men, both, men and women, needed each other. Talking about these socially asymmetrical marriages she insists that, no one forced women to become attached to the these lower class men. As an afterthought she adds: "I was young, hungry for love like so many other young women and these men gave us love. I don't think that a woman would have sold herself for the food, more likely for security.(p42...) One always lived in fear as to what might happen next. How does one live with fear, all alone? A young girl needed someone. I do not agree that women were selling themselves, but it was not love either. To be sure, a man rather than a woman would select a partner. But if a woman did not like a man no one forced her. She was free to reject a man, any man."

Yet for a single, unattached, woman even in the Bielski otriad, life was hard. Such a woman was usually dressed in rags, with shoes that were invariably falling apart. If she had no shoes she had to wait for her turn with the shoemaker. However, if she had nothing to bribe him with, her turn might never come.

On the other hand, while many young women were sexually active, no one coerced any of them into a relationship. No woman was ever raped in the Bielski otriad. Compared to the Soviet detachments, in the Bileski otriad, women had more options. They had the freedom to refuse a man. No woman was ever dismissed because she rejected a man. No woman was dismissed at all. In fact the women who could have had lovers, some opted for celibacy. Although life for an unattached woman was particularly harsh, they rarely blamed the Bielski otriad. Instead, they emphasized again and again that if were not for the Bielski detachment they would have never made it. They were right.

In contrast, Jewish women in the Bielski otriad, were much more critical of the men they married or refused to marry. Frequently, single and married women would draw an unflattering picture of the men in the camp. They saw them as crude and as sexually unappealing. Sometimes they transferred these views to men in general.

Sulia Rubin, one of those upper class women, in the forest became attached to a lower class fighter. Before the war Sulia preferred boys to girls. The war changed her attitudes towards men. Why? She explains: I did not see one man sacrifice himself and go to the grave with his children. My cousin went. She could have survived. A German wanted to protect her. She was gorgeous, with blue eyes and dark curly hair. (p42...) During a deportation, a German wanted to take her to the side that was spared. She said: Aber meine Kinder (But my children). Die Kinder kan ich nicht (The children I cannot) was his answer. Da gehe ich mit die Kinder zum Todt. (Then I will go the death with my children). This was during the first big Aktion in Nowogrodek. Sulia thinks that: Not only did the men not sacrifice themselves for their children and wives, but when a man's wife was barely dead he would already look for a woman with whom to have sex. This happened to me. We were hidden during an Aktion. This man's wife was taken away not long before that and he was trying to make out, first with my sister, then with me....I wanted a prince on a white horse to come and take me, but there was no one like this. I was attractive, young. Sure men wanted me, but only for sex, not for my soul. I was cured of all men. I tell my husband when he is jealous: "Don't be afraid. I don't need any men. I don't want them." Many of my girlfriends feel the same way.(p43)

We know that women in the Bielski otriad did not have to become involved with these men. Bit they agreed to these relationships, probably sought them out. The very relationships they wanted the seem to feel hostile about. What led to this hostility? Such hostility might have been due to the unevenness of the relationship, including the women's dependence. The nurse Kravitz and others emphasized how subservient women were to their fighter husbands, how they would not dare to contradict them.

In view of this hostility and resentment it is surprising that, after the war, like Sulia, many of the women stayed with the men they had married in the forest. Why did they not try change their seemingly unsuitable partners? (p43...) The women I asked had no answers to my questions.

Perhaps, in part, it had to do with the cultural climate of the times.(p43...)

In addition, the decision to stay married to the forest husbands might have been prompted by personal wartime losses. Practically all these young women had lost their entire families. At the end of the war, for most, the only person they were close to was their forest husbands. Perhaps by staying married to these men they opted for the familiar, for something which reminded them of their past, of their lost world.

For Jewish women, life in the Bielski unit and the non Jewish otriads was both similar and different. With only minor exceptions women, in all partisan groups, were excluded from combat duty and from leadership positions. Whatever influence a woman had was usually channeled through a man to whom she was sexually attached. Such male-female distinctions reflected traditional values. They show that despite the devastation of lives and the devastation of most social fabrics, some old patriarchal traditions continued to flourish.

Perhaps the forest, with its demands of physical strength, perseverance, fearlessness and courage, helped strengthen and perpetuate such social and cultural patriarchal patterns. Inevitably, as these patriarchal traditions continued to exist they affected differently the lives and destinies of men and women. We know that particularly for Jewish women acceptance into a Soviet detachment was rare and contingent on special skills or her willingness to become a mistress of a powerful man.

The Bielski otriad, although influenced by the forests' patriarchal values and expectations gave rise to significant nurturing and life-promoting arrangements. In the Bielski otriad any Jew who was in need of aid was admitted, fed and sheltered, without any pre-conditions and regardless of age, sex or any other attributes. There were basic, life determining policies. Indeed, the selfless protection of lives, a central feature of the Bielski otriad, was very different from the patriarchal environment of the forest, representing a truly humane achievement.

This paper is a modified version of one presented at the Workshop on Women and/in the Holocaust, Jerusalem, June 1995.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.