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

Historical Background

Throughout the centuries, the most virulent manifestations of European anti-Semitism were usually aimed at men rather than women. Unlike Jewish females, Jewish males were distinguishable from the rest of the population by circumcision, and were viewed as being "maimed in both spirit and body." Anti-Semitic literature, painting, sculpture, cartoons, religious as well as secular, were therefore particularly vehement in their negative depictions of men. Jewish women, by contrast, were much more sympathetically portrayed as exotic beauties, wise, charming, compassionate, and frequently the objects of love for handsome young Christians. This coincided with a popular image of the vivacious, gracious, Jewish intellectual hostesses who presided over many of the nineteenth-century cultural Salons of Vienna. That image, in turn, gradually gave way to the early twentieth century's version of the young Jewish female as social reformer andrevolutionary, with Rosa Luxemburg as the real life prototype.

In European anti-Semitic material in the interwar years, there is a steady increase in the number of Jewish women appearing alongside Jewish men, most noticeably in cartoon caricatures. Rosa Luxemburg herself, although she was a victim rather than a perpetrator of violence, was to become a popular symbol of the evils thought to be threatening German society and womanhood. She and other women activists, Jewish and non Jewish alike, were remembered with fear and loathing as examples of what National Socialism was pledged to prevent.

While the status of the Aryan woman in Nazi Germany was distinctly second class, Jewish women were not just inferior to men, but the entire Aryan race. There as elsewhere the traditional preferred status of Jewish women was on the way to disappearing. The name "Sara" was to be added to that of each Jewish female residing in Nazi Germany. In the anti-Jewish legislation known as the Nuremberg Laws which took effect September 1, 1935, certain statutes were especially pertinent to women, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, which prohibited marriages and extra-marital intercourse between Jews and Germans, and the law forbidding the employment of German maids under the age of forty-five in Jewish households.

But Jewish women were still exempt from the worst brutalities. During Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass), the first of the Nazis' organized pogroms, whcih occurred on November 9-10, 1938 and involved outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence throughout Germany and Austria, close to one hundred Jewish men were murdered, while many others were beaten and about 30,000 were arrested and deported to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. Jewish women, however, were spared both deportation and death, though a number were beaten and raped.

With the outbreak of World War II and throughout the various phases of the Holocaust, Jewish women lost all vestiges of their traditional preferred status. The Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units which functioned with the aid of local collaborators) massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews, men and women alike, in eastern Poland, the Baltic states and a number of Russian republics. Though the women were often separated from the men on their final journey, their treatment was the same: like the men they were ordered to undress, led in groups of ten to the edge of a trench and shot by firing squads of Germans with the assistance of local collaborators.

In Ejszyszki (currently part of Lithuania), in September 1941, the names of young, pretty Jewish unmarried women were announced from a list supplied by local Poles. Prior to being killed they were led to the nearby bushes and raped by German soldiers. In Libau (Liepaja), Latvia, on December 15 and 17, 1941, mothers were ordered to hold their babies against their shoulders to make them easier targets, and were then murdered themselves.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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