Mothers, Sisters, Resisters
Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust

Edited by Brana Gurewitsch

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1998 Brana Gurewitsch. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8173-0952-7



Chapter One


Motherhood, women's most gender-determined characteristic,posed particular challenges during the Holocaust. At the simplestlevel, it was the mother's responsibility to keep her children alive.In a wartime situation, when consumer goods were scarce and thephysical environment threatening, providing food, clothing, andshelter was a challenge to all mothers. But during the Holocaust,Nazi ideology decreed that all Jewish lives were worthless. Jewishwomen and children were treated as enemies of the Nazi staterather than as noncombatants. The challenge of survival for Jewishmothers and children became almost insurmountable. In theghettos, Jewish children were sometimes specifically targeted inspecial children's Aktions in which they were rounded up and sentto their deaths. In the death camps, men and women were segregated;young children and their mothers were usually selected forimmediate death. In spite of ingenuity, daring, and defiance ofNazi decrees, circumstances prevented the survival of millions ofmothers and children. Sometimes geography contributed to survival,sometimes the age of the child influenced the chances forsurvival, and sometimes fates were determined by the nature ofthe particular camp to which they were sent. Occasionally roles reversed,and children took responsibility for their mothers, sometimessucceeding, but often failing to insure their survival.

    The interviews in this section show how mothers faced thischallenge in varying situations, with differing degrees of success,and demonstrate the overwhelming odds against the survival ofJewish children in the Holocaust. The interviews are arranged inan order that reflects an increasing degree of danger to mothersand children, from escape of occupied territory, to internment, tohiding in more or less protected circumstances, to the experiencesof mothers and children in concentration camps.

    Escape, the most instinctive reaction of a parent to danger,and the classic first reaction of Jews to persecution, is the theme ofRywka Diament's interview. The Diament family's escape and survivalas a unit was made possible by geography and the fortunatewhim of the Swiss government, which allowed them to enter Switzerland.Had they been living in eastern Europe they would havebeen fatally trapped by German occupation. Rywka Diament's marriageto a poor Yiddish writer in Paris revealed a latent streak of independencein the young Polish orphan from a small town who arrivedpenniless in Paris to live with her brother and sister-in-lawafter the death of her parents. Although she clearly deferred to herhusband, whose intellectual skills she admired, she assumed responsibilityfor her children and acted independently to bringthem to the relative safety of Nice, in the Italian zone, and later toplace them in a convent until arrangements could be made tosmuggle the family across the border into Switzerland. There, too,she took the initiative to regain custody of the children after theywere put in foster care. She benefited from the connections andreputation of her husband, but it was clearly she who managedthe children's care and protection.

    Rita Grunbaum was with her husband and mother when shewas deported from her home in Rotterdam with her baby. The arrangementsthey had made to protect their child did not work out,and it was Fred Grunbaum who snatched the baby and put her onRita's lap in the bus that took them to Westerbork. Here, too, geographyand political circumstances helped to determine the survivalof the Grunbaum family. As an internment camp, Westerborkhad an environment that was relatively benign; it provided asubsistence diet, allowed people to use the clothing and provisionsthey brought along, and provided decent medical care. TheGrunbaums also sought to escape from Europe, applying for entryto Palestine, then under the British Mandate. The British government,following the White Papers of 1929 and 1939, severely curtailedlegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, but relatives of theGrunbaums succeeded in obtaining the valuable Palestine immigrationcertificates for the Grunbaum family. Because they hadthe certificates they were not deported from Westerbork to Auschwitz,where mother's and baby's fate would have been sealed; instead,they went to the camp for exchange prisoners at BergenBelsen, which was not yet designated a concentration camp.There the regime was more moderate than at concentrationcamps, and even the minimal medical care and rations wereenough to sustain life. Throughout the ordeal, Rita Grunbaum, asocial worker trained to observe and keep records of human behavior,focused her attention on her child, keeping a diary of thebaby's physical, social, and intellectual development and recordingher illnesses and her maturation for future reference in the hopeof their survival. This diary of her child's development is an indicationthat Rita Grunbaum's role of mother was all-consuming, evenin the abnormal conditions of internment. Perhaps her involvementin this traditional woman's role was a factor in sustainingher. "Women's work"—activities centering around food, children,clothing, shelter, social relations, warmth, and cleanliness—maybe regarded as the only meaningful labor in a time of such dire necessity.Although her husband was interned in the same camps,men and women were separated, and it was Rita who cared forher child and gave moral support to her own mother.

    Escape and hiding were the tactics used by Nina Matathiasand her husband in Greece. Like the Diaments, geography was intheir favor. They lived in an area of Greece that was occupied bythe Italians, who did not implement the Final Solution. When theGermans occupied their town of Volos, the rabbi of the communitysensed the mortal danger and signaled the need to escape.The remote mountain village where they hid was very primitive;life was difficult but possible. Giving birth during a German raid,Nina was fortunate to have a healthy child and struggled to sustainhim with very little and to create a Jewish household. Thesight of her with her child softened the heart of a German soldierwho was searching for partisans, and their lives were spared. Thefirst thing the Matathiases did when they were liberated was to arrangefor a brit milah, ritual circumcision, for their son in affirmationof their Jewish identity. The family is the central focus ofNina Matathias's world, and the loss of her extended family in theHolocaust is one that hurts her even today.

    Pregnancy and childbirth during the Holocaust were doublydangerous for Jewish women, who had to cope not only with wartimeshortages and dangers but also with their vulnerability asJews. Nina Matathias was fortunate to have an easy birth and theassistance of kind neighbors who did not betray her. The Germansoldier who did not arrest her acted instinctively, reacting emotionallyto the sight of mother and infant. Nina points out that he wasnot Gestapo, indicating that he was not ideologically motivated toinvestigate who she was. Perhaps he was young or inexperienced.In Siauliai, Lithuania, pregnancy and childbirth were forbidden.In Auschwitz, pregnant women were selected for death or medicalexperiments or were subjected to forced abortions. Several intervieweesdescribe childbirth in concentration camps, but none ofthe babies was allowed to live. The episode of the SchwengerKommando in Landsberg, described in Miriam Rosenthal's interview,is rare.

    Some Jews trapped in German-occupied territories in easternEurope first tried escaping to Russian-held territory. HelenFoxman gave birth in such an area. She had a hemorrhage andother postpartum problems but attributes the hardships she andher husband suffered during the Communist occupation to theirrefugee status, not to their Jewish identities. The loss of their possessionswas particularly difficult for her as a mother, leaving herand her infant with six diapers and no indoor plumbing. LikeRywka Diament she deferred to her husband in the major decisionsthat they faced, but it was she who remained on the outsidewhile he and the child were in hiding. It was she who providedfood and made arrangements for her husband's shelter. Like thebiblical Miriam, Helen Foxman remained close to her child whenhe was adopted by their Polish nursemaid. Here the vulnerabilityof Jewish men is particularly apparent. Blonde, blue-eyed Mrs.Fuksman was able to masquerade as a Polish woman, while Mr.Fuksman was completely at the mercy of the people who werepaid to protect him; so was their little boy, whose Jewishness wasknown and whose protector raised him as a devout Catholic as theJewish mother watched. After the war, in the United States, Mr.Foxman once again assumed the dominant role in the family, butMrs. Foxman did not remain passive, working and sharing the roleof the provider and taking over his business when he could nolonger work.

    Hannah Bannett and her husband also suffered first duringthe Russian occupation of the eastern part of Poland. Their houseand many of their possessions were confiscated by the Russiancommissar. With their two young children, they were eventuallyforced to seek refuge in a smaller town. When the Germans invaded,Hannah realized that her "Aryan" looks and fluent Germanwere advantages that would help her protect herself and the children.Her husband, a religious, bearded Jew, hid from the constantroundups and massacres. She maintained contact with non-Jewsand took action to protect the family. It was she, assisted byher mother and sisters, who arranged hiding places and false documentsfor herself and her children, but there were interim periodswhen arrangements had to be changed, when she was left alonewith the children and had to improvise safe space for them. Theimages of Hannah and her two children homeless, eating sandwicheson a park bench or whiling away the daylight hours in amovie theater, emphasize the vulnerability of a woman with childrenas well as the innocent picture they must have presented tostrangers. As soon as she found reasonable arrangements for herselfand the children, she tried to assist her husband; his arrest anddeath in the Cracow prison point up the lack of options for men,who could not hide their Jewish identity. Circumstances did not allowher the luxury of grieving for her husband; she had to carryon her masquerade at work, and she had to be strong for her children.Throughout the time Hannah hid her Jewish identity shewas also vulnerable to the advances of the men she worked for, soshe changed jobs often. Because of her religious convictions, theoption of consenting to a relationship was unthinkable. Shestresses that she tried to behave and dress as unobtrusively as possibleto avoid calling attention to herself. Like Rita Grunbaum, caringfor her children gave structure and meaning to her everydaylife. Like Rywka Diament, she did things on instinct, reacting todreams, hunches, and gut feelings. She never lost faith in God,and prayer was a significant factor in maintaining her equilibrium,even if she prayed in a church.

    Edith Horowitz and Rachel Silberman are daughters who experiencedthe Holocaust together with their mothers. Edith was ayoung child and adolescent, Rachel a young woman. Both testimoniesprovide insight into the relationships of mothers and daughtersand into the difference between experiencing the Holocaust asan individual or as part of a closely knit pair. Throughout EdithHorowitz's testimony she repeats "I had a mother" almost as amantra. Sometimes the sentence refers to the advantage Edith hadbecause her mother protected her. Sometimes it refers to the responsibilityEdith felt for her mother. Her mother provided for herwhen her father was killed, smuggling and dealing on the blackmarket. She wanted to accompany her own mother to deportationbut acquiesced when her mother insisted, "You have children. Youhave to live." In the labor camp Edith's mother worked in thekitchen and could have arranged for Edith to work with her.Twelve-year-old Edith, in an act of adolescent rebellion that eventhe Holocaust did not stifle, refused, yet her mother still gave herextra bread in the morning when Edith could not stomach thesoup. Thrust into the harsh reality of the slave labor factory, Edithhardly understood the nuances of crude speech and behavioramong the prisoners, but she appreciated the efforts her mothermade to create little "moments of reprieve" when she lit Sabbathor Hanukkah candles. Given a choice to stay behind and cast herlot with the non-Jewish factory workers, Edith chose to go on theforced march with her mother: "I couldn't run. I had a mother,and my mother didn't want to." Her bond with her mother washer most precious advantage; nothing could sever it. Throughoutthe experience her mother tried to shelter Edith from immoral behavior,not relinquishing prewar standards. Neither volunteered togo with the officers in Nordhausen who demanded company. Inthe cattle car on the way to Mauthausen, another woman encouragedher daughter to do what she could to obtain the favor of themale Kapo. Edith's mother told her not to look, and when anotherKapo offered to help Edith escape with him, her mother remindedher that being under a man's protection meant giving in to his demands.In Italy Edith's mother protected her from an unsuitablemarriage proposal. Edith finally did separate from her mother tojoin a Zionist group traveling to Palestine and was interned withthem by the British on Cyprus. By then she was seventeen andfinally started maturing physically. When her mother, in Palestine,learned that Edith was in Cyprus, she resumed the role ofprovider, sending her a package with soap and a brassiere, knowinginstinctively what her daughter must need. Edith recognizesthat in having her mother she had a precious advantage in theHolocaust; she also recognizes that she did not have a childhood.She has not come to terms with this, although she has establishedher own family. The Holocaust is with her always. Edith has anotherinteresting insight into the experiences of women. It seemsto her that women, because of their domestic skills, coped somewhatbetter than men: "The men were unshaven, filthy, with tornclothes. A woman did whatever she could; she would sew herclothes together.... But the men, it was pitiful."

    Rachel Silberman was older and more mature than Edith.She was left alone with her mother and sister and other femalerelatives in Siauliai, Lithuania, when the men in their family werearrested soon after the German occupation in June 1941. She wastraumatized by the loss of her brother's children in the children'sAktion of November 5, 1943, but could not properly grieve forthem because she had to continue working at various forced laborassignments. Rachel's mother chose to remain in the ghetto ratherthan escape to the forests because she wanted to be there whenher daughters returned. The three women were deported togetherwhen their ghetto was liquidated, and their consecutive numbersattest to their physical closeness when they were given concentrationcamp numbers. Like Edith Horowitz, Rachel describes theshock of undressing in front of German men and the horror of theinternal examination inflicted on her fourteen-year-old sister.Rachel describes how her mother and other "older" women keptup the spirits of the other women prisoners, drawing on traditionalJewish resources and reminding the women of miracles that happenedto Jews in the past, suggesting that there would be continuedmiracles for them as well. Rachel's mother kept track of theJewish calendar in order to determine the date of Yom Kippur, theholiest day of the year. Learning of an error in her calculation,Rachel's mother became bitter and disillusioned at the thoughtthat they might have eaten on that holy fast day, thus negatingwhat was for her an act of spiritual resistance to the dehumanizationprocess. In spite of their success in staying together and supportingeach other in several camps, Rachel and her sister were unableto protect their mother from the murderous blows of the Germanguard who fatally beat her. Her death was particularly painfulbecause it came just moments before liberation, and it underlinesthe basic tragedy of the Holocaust, that regardless of the best effortsof people to resist their fates, Jews were at the mercy of theirmurderers.

    Brandla Small also resisted the fate that was determined forher child. Hiding with her child during the infamous GehsperreAktion in the Lodz ghetto, in which children and the elderly wereselected and deported to their deaths, Brandla prevented herdaughter's deportation. She hid her after the Aktion as well toavoid the prying questions and enmity of those whose childrenwere taken. After her husband was caught in an Aktion Brandlahad to provide for her child alone. In order to qualify for food rations,she did piecework at home, scrounging for some of the supplieslike the Children of Israel during their slavery in Egypt. Butall her efforts and suffering in the ghetto were in vain. Her daughterwas snatched from her arms at the Auschwitz arrival platform,and in Auschwitz children were automatically sent to the gaschambers. Although she rebuilt her life after the Holocaust, remarryingand raising a new family that brings her much satisfaction,Brandla is still searching for her little girl, keeping track of theyears, missed birthdays, and the child's unfulfilled potential. Thechild is still with Brandla, the pain of her loss still fresh, mourningunresolved, motherhood thwarted.