Resilience AND Courage

Women, Men, and the Holocaust
By Nechama Tec


Copyright © 2003 Nechama Tec
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09355-1

Chapter One

Voices from the Past

Over the phone, the man's voice asked, "Are you the daughter of Ester Bawnik? You must be. For a long, long time I have been thinking about your mother. What a difference her selflessness, her caring attention made in my life, in the lives of so many others!"

What I heard took me to a different world, a ruined world, a world buried under many seemingly forgotten memories. The man identified himself as Samuel Gruber. In 1939, as a soldier in the Polish army, he had been captured by the rapidly advancing German forces. In 1941 he came with other former Polish Jewish soldiers to the work camp Lipowa 7 in Lublin, my birthplace. In the late summer of 1942, Gruber escaped into the surrounding forests where, as a partisan leader, he survived the war.

In the Lipowa 7 camp many of the Jewish prisoners of war became ill with typhus. The Germans isolated the sick POWs from the rest of the inmates and put them into a makeshift hospital. Dirty mattresses, scattered on equally dirty floors, served as beds. The patients stayed there, receiving hardly any help and little food and water.

I don't know how my mother managed to sneak into this hospital, a place that was off-limits to civilians. I don't know how she dared defy the authorities. Nor do I know how she managed to disregard the danger of contracting the disease.

Now, forty years later, I listened as Gruber recalled that the only bright moments in his otherwise gloomy confinement had been my mother's daily visits. He remembered so much more than I, telling me how Mother would come, loaded with baskets of food and drink. How smiling gently she would divide what she had brought among the feverish men. With these lifesaving provisions came spoken assurances that their ordeal was about to end, that they must not despair. She fed the men who were too weak to feed themselves. She wiped their hot faces with a cold wet rag. Gruber was convinced that my mother's promises of a better future had been just as important as her offers of food. She restored both spiritual and physical health to him and his comrades.

When Gruber mentioned a quiet little blue-eyed blond girl who carried some of the baskets, the images took on clearer outlines. Even the feelings of pity and sadness came back. I was that little girl.

It is ironic that a man whom I did not remember had to remind me of my mother's behavior. It is more ironic that this telephone conversation lay dormant in my subconscious for about ten years. It resurfaced only when my research made me realize that in the grip of Nazi terror women were confronted with challenges and opportunities unlike those faced at any other time in our living memory. When telling me about Mother's selfless help, Gruber was reconstructing a part of our shared past. In my case this resurfaced memory had been short-lived; it had receded quickly. Why? Probably because neither the experiences nor my mother's actions had been unique. The extreme wartime circumstances had led to many strange and unprecedented actions and reactions.

Faced with the German assaults upon their lives and values, Jewish women and men searched for ways to cope with their respective circumstances. First and most basic, their reactions were dictated by the Nazi policies of Jewish annihilation, which contained measures that aimed at the biological elimination of European Jewry. But though all Jews were slated for death, the actual application of these policies and measures of destruction varied over time, by place, and in degree of ruthlessness. These variations were reflected in four recurring stages of Jewish annihilation. The first was the legal definition and identification of Jews by the Nazis. Next came the confiscation of Jewish property and removal of Jews from gainful employment. These were followed by procedures that isolated Jews from the rest of the population. The fourth and final phase was the actual murder. Integral to each of these stages were special degradations and sporadic killings.

Some of these anti-Jewish measures were punctuated by assaults aimed specifically at either women or men. These gender-specific measures inevitably had different consequences for men and women. Raul Hilberg has argued that "'the Final Solution' was intended by its creators to ensure the annihilation of all Jews. Most often, men and women were rounded up simultaneously for transport to a death camp or to be shot in front of a ditch. Their bodies were burned in the same crematory or buried in the same mass grave ... Yet the road to annihilation was marked by events that specifically affected men as men and women as women." These variations grew out of a mixture of political, economic, and biological ideologies.

When I first became immersed in Holocaust research I had little curiosity about gender. At best, my interest in the subject was peripheral. For years I studied the destruction of European Jewry and how cooperation, compassion, altruism, rescue, and resistance played their parts. My research tends to follow a continuous path: findings from one project often suggest additional issues for study and become the next project. It is as if my work has a mind of its own, and I follow its lead. My current research on gender conforms to this pattern, originating in an earlier book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Covering the years 1941 to 1944, Defiance is a study of various partisan groups situated in the junglelike, dense Belorussian forests. This book pays special attention to a group of Jewish forest dwellers who took on the dual role of fighters and rescuers. In a preliminary examination of my data, I noticed that both Jewish and Gentile women were defined as burdensome by male partisans and treated as an insignificant minority. These unanticipated findings formed the basis of a chapter in the book entitled "The Fate of Women."

Moreover, from my research for Defiance, I learned that an estimated 2-3 percent of all Soviet partisans were women. In the forest most women were treated as sex objects and rejected as fighters. Some women were raped, others killed, but most were simply relegated to domestic tasks. Some of the attractive young women became mistresses of partisan officers. Occasionally, however, when a detachment was poorly equipped and in need of partisans, women were asked to take on the role of fighters. These findings stimulated my curiosity. I wanted to explore how women, Jewish women in particular, fared in a variety of Holocaust settings: the ghettos, the camps, the forests. So I embarked on a comparative study of women in diverse Holocaust settings whose working title contained two key words: Holocaust and women.

Myself a Holocaust survivor, I have for about a quarter of a century been listening to and recording the histories of those who lived through World War II. My current project also relies on direct interviews. While conducting these more recent interviews, I became aware of the survivors' caution, which was more apparent than in earlier interviews. The survivors seemed more concerned about the accuracy of their recollections. I also began noticing the sadness and compassion with which Jewish women spoke about their men's inability to find gainful employment.

I had not expected to come across such a consistent absence of resentment; after all, under "normal" circumstances, women tend to be critical of unemployed men. Even during severe economic depressions, when men are chronically unemployed their families become strained; sometimes there is violence, which can lead to the breakup of the family. Perhaps the Jewish women's supportive comments about the plight of their men grew out of their recognition that German oppression was responsible for what these men had to endure.

Historical evidence shows that in times of upheaval, in extremis, women tend to step in and fulfill the traditional male roles. For example, during World War II, American women kept up the wartime economy, taking over the jobs vacated when the American men went off to fight. The women's smooth entry into the labor force-in particular, their work in jobs geared to wartime production-contributed significantly to the Allies' victory. With the end of the war, the women were expected to quit their newly acquired jobs, and they did.

But women's participation in "men's" work is not always solicited, nor is it necessarily accepted when offered. For example, a less-well-known story of how women tried to make a wartime contribution is that of the more than one thousand women who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. The initiative for this venture came from Jacqueline Cochran. Herself an accomplished flyer, Cochran wanted to assist American men with the heavy burden of wartime flying. But her plan to train women pilots met with several rejections and only succeeded in part in 1942. The women who were accepted into the program underwent six months of training. A third of them did not pass-equal to the proportion of men who did not pass. However, the women who did pass were allowed to work only as test pilots and instructors. Thirty-eight of them died in the line of duty. Yet female pilots were not considered part of the military. Only in 1977,more than thirty years later, were they officially recognized as veterans.

In contrast, in the Soviet Union women pilots participated in combat; some of them were even decorated with the highest orders. Russian women pilots established three combat regiments of their own, and a few participated with distinction in male regiments as well. The differences between the treatment of women pilots in the United States and the Soviet Union may be due in part to the fact that the Soviet Union had been invaded by the enemy; the country was much more threatened and in more dire need of help. The leaders probably decided that aid from women was better than no help at all. Yet even the highly decorated Soviet women fliers felt that they were neither perceived nor treated as equals to the male pilots.

When I became absorbed in my current research, I realized that to concentrate on women alone would yield skewed results. In effect, knowing how intricately intertwined are the lives of women and men, I recognized that to exclude the male experiences would offer only limited insights, whereas comparisons of the experiences of both sexes would result in a broader understanding. Such comparisons could lead to important generalizations; eager to come up with more general explanations, I opened the project to include the experiences of Jewish men, interviewing male survivors and collecting data about them from the same sources I had used for my study of women. Because men were included in this study at a later date, my sample of survivors has more women than men. Since this research is based on qualitative data, claiming no representative samples, the higher proportion of women does not affect the validity of the findings.

This book relies on data collected in Poland, France, Switzerland, the United States, and Israel. Although part of my evidence comes from western European countries-France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium-I focus on eastern Europe, particularly on the area that made up Poland from 1939 to 1945. This special emphasis is dictated by two facts. First, prewar Poland and the other East European countries had the largest concentration of Jews, and second, under the German occupation East European countries became the center of Jewish annihilation. Most Jews from western Europe were sent to their deaths in eastern Europe. Some were sent to the ghettos, others to various concentration camps. The experiences of these refugees appear throughout this book.

As the center for Jewish annihilation, and as the place where the Holocaust programs were instituted the earliest and conducted the most ruthlessly, eastern Europe provides the key to an understanding of the Holocaust in general, and of gender-related issues in particular. But although my research focuses on eastern Europe, whenever possible I compare findings from this area to findings from West European countries. I compare the histories of Jews from East and West to see whether the experiences in western Europe correspond to those in eastern Europe. These comparisons serve as informal tests for the rest of my findings. Together they offer generalizations that may apply to all European Jews.

For this project I conducted interviews intermittently over a period of ten years that explored a range of issues dealing with the Holocaust and gender. The bulk of these interviews were with Jewish survivors, although I also spoke with a few Gentiles. The interviews lasted anywhere from two to six hours, and I met with some respondents several times. My familiarity with several languages facilitated communication: in addition to English, I conducted interviews in French, German, Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish. I personally transcribed each taped interview and translated it into English. For my earlier publications (from 1975 on) I had studied the accounts of hundreds of Jewish Holocaust survivors and some Christians. For this book, I have also drawn on the evidence collected for my earlier research, especially the parts that contained information about gender.

When collecting direct evidence from survivors one may legitimately ask how much credence can be given to recollections given more than fifty years after the events. Memory may disappoint. In all interviews we must be concerned about the trustworthiness of the respondents' accounts; however, we must be particularly careful when the information is collected after such a lapse of time. Usually the greater the time gap between the actual experiences and their narration, the more suspicious we become about the validity of these recollections.

One way to check the validity of the information is to compare the stories told by a particular person at different times. Some of those I interviewed had previously given oral testimonies that were deposited in archival collections. Others had published articles or books about their experiences. Whenever possible I would compare these narratives. Those that remained consistent seem likely to be more reliable. Nevertheless, it is also true that inasmuch as this consistency appears in the testimony of the same individual, it may simply reflect this individual's consistent distortion. Another way of checking the validity or trustworthiness of the material is to compare it with information from several independent sources. The greater the number of sources containing similar information, the more we can trust their validity.


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