Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust (Judaic Studies Series)

Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust (Judaic Studies Series)

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Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust (Judaic Studies Series) by Brana Gurewitsch

These powerful oral testimonies provide an important historical record
of women's experiences during the Holocaust.

In Mothers, Sisters, Resisters, 25 survivors of the Holocaust furnish

compelling and historically vital testimony that illuminates and explores
Jewish women's experiences during that terrible period. In entries that
preserve each voice, personality, and style, survivors describe their efforts
to evade Nazi laws and subsequent dehumanization, protect their children
and siblings, and maintain their Jewish identity.

Throughout each narrative, from Brandla Small's description of having
her child dragged from her arms at Auschwitz, to Eva Schonbrun's remembrances
of her sister who refused to leave her siblings and save herself, to Emilie
Schindler's account of rescuing Jews left abandoned on a cattle car, we
become intimately involved with each woman's struggle and eventual survival.
We also gain a new appreciation and understanding of the Holocaust experiences
unique to women.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817309527
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 11/28/1998
Series: Judaic Studies Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 678,768
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brana Gurewitsch is Archivist at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
in New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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

    The interviews in this section show how mothers faced this challenge in varying situations, with differing degrees of success, and demonstrate the overwhelming odds against the survival of Jewishchildren in the Holocaust. The interviews are arranged in an order that reflects an increasing degree of danger to mothers and children, from escape of occupied territory, to internment, to hiding in more or less protected circumstances, to the experiences of 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 of Rywka Diament's interview. The Diament family's escape and survival as a unit was made possible by geography and the fortunate whim of the Swiss government, which allowed them to enter Switzerland. Had they been living in eastern Europe they would have been fatally trapped by German occupation. Rywka Diament's marriage to a poor Yiddish writer in Paris revealed a latent streak of independence in the young Polish orphan from a small town who arrived penniless in Paris to live with her brother and sister-in-law after the death of her parents. Although she clearly deferred to her husband, whose intellectual skills she admired, she assumed responsibility for her children and acted independently to bring them to the relative safety of Nice, in the Italian zone, and later to place them in a convent until arrangements could be made to smuggle the family across the border into Switzerland. There, too, she took the initiative to regain custody of the children after they were put in foster care. She benefited from the connections and reputation of her husband, but it was clearly she who managed the children's care and protection.

    Rita Grunbaum was with her husband and mother when she was deported from her home in Rotterdam with her baby. The arrangements they had made to protect their child did not work out, and it was Fred Grunbaum who snatched the baby and put her on Rita's lap in the bus that took them to Westerbork. Here, too, geography and political circumstances helped to determine the survival of the Grunbaum family. As an internment camp, Westerbork had an environment that was relatively benign; it provided a subsistence diet, allowed people to use the clothing and provisions they brought along, and provided decent medical care. The Grunbaums also sought to escape from Europe, applying for entry to Palestine, then under the British Mandate. The British government, following the White Papers of 1929 and 1939, severely curtailed legal Jewish immigration to Palestine, but relatives of the Grunbaums succeeded in obtaining the valuable Palestine immigration certificates for the Grunbaum family. Because they had the 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 Bergen Belsen, which was not yet designated a concentration camp. There the regime was more moderate than at concentration camps, and even the minimal medical care and rations were enough to sustain life. Throughout the ordeal, Rita Grunbaum, a social worker trained to observe and keep records of human behavior, focused her attention on her child, keeping a diary of the baby's physical, social, and intellectual development and recording her illnesses and her maturation for future reference in the hope of their survival. This diary of her child's development is an indication that Rita Grunbaum's role of mother was all-consuming, even in the abnormal conditions of internment. Perhaps her involvement in this traditional woman's role was a factor in sustaining her. "Women's work"—activities centering around food, children, clothing, shelter, social relations, warmth, and cleanliness—may be 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 for her child and gave moral support to her own mother.

    Escape and hiding were the tactics used by Nina Matathias and her husband in Greece. Like the Diaments, geography was in their favor. They lived in an area of Greece that was occupied by the Italians, who did not implement the Final Solution. When the Germans occupied their town of Volos, the rabbi of the community sensed 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 sustain him with very little and to create a Jewish household. The sight of her with her child softened the heart of a German soldier who was searching for partisans, and their lives were spared. The first thing the Matathiases did when they were liberated was to arrange for a brit milah, ritual circumcision, for their son in affirmation of their Jewish identity. The family is the central focus of Nina Matathias's world, and the loss of her extended family in the Holocaust is one that hurts her even today.

    Pregnancy and childbirth during the Holocaust were doubly dangerous for Jewish women, who had to cope not only with wartime shortages and dangers but also with their vulnerability as Jews. Nina Matathias was fortunate to have an easy birth and the assistance of kind neighbors who did not betray her. The German soldier who did not arrest her acted instinctively, reacting emotionally to the sight of mother and infant. Nina points out that he was not Gestapo, indicating that he was not ideologically motivated to investigate 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 medical experiments or were subjected to forced abortions. Several interviewees describe childbirth in concentration camps, but none of the babies was allowed to live. The episode of the Schwenger Kommando in Landsberg, described in Miriam Rosenthal's interview, is rare.

    Some Jews trapped in German-occupied territories in eastern Europe first tried escaping to Russian-held territory. Helen Foxman gave birth in such an area. She had a hemorrhage and other postpartum problems but attributes the hardships she and her husband suffered during the Communist occupation to their refugee status, not to their Jewish identities. The loss of their possessions was particularly difficult for her as a mother, leaving her and her infant with six diapers and no indoor plumbing. Like Rywka Diament she deferred to her husband in the major decisions that they faced, but it was she who remained on the outside while he and the child were in hiding. It was she who provided food and made arrangements for her husband's shelter. Like the biblical Miriam, Helen Foxman remained close to her child when he was adopted by their Polish nursemaid. Here the vulnerability of 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 were paid to protect him; so was their little boy, whose Jewishness was known and whose protector raised him as a devout Catholic as the Jewish mother watched. After the war, in the United States, Mr. Foxman once again assumed the dominant role in the family, but Mrs. Foxman did not remain passive, working and sharing the role of the provider and taking over his business when he could no longer work.

    Hannah Bannett and her husband also suffered first during the Russian occupation of the eastern part of Poland. Their house and many of their possessions were confiscated by the Russian commissar. With their two young children, they were eventually forced to seek refuge in a smaller town. When the Germans invaded, Hannah realized that her "Aryan" looks and fluent German were advantages that would help her protect herself and the children. Her husband, a religious, bearded Jew, hid from the constant roundups and massacres. She maintained contact with non-Jews and took action to protect the family. It was she, assisted by her mother and sisters, who arranged hiding places and false documents for herself and her children, but there were interim periods when arrangements had to be changed, when she was left alone with the children and had to improvise safe space for them. The images of Hannah and her two children homeless, eating sandwiches on a park bench or whiling away the daylight hours in a movie theater, emphasize the vulnerability of a woman with children as well as the innocent picture they must have presented to strangers. As soon as she found reasonable arrangements for herself and the children, she tried to assist her husband; his arrest and death in the Cracow prison point up the lack of options for men, who could not hide their Jewish identity. Circumstances did not allow her the luxury of grieving for her husband; she had to carry on her masquerade at work, and she had to be strong for her children. Throughout the time Hannah hid her Jewish identity she was also vulnerable to the advances of the men she worked for, so she changed jobs often. Because of her religious convictions, the option of consenting to a relationship was unthinkable. She stresses that she tried to behave and dress as unobtrusively as possible to avoid calling attention to herself. Like Rita Grunbaum, caring for her children gave structure and meaning to her everyday life. Like Rywka Diament, she did things on instinct, reacting to dreams, 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 experienced the Holocaust together with their mothers. Edith was a young child and adolescent, Rachel a young woman. Both testimonies provide insight into the relationships of mothers and daughters and into the difference between experiencing the Holocaust as an individual or as part of a closely knit pair. Throughout Edith Horowitz's testimony she repeats "I had a mother" almost as a mantra. Sometimes the sentence refers to the advantage Edith had because her mother protected her. Sometimes it refers to the responsibility Edith felt for her mother. Her mother provided for her when her father was killed, smuggling and dealing on the black market. She wanted to accompany her own mother to deportation but acquiesced when her mother insisted, "You have children. You have to live." In the labor camp Edith's mother worked in the kitchen and could have arranged for Edith to work with her. Twelve-year-old Edith, in an act of adolescent rebellion that even the Holocaust did not stifle, refused, yet her mother still gave her extra bread in the morning when Edith could not stomach the soup. Thrust into the harsh reality of the slave labor factory, Edith hardly understood the nuances of crude speech and behavior among the prisoners, but she appreciated the efforts her mother made to create little "moments of reprieve" when she lit Sabbath or Hanukkah candles. Given a choice to stay behind and cast her lot with the non-Jewish factory workers, Edith chose to go on the forced march with her mother: "I couldn't run. I had a mother, and my mother didn't want to." Her bond with her mother was her most precious advantage; nothing could sever it. Throughout the experience her mother tried to shelter Edith from immoral behavior, not relinquishing prewar standards. Neither volunteered to go with the officers in Nordhausen who demanded company. In the cattle car on the way to Mauthausen, another woman encouraged her daughter to do what she could to obtain the favor of the male Kapo. Edith's mother told her not to look, and when another Kapo offered to help Edith escape with him, her mother reminded her that being under a man's protection meant giving in to his demands. In Italy Edith's mother protected her from an unsuitable marriage proposal. Edith finally did separate from her mother to join a Zionist group traveling to Palestine and was interned with them by the British on Cyprus. By then she was seventeen and finally started maturing physically. When her mother, in Palestine, learned that Edith was in Cyprus, she resumed the role of provider, sending her a package with soap and a brassiere, knowing instinctively what her daughter must need. Edith recognizes that in having her mother she had a precious advantage in the Holocaust; she also recognizes that she did not have a childhood. She has not come to terms with this, although she has established her own family. The Holocaust is with her always. Edith has another interesting insight into the experiences of women. It seems to her that women, because of their domestic skills, coped somewhat better than men: "The men were unshaven, filthy, with torn clothes. A woman did whatever she could; she would sew her clothes 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 female relatives in Siauliai, Lithuania, when the men in their family were arrested soon after the German occupation in June 1941. She was traumatized by the loss of her brother's children in the children's Aktion of November 5, 1943, but could not properly grieve for them because she had to continue working at various forced labor assignments. Rachel's mother chose to remain in the ghetto rather than escape to the forests because she wanted to be there when her daughters returned. The three women were deported together when their ghetto was liquidated, and their consecutive numbers attest to their physical closeness when they were given concentration camp numbers. Like Edith Horowitz, Rachel describes the shock of undressing in front of German men and the horror of the internal examination inflicted on her fourteen-year-old sister. Rachel describes how her mother and other "older" women kept up the spirits of the other women prisoners, drawing on traditional Jewish resources and reminding the women of miracles that happened to Jews in the past, suggesting that there would be continued miracles for them as well. Rachel's mother kept track of the Jewish calendar in order to determine the date of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Learning of an error in her calculation, Rachel's mother became bitter and disillusioned at the thought that they might have eaten on that holy fast day, thus negating what was for her an act of spiritual resistance to the dehumanization process. In spite of their success in staying together and supporting each other in several camps, Rachel and her sister were unable to protect their mother from the murderous blows of the German guard who fatally beat her. Her death was particularly painful because it came just moments before liberation, and it underlines the basic tragedy of the Holocaust, that regardless of the best efforts of people to resist their fates, Jews were at the mercy of their murderers.

    Brandla Small also resisted the fate that was determined for her child. Hiding with her child during the infamous Gehsperre Aktion in the Lodz ghetto, in which children and the elderly were selected and deported to their deaths, Brandla prevented her daughter's deportation. She hid her after the Aktion as well to avoid the prying questions and enmity of those whose children were taken. After her husband was caught in an Aktion Brandla had to provide for her child alone. In order to qualify for food rations, she did piecework at home, scrounging for some of the supplies like the Children of Israel during their slavery in Egypt. But all her efforts and suffering in the ghetto were in vain. Her daughter was snatched from her arms at the Auschwitz arrival platform, and in Auschwitz children were automatically sent to the gas chambers. Although she rebuilt her life after the Holocaust, remarrying and raising a new family that brings her much satisfaction, Brandla is still searching for her little girl, keeping track of the years, missed birthdays, and the child's unfulfilled potential. The child is still with Brandla, the pain of her loss still fresh, mourning unresolved, motherhood thwarted.

THE EARLY YEARS, 1954-1968

Photography by Greg Staley


Copyright © 1996 Morris Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Michael Berenbaum

Gurewitsch brings together the stories of 25 women into a mosaic that is poignant and powerful, one that depicts the diversity and variety of women's experiences in the Holocaust. . . .She permits the women to speak for themselves, and the result is a powerful document of remenbrance. -- Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation

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