Women in the Shoa

Woman and child. Photo Yad Vashem Archives
By Yad Vashem
The Holocaust was a historical event—an act of murder and violence that the Nazis and their accomplices unleashed against the Jewish people. Waiting at the end of this path of unbroken violence was death for all Jews, as well as many former Jews or offspring of Jews. In certain respects, however, the path was different for women, men, and children.

In this exhibition Yad Vashem attempts to reveal the human story that lurks behind the historical account of what happened. From that larger narrative, the museum chose to tell about the Jewish victims and create space for the unique voice of the women among them.

More than three million adult women, women in their teens, and young girls were murdered in the Holocaust. Nazi ideology called for the total annihilation of the Jewish race, and women as agents of fertility thus constituted a focal target of this aim.

Jewish women inhabited a society that was largely conservative and patriarchal, with males as heads of household and women discharging traditional roles at home or helping to make a living. Accordingly, women did not participate in the leadership that was tasked with shepherding the Jewish community. Instead, Jewish women during the Holocaust assumed the main family role that one may term the “affirmation of life”: the attempt to survive in any situation.

It is not the purpose in this exhibition to retell what the Nazis and their accomplices did to women, except to the minimum extent needed. Instead, the exhibition emphasizes the actions and responses of Jewish women to the situation. The visitor should bear in mind that the event at issue elevated human malevolence to pinnacles that, viewed comprehensively, seem unparalleled. Accordingly, the range of women’s responses to this evil, which was turned against them with all its violence, was broad and diverse. These responses defy judgment even when they are incomprehensible and unacceptable under the cultural norms of our daily lives, because we must always remember the glaringly extreme situations in which these women lived during the Holocaust.

The responses are grouped by themes: Love, Motherhood, Caring for others, Womenhood, Partisans and Underground, Everyday Life, Friendship, Faith, Food and Arts. Some of the responses were individual; others turn out to have been typical of many women. Children grew up very quickly during the Holocaust. By the ghettoization phase, young girls assumed the roles of adult women. By the same token, many of the elderly had already gone to their eternal rest by that time and those who remained were murdered when the ghettos were liquidated. Accordingly, the main emphasis in this exhibition is on the adult woman: women old enough to make decisions and committed to caring for groups of people around them. Women of this age were torn between dual commitments: to their families—husbands and children—and to their elderly parents. Often they also assumed responsibility for needy population groups. For the most part, they looked out for themselves in only the most extreme cases, acting on what one may term instinct and not as a consequence of their personalities.

One of the situations that typified the initial phases of the war, foremost in Eastern Europe, was the mobilization of men for forced labor or their escape to the east. This happened due to the widely held belief that the occupation endangered men but would not affect women and children. In both cases and in others that followed—such as flight to the forests or, in certain instances, the murder of men—many women remained alone with children and elderly, and it was they who constituted much of the ghetto population in subsequent stages.

Even when men remained, their inability to continue serving as breadwinners often left them psychologically shattered and impaired their traditional role as heads of household. As a result, the women took upon themselves the duties of obtaining food for their households and assuring a minimum level of family functioning despite the grim situation. The explanation for this shouldering of responsibility was their ability, acquired due to their traditional family roles, to function in situations of existential pressure. Furthermore, they attributed no importance to the notion of self-respect; instead, the goal of keeping the family fed and maintaining basic hygiene became their motive force. Sometimes, as one may see, this made them much, much stronger. Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who documented the Warsaw ghetto, commented about this: “... The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to the Jewish woman in the war. She will take up an important page in Jewish history for her courage and steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times.”

The identification of woman with children, both by the surroundings and by the women themselves, became a motive force but also delivered them to extermination together.

Women who survived the annihilation campaign and became part of the Nazis’ slave-labor force entered the world of the camps. There, usually in women-only camps that offered their inmates a life expectancy of approximately three months, they attempted to rehabilitate their psychological identities after having been deprived of all the ingredients of individualism, family, and life culture that had made up their prior identity. In these “other planets,” administered under rules that the human mind refuses to comprehend, women attempted to survive by establishing human contact with other women in what has been called “alternative families.” The tie that bound them was a craving for life no matter what.

Women in the Holocaust applied their minds to a place that deprived them of their minds; brought strength to a place where they had no strength. And in a place where they and their families had no right to live, they marched all the way to death and invested every additional moment of life with meaning. Chacun des thèmes de l’exposition est particulièrement passionnant en soi et mérite d’être expliqué longuement. Toutefois, nous avons choisi de présenter en détail les deux plus significatifs et qui ont inspiré toute les autres actions des femmes victimes de la Shoa: la féminité et la maternité.


There is no contrast more glaring than that between Holocaust and womanhood. The Nazis aimed to deprive the Jews of their lives; the Jews tried to survive. The struggle was waged around the most basic things: death, life, food, parenting. Things such as womanhood were indulgences at such times. Nevertheless, femininity among women was a basic component of personality. Even at the most difficult moments, they kept themselves busy at this, too. An affront to womanhood was an affront to themselves as complete human beings. By removing women’s hair, including body hair, at Auschwitz, the Nazis deconstructed their personalities. When the women exited the so-called “sauna,” they had to marshal all their inner forces and reconstruct their personalities so that they could feel like people.

Womanhood in the Holocaust meant, primarily, affronts to womanhood as part of the general violence that paved the road to death. The Nazis and their collaborators perpetrated this affront deliberately. Although the racial laws forbade sexual contact between Nazis and the victims, there were plenty of ways to attack women without raping them: total undressing in public places, touching of bodies, and beatings. In the camps, selections in the nude were daily fare. One way of breaking the Jewish population’s spirit was to allow local mobs to riot before the Nazis entered. When this took place, it included the raping of Jewish women. Germans also indulged in rape whenever they were not afraid of being caught by their commanders. Others did whatever they could. The Russians also committed mass rape when they liberated the camps, despite the women’s appalling state of health.

Some women used their sexuality to survive or in order to earn a favor—to save a family member, to obtain a slice of bread. From their standpoint, it was just another way to stay alive. Looking good during the Holocaust also carried the meaning of life—before selections, women smeared on their cheeks whatever remained of the rouge that they had safeguarded with extreme care and shared it with their mothers and friends. This makeup became a lifesaver. Hygiene also saved lives. A lice comb in a camp might enable a woman to live, since lice carried disease. At the least, it simply spared her from the terrible itching that embittered the prisoners’ lives. Even after it became impossible to keep one’s clothing and body clean; women continued to try, washing themselves in freezing water if they were fortunate enough to have the opportunity, even in the midst of a harsh European winter.

Nevertheless—when the murderers photographed women in the ghetto, the objects of the picture suddenly tried to look their best, to lift their heads, to look forward, to straighten their hair. A tiny pink button embellishes a prisoner’s garment. The woman who placed it there did so in order to feel like a person and not to find favor in someone’s eyes or to be pretty. In a photograph of women at the entrance to a camp, a photograph with prisoners arrayed on three sides, women who had been ordinary women until recently, who had committed no crime, were suddenly being photographed as though they were criminals of the vilest sort. How they tied their kerchiefs in order to enhance their appearance. Sometimes a hairpin that they had managed to keep from home held what remained of their hair. In a photograph of the horrific selections, one notices a mother clutching a baby while wearing high-heeled shoes as she is sent to death. What was this woman thinking when she put on those high-heeled shoes before the transport? Were they her only remaining shoes, or did she want to look her best when they would reach her presumed destination? There are thousands of such details.


About a million and a half children perished in the Holocaust. Each of them had parents who stood by helplessly, unable to avert his or her murder. The murderers also identified the mothers as closely bonded with children and treated them accordingly. The fate reserved for mothers was integrated with that decreed for the children—death, of course.

One of the initial dilemmas that the family faced was how to find a hiding place, especially for the children, while it was still possible. Arranging a hiding places for a child was a complicated, expensive, and relatively uncommon process. Parents could not marshal the psychological will to take such a step, knowing that they would never see their child again, unless they sensed that the alternative was death. Since such an insight was difficult to internalize, many parents did not surrender their children to others even when they could have done so.

In the ghettos, mothers were preoccupied with daily survival, mainly in providing food and maintaining hygiene in order to stave off illness. Pregnant mothers wished to abort in most cases, knowing that they could not feed and care for the newborn with the rest of the family barely hanging on. Even so, here and there the very ubiquity of death infused women with the wish to create new life. Later on, the Nazis forbade pregnancy; any woman who became pregnant risked immediate murder or deportation to the death camps. Since contraceptives did not exist, women became pregnant anyway and their fate was sealed unless some means of abortion was available.

When the Nazis employed the method of murder by gunfire at killing pits, the entire population was taken and murdered together, usually after men women and children had been forced to undress. In some cases, however, men were led away separately and women and children were murdered in their absence. Mothers of children in selection queues may have been the only ones to whom the murderers offered a choice—that of going to death with their children. Even there, however, at moments of difficulty unparalleled in human history, children were sometimes torn from the arms of the few women who were selected for lives of slavery and were handed to grandmothers or to those next to them and went with them to their deaths.

As a rule, there were no children in the camps. Pregnant women sometimes attempted to conceal their condition and in a few cases managed to abort. Births were almost unknown in the camps, and such children as were born were murdered by the Nazis or put to death by their mothers or other women. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, experiments in the sterilization of women and men were performed for the purpose of subsequent mass sterilization of elements that the Nazis wished to render childless.

Amidst all this violent terror, women found the mental fortitude to continue loving their children, caring for them until the moment of death and making decisions about their fate that people until that time had never had to confront. Some mothers, impelled by the survival instinct, made decisions or took actions that clashed with the accepted social norms that govern the mother-child relationship. They were driven to this by the immense distress that had been imposed on them: after spending months if not years struggling for their lives and those of their family members, their strength failed them. Other mothers, however, elected to die with their children even though they could have chosen differently—and this, too, was a choice that is not always comprehensible in ordinary times.