In two new Yad Vashem online exhibits, Jewish women in the Holocaust are portrayed in terms of the horrors they experienced — and their courageous responses.
Out in time for the March 8 International Women’s Day, the exhibits uniquely frame Holocaust remembrance through gender.
The first exhibition, “Spots of Light: Women in the Holocaust,” highlights stories of women before, during and after the Holocaust. A collection of individual and communal stories are divided into subjects such as motherhood, love, friendship and faith. They are tied together through testimony from survivors and archival photos and objects.
The second exhibit is a collection of photographed items which had belonged to Jewish women, often used in the Holocaust.
Clicking on each photo leads you to the story behind the object: the rouge used by survivors Rosa Sperling and her daughter Marila (Miriam) to pass the selections in the camps each day, or the cloth case where survivor Hilde Grünbaum kept the sheet music of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra.
Through these photos, the stories of survival and resilience come alive for the online viewer.
From the general experience to particular female trials
In honor of International Women’s Day, the Holocaust museum is hosting a Facebook Live event at 7:30 a.m. EST on the topic of “Women in Auschwitz.” The discussion will be led by Dr. Naama Shik, director of the online learning department in the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.
Shik’s presentation will be followed by a series of video testimonies screened on Yad Vashem’s Facebook page of women who survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
Speaking with The Times of Israel on the subject of women in the Holocaust, Shik said, “We first have to remember that there was a general experience common to men and women.”
“The camp’s realities — loss of life, hunger, diseases, hard labor and terror, — this was a human experience. We can’t differentiate between who was more hungry or suffered more,” she said.
But, said Shik, the genders did have certain unique hardships. An example, she said, was in the selection process which took place upon arrival to the concentration camp.
“Women ages 20-45 were considered to be the mothers of the next generation. The thinking [of the Nazis] was if [women] will survive, they will be able to birth the next generation of Jewish children,” said Shik.
This, she said, led to a harsher selection process for women — more than 2 million of whom were murdered in the Holocaust.
Additionally, she said, female physiology — monthly menstrual cycles, pregnancies and the threat or the fear of sexual abuse — made women more vulnerable.
One particular difference between men and women was in how each gender experienced and remembered the shaving of their heads.
“Males and females both went through the dehumanization process of having all their hair shaved and getting a number tattooed on their body,” Shik said of Holocaust victims’ first experience in the concentration camps after surviving the selection process.
After going through this process, “Men said they felt as if they were not human beings. Certainly, it was a traumatic experience for them but they stopped referring to this particular experience both while in the camps and in reflection afterward.”
In contrast, “Women would tell you, ‘We felt that we weren’t women anymore,’ and continued [in later testimonies] to talk about the fact that they felt they lost their femininity through the loss of their hair.”
The “Spots of Light” exhibit features such testimonies from female survivors.
Moving away from stories of victimhood and trauma, one of the more unique subjects explored in “Spots of Light” is the section highlighting female partisans and their resistance efforts both within the camps and in underground fighting groups.
Shik said both the stories of women’s particular traumas and the powerful ways in which they responded — protecting their children and those around them — gain new relevance in Holocaust remembrance as it converges with gender studies.
As Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian who documented the Warsaw ghetto explained, “… 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.”
For Yad Vashem, that future is now.