(S)heroesSome women in the resistance hid grenades in their underwear

Women’s experience in Holocaust is focus of new book by survivor turned scholar

On the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, British Agnes Grunwald-Spier calls attention to the women who fought to help the Jewish people survive

Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)
Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)

Seventy-five years ago, Zivia Lubetkin escaped the Warsaw ghetto through the underground sewer system as one of the courageous leaders who fought back during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The fighting, which lasted from April 19 to May 16, 1943, resulted in about 70,000 Jews killed or deported. While ultimately unsuccessful, it is remembered as the largest single example of Jewish revolt in World War II.

Lubetkin, along with a network of female couriers, or kashariyot, who smuggled weapons into the ghetto, are part of a largely-overlooked chronicle of women in the Holocaust. This is despite evidence suggesting that more women died than men, and more women survived in hiding.

But a new book, “Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust” by British scholar Agnes Grunwald-Spier, is calling attention to the valor of women in the Shoah.

“It really could have been twice as long,” said Grunwald-Spier, herself a Holocaust survivor. “There were so many amazing women.”

The book does not directly address the Shoah’s best-known female narrative — diarist Anne Frank, whose teenage life ended at Bergen-Belsen in 1944. But Grunwald-Spier seeks to add other voices — and to challenge what constitutes a Holocaust hero.

“Most historians are men, particularly of the Holocaust,” she said. “[They] have an idea about who is a hero — a man with a gun.”

Others were equally heroic, she said: Women who looked after children. Rachel Auerbach, who ran a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto for three years “might not perhaps be recognized as a hero to a man,” Grunwald-Spier said.

Agnes Grunwald-Spier, Holocaust Survivor and author speaking at the Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, 26 January 2016. (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

And — in perhaps the most gut-wrenching account — Dr. Gisella Perl, a gynecologist at Auschwitz, performed secret abortions on pregnant women so the mothers could survive after the Nazis decreed that any births would result in the execution of both mother and child.

“Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust” took a year to write, but was envisioned in the 1990s, when Grunwald-Spier was studying for a master’s degree in Holocaust studies. In between, she wrote two other books — “The Other Schindlers: Why Some People Chose to Save Jews in the Holocaust,” and “Who Betrayed the Jews? The Realities of Nazi Persecution in the Holocaust.”

Grunwald-Spier found various ways to research her third book, including newspaper records online and visits to the British Library and the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide.

She interviewed fellow survivors — including fellow London resident Kitty Hart-Moxon, who was at Auschwitz for two years with her mother, Rosa Felix. Another interviewee, Edith Erbrich of Germany, saw her family separated in WWII; she was sent to Theresienstadt with her sister Hella and their Jewish father Norbert Bar, but their Catholic mother Susanna was not allowed to come.

Left, Agnes Grunwald-Spier, author of ‘Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust,’ sits with fellow survivor Edith Erbrich in Erbrich’s apartment in Langer, Germany. Erbrich was one of several survivors interviewed by Grunwald-Spier for her book. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)

Grunwald-Spier herself was born in the Budapest ghetto in July 1944. Her father, Philipp, was a forced laborer on the Eastern Front. Her mother, Leona, was led with her baby daughter onto a train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They, and other women and children, were called back at the last minute.

“I’ve been thinking quite a lot about women’s experiences in the Holocaust,” Grunwald-Spier said. “I particularly was conscious of my mother’s own experience … I realized, obviously, because of gender, women’s experiences were very different — looking after children, elderly relatives.”

But with men taken away or reluctant to go out in public, Grunwald-Spier said, women also did “things they had not done previously” such as becoming the family breadwinner, seeking documents that would facilitate escape and helping family members get out of concentration camps.

Grunwald-Spier originally planned separate sections on “women who did ‘ordinary things,’ being mothers, looking for food, doing laundry,” and on “‘extraordinary things’ like partisans and parachutists.”

“I realized that it actually became quite difficult to separate the two aspects,” she said. “I wanted to show the breadth of women’s experiences.”

Zivia Lubetkin was a leader of the central command in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. She escaped the uprising and returned to assist with another Warsaw revolt in 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

While “academics have looked at women’s experiences,” she said, “I’m certain I did not find anyone who chronicled different stories in the way I did.”

Past scholarship includes the 1984 publication of “When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany,” edited by Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann and Marion A. Kaplan.

More recent works include the 2003 publication of “Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis and the Holocaust,” edited by Elizabeth Baer and Myrna Goldenberg.

The Holocaust took a fearful toll on women, according to Baer, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and a volunteer with the Senior Historian Division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“While we do not have exact mortality figures, there are reasons to believe the total may have been higher for women than men,” Baer wrote in an email.

“On the other hand,” Baer wrote, “women probably had higher survival rates in hiding as they did not bear the physical mark of Judaism that men did.”

Baer wrote that while gendered approaches to the Holocaust were initially suspect and controversial, a steady stream of scholarship on this topic has been published in the last three decades.

Approaches have changed.

“Early essays tended to ask the question: ‘Who had it worse, men or women?’ Subsequent works explored the notion of ‘different horrors, same hell,’” Baer wrote.

Hannah Szenes dressed as a Hungarian soldier on Purim (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hannah Senesh dressed as a Hungarian soldier on Purim (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Baer said that early studies looked primarily at women as victims. More recently, however, books have begun to appear on women perpetrators.

The topic of sexual violence has also arisen recently, after decades of being avoided. There is attention called to the rape of both Jewish and non-Jewish women in various locations, the establishment of brothels in camps, and the bartering of sex for food.

The value of Grunwald-Spier’s book, Baer wrote, “is the wide range of accounts provided: women in ghettos, camps, in resistance, as mothers, as slave laborers, and so forth.”

Some profiles may be familiar — notably parachutist and poet Hannah Szenes, whose attempt to rescue Hungarian Jews ended in her capture and execution in 1944.

Grunwald-Spier said she found “interesting information” in Szenes’ diary that “not everybody who reads my book knows about.”

A section on witnesses to postwar trials has an interfaith aspect, as it chronicles Jewish Red Cross nurse Norma Falk and two non-Jewish women — translator Patsy Crampton, and the last surviving participant of the Nuremberg Trials, Alma Stoller, who died last year.

Jewish Red Cross nurse Norma Falk was one of three witnesses to postwar trials profiled in ‘Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust,’ a new book by Agnes Grunwald-Spier. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)

Grunwald-Spier said it would have been a mistake not to include non-Jewish women.

Of the narratives in the book, Grunwald-Spier described the kashariyot as among the most surprising.

“I did not know anything about them till I did research … They were quite remarkable. They were incredibly young … A lot of them died,” Grunwald-Spier said.

She calls the kashariyot “incredibly brave,” a network linking people in the ghettos, or in hiding elsewhere, and partisans in Eastern Europe. Kashariyot updated ghettos on the latest developments, and transmitted documents, money and stolen food.

Frumka Plotnicka, the first kasharit to smuggle weapons into the Warsaw Ghetto for the uprising, hid them in a bag of potatoes. Others concealed grenades in their underwear.

Resistance leader Lubetkin praised the kashariyot for their contributions. She and her eventual husband, fellow leader Yitzhak Zuckerman, survived the uprising; Lubetkin aided another Warsaw revolt in 1944.

But not all the kashariyot escaped. Plotnicka was a signatory to a well-known letter that concludes: “When you receive this letter, none of us will be alive.” She was not even 30 when she died, fighting to the last, in August 1943.

In a book filled with tragedy, perhaps the most agonizing account is Perl, who worked as a gynecologist under Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Learning of an edict that doomed women and their newborns to death, she found a grim, secret way to spare the mothers.

“[Dr. Perl] decided she would perform abortions on women,” Grunwald-Spier said. “It sounds absolutely horrendous … At least it saved women’s lives.”

Liberation of children from Auschwitz-Birkenau. (

For women arriving at a camp with a baby, inmates sometimes persuaded the mother to give her baby to someone else, sparing them both from death. For women who gave birth at a camp, it was much harder.

“They did not want people in the camp who couldn’t work,” Grunwald-Spier explained. “A woman with a child couldn’t work.”

“No one will ever know what it meant to me to destroy these babies,” Perl wrote in her 1948 book, “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.

“I loved those newborn babies not as a doctor but as a mother and it was again and again my own child whom I killed to save the life of a woman. … And if I had not done it, both mother and child would have been cruelly murdered,” wrote Perl.

When Grunwald-Spier was asked how she willed herself to keep working on her own book despite such heartrending material, she said, “I suppose, in a way, I feel it’s my duty. I survived. I’m here. I’m blessed with some intelligence. After acquiring a good education, I can do the task.”

I feel it’s my duty. I survived. I’m here. After acquiring a good education, I can do the task

“To some extent, I’m unshockable,” she said — although “it does shock me [sometimes]. It’s a duty, really, to write it down and reveal it. People say it never happened.”

Grunwald-Spier can point to her own family history. After the Soviets liberated Budapest in 1945, she and her family lived in forced labor camps before her father smuggled them to England in 1947. But seven years later, he committed suicide.

Agnes Grunwald-Spier with her parents Philipp and Leona in Budapest, 1946. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)

“I only had an elderly widowed mother and no siblings,” Grunwald-Spier reflected.

She has endured other difficulties, having divorced her husband in 2000.

“Although I have three lovely sons and three grandchildren, they have lives to lead,” Grunwald-Spier said. “I don’t have anyone from my generation to provide support or advice … or for social activities. It’s left me feeling isolation to some extent.”

However, she can take satisfaction in filling a void in Holocaust scholarship.

“I hope it’ll open eyes to the different experiences the two sexes had, the different ways they coped,” Grunwald-Spier said. “Women ran their communities when men weren’t there. I just think it’s important work … It’s not just me, [other] women were there as well.”

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