Life, Death and Sacrifice
Women and Family in the Holocaust
Edited by Esther Hertzog
Gefen Publishing House, 2008, 309 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 21, 2010
This is an eye opening easy to read collection of eighteen studies by fifteen prominent sociologists, political scientists, historians, social psychologists, and experts in Judaic studies and women studies. The scholars describe and analyze the thoughts and behavior of Jewish and non-Jewish women who faced threats, pain, and death during the holocaust.
The book reveals much information that was previously unknown. It allows readers to extrapolate from women who faced the holocaust to women who encounter other threats, large and small. Some scholars show that generally women had better social-adaptive skills than men. They were better able to adapt to the changed situations and could make decisions that helped the conditions of their families. Many women were able to take up the roles previously handled by now absent males.
The stereotype is that women are compassionate but not heroic, and that men are more skillful in undertaking rescue missions. The stereotype maintains that each sex differs appreciably in moral reasoning. But this is shown to be untrue. One author cites cases showing that "a similar number of (both Jewish and non-Jewish) men and women…were involved in risking their lives to save Jews. Thus, the notion that men are more readily involved in dangerous helping behavior was not substantiated." Women undertook dangerous missions. Women acted as decoys, couriers, double agents, border runners, rescuers, and resistance fighters. Both sexes showed moral and emotional responses to the plight of Jews and both "came to the aid of victims through an outraged sense of justice." "Gender did not necessarily predispose a person to be caring." The traditional hero in movies, plays, and books is a swashbuckling male with women being cast in minor roles. This is not real life.
The book is filled with stories, in effect short novellas, about heroic women, Jewish and non-Jewish. But some stories tell about Jewish women who were not heroic and some who were vicious denouncers, who served the Nazi regime and helped destroy Jews.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example, mothers with young children were given a choice. They could leave their children to die in the gas chambers, work for the Nazis, and live, or they could stay and die with their children. Only two out of the six hundred mothers left their children and went to work; all of the rest remained with their children to the very end.
Some of these stories concern sexual violence by fellow Jews and by the Germans, a subject that has not yet been fully explored. An author points out that rape is "a by-product of the dehumanization process of genocide." She reminds us of the well-documented "sexual violence in Bosnia and Darfur." We are reminded also of the rapes and other types of sexual violence committed in all wars, not only wars of genocide.
During the holocaust, the sexual violence took many forms, from outright rape to exploitation of the vulnerability of Jewish females. A story is told, for example, of a proposal by a Jewish manager to take care of a woman and her sister, give them food and protection, in exchange for sex. The woman refused and the Nazis later took her sister. In another story, an SS officer was about to rape a woman, but she was saved because she was menstruating. In still another story, the Jewish Chairman of the Ludz ghetto council was abusing children under his care.