The Best Scholarly Essay

Allison McBride, “Unique Experiences, Universal Suffering: Jewish Women in Auschwitz-Birkenau”

Long after the liberation of Auschwitz in April of 1945, the experiences of Jewish victims imprisoned in Nazi camps during the Holocaust live in historical scholarship and historical memory. Over the past several decades, scholars and survivors have worked to produce a wealth of information on the experiences and effects of this modern-day phenomenon of genocide. Yet, until recently, the gender-neutral nature of both academic studies and personal accounts effectively neglected a major area of the Holocaust experience: the unique experiences of women.

While much thought on the topic has been generated in recent years, resistance and debate still surround gender-specific studies of the Holocaust. For the most part, the reluctance of both scholars and survivors to explore the different experiences of Jewish women can be attributed to fears of fragmentation, marginalization, and discrimination among all Jewish victims and their equally traumatic experiences. Scholars who have taken a stance with regard to gender-specific studies of the Holocaust can be divided mainly into two groups: those who favor and those who oppose the study. One group, mainly feminist scholars like Sybil Milton and Joan Ringelheim, laments the ways in which women suffered worse than men throughout the Holocaust, especially in ghetto and camp life. Any work in Holocaust studies, which lies along gender-specific lines has been subject to the scrutiny of scholars like Lawrence Langer, who not only maintains that men and women suffered equally, but also rejects the very notion of gender-specific Holocaust studies.

Still, the possibility to stake a middle ground between the two conflicting sides remains. In my study, I argue that to study the unique experiences of women is not to gauge the extent of suffering any group endured; every Holocaust victim suffered unspeakable hardship. In the Nazi camps, female prisoners suffered and survived distinctly from their mail counterparts, especially as women and men lived apart in joint imprisonment. Thus, the unique experiences of women in the camps can and must be examined in efforts to envisage the whole Holocaust experience.

An exploration of one woman’s existence and survival in Auschwitz-Birkenau supports my interpretation. In her personal narrative, Lidia Rosenfeld Vago exposes several themes that speak to the uniqueness of women’s camp experiences (1). At first glance, her story seems quite ordinary: Vago introduces herself as the daughter of professional, assimilated Jewish parents and tells of the happy, comfortable existence her family enjoyed in Hungary prior to the German invasion of 1944. As soon as she alludes to the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in March of that year, which she writes brought the “beginning of the end for Hungarian Jewry,” her story proves extraordinary: Vago recounts the journey she shared with her sister, Anikó, as they suffered and survived through three Auschwitz women’s camps (2).

Before delving into the depths of her narrative, some background information on the pre-camp place of Jewish women in Nazi Europe helps to identify Vago and the other women she encountered in Auschwitz. Prior to the establishment of concentration, labor, and extermination camps, Nazis specially considered women and children in their formulation of a ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question.’ While they acknowledged the utility of Jewish men as a labor force, Nazis viewed Jewish women as the worthless procreators of an inferior race. In their pre-camp ghetto lives, women may have performed less heavy, manual labor than men, but they still received less pay even when doing the same work. Even so, Nazi policies on pregnancy presumably targeted women worst of all. While compulsory abortion was common practice in ghettoes, pregnant women were sentenced to immediate extermination in virtually all camps (3). Thus, the conditions and policies that first distinguished the experiences of men and women in ghettoes fully evolved with the establishment of camps (4).

Auschwitz-Birkenau provides a premier case for my study, as the vast complex encompassed a number of separate camps where Jewish women lived, worked, and died isolated from Jewish men. From the moment of arrival at Auschwitz, SS policies and procedures predetermined the separate experiences male and female victims would suffer. The immediate separation of men and women into two distinct groups set them forward upon two distinct paths, which they would thereafter follow through the camps. In her narrative, Vago recalls the shouts of SS men to “stand up in separate rows, women and men,” adding that the separation upon arrival marks the last time she ever saw her father (5). Certainly, the initial separation of men and women tore families and friendships apart, upsetting men and women alike. Men mourned the losses of mothers, wives, and daughters, just as women mourned the losses of fathers, husbands, and sons. While the separation of men and women does not constitute an experience unique to women, the process essentially initiates discussion of the unique experiences that followed (6).

Following their separation from men, the women of Auschwitz suffered through a tragic array of tortures known only within the confines of their isolation. Certainly, Nazis inflicted unspeakable physical and psychological abuses upon women and men alike. The different abuses women withstood and their different reactions to abuses ultimately defined their unique camp experiences. Several recurrent themes that survivors recount regarding their experiences as women in Nazi camps include: stripping and shaving, unbearable living conditions, medical and labor selections, and the intertwined sexual themes of menstruation, motherhood, and pregnancy.

Even before they faced the harsh life that awaited them in concentration and labor camps, women faced both physical pain and emotional trauma as the SS prepared them for their camp existence. In particular, two peculiar Nazi tactics inflicted premature suffering upon women: stripping and shaving. Forced to discard every inch of their personal garments, women stood naked and vulnerable before the strange SS officers. Women who had identified themselves as respectable Jewish wives, mothers, and daughters felt the degradation and humiliation of this carnal display of their delicate bodies. An already unbearable situation worsened with the act of shaving, by which SS officers crudely cleaned women’s bodies of every bit of hair. After being shaved, women stood bald-headed, bleeding, and blatantly stunned. Vago relives the shock and horror of shaving, as she writes, “[S]everal women barbers (not hairdressers)…working as if in a race against time…rudely cut our hair, leaving us bald and clean shaven everywhere on our entire bodies. The culture shock proceeded as our female bodies were stripped of their fig leaves and exposed to the lascivious gaze of the German soldiers." (7)

At the end of her statement, Vago alludes to the most critical point of discussion on SS policies of stripping and shaving of women. The temporary physical discomforts of exposure to bitter cold air and the rough cuts of dull razors passed, but the emotional trauma of exposure before strangers and the loss of identity injured the women permanently. Milton offers an insight into the reactions of devoutly religious Jewish women, as she interprets their feelings of “both a physical and spiritual nakedness” upon being shorn of their hair. (8) As Orthodox Judaism teaches that women must cover their hair in the presence of unfamiliar men for purposes of modesty and protection, such exposure presumably plagued these women with further feelings of shame and sinfulness. To be sure, the loss of external womanly attributes – clothing and hair – caused all women to feel a loss of internal womanhood. Each and every woman realized that the processes had stripped her not only of bodily parts, but of virtually all control over her own body. Stripping and shaving effectively rendered women weakened, shamed, and unrecognizable to themselves.

Perhaps such shock and suffering did prepare women, at least physically, for the utterly uninhabitable quarters they would come to call home. Vago describes the conditions of her first lodging in the Auschwitz complex, “the quarantine BIII Lager, dubbed Mexico for its poor condition.” (9)From the outside, Vago saw “a huge barren compound…as far as the eye could see.” (10) Inside, she encountered no bunks or beds, just a hard wooden floor on which she and the other women would sleep. A single, small latrine could be used only when authorized, and the entire facility lacked any source of water. It comes as no surprise, then, that Vago also reports reading signs posted to warn of epidemics.

The conditions Vago describes in BIII Lager, or ‘Mexico,’ were typical of almost all women’s living quarters in the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. (11) While conditions in men’s camps may have been equally unacceptable, certain features distinguished conditions in women’s camps. In her study of BIII Lager and other women’s camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Milton confirms the observations Vago offers in her narrative. Milton explains that excessive overcrowding compounded with lack of water and sanitation, causing disease to run rampantly in the women’s camps. (12) In fact, most studies of Nazi camps show that women suffered from lice infestation, dysentery, and scabies, as well as a number of other afflictions. (13)

As if physical conditions did not inflict sufficient suffering upon women in these sections, subjection to nearby exterminations caused the women unparalleled psychological duress as well. A map of the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex shows that a number of women’s quarters, including BIII Lager, were situated much closer to gassing chambers and crematoria than men’s quarters. (14) Thus, the proximity of the crematorium brought the rotten stench of burning bodies and a sick awareness of the outside Nazi world. Perhaps as a psychological self-defense mechanism to protect themselves from further trauma, many of the women remained oblivious to the reality of their own situations. As Vago describes her fellow female inmates, “Most of the women lived, or rather vegetated, under a haze of self-deception. ‘They are burning garbage was the common illusion’”. (15)

Of course, witnessing Nazi exterminations was not exclusive to women in Auschwitz, and men may have reacted with similar disillusionment. (16) However, women processed the event patently for two main reasons. First, as mentioned above, large numbers of women simply were situated closer to extermination facilities in the camps, and so the acts presumably were more visible and evocative to them. Second, women understood their own place in the Nazi systematic policy for extermination of the entire Jewish race. Nazis gassed women, along with their children, first and most of all prisoners, as women carried the next generation of Jews. Women also knew that, unlike men, they provided no real use to the Nazis, as they were considered weak, unskilled, and incapable of joining the male-dominated labor force in contributing to the war effort. All told, the mere sight of nearby gassing chambers served as a chilling reminder of their own mortality.

Women’s worst fears for extermination materialized when the SS conducted sporadic medical and labor selections. When women overcrowded their living quarters, or the demand for industrial labor to support the German war effort increased, SS selections sentenced large numbers of sick women to death and deemed small numbers of women suitable for ‘extermination through work.’ (17) To a large extent, these subsequent selections present a repeat of the sufferings endured during the initial selections upon arrival. Throughout their stays in Auschwitz, women experienced total humiliation and victimization time and again when repeated selection processes forced them to stand naked, fearful, and powerless as they awaited final judgment from the all-powerful SS. (18) Vago says of one of the several selections she underwent, “Stark naked on the cold October day, we had to file past an SS doctor and an SS Aufseherin from the factory. We were naked so that no blemish could be hidden…” (19)

After the spending some time in the camps, new perceptions came to define selections experiences for women. Preliminary medical examinations distinguished those women strong and healthy enough for slave labor from those too weak or ill to be of any real use. Any woman found in unsatisfactory health according to SS standards would be sentenced to death immediately. As a result of the widespread epidemics in their living quarters, a large majority of infected women had much to fear in medical inspections. Vago retells an incident that occurred just before transfer to a new camp, in which her sister Anikó narrowly escaped an SS selection for scabies. She explains that while the infected women were supposedly quarantined, they were most likely sent straight to the crematorium. (20)

In conjunction with knowing their position in the Nazi plan for systematic extermination, women knew all too well the very small chances they stood for labor selection. While men also underwent labor selections, they enjoyed far greater chances for selection, owing to the Nazi need for strong, skilled laborers to support the war effort. So it appears that the likelihood of rejection placed psychological burdens on women that the selections processes did not place on men. In a word, women saw their stake in SS selections as a split-second chance at life or death.

Four weeks after their arrival at Auschwitz, Vago, her sister Anikó, and nearly one thousand other girls somehow passed one such SS selection process and “were found fit for ‘extermination through work.’” (21) The description of factory settings and harsh labor conditions that follows shows that even after being selected as suitable slave laborers, women found themselves unaccustomed to the situations they encountered in SS labor camps. Vago describes a grueling daily routine of traveling three to four kilometers and working twelve-hour shifts, complains of such physical pains as swollen ankles and fatigue, and tells of the monotony and tediousness of her tasks. (22)

Needless to say, both men and women suffered exhaustively as slave laborers in SS factory camps. However, the pre-camp roles and lifestyles most Jewish women had enjoyed affected their different reactions and behaviors under similar circumstances. In most respects, Jewish women were entirely unprepared for factory work. Even when working alongside men in mixed labor camps, women experienced widely different mental and physical challenges in completing tasks the SS demanded of them.

This can be attributed to the education and skills that most Jewish women had acquired prior to their imprisonment. Whether mothers or daughters, homemakers or high school students, Jewish women had prepared for future domestic or professional lives. The formality and location of education depended largely on religious orientation and degree of assimilation, but very few Jewish women received education in industrial labor skills. (23) Vago serves as a shining example of one such Jewish woman. Early in her narrative, Vago identifies herself as the child of professional, assimilated, Hungarian Jewish parents and tells of her adolescent accomplishments with nostalgic pride. (24) Following her complaints of the harsh conditions of the factory camp, Vago relates a conversation with her SS supervisor, in which he asks her “Why are you so awkward?” and she replies, “Because I have never done anything like this in my life.” (25) Her simple statement confirms conjectures that a compound of physical conditions and the characteristics of women workers created an uncomfortable, unsafe, and unfair camp environment.

In moving more deeply into the matter, two biological features of the female sex frequently dominate most discussions of women’s experiences in Nazi camps: menstruation and pregnancy. Nazi policies punished women for these natural biological processes, thereby targeting women for both their femaleness and their Jewishness. Since males do not bear the same biological functions as females, their experiences as such could not possibly have paralleled those of women. Accordingly, consideration of the combined physical and psychological effects that these biological processes exerted on women in the camps provides sound proof of women’s unique camp experiences.

To begin, the blood of menstruation brought both dirt and humiliation, as women were not provided with the sanitary products needed to maintain personal hygiene. While their unseemliness augmented already filthy living conditions, women experienced mixed emotions of disgust, pity, and envy while witnessing each other suffer through the process. Malnutrition and emotional shock led to amenorrhea, a medical condition, which causes menstruation to cease and can lead to infertility. (26) As they developed the condition, women realized immediately that the loss of a process so integrally female effectively dimmed any prospects for complete recovery even if they were to survive. Nonetheless, Bondy believes that most women in the camps felt relieved when menstruation ceased, despite a felt loss of womanhood and fear of future infertility. (27) Vago’s own account offers mixed views on the subject. She writes, “The overall filth was aggravated by the last menstrual period that all the women had. We knew that it was to be the last, and we were ‘grateful’”. (28) While she does convey some sense of relief, her use of quotation marks suggests a sad sarcasm. Lidia, nor any other woman in the camps, truly felt grateful when she stopped menstruating. To lose menstruation is to lose a part of womanhood.

While some women mourned the loss of menstruation and feared future infertility, those women still capable of conceiving children suffered incomparably to any other victim in Nazi camps. While visibly pregnant women faced immediate extermination upon entering the camps, those able to conceal their condition faced severe consequences upon SS discovery. A number of sources offer stories of women who helped each other deliver and kill babies within the living barracks in order to save mothers from murder by the SS. (29) Near the end of her narrative, Vago relates her own experience with pregnancy in the camps. She introduces a Belgian woman she met while lying in the infirmary who

had been pregnant when she arrived to Auschwitz, and in due course the pregnancy began to show. Although she knew that she could not be allowed to live, she desperately hoped for a miracle and put all her energy into her work in the Union. She gave birth to a girl…and the baby was taken from her to be killed with an injection… She said to me excitedly: ‘I did not want to see my daughter. I did not love her for a moment. I will find my husband, and we will have more children. (30)

Vago’s painful memory of the woman’s disillusioned hope for future motherhood alludes to study on the lasting impacts of pregnancy and childbirth in camps long after liberation. In his discussion of the topic, Langer refers to the “tainted memories” of childbirth (and death) in the camps, which forever changed the experience for men and women alike. Langer does concede that the physical agony of childbirth in camps impacted women in ways men simply could not know, and the “phenomenon of maternity” inflicted women with prolonged and unredeemable suffering. (31) In spite of this concession, Langer concludes that parenthood presents a unisex phenomenon, and so fathers suffered as much as witnesses to atrocious acts as mothers who directly endured them. (32) His argument can be countered in light of the fact that men did not co-exist with women in most camps, and so they did not witness the countless acts of carnage that women experienced firsthand. For instance, men certainly did not help to deliver and kill babies within their own isolated living quarters. In this aspect alone, women’s experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood in camps stand indisputably unique.

Despite widespread discussion of themes related to biological sex in both studies and testimonies on women’s camp experiences, little information exists on incidents of sexual acts and abuses involving women in Nazi camps. This may come as a surprise to many, as the domination of men and subordination of women displayed in Nazi policies makes sexual exploitation seem all too congruous with the camp environment.

Ringelheim, one of the few scholars to explore the area amply, contends that despite deficiencies in evidence and research, sexual victimization presents a necessary element in any study of women’s Holocaust experiences. She affirms that sexual acts and abuses did occur in camps, and women suffered the consequences. (33) To explain the lack of documentation, Ringelheim discusses the disinclination among both scholars and survivors to delve into such a sensitive subject. She alludes to the fear, misunderstanding, and underestimation scholars have shown toward the issue in saying, “I believe that we avoid listening to stories we do not want to hear.” (34) As she continues, Ringelheim rationalizes that even those inclined to investigate the matter meet much difficulty in doing so, due to the lack of evidence that exists. Understandably, the strident emotional aspect of sexual encounters renders survivors reluctant to relate their own experiences.

Furthermore, from her research, Ringelheim gathers that female survivors tend to trivialize sexual abuses in their own minds. Though outsiders may see them as special victims, these women see sexual victimization as an immodest categorization of themselves, which separates them from the communal body of all Holocaust victims.(35) Despite her display of sympathy, Ringelheim dares to break away from the implicit tenets of Holocaust studies, which forbid blaming victims for inflicting further suffering upon fellow victims. She hints that Jewish men exploited Jewish women perhaps even more than Nazi men did and refers to sexism in traditional Judaism for support. This insight further explains the lack of evidence on the subject, as Jewish women refuse to blame Jewish men who were suffering alongside them when the acts were committed. (36)

Goldberg takes a different approach to the debate surrounding women’s sexual experiences. She contends that feelings of fear and vulnerability related to their sexuality emotionally traumatized women, but actual incidents rarely inflicted physical injury upon them. (37) Thus, Goldberg interprets the lack of documented evidence as an indication that sexual acts did not occur. Rather, she relates women’s sexual experiences to a suppressed element of female psychology perpetuated within the camp environment. As noted in Goldberg’s discussion of the work, Judith Isaacson relives nightmares of rape and elaborates on sexual fantasies in her book of memoirs; however, her unabashed disclosure seems unusual amid most women’s testimonies and hardly represents a common thread. (38)

In an essay that advocates sympathy for the unique sufferings of women, Milton brings an interesting insight into debate over sex-related suffering. In one respect, Milton stands with scholars unwilling to acknowledge sexual abuse of women, as she treats prostitution and rape of Jewish women as a “popular post-war myth.” (39) Then again, she suggests that women flirtatiously played upon their feminine sexuality in their struggles against SS men.(40) In a way, her suggestion that women used sex as a tool for survival presents sex as a positive aspect of women’s experiences and further obscures views of sex as a unique difficulty women faced.

Nuanced references in Vago’s narrative make her experiences with sex open to a number of interpretations. She speaks of secretive relations shared with male companions residing inside and outside of the Nazi camps. Vago recalls an unpleasant incident involving a male acquaintance who made a pass at her, which she abruptly “rejected in disgust” out of loyalty to her boyfriend.(41) Nevertheless, this isolated incident stands amid many revelations of positive relations with men. In the first labor camp to which she was assigned, Vago earned the favor of her German male supervisor, who then gave her garlic every day.(42) Whether or not Vago, as a young woman, played upon her adolescent attractiveness to warrant such behavior remains unclear. Neither can her relationships with men be linked to sexual acts, sex-related thoughts, or her ultimate survival.

Admittedly, Vago's narrative imparts no definitive answer to the question of women's sexual encounters in camps. Despite the deficiency of Vago’s and other survivors’ accounts, the depth of speculation explicated above proves that sexual encounters present an important, yet incomplete part of women's camp experiences. On a final note, to whatever extent sexual acts and abuses occurred in the camps, any that did occur constitutes a unique experience for women. Certain forms of sexual victimization apply strictly to women: rape, prostitution, and bearing the risk of pregnancy all present experiences unfamiliar to men, albeit all too familiar to women.

Following such depressing discussion of the suffering women endured, conversation on their coping mechanisms and survival skills comes as a welcomed when looking into studies of women’s camp life. In contrast to the resistance that surrounds certain themes addressed above, both scholars and survivors willingly discuss the relationships and activities women shared in camps. A number of scholars have carried this theme further and argued that women consciously created an environment conducive to endurance and survival. Despite debate surrounding the specifics of the subject, examination of the dynamics of women’s daily lives presents the only positive view of their experiences.

At the outset, it seems families faced immediate destruction in Nazi camps, as the SS selections separated men, women, and children upon their arrival. However, a closer look into life in women’s camps reveals that relationships among women actually thrived under the adverse conditions of camp life.

The relationship between Vago and her sister Anikó provides a remarkable example of the intense loyalty among women. Time and again throughout her story, the sisters lift each other’s spirits in even the darkest moments of despair. A most poignant display of the strength of their sisterhood comes near the end of the narrative, when survival seems simultaneously within and out of their reach. Just after her release from the infirmary and just before the liberation of Auschwitz, Vago attests to the vital loyalty that shuffled her and Anikó along the path to survival. She writes, “I ran to our block, where Anikó was waiting for me. It was vital not to lose each other in the confusion.” (43)

In this affirmation, Vago also alludes to a common behavior women displayed even in the desperate trail of the Death March. Though conceivably easier and more practical for each girl to abandon the other in order to save herself, the unbreakable bond between them suppressed the slightest notion of selfishness. After separation from their husbands, sons, and brothers, separation from each other inflicted more emotional trauma upon the women than they could conceivably bear. Vago describes “heart-rending scenes as some mothers were separated from their daughters and sisters from each other” during SS selections of women for factory work. (44) Even when staying together meant imminent death, women desperately clung to each other in hopes of retaining their only remaining relationships.

In addition to maintaining what relationships they brought into the camps, women frequently forged new relationships with each other right away. Individual differences, such as ethnicity, political convictions, and religious orientation, disappeared when women united and reached out to help one another. Goldenberg uses the term “social bonding” to refer to relationships forged by two or more women out of both physical and emotional necessity, which grew into surrogate families in the camps. (45)

Over time, a communal atmosphere grew and encouraged women to engage in certain activities. One such activity has come to be known as telling ‘kitchen stories,’ and has been noted repeatedly in studies of women’s lives in both ghettoes and camps.(46) Presumably as an effort to psychologically combat hunger, women swapped recipes and shared cooking techniques for hours on end. From her study of three women’s memories, Goldenberg affirms that the activity helped women cope with more than hunger, claiming that through collective remembrance of a happier, pre-camp life, women fiercely banded together in a commitment to a return to it. (47) While the theory that ‘kitchen stories’ actually helped woman overcome starvation seems unreasonable, the activity does illustrate a remembrance of the past and a commitment to the future. This strength of mind, which so many women demonstrated on so many levels, best supports arguments for their exceptional efforts and successes in survival.

Aside from specific activities, some scholars have even argued that the overall atmosphere of camaraderie, community, and commitment women created developed into a distinct strategy for survival. According to their interpretations of women’s survival efforts, whether starving in the barracks, slaving in the factories, or staggering along the Death March, women clearly made survival a cooperative effort. Milton argues strongly in favor of the role that women’s specialized skill, strength, and support played in their survival. Even under desperate conditions themselves, she says, women pooled and shared scant resources in order to help each other survive. She considers female bonding a skill inherent to women, which women in camps successfully invoked, and attributes qualities of solidarity and lack of competition as unique to female bonding. She adds that while male bonding occurred in camps, men did not bond as effectively as women, and so bonding did not contribute to their survival.(48) On the other hand, Langer refutes the argument that special relationships among women proved to be effective survival skills. Langer states that his own research has shown little evidence that women proved superior to men in either matter, except in occasional instances attributed to situational factors, rather than womanly specialty. (49)

In a moving end to her story, Vago shares her own experience of camaraderie, kitchen stories, and survival. She writes, “Weak and weary as we were, some of us huddled together in a group on the bare floor of our room, telling recipes for our favorite dishes and imagining elaborate menus for feasts, especially weddings to which we would invite one another.” (50) In the final days of their camp existence, Vago communicates how the camaraderie among her group of women grew even greater. As the activity took place in another camp after the liberation of Auschwitz, the women could foresee an end to their present misery. Their group commitment to the activity and to survival reinforced their real hope for the future.

In the end, Vago’s experience indicates that survival in Nazi camps depended as much upon matters of circumstance and luck as upon any strategy. To begin, Vago and her family were deported to Auschwitz in mid-1944, approximately two years after Nazis began to exterminate masses of Jewish victims and a few months before the destruction of the gas chambers.(51) As the average prisoner survived only three weeks in Auschwitz, Vago’s yearlong struggle seems extraordinary indeed. (52) Yet, Vago herself admits that her selection for labor proved her salvation. Statistics support her statement, showing that of all Hungarian Jews deported between April and July of 1944, only one hundred thousand were selected for labor, and seventy-five percent were gassed immediately.(53) Vago also reveals her own risk-taking, which very well could have ruined her chances for survival. Yet she also demonstrates her ability to cultivate profitable relationships that just as well could have contributed to her ultimate survival. Finally, repeated incidents of good favor and fortune that others bestowed upon her and Anikó overshadow both of their own efforts toward survival. Still, the special sisterhood they shared, along with their relations with fellow female victims, significantly added to their unique experiences as women in Auschwitz.

In the end, the experience and fate of each victim depended as much upon individuality, circumstance, and luck as much as upon pre-ordained destiny and pre-conceived identity. Unquestionably, unspeakable suffering and unwanted death unite all men and women who suffered through Nazi camps during the Holocaust. Whatever tragic end awaited all prisoners of Auschwitz, women undoubtedly walked a different path along their way through the camps.
At this point, I can conclude my study and offer a few remarks on my approach, limits, and aspirations for further study. One women’s experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau reaffirms my initial premise that women uniquely suffered in Nazi camps; however, I see no substantial support for conjectures that women employed special survival skills. I interpret the relations and activities women shared within their isolated quarters, which some scholars have deemed coping and survival skills, as part of women’s unique camp experiences. Yet, I have considered only the experience of one woman in one Nazi camp. The experience of each victim depended upon a range of factors, from personal background to place of imprisonment; further research demands the exploration of many women’s experiences in many Nazi camps. Specifically, I suppose a study on the diversity of women in the forced labor camps of Ravensbrück and Skarzysko-Kamienna would build well upon my study.

Much work remains to be done in Holocaust studies before the unique ways women suffered and survived in Nazi camps can be understood fully. Unfortunately, serious limitations restrict extensive research of the area. First, lack of firsthand testimony, which essentially provides the basis for any study, inhibits scholarship. Nearly sixty years after the liberation of Nazi camps, many survivors have passed away, and many who live today hesitate to speak specifically about women’s experiences. It seems women themselves do not know where their unique experiences lie within the realm of Holocaust experience. Still, new studies can emerge only if survivors step forward and offer their stories; only then can researchers reach a true understanding of them.

Gender-specific studies do have a place in Holocaust studies where women’s experiences integrate into a holistic understanding of all victims and their experiences. Scholars can utilize the unique experiences of women to analyze meaningful themes and gain a deeper understanding of the whole Holocaust without fragmenting existing frameworks for understanding the phenomenon or categorizing its victims. I am confident that those who pursue study of women’s experiences in Nazi camps will at once reform thought on the Holocaust as modern genocide and revolutionize thinking on gender in modern society.


Notes

  1. While this study is based only on the Auschwiz-Birkenau camps, the themes discussed appear in other scholar’s studies of a number of camps. For a detailed study of the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp, see Felicja Karay, “Women in Forced Labor Camps,”pp. 285-307, and for a portrait of women in the family camp at Birkenau, see Ruth Bondy, “Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau,” pp. 310-325, both in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenor J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  2. As a Hungarian Jewish woman also deported to Auschwitz during this time, Judith Magyar Isaccson’s book of memoirs Seed of Sarah tells a story quite similar to Lidia Vago’s narrative.
  3. Ofer and Weitzman, eds., Women in the Holocaust, pp. 6-7.
  4. For more in-depth discussion of women’s conditions in ghettoes see Felicja Karay, “Women in Forced Labor Camps,”pp. 285-307, and Ruth Bondy, “Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau,” pp. 310-325, both in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenor J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  5. Vago, “One Year,” p. 275.
  6. See Lawrence Langer, “Gendered Suffering?,” pp. 361-363 in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, for further discussion of men’s experiences with deportation and separation of families.
  7. Vago, “One Year,” p. 275.
  8. Milton, “Women’s Survival,” p. 121.
  9. Vago, “One Year,” p. 275.
  10. Ibid.
  11. See Ruth Bondy, “Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau,” pp. 310-327 in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalie Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, for an exception to this generalization.
  12. Milton, “Women’s Survival,”p. 121.
  13. See, for example, Felicja Karay, “Women in Forced Labor Camps,” pp. 285-307 in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  14. Bauer, A History of the Holocaust, pp. 236-237.
  15. Vago, “One Year,” p. 276.
  16. While the map of Auschwitz-Birkenau referenced above shows that many more women’s camps were situated in close proximity to extermination facilities, it also shows that no prisoner in the vast complex was sheltered from extermination activities. Also, it must be noted that the layouts of smaller extermination camps, including Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, have not been reviewed for this study, as Auschwitz stands as the largest, all-inclusive model of Nazi camps.
  17. Bauer, A History of the Holocaust.
  18. The fact that some of the SS officers Vago encountered were women has not been incorporated into this study. Further research would investigate the ways in which women reacted to exposure before both SS men and women.
  19. Vago, “One Year,” p. 281.
  20. Ibid, p. 280-1.
  21. Ibid, p. 277.
  22. Ibid, p. 278.
  23. Ofer and Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust, pp.3-4.
  24. Vago, “One Year,” pp. 273-4.
  25. Ibid, p. 279
  26. Bondy, “Women in Theresienstadt,” p. 315.
  27. Ibid, p. 315.
  28. Vago, “One Year,” p. 275.
  29. See, for example, Myrna Goldenberg, “Memoirs of Auschwitz Survivors,” pp.327-339 in Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  30. Vago, “One Year,” p. 281.
  31. Langer, “Gendered,” p. 353.
  32. Ibid, p. 361-2.
  33. Ringelheim, “The Split,” p.342.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid, p. 343.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Goldenberg, “Memoirs,” p. 335.
  38. Isaacson, Seed of Sarah.
  39. Milton, “Women’s Survival,” p. 124.
  40. Ibid, p. 125.
  41. Vago, “One Year,” p. 280.
  42. Ibid, p. 279.
  43. Vago, “One Year,” p. 282.
  44. Ibid p. 278.
  45. Goldenberg, “Memoirs,” p. 336.
  46. See Ruth Bondy, “Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau,” for her discussion of ‘kitchen stories’ in the Theresienstadt ghetto.
  47. Goldenberg, “Memoirs,”p. 335.
  48. Milton, “Women’s Survival,” pp. 119-120; 123.
  49. Langer, “Gendered,” p. 362.
  50. Vago, “One Year,” p.284.
  51. Bauer, History, p.235; 356
  52. Isaacson, Seed of Sarah. Though technically a primary source, I believe this bit of information to be reliable in Isaacson’s account.
  53. Bauer, History, p. 344

Bibliography

Andrews, Sue, “Remembering the Holocaust: Gender Matters,”Social Alternatives 22, no.2 (Spring 2003): 16-22.

Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

Bondy, Ruth. “Women in Theresienstadt and the Family Camp in Birkenau.” In Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. (310-327).

Goldenberg, Myrna, “Memoirs of Auschwitz Survivors.” In Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. (327-339).

Isaacson, Judith Magyar. Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Langer, Lawrence L., “Gendered Suffering?” in Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. (351-363).

Laska, Vera, ed. Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Milton, Sybil. “Women’s Survival Skills.” in The Holocaust: Problems in Perspectives of Interpretation, 3rd ed., edited by Donald L. Niewyk. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. (119-125).

Ofer, Dalia, and Weitzman, Lenore J., eds. Women in the Holocaust, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Ringelheim, Joan. “The Split between Gender and the Holocaust.” In Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. (340-350).

 

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