As I’ve read Holocaust memoirs, I’ve been struck by the unique emphasis on relationships in women’s writing. Isabella Leitner’s words, in Fragments of Isabella, alerted me: “If you are sisterless, you do not have the pressure, the absolute responsibility to end the day alive.”
Jewish and non-Jewish women often attribute their survival to help from another woman. Frances Penney tells about women who saved a barrack mate from the gas chamber when she was very feverish. They dragged her to the courtyard for roll call and placed her in the middle of the line, shielding her from detection.
Sara Nomberg-Przytyk reflects on her communist friends’ network. After one week in Birkenau, when she felt utterly alone and friendless, she despaired to the point of planning suicide. Sonia saved her life by bringing her warm clothes and bread and eventually an inside job.
Charlotte Delbo tells about the terror she experienced when her comrades were taken away while she finished her ditch digging. She knew, she said, that she would not return (to a liberated France) unless she had her companions with her: “Everyone wants to stay close to a friend. One woman to stay in front of a weaker one to take the blows for her, another to stay behind a woman who can no longer run to steady her if she falls. I am overcome with despair. The presence of others, their words, makes return possible.”
It was not a surprise to read that the first commandant of Ravensbrueck (the largest women’s camp) built detention cells to punish women prisoners, “since no more strict punishment can be used in a women’s camp” than isolation—not physical punishment, hunger, or hard work.
Clearly, no amount of nurturing could counteract a bullet, a beating, a capricious attack, a vicious capo, a Dr. Mengele. But, according to many memoirs, nurturing accounted for something significant. It led to feeling needed and being needed in concrete ways, such as sharing a scrap of food or building a fluid surrogate family. These connections mitigated the anonymity of the concentration and work camp system. One survivor told me that the friends she made in Stuthof remained her closest friends; she even considers their children part of her extended family. These friendships helped to balance the humiliation the Nazis designed to break the spirit and the will.
Women’s memoirs and testimonies are consistent in their focus on these connections. Lucie Adelsberger says, “The very fact that people came together, stood up for one another, often putting their own lives in jeopardy…and that they formed a family more tightly knit than many a natural one, was something exceptional; and not only for those who survived, but also for the many for whom such friendship and the love of their comrades eased the horrors of their miserable end.”
Obviously, nurturing is not the exclusive domain of women, but it is far more prevalent in women’s writing and memories than it has been in men’s. This difference helps explain the emotional isolation that men felt when they were stripped of their identities as heads of families, businesses, civic groups, and were unable to re-create their former roles.
There were even differences in the way men and women discussed their hunger. Generally, men spoke about wonderful meals, recalling pleasant experiences that certainly didn’t satiate their hunger. On the other hand, women often exchanged recipes, creating a different type of satisfaction. Teaching another how to cook establishes a relationship. Furthermore, teaching someone how to cook very often involves recollection of a dead person: Tante Esther’s recipe for kugel, Grandma’s recipe for sponge cake. Jewish women learn to prepare dishes related to the Jewish calendar. Chicken soup is a shabbos dish, hamantaschen a Purim delicacy. Sharing recipes, even in the squalor of the barracks, becomes an act of remembering a family member, a means for perpetuating Jewish values and culture, and a source of identity and self-esteem. Survivors recalling this process often laugh and nod in recognition of Susan Cemak-Spatz’s comment that she was never as good a cook in the kitchen as she was with her mouth.
These women’s narratives are the fragments that lead me to conclude that caring and connectedness—basically feminist values—were essential for survival.
Myrna Goldenberg, a Holocaust scholar, is director of the Humanities Institute and professor of English at Montgomery College, and a member of the graduate faculty at Johns Hopkins University.
Women’s Friendship and Survival
Lucie Adelsberger, A Doctor’s Story Charlotte Delbo, None of Us Will Return Isabella Leitner, Fragments of Isabella Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz Sybil Milton, “Women and the Holocaust” in When Biology Became Destiny, eds., Renate Bridethal, Marion Kaplan, and Atina Grossman. Donald L. Niewyk, ed.. Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land Germaine Tilion, Ravensbrueck