Women Who Survived to Tell the World

Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust
edited by Brana Gurewitsch
University of Alabama Press, $29.95, $19.95 paper

Sisters in Sorrow: Voices of Care in the Holocaust
edited by Roger A. Ritvo and Diane M. Plotkin
Texas A & M University Press, $35.95

I have always thought of myself as a wandering Jew, and a very privileged one, having left Germany with my Lithuanian-born family in 1930 and emigrated to the United States from Switzerland in the Spring of 1939. Always one step ahead of persecution and annihilation. Even so, it is only in the recent decade, some 50 years later, that I have begun to read among the memoirs and personal accounts of Holocaust survivors.

I thought I was ready for these two books. I was not. I could only read one story a day, and not before going to bed. Especially as the first pictures of Kosovo refugees inundated the TV screens. I was not prepared for the emotional impact, the cumulative effect, of reading one oral history after another, each escalating in levels of cruelty and degradation.

These books are a labor of love and of courage. It takes courage to read the oral histories of women who survived the Holocaust, and to keep on reading. It took more courage, and a great deal of skill and perseverance, to conduct the personal interviews, to check the details for accuracy, and to edit each of these painful recollections into narrative form. But it is the survivors themselves whose courage goes beyond our understanding, just as the horror of their experiences is beyond human comprehension.

In her preface, Brana Gurewitsch, editor of Mothers, Sisters, Resisters, writes of her first immersion in Holocaust literature: “When I approached the material analytically rather than emotionally, as I had in the past, it no longer frightened me.” In this collection, she presents the material analytically. Each of the three sections, on mothers, on sisters, and on resisters, focuses on the powerful and life-sustaining connections and relationships that women developed and maintained in the camps. But even within this rational and matter-of-fact framework, emotion cannot be put aside.

What was it that sustained these women through months and years of every kind of hardship and degradation? Some said it was a deep and abiding faith that God would guide and protect. Some believed it was sheer luck. Others felt it was the caring relationship with a mother, a child, a sister or a chosen camp-sister. Still others recount a sense of purpose, of resistance and allegiance to a larger group. Sometimes it was a promise made to father or mother, and often the parting words: “You must live to tell the world.” These stories convey hope, a will to live and, later, a remarkable resilience and ability to heal.

The distinguished historian Mary-Beth Norton has said: “History without women is like a child without a female parent,” but women have been mostly absent in historical accounts of the Holocaust. The editors of Sisters in Sorrow, in their introductory chapter, make a powerful case for bringing the lives of women into the historical discourse on Holocaust experiences. They also include a useful list of publications by and about women survivors.

This book focuses on the oral histories of women caregivers, who provided medical or nursing care, officially or informally. “Those who were capable and willing were sometimes able to help others live, thereby retaining a measure of value in their own lives as well as contributing to that of their fellow prisoners. In this way they were able to maintain a semblance of their own humanity.”

Here we read about the moral dilemmas of physicians or nurses who had to tread a very thin line between saving lives and complying with orders. They could hide healthy bodies in hospital beds or falsify diagnoses to keep individual Jews from the death transports, but only up to a certain point, before they too would have been killed on the spot.

Each of the first five sections is introduced with a description of medical and hygienic conditions in Theresienstadt, Westerbork, the labor camps, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The last two sections recount the experiences of a nurse who came as one of the liberators of Camp Mauthausen, and finally the never-ending ordeal of those who survived.

What I find so remarkable in reading the personal recollections in these two books is that the women who had been exposed to such ultimate levels of inhumanity were able to maintain their own sense of self and to convey to us a profound sense of their own humanity and dignity. One of the questions that haunts me is, “How did these women keep their sanity?” Perhaps the answer lies in Magda Herzberger’s words, as she recollects the day before liberation, when she was convinced that she was about to die of starvation and maltreatment: “I think that if you ever were that close to death, you are going to love life, and you are going to live it and be a doer in your life.”

Rachel Josefowitz Siegel is the co-editor of Celebrating the Lives of Jewish Women: Patterns in a Feminist Sampler, Jewish Women and Therapy, and a new book on Jewish mothers to be published next year.