The Nazis publicly hanged a mother and her five-year old daughter. The mother’s crime? Illegally buying an egg for her starving child. The child’s crime? She ate the egg.
It was a time, unimaginable. It was a time, unthinkable. It was a time, incomprehensible to any mother. Incomprehensible to anyone who would claim to be civilized or even human.
Six million Jews, along with 13 million non-Jews were murdered. They were starved, worked to death, and burned in ovens in the unparalleled targeted Nazi genocide.
As females, Jewish mothers carried the soul-scarring effects of repeated rapes, sexual torture, and medical mutilation. The Nazis turned the mothers in the camps into murderers, forcing them to kill their own children, or be killed with them in the ovens.
We Jewish mothers have sacrificed for thousands of years. Our history is singular. As Jews, our tiny group, pious, industrious, and child-first, have endured incalculable calamities.
But this? Sitting here, almost 70 years later, I still hear the echoes of these mothers, see the shadows, feel the horror of madness-let-loose. But more, after years of research, I also feel unbridled love and admiration for these women, who, shoulder-to-shoulder bore this monstrous beast with a courage, a conviction, and a faith, unparalleled.
Let us pay tribute to these special women.
Jewish Mothers: Support, Rachmones, Solidarity:
In looking at the plight of Holocaust victims in the camps, gender differences existed between men and women. While men often adopted “lone-wolf” behavior, women used traditionally feminine values of cooperation and care, often forming powerful sisterhoods with their fellow victims, finding strength, support, spiritual sustenance, and solidarity from these relationships. Judy Cohen, in “Lessons Learned from Gentle Heroism: Women’s Holocaust Narratives” details these sisterhoods, writing, “Men were demoralized and women went on nurturing.” A powerful survival skill for the Jewish mother, came from her role as home-maker and organizer. Whether it was sewing, cleaning, or conjuring ways to stretch their meager food, at least they had some illusion of control, of “doing.”
In one example, Cohen describes an ad hock “insurrectionist” group of Belgian female prisoners at Auschwitz. They managed to “connect” to the Schuh-Kommando and were assigned to sort prisoners’ shoes. This allowed them to “organize” shoes for themselves and their friends. Cohen notes: “Although their participation in preparation for armed revolt gave them purpose, their existence was made bearable by their ‘sisterhood’ … and the bonding between women was an important factor in their day-to-day and ultimate survival.”
In the “Scrolls of Auschwitz,” recovered among the ashes in the camp, the author who was a Sondercommando described this “surrogate motherhood.” One woman, for example, would give her bread to her starving friend or do her sick friend’s work. He reported the following anecdote: “While I had typhus, I was bordering on madness,” said one woman. “I was delirious from fever. I once asked for an apple. My friends went and exchanged their bread rations for an apple. Thus, solidarity saved my life—and the lives of other women comrades.”
Tens of thousands of these examples exist. In defiance of the perverted ethics of the camps, where offering support was criminal, this camaraderie was nothing short of heroic.
The Ultimate Sacrifice …
When it came to their children, there can be no greater heroes, than these Jewish mothers. And no one better words to describe it, then truth, and their words. Let the record show …
When the Nazi’s rounded up the Jews of Piotrekow for deportation to the camps, Yisrael, age four, was supposed to accompany his mother, Chaya, to Ravensbruck, Himmler’s notorious “women’s'” camp, where death by starvation, beating, torture, hanging, shooting, and medical experiments including lethal injections, were the grotesquerie of daily life. Chaya pushed him away so that her older son, bound for Buchenwald, could stash his younger brother in duffel bag, where she believed he would have a better chance of survival. She didn’t survive. But her son grew up to become chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and one of the most revered men in the world: Yisrael Meir Lau.
In “Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution,” we see testimony:
From a Jewish mother who was about to be taken to a concentration camp:
September 23, 1943: ” Bronia … I beg you: take care of my son. Be a mother to him. I am afraid he will catch cold: he is so weak and sickly. He is very intelligent and has a very good heart. I am sure he will love you. Bronia, this letter is a cry from the heart. Michael must eat, become strong, be able to withstand sufferings. Please, it is necessary to dress him in warm clothes, that he wear socks. I cannot go on writing. Even my tears have dried up. May God protect you both. Genya.”
Eventually he was captured. Both mother and son died in the camps. — E.G. Testimony 4 “Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution” 1943
Another from the same writer, describing events in 1932 “Froh Golde Graucher burst into our home crying. She had gotten a pass to Eretz Yisroel but what good was it, since two of her children were grabbed. I could hear my mother crying as they talked: ‘Our days are numbered. But save my youngest child! Register him as the child they took from you.’ They fell into each other’s arms, sobbing. It was terrible to be the only one going, but my mother tried to make me believe she would follow. The train starting moving. I had to keep forcing myself to call Froh Graucher ‘mameh.’ I fought back tears as before my eyes I saw my dear mother. Who knows if I’ll ever see [her] again.”
During August and September of 1942, the Jews of Kowel, Poland were imprisoned in the synagogue, then 18,000 were executed. Knowing their fate, many wrote on the walls in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish, using anything, even their fingernails. Here are two:
Reuven Atlas, know that your wife Gina and your son Imush perished here. Our child wept bitterly. He did not want to die. Go to war and avenge the blood of your wife and your only son. We are dying although we did no wrong.
Forgive me! Mother, I want you to know that they caught me when I went to bring water. If you come here, remember your daughter Yente Sofer, who was murdered on 14.9.1942.
“My dear sister, today is the anniversary of dear mother’s death. She was killed by Nazi criminals on Nov. 14, 1941. On that day, at five o’clock in the morning, they began massacring the Jews in our town. By nightfall, 9,000 people had been killed — men, women, children. My dear mother’s image is engraved in my mind. She thought of her children till the bitter end. A family friend, who was taken to the pit with our mother, later escaped and told us that our mother had talked about us all the way. Her last words were, ‘Thank God, my children are alive. They are not here.'” – Vladimir Shteinberg
Rudolf Hoess, Auschwitz Commandant, noted in his autobiography that “time and time again” he “witnessed mothers with laughing or crying children [who] went to the gas chambers.” He recalled a young woman who, as she stood at the gas chamber, said: “I deliberately avoided being chosen for labor because I wanted to take care of my children and go through this in full awareness of what was happening. I hope it won’t take long.”
In “Scrolls of Auschwitz,” a tragic scene is described. The year was 1943. The children were undressing in the anteroom of the gas chamber. When guards tried to hurry them, one eight-year-old girl resisted, crying: “Go away, you Jewish murderer! Don’t put your hand, covered in Jewish blood, on my sweet brother. I am his good mother now and he will die in my arms.”
May we all light a candle for these women for whom there are no words to describe their valor, only prayers.
Almighty God, full of Love, remember all the Jewish mothers, that carried their babies to their execution, led their children to the gas chambers, witnessed their burning, poisoned them with cyanide, or killed them with their own hands. Almighty God, let their anguish, pain and torture never be forgotten. Never be forgotten. In our memory they will live forever and ever. Amen.– Alexander Kimel, a Holocaust Survivor we remember …
Marnie Macauley, whose work has garnered her Emmy and Writer’s Guild Best Writing nominations, is the author of the acclaimed “Yiddishe Mamas: The Truth About the Jewish Mother” and the award-winning “A Little Joy, A Little Oy” calendar. These, as well as her new Joy of Jewish Humor: 2013 Day-to-Day Calendar can be found on Amazon.com, other online calendar/book sites, as well as fine booksellers. Marnie is also a counselor on Liveperson.com and invites you to connect with her on Facebook, Twitter LinkedIn, and Singularcity.com.
Marnie Macauley is listed in The Full Wiki’s Top Jewish American Writers, living or dead. (She’s busy deciding which)