Defying the Nazis in the Ghettos and Concentration Camps
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When thinking of resistance, one might usually think of more military actions such as bombing railroads and assassination attempts on political leaders. But what could someone whose every right was stripped from them when they were forced into ghettos or concentration camps do to defy their oppressors? Even in the most desperate and hopeless of situations, women suffering under the horror of the Holocaust found many ways to resist the Nazis. Resistance included any course of action that directly rebelled against Nazi laws, policies, and ideology. In the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps that could mean maintaining a sense of humanity, providing means for people to escape and hide, plotting mass escapes, dying with dignity, or remembering and telling the world about the horrible events that occurred. The accounts of the women below are taken from the book edited by Brana Gurewitsch called Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust. The book contains the oral histories of over a twenty-five women who experienced the Holocaust. The women chosen for this project represent the deferent ways women resisted in the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps.
One woman resisted the intolerable cruelty and oppression faced in the ghetto by devoting herself entirely to goodness and humanity. Dr. Anna Braude-Hellerowa was the director of the children’s hospital in the Warsaw ghetto, and she completely devoted her energy to the children, even the ones with no hope of recovery. On many occasions she put the life of her patients before herself. For example, when friends of hers outside the ghetto arranged a hiding place for her, she refused to go. Later, Dr. Braude-Hellerowa was given roughly twenty-five "life-passes" to give to members of her staff so that they would be exempt from the next selection. This was a difficult decision seeing that she had a staff of over two hundred people. She did not give a single pass to any of her family or friends or close colleagues. Instead she gave them to the youngest members of her staff. Bronislawa Feinesser, who received one of these life passes, said of Dr. Braude-Hellerowa: "She was an absolutely unusual woman." During a period that experienced a collapse of humanity, the ability of this incredible woman to maintain a sense of absolute selflessness and humanity demonstrated her role as a resister.
Others saw dignity in death as a type of direct opposition to the Nazis. Dr. Adina Blady Szwajger also worked as a doctor in the Warsaw ghetto. Knowing that everyone sent to Treblinka died, she made the decision to administer morphine to her young patients so that they could die peacefully in their sleep. The Germans may have still in a sense taken their lives, but they were not allowed to strip these children of their human dignity.
Acts of resistance in the ghettos were not always actions of individuals alone. In some cases there were complex groups working to help the Jews. Bronislawa Feinesser, who later took the alias Marysia from genuine identity papers, worked for one of these groups known as the Bund organization. However her history of resistance begins before that. Marysia was born in Warsaw of a middle-class Jewish family. Her family spoke Polish in their home, not Yiddish, and she attended Polish primary school. She was very assimilated into Polish culture and society, and did not have the most striking characteristics that people of the time determined as Jewish. While in the ghetto, her first act of defiance was attending an underground medical school. She did not allow her education and personal growth to be stopped by an outside force. Marysia also worked as a nurse in the hospital and was frequently given a pass out of the ghetto to do hospital administration work. While in the Aryan part of Warsaw, she would smuggle food and weapons in and out of the ghetto, and establish hiding places for escapees. While being interviewed about these dangerous missions Marysia claimed, "Today I would be very scared. At that time when I was twenty something; I wasn’t scared. I wanted to do it. I wanted to be active, to help people, and I had my group that needed me to do this." Marysia showed absolute bravery, knowing that the consequences of smuggling weapons into the ghetto would be severe, even mortal. As the situation in the ghetto intensified and more and more trains departed for concentration camps, she decided to break out of the ghetto and live permanently in the Aryan portion of the city. She was able to do this because she was fearless and she did not have distinctly Jewish characteristics. Her sister, who also broke out, struggled more because even though she looked more Aryan, she had a fearful look in her eyes which gave her away. During this time Marysia became actively engaged in the Bund organization. Her duties included finding hiding places, organizing false documents, distributing money and paying rent to land lords. The room that she lived in was also the headquarters for the Bund group, and she and her roommate disguised themselves as prostitutes to legitimize having many different men come to their room.
Marysia did many risky and dangerous feats in order to help strangers and she did it without any personal gain. Others did help others but also profited greatly from it. Can they too be considered resisters? She describes just such a time when she was placed in such a conflict of conscience. She came into contact with the wife of a Polish officer whose husband was living in a faraway camp. The woman took in and hid a lot of Jews, but she also took a lot of money for each person she hid. After the war, this woman came to Marysia asking for a certification saying that she rescued Jews. Marysia says, "That was true, but the other part was that she took a lot of money. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to have this on my conscience because I realized that that somehow she did this for money." In the end, she made someone else make the decision and they decided to give the Polish woman the certification. Though this woman was definitely helping herself first, she prevented the Gestapo from taking the Jews she hid. It is just another example of how far the spectrum of resistance reached.
Even though the situation of the people in the ghetto was bleak and miserable, it was not as hopeless as imprisonment in the concentration camps. However, even in the most dehumanizing and desperate environment, people did. Anna Heilman and her sister Estusia were among the last deportees out of the Warsaw ghetto when they were sent to Auschwitz in September 1943. There they were assigned to work in a munitions factory in the room called the pulverraum, the only place in the camp where prisoners handled gunpowder. Their resistance began as a small group of girls who grew to trust each other and gathered strength from one another by talking about things outside the camps. They knew of rumors of a plan for a mass escape and decided to contribute their resources. Rose Meth also worked with the Heilman sisters in the pulverraum, and when asked if she would help she recalls, "I agreed right away because it gave me a way to fight back. I felt very good about it, and I didn’t care about the danger." This way of thinking mirrors what most resisters in the concentration camps thought. If they were going to die anyway, they should die fighting. Not everyone in the camp felt the same way. Another girl, when asked if she would ever do anything that would aid in escaping if given the chance, refused. Later she admitted to Rose Meth, "I was afraid that I would not be strong enough under duress, if they would catch me, whether I could withstand pain." Fear and intimidation were powerful and effective weapons against rising up against the Nazis.
The girls slowly smuggled gunpowder to the men who worked, the crematoria, who would then make homemade grenades with shoe polish tins. Since three girls working together could only collect two spoonfuls a day of gunpowder, it took eight months for the bombing of the crematoria to take place. The uprising occurred on October 7, 1944. While it successfully blew up a crematorium and slowed the death machine, no one escaped. Estusia and Rose were beaten and interrogated by the S.S. because they worked with the gunpowder. However they would not give up any names of their conspirators, resisting even under extreme physical pain.
Rose Meth practiced resistance in another form as well. Her father wanted her to "remember what was happening, to be able to tell the world, so the world would know of the heinous crimes the Germans committed." Rose would exchange food for paper in order to write notes while in Auschwitz. This written account and the oral accounts of so many survivors acted as agents of resistance then and even still today against hate and atrocities.
These women took very different actions in order to resist according to their abilities. However, they share the most important quality; they all consciously decided to fight against the fate the Third Reich attempted to force upon them. Some lived with honor, and others died maintaining it.
About the Author (back to top)
Rosie is a third year student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in history with a minor in art history. After reading Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place eight years ago, Rosie has been fascinated by the Holocaust and more specifically the experiences of individuals and their will to survive during the most hopeless of situations. Professor Marcuse’s History 33D class, however, was her first academic forum which solely focused on the Holocaust. Closer examination of perpetrators and victims sparked many more questions about the complexities behind that period of mass extermination.
Sources (see also Woman and Resistance project bibliography)
For this project Rosie gathered information from Brana Gurewitsch’s Mothers, Sisters, Resisters, a book of oral histories of women affected by Nazi ideology. She also referred to Matthew Stibbes’ Women in the Third Reich, a source that incorporated the studies of many current historians and focused on the factors besides gender that influenced German women’s experiences during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Professor Marcuse’s lecture notes on resistors were also used in forming her argument.