Whenever historians talk or write about the Holocaust, they mention the huge number of Jewish people who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy. Historians describe the victims of the Third Reich as merely a faceless, nameless number. This generalization has always bothered me. The Holocaust Jews were human beings filled with love, hate, fear, and hope. They are not just statistics. Unfortunately, we will never know exactly what those who lost their lives at the hands of the, as Auschwitz survivor Dr. Miklos Nyiszli described, "pyromaniacs of the Third Reich,"1 felt, but we can gain some understanding of what they went through by reading the accounts of the survivors. After reading several autobiographies written by the brave men and women who endured Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, I saw that men and women react to many of the same experiences in completely different ways. Male and female survivors differed in their responses to the horrible acts of violence inflicted by the Nazi regime in ways that revealed how they had internalized gender roles. Surprisingly, the women viewed the Nazis in the camp, particularly Dr. Mengele, the head physician of Auschwitz, in dramatically different ways than men. Also, the male and female prisoners had a vastly different reaction to every-day life in the camp, especially their living conditions. Surprisingly, on the other hand, they had very similar reactions to their working conditions. The men of Auschwitz seemed to get through each day by concentrating on their own needs and avoiding friendships, while the women survived because of their relationships with others. Also, the male and female reactions to their first experiences in the camp were strikingly dissimilar, particularly in regards to their impressions of the first selection and the orientation, which entailed collective stripping, showering, and head-shaving. The most important distinction between men and women was the amount of resistance they offered to this process. Any time there was resistance, not only were the aggressors punished, but also many of their fellow prisoners. Surprisingly, the only acts of solo resistance, and there were few, came from women. In none of the stories I read was there any mention of a male individual striking back at the Germans. Since traditional gender roles label men as more selfish and irrational and women as more selfless and level-headed, it would seem more likely that women would have the other prisoner's well-being in mind, and that the men would idiotically strike back without thinking of the safety of others. This was not the case in Auschwitz. Despite their differences, men and women had one thing in common when it came to survival--hope. Every individual stressed that without hope, they would never have made it past their first day in Auschwitz.
While the male and female survivors' stories of Auschwitz were so different in so many ways, every story has one characteristic in common--they are passionately written. Both men and women tell their heart-wrenching stories with true vehemence. Each individual, at some point in their story, stressed how they were doing their best to reveal the absolute truth about what happened at Auschwitz. They all pleaded with their audience to believe them. Now, as Primo Levi pointed out in The Drowned and the Saved, different people will respond differently to certain experiences2, but that should not take anything away from these accounts. These stories are true to the men and women who wrote them. The accounts may differ slightly, but that is only because each survivor was different, not because any of them were lying. Since each survivor stressed the truth of their accounts. we must respect them enough to take their word for it.
Finally, another characteristic both the male and female survivors shared was courage. Both male and female inmates showed bravely throughout their entire imprisonment, especially in regards to their final days under Nazi rule.
When they first arrived at the camp, male and female prisoners had vastly different initial impressions of the camp. Whereas the men seemed, as Jewish doctor and Auschwitz survivor Miklos Nyiszli described, "more curious than afraid,"3 the women only worried about their loved ones. For example, when Dr. Nyiszli entered the camp, he looked around in amazement at the barb wire, guard towers, and emaciated prisoners in striped uniforms taking away all of their possessions4. The doctor did not even mention whether or not he was worried about his wife and daughter, although both were with him. He seemed to focus his attention on the atmosphere of the camp. In contrast, the Jewish nurse and survivor of Auschwitz Olga Lengyel had only her family in mind. The male Dr. Nyiszli worried about his surroundings first and his family second, but the female Lengyel worried about her family first and her environment second. When prisoners first arrived in the camp, the Nazis performed "selections."5 When Lengyel and her family initially entered the camp, her son was almost twelve years old. When Dr. Mengele commented that the boy had to be older than twelve, Lengyel said no, thinking that the Nazis would give special treatment to the children. Mengele gladly replied, "Fine, to the left."6 To make things even worse, Lengyel then asked her mother to go with her son so someone would be there to watch over him. They both went directly to the gas chambers. While trying to send her son to safety, Lengyel inadvertently sent him and his grandmother to death. Seeing how desperate and troubled Lengyel was after being separated from her loved ones, an SS officer joyfully said to her, "In several weeks, you'll all be reunited."7 Little did she know the Nazi was talking about the afterlife. From this example, it seems that the men of Auschwitz were more concerned with their own well-being than that of their family's while the women gave their loved ones' safety priority over their own. This dynamic seems to go along somewhat with traditional gender roles in Germany at the time. The Nazis preached how men were supposed to work, while the women's only task was to have children.8 The Germans gave fertile women rewards such as social security benefits, interest-free loans, and medals.9 Joseph Goebbels, head of Nazi propaganda, stated that the mission of women in the Third Reich was, "to be beautiful and to bring children into the world."10 Adolf Hitler said of the role of Nazi women, "a woman must be a cute, cuddly, naive little thing--tender, sweet, and stupid."11 From these quotes it seems that Germany thought very little of women. Their only role was to have and watch over children. Now, most the women in Auschwitz, including Lengyel, were not of German descent, but their main role seemed to be that of a mother watching over and worrying about her children, which Lengyel illustrated. These facts taken together may indicate that the whole of Europe, where most of the prisoners of Auschwitz came from, shared the Nazi's attitudes about women. Whether this is true or not, it seems certain that the men and women of Auschwitz had vastly differing attitudes when it came to their loved ones.
But orientation was not over after the selections, and neither were the differences in attitudes of the male and female prisoners. For those who survived the selections, their troubles were just beginning. They were herded into a large room and forced to strip. Then every man and woman had their head shaved. Following this haircut, the prisoners were doused with cold water and given wooden shoes and ragged, paper-thin clothes."12 After having their dignity ripped from them by being forced to strip and have their heads shaved,13 the men and women had two completely opposing impressions of themselves. While most of the women were outraged about losing their hair, none of the men seemed to care all that much. All the Jewish men commented matter-of-factly about having their hair chopped off. Elie Wiesel, while only a young teenager during his time in Auschwitz, plainly commented in his account, Night, about his trip to the camp barber by saying, "belt and shoes in hand, I let myself be dragged off to the barbers. They took our hair off with clippers."14 Then, Wiesel started to talk about his father. From how Wiesel commented, it seemed like losing his hair was not that big a deal. This visit to the barber was just another facet of the orientation. The Jewish women on the other hand, were heartbroken about the loss of their hair. For example, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, a female Jewish survivor, stressed in her book, Auschwitz: True Tales From A Grotesque Land, how heartless the Nazis were when she wrote, "It did not even bother them that we were women and that without our hair we felt totally humiliated."15 She could not fathom how the Nazis could do such a thing. This seems like a very insignificant matter when compared to all the other hardships the Jews would have to endure in Auschwitz. Now, if these men and women were Orthodox Jews, then having their hair cut off would be horrible for both men and women. But the majority of the Jews in Auschwitz were not Orthodox. Since most of these accounts made no mention of religion at all, clearly the men did not consider having their heads shaved to be a big deal, while to the women, it was a monumentous tragedy, not because of their religion, but because of the fact that their appearance was very important to them. The Nazis were not just shaving the heads of these women, they were shaving away their dignity and uniqueness. While this act hardly had any impact on the Jewish men, it left deep emotional scars on the Jewish women.
Unfortunately, the work the Jews were forced to do scarred both the men and the women, to similar degrees.16 Both men and women worked in medicine, if you can call it that, in the camp, and their reactions to what they saw and did every day at work were quite similar. When Dr. Nyiszli's transport first arrived in Auschwitz, Dr. Mengele asked if any of them had any experience in forensic medicine and pathology. Dr. Nyiszli, who studied these subjects at a German university, stepped forward. As a result, Mengele put him to work in the morgue.17 At Dr. Mengele's request, Dr. Nyiszli's job entailed doing autopsies on mainly twins, the disabled, dwarfs, and infants before they were sent to the fire. While performing these autopsies, Dr. Nyiszli found traces of chloroform in the hearts of some of the deceased, mainly the infants. The camp doctors murdered these babies by injecting chloroform into their hearts, causing their hearts to fail.18 Dr. Nyiszli had to cut open small child after small child, not to mention people he knew before coming to Auschwitz. He wrote that the only way he managed not to commit suicide was by avoiding thinking about what he was doing. He avoided analyzing things for more than a few seconds because, as he stated, "I was afraid of going mad."19 Nyiszli also wrote that, "[w]hen I thought of the past, it often seemed to me that all this was merely a horrible dream. My only desire was to forget everything, to think of nothing."20 Similarly, Olga Lengyel worked as a nurse in the camp hospital. One of Lengyel's tasks was to help carry the dead to the morgue. She described the smell as "the most horrible experience [she] encountered while in Auschwitz."21 Not only were Lengyel and Nyiszli's jobs similar, but so were their reactions to those jobs. Like Nyiszli, when Lengyel finished her work for the day, she chose not to think about what she had seen and done. Lengyel said that after she finished her work, "I [tried] to forget everything around me."22 These two examples show that the men and women of Auschwitz had very similar impressions about the work they did. Both male and female inmates performed and witnessed grisly tasks, and each gender managed to cope with it. Each tried to avoid analyzing their jobs to keep some sort of sanity.
Despite these differences, the Nazis inflicted wounds on both the male and female prisoners which would take an eternity to heal. The Nazi who contributed the most to these scars was Dr. Joseph Mengele. The male and female inmates of Auschwitz had similar impressions of Dr. Mengele throughout their entire stay in the camp, but the women describe him somewhat differently than the men do. In the beginning, both the men and women felt that Mengele was, as Dr. Nyiszli described, "intelligent, caring, and sympathetic."23 Then, as time went on, and they saw Mengele's cruelty, both men and women felt he was a sadistic barbarian. Some of the male inmates describe him as "a criminal doctor"24 with "an expression of cruelty in his features."25 While these remarks were far from flattering, they were tame compared to how the females describe Mengele. Some of the female residents of Auschwitz characterized Mengele as "insane"26 and a "Blood Sucker."27 Obviously, none of the men or women held the chief physician of Auschwitz in high regards, but the women also commented about his physical attractiveness. They still thought Mengele was a monster, just a "monster in the body of an Adonis."28 Both male and female prisoners felt Mengele was a horrible person, but the women felt it necessary to comment on his attractiveness. These women were trying to keep a small part of their former lives intact. Auschwitz was so far removed from the ordinary lives of these women that anything they could do to get a little piece back would help them get through each day just a bit more easily. This is why the women were so appalled to have their heads shaved. Every single horrible action the Nazis performed on the female prisoners gradually erased facets of their former lives. As stated earlier, traditional roles for women in Germany were to look beautiful, have and watch over children and their homes.29 When these things were taken away from the women of Auschwitz, they looked for other things, like recognizing the physical beauty of men, that could somehow take them back to their former lives.
The men and women of Auschwitz both struggled to survive, they just went about it in very distinct ways. Whereas the women focused on relationships to help them get through each day, the men were more solitary, concentrating on their own needs. Relationships were the most important things to the women of the camp. Without them, they would have never endured. Isabella Leitner witnessed an event illustrating this need for relationships which she outlined in her book, The Big Lie: A True Story. One day, a prisoner threw a piece of wood with a message carved into it into the women's camp. The message was from a brother to his four sisters. It read, "You must live. You simply must. I love you."30 The note kept not only the sisters' hope alive, but also, as Leitner stated, "the hopes of all the women in the block."31 Just knowing that someone out there cared about anyone gave the women the hope and determination to make it through another day. As a result, the women's emotional connections with other inmates helped save the lives of the privileged few who survived. Lucie Adelsberger, in her book, Auschwitz: A Doctor's Story, provided another example of the Auschwitz women's dependence on some sort of affection. While imprisoned in the women's camp, Adelsberger, a woman in her twenties, lived with and made friends with two teenage girls about fourteen years of age. Her two acquaintances helped Adelsberger in any way possible. They brought her scraps of food, shreds of clothing, and anything else they could get their hands on.32 One day Adelsberger said to the teenagers, "You two care for me like a mother and a grandmother."33 From that point on, one girl called herself "mother" and the other "grandmother." In December 1944, the girls were transferred to another block. During this time, one of the girls was about to celebrate her birthday. She and her young friend decided to have a small celebration, and they would invite Adelsberger to join them. Selflessly, these two teenage girls saved an entire week's worth of rations. When Adelsberger arrived to wish the girl happy birthday, her young friends presented her with a cheese and sausage sandwich.34 The two teenagers traded a week's worth of rations just to give Lucie Adelsberger, their friend, a decent meal. Adelsberger's only comment regarding this present was, "it was, without exception, the most precious gift I have ever received in my life."35 Adelsberger's quote indicates that she may not have found the strength to survive if it had not been for her teenage friends. Such relationships were imperative for the women's survival. Any reminder that there was still compassion and caring in the world meant everything to women in Auschwitz. These women watched over one another just as mothers watch over their children.
Many of the men, on the other hand, only looked after themselves. While many of the women focused on bonding with one another, men did everything they could to avoid relationships. For example, Dr. Nyiszli concentrated on his work to get him through the day. He wrote that when he was working, "I actually felt like a real doctor sometimes."36 Nyiszli was referring to those rare moments when he actually helped a sick person or did an autopsy on a prisoner who did not die at the hands of the Nazis. These actions helped him escape. He did not want to become emotional attached to any of the other inmates because he did not think he could bear having to cut any of them open. He found the best way to survive was to keep to himself and focus on his job.37 Other men had similar ideas. Vladek Spiegelman avoided forming friendships at all costs. According to Vladek Spiegelman, not his son who wrote the books, Maus I and Maus 11, "Friends didn't exist. You could only worry about yourself."38 Spiegelman was not a self-centered individual. He simply wanted to avoid losing anyone close to him. Vladek Spiegelman did not want to make friends with someone because, as he said, "Men were there one day and dead the next."39 Having to worry about their own lives was bad enough. If they had to add the lives of their new friends to the stack, they would not have been able to handle the anxiety. The women, on the other hand, needed relationships. If a group of female friends lost one of their mates to the ovens, they all suffered. In contrast, the men preferred to, as Primo Levi wrote in Survival in Auschwitz, "pursue their own ends by all possible means."40 In order to make it through another day, female inmates sought relationships, while the male prisoners avoided them.
While traditional German gender roles saw women as weaker than men,41 only women had the courage to fight the Nazis single-handedly. There was one incidence of mate prisoners collectively fighting back. In October of 1944, the men of the Sonderkommando attempted to blow up all four crematoriums in Auschwitz with explosives acquired from the outside world by female prisoners. The Sonderkommando managed to destroy only one of the crematoriums (#3) because the Germans learned of the Sonderkommando's plans. Therefore, they only had time to destroy one crematorium.42 In these narratives, there were no cases of any individual acts of rebellion by men and only a few by women. Such factors as fear and lack of physical strength contributed to this lack of resistance. The most prevalent reason was that groups of people were punished for the "wrongful" acts of one.43 Perhaps the female prisoners resisted because they simply reached their breaking points and had no concern for the consequences. For example, Auschwitz survivor and author of the book, The Beautiful Days of My Youth, Ana Novac, on the verge of starving to death, was informed of a way to get two rations of soup rather than one. She ate the soup she received in her block, and then she snuck into another block and received soup there. Eventually, she was caught by a terribly cruel female Nazi officer.44 The Nazi woman slapped Novae twice across the face. Then, to the officer's surprise, Novac smiled and slapped back twice. As a reward for her bravery, the officer, with the help of six SS men, beat Novac for several minutes. Following this battery, the female Nazi forced Novac to get on her knees and hold two bricks in the air for two hours. If Novac lowered her arms, she would be shot.45 Novac retaliated without thinking of fear or punishment. She had reached her breaking point, and nothing could have stopped her. As a result of Novae's stealing of rations and her aggression, the SS searched for any other people taking extra rations. When the SS found these lawbreakers or anyone they thought was stealing, they beat them severely. Because of Novac's actions, dozens of individuals were punished.
Novac was not the only woman who resisted. While working in the hospital, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk met a rather courageous, and somewhat idiotic woman who Mengele sent to the hospital because she was mentally ill. He wanted her watched. Every day, when Mengele did his rounds, she would scream things at him like, "Hey you! Doctor! Come in and see me, are you afraid of, coward, you who can murder women and children?"46 Mengele would sit down in a room with her every day and talk to her. She would tell him how inferior the Germans were and how their whole regime was going to crumble. She called Mengele a coward because he was not fighting with the army. Then one day, Nomberg-Przytyk decided to try and talk to this girl. The woman informed her that she was anything but crazy. She only pretended to be insane so she could tell the Germans exactly what she thought of them. She had reached her breaking point and could hold back no longer. Then, Mengele reached his breaking point and had her shot.47 She knew Mengele was a demon, and that he would eventually kill her, but she did not care. Also, she did not care about the lives of her fellow inmates. She had to know that by insulting the very man who decided who lived and died in the camp, she was putting everyone else at a greater risk. When Mengele was not happy, he took his anger out on the prisoners by ordering more selections or by sending entire groups of inmates to the left line. By voicing her anger, this woman put the entire camp in greater jeopardy. While this woman chose to fight back, she did not choose to think about the repercussions. She reached a point where she did not care and knew she was going to be killed as a result of her actions. Perhaps she figured she was going to die at the hands of the Nazis anyway. So she might as well push back and end her misery as soon as possible.
Despite the many differences between the male and female inmates of Auschwitz, there were a few things which both sexes had in common. First of all, the endurance of both genders was incredible, especially in regards to the march toward liberation. During their last few months at Auschwitz, World War II was coming to an end, and the Allies were getting closer and closer to the camp. So, rather than staying and fighting, the Nazis retreated, taking with them huge parades of prisoners. These inmates ran, not marched, for scores of miles before finally being liberated or dying.48 Those too sick to travel, like Primo Levi, were left in the camp to either die or be liberated.49 The Nazis forced all those able to travel to run mile after mile through heavy snowfall and harsh cold. Some groups marched over one-hundred miles directly to other concentration camps or to transports headed for camps.50 The Germans intentionally ran almost in circles, hoping to kill off the prisoners before the Allies could reach them. Anyone caught lagging was shot.51 If the Russians came, the SS were ordered to kill all the inmates so no one could liberate them.52 Needless to say, many prisoners did not survive the journey. The pain and horror they went through was incredible. For example, before leaving the camp, Elie Wiesel suffered a terrible infection in his foot leaving him barely able to walk. As soon as he began the trek out of the camp, blood saturated his shoe. According to Wiesel, "the pain was unbearable."53 Faced with this ailment, sprinting through the snow became even more insufferable. In addition to these pains, the prisoners had nothing to eat after the first day or so, while the march continued for several weeks.54 While the pain of this physical torture was immense, the emotional strain must have been even greater. They were at the brink of freedom, yet the intensity of their struggle increased until the very end.
While the will of the men who survived this journey was incredible, that of the women was equally amazing. For example, Olga Lengyel managed to sneak away from the group and hide in the woods for a few hours. Then, she made her way to a Polish village and convinced a native to house her for a short time. SS captured her, tied her hands together, and threw her in a cart. While stopping for the night, she chewed through the ropes and smashed a bottle over the head of an SS guard. She fled until she came to German and Russian soldiers in battle near a river. She noticed a small town on the other side of the river which looked empty. Afraid Hitler's henchmen would shoot her on sight, she jumped in the ice-cold river in the middle of February. The Russians beat back the Germans and freed Lengyel.55 This woman ran for about one-hundred miles in the middle of a Polish winter, swam across an icy river, all the while trying to avoid gunfire and starvation and overcome more fear than anyone could possibly imagine. Their passion for life was stronger than the Nazi's passion for death.
While these people's dedication to life was extremely beautiful, their passionate writing was absolutely heart-wrenching. Every man and woman did their best to tell the truth as they saw it. Each individual emphasized this at some point in their stories. Dr. Nyiszli wrote that he had to write about his experience because, as he stated, "I felt I owed it to my people and the world to tell accurately what really went on."56 Olga Lengyel stated that she wrote her book "so the world could never allow another Hitler to rise again."57 Now, while all the survivors stressed the validity of their accounts, each wrote about them in very different ways. Ana Novac, for example, kept a journal during her imprisonment. Her book was just a copy of that journal. As a result, the work was very incoherent at times, which is a perfect word to describe what went on in Auschwitz--something muddled and incomprehensible. Novac would explain in detail what happened one day, but the next day her writing would consist of numerous unfinished sentences. For example, one day Novae was trying to describe how she felt, and she wrote, "[n]o philosophy, humiliation, misery, or pain..."58 This writing made her story hard to follow at times. In contrast, Dr. Nyiszli described, in great detail, anything and everything that went on in the camp, such as the Sonderkommando blowing up a crematorium, mentioned earlier. But these accounts did not have to be written in a certain way in order to get something out of them. They only had to be written. From the quotes above, it seems clear that these survivors felt it was very important to get their message across about the horror that occurred at Auschwitz. Whether these accounts are historically accurate or not makes no difference. These events were exactly what these, survivors experienced. Some people might think that the passage of time may have clouded these people's memories, but as Primo Levi stated in his book, The Drowned and the Saved "[o]ur memories may change over the years, but the events at Auschwitz will never be erased from my memory."59 People cannot easily forget such tragedies.
The Holocaust was, without a doubt, one of the darkest occurrences in history. Almost sixty years after it happened, not one of us can begin to understand how such a thing could have transpired. Ana Novae illustrated this point perfectly when she wrote, "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one of us to understand how the Germans think."60 Can any one of us fathom how hard it was for those who experienced this catastrophe to understand? While the men and women of Auschwitz had many differences in how they reacted to similar situations, they did share several characteristics, particularly suffering. They handled the day-to-day trials and tribulations in many different ways, but not one person in Auschwitz avoided heartache. Everyone, regardless of gender, "from the moment they got there till the end, was constantly afraid."61 Many of them gave up on the world. For example, when rumors spread that the Russian army was nearly at the camp, the man in the bunk next to Elie Wiesel said, "I've got more faith in Hitler. He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people."62 Sadly, this man's outlook was all too common amongst the prisoners. Finding the strength to live another day was hard for all of them. The male and female prisoners of Auschwitz who lived to tell about it endured in vastly dissimilar ways, but they survived nonetheless. By telling their stories, these men and women tried to open people's eyes to what really happened at Auschwitz in hope that if a tragedy such as this were ever close to happening again, the world can somehow prevent it. After all, as Lucie Adelsberger so eloquently stated, "To stand by, powerless and unable to help, to have to watch while another person is being tortured, is one of the worst experiences of this life."63 While the men and women of Auschwitz had many differences, perhaps they would all agree with Adelsberger's statement.
Adelsberger, Lucie. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Story. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
Fischer, Klaus P. Nazi Germany: A New History. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1995,
Leitner, Isabella. The Big Lie: A True Story. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1992.
Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz. Chicago: Ziff- Davis Publishing Co., 1997.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958.
Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
"Nazi Germany: The Role of Women"
Nomberg-Przytyk, Sara. Auschwitz: True Tales From A Grotesque Land. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Novac, Ana. The Beautiful Days of My Youth: My Six Months in Auschwitz and Plaszow. New York: Henry Holt & Company Inc,, 1992.
Nyiszli, Miklos. At Last the Truth About Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. Connecticut: Fawcett Publications Inc., 1960.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Waite, Robert G. L. The Psychopathic God Adolf Hitler. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.