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Nearly all the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland, were murdered – either sent to the gas chambers or worked to death. Life expectancy in many of these camps was between six weeks and three months.
While male and female slave laborers in Auschwitz faced the same ultimate fate, my research on gender and the Holocaust finds that some of their behaviors and responses to captivity differed.
Methods of sabotage
Gender has been long overlooked in Holocaust research. Writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, early scholars such as Joan Ringelheim and Sybil Milton had to fight for their legitimacy in a field that insisted that separating stories of Jewish men and women under the Nazi regime was a blow to their joint fate or to Jewish solidarity.
Today, however, the topic is being explored in depth, allowing us to better understand not only how Jews died during the Holocaust, but also how they lived.
During the late 1980s, I conducted a study of Jewish men and women who had been part of Auschwitz’s “Canada Commando,” the forced labor detail responsible for sorting through the possessions inmates had brought with them to the camp and preparing those items for reshipment back to Germany for civilian use.
Since the barracks were the only place in the camp where one could find almost unlimited food and clothing, this forced labor troop was named after Canada – a country seen as a symbol of wealth.
Examining the behavior of the men and women of the Canada Commando, I noted an interesting difference. Among the items of clothing sorted there were fur coats. While both male and female prisoners in the Canada Commando tried to sabotage this work, acts punishable by death, their methods differed.
Male prisoners would usually rip the lining and seams of the coat to shreds, keeping only the outer shell intact. At first use, the coat would come apart, leaving the German who wore it coatless in the winter.
The few surviving women in the commando whom I interviewed did not use this tactic. Rather, they told me, they decided together to insert handwritten notes into the coat’s pockets that read something along the lines of: “German women, know that you are wearing a coat that belonged to a woman who has been gassed to death in Auschwitz.”
The women, in other words, chose psychological sabotage. The men, physical.
Coping with hunger
One of the most central experiences of all camp prisoners during the Holocaust was hunger. While both men and women suffered from hunger during incarceration, male and female prisoners used disparate coping methods.
While men would regale each other with tales of the fantastic meals they would enjoy once liberated, women would often discuss how they had cooked they various dishes they loved before the war, from baking fluffy cakes to preparing traditional Jewish blintzes. Cara de Silva’s 1996 book, “In Memory’s Kitchen,” movingly documents how this phenomenon played out among women prisoners in the Terezin camp.
The differences between men’s and women’s coping methods may have derived from the gendered behavior in their lives before the war, in which men ate and women cooked – at least in the middle and lower classes.
In the case of women, this may also have been a female socialization process meant to solve two dilemmas simultaneously: the psychological need to engage – at least verbally – with food, and the educational need to prepare the young girls in the camp for culinary and household tasks after the war.
Under normal circumstances, mothers would have taught their daughters by example – not story.
Motherhood under Nazi rule
Various historical studies make mention of motherly sacrifices during the Holocaust, such as women who chose to accompany their children to death so that they would not be alone during their last moments on Earth.
During the “selections” at Auschwitz – when prisoners were sent either to live or die – prisoners arriving were usually divided by sex, with the elderly, mothers and small children being separated from men and older boys. The mothers with small children, along with the elderly, were automatically sent to death.
Borowsky writes about a number of young mothers who hid from their children during the selection, in an attempt to buy themselves a few additional days or possible hours of life.
If a German soldier found a small child alone at a “selection,” Borowsky writes, he would take the child up and down the rows of prisoners while screaming, “This is how a mother abandons her child?” until he tracked down the hapless woman and condemned them both to the gas chambers.
At first, the female Auschwitz survivors I’ve interviewed said they’d never heard of any such thing. Eventually, however, after I returned to the question several times via different topics, a few women admitted to hearing that a handful mothers who arrived in Auschwitz with small children did indeed try to hide to save their own lives.
Historians are not judges. I do not mention the actions made in mortal fear to condemn these women but rather to contribute, 75 years later, to our understanding of Jewish life and death under Nazi terror. Doing requires relinquishing preconceived notions about both men and women, mapping out a broader canvas of the grim reality at Auschwitz.
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Greta Thunberg is on a crusade to save the planet. Elizabeth Warren is on a crusade against Bernie Sanders. Parks in Yorkshire are on a crusade to save the endangered Turtle Dove. Search the word and you will get results from all areas of interest – from sports to politics and everything in between.
What this demonstrates is that the word crusade has many meanings, depending on how it is wielded. While it seems to pop up frequently for all manner of campaigns, strictly religious meanings still prevail.
The word “crusade” has become common in the vocabulary of extremists. Wars in the Middle East are labelled as such by Muslim fundamentalists in order to condemn them. While Christian far-right radicals often use it to describe the driving force behind their killings.
This kind of use is a reflection of modern views of the medieval “crusades” led by Western Christians to conquer Jerusalem from the 11th to the 13th century. Such perceptions have charged a single word with so many, and often contrary, ideological meanings. However, using the term this way is not a new phenomenon.
Historical research demonstrates that since its appearance in the middle ages the word crusade has always had very different meanings and has repeatedly served as a political instrument. Untangling this history of the word can help better understand and counter the extremists who use it.
The term “crusade” appeared in the 1210s, more than a century after the launching of the first expedition to Jerusalem in 1095. Despite our understanding of what “the crusades” are, it wasn’t used to describe these expeditions. Instead, it was used in reference to other wars promoted by the pope, against Muslims in Spain and Cathar “heretics” in southern France.
This use of the word created a common category, the “crusade” – a military campaign waged to defend faith. This meaning now associated these conflicts with the expeditions in the Middle East and opened the way to complete assimilation of wars fought against different enemies, in varied places and often for similar reasons.
Considering the moral sanctity associated with defending the “Holy Land” in Christian minds, the word quickly took on a legitimising function. Any contested action could be justified by dubbing it a “crusade”. It, therefore, became a word used to wield power and silence denouncers. In the middle ages, the term described new taxes imposed by the kings of Castile, wars led by the popes against their political opponents or Europe-wide collections of faithful donations (called indulgences).
The indulgences were the main motif of Protestant criticism against papal leadership in the 16th century. The word “crusade” then became associated with papal excesses and, in northern Europe, a synonym for any form of violent campaign prompted by religious motives.
Similarly taking a negative view of the word, the Enlightenment philosophers considered the expeditions to Jerusalem as a demonstration of Catholicism’s violent and intolerant attitude. Scottish philosopher David Hume, in the first volume of his History of England, wrote of them this: “The Crusades – the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.” The negative connotation of the word was therefore strongly reinforced.
From the end of the 18th century, “crusade” was widely employed to criticise any movement considered as backward looking or needlessly aggressive. Conservative political attitudes, in particular, were frequently disqualified as “crusades”.
Interpretation of the crusades changed again towards the end of the 19th century: viewed as heroic enterprises led by pure and generous knights. The idea and use of the word evolved accordingly, designating any noble cause.
Both world wars were dominated by ideologies of simplistic opposition of good against evil. This new meaning of the word crusade fitted well this conception. As a result, crusades against diseases, war or unemployment, crusades for temperance, children or good manners flourished in western societies in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in Catholic and Anglo-Saxons countries. But in Germanic and Eastern European countries the negative understanding of “crusade” remained stronger, and the word was not as commonly used.
The final change occurred in the 1960s. Criticism against colonialism and western interventions considered the medieval expeditions in the Middle East as acts of racism and violent conquest. Positive meanings became more frequently condemned or avoided. We are still strongly influenced by these conceptions, but the previous meanings haven’t disappeared.
“Crusade” can nowadays be understood and employed with an almost infinite variety of senses according to a person’s origin, culture, education or religious position. That’s the reason George Bush’s “crusade on terrorism” provoked much more criticism than Harry Truman’s “crusade against communism” in the 1950s.
When using the word, meanwhile, extremists rely on a single meaning based on their understanding of the medieval “crusades”. Christian supremacists remain faithful to the early 20th-century visions and consider the crusade as a holy cause. Muslim fundamentalists are influenced by later conceptions and condemn them as an act of imperialism. In both cases, the crusades are read as a basic opposition between Christians and Muslims.
The term can, therefore, be used to promote a simplistic idea of the eternal fight between good and evil. By doing so, extremists are not misusing the word “crusade”. They’re using it as it has always been used: to support an ideology.
Every November, communities around the world hold remembrances on the anniversary of the Nazis’ brutal assault on the Jews during “Kristallnacht.”
Also known as “the Night of Broken Glass,” it’s one of the most closely scrutinized events in the history of Nazi Germany. Dozens of books have been published about the hours between Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, decided to unleash violence against Jews across Germany and the annexed territory of Austria with the aim of driving them out of the Third Reich.
Attacks on Jewish homes, however, are barely mentioned.
It’s an aspect of the story that has rarely been researched and written about – until now.
A pattern emerges in survivor accounts
In 2008, when I arrived at the University of Southern California from Germany, I had been researching Nazi persecution of the German Jews for 20 years. I had published more than six books on the topic and thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Kristallnacht.
The university happened to be the new home of the Shoah Foundation and its Visual History Archive, which today includes over 55,000 survivor testimonies. When I started to watch interviews with German-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, I was surprised to hear many of them talk about the destruction of their homes during Kristallnacht.
Details from their recollections sounded eerily similar: When Nazi paramilitary troops broke the doors of their homes, it sounded as though a bomb had gone off; then the men cut into the featherbeds, hacked the furniture into pieces and smashed everything inside.
Yet none of these stories appeared in traditional accounts of Kristallnacht.
I was perplexed by this disconnect. Some years later, I found a document from Schneidemühl, a small district in eastern Germany, that listed the destruction of a dozen synagogues, over 60 shops – and 231 homes.
These surprising numbers piqued my interest further. After digging into unpublished and published materials, I unearthed an abundance of evidence in administrative reports, diaries, letters and postwar testimonies.
A fuller picture of the brutal destruction of Jewish homes and apartments soon emerged.
For example, a Jewish merchant named Martin Fröhlich wrote to his daughter that when he arrived home the afternoon of that fateful November day, he noticed his door had been broken down. A tipped-over wardrobe blocked the entrance. Inside, everything had been hacked into pieces with axes: glass, china, clocks, the piano, furniture, chairs, lamps and paintings. Realizing that his home was now uninhabitable, he broke down and – as he confessed in the letter – started sobbing like a child.
A systematic campaign of destruction
The more I discovered, the more astonished I was by the scale and intensity of the attacks.
Using address lists provided by either local party officers or city officials, paramilitary SA and SS squads and Hitler Youth, armed with axes and pistols, attacked apartments with Jewish tenants in big cities like Berlin, as well as private Jewish homes in small villages. In Nuremberg, for example, attackers destroyed 236 Jewish flats. In Düsseldorf, over 400 were vandalized.
In the cities of Rostock and Mannheim, the attackers demolished virtually all Jewish apartments.
Documents point to Goebbels as the one who ordered the destruction of home furnishings. Due to the systematic nature of the attacks, the number of vandalized Jewish homes across Greater Germany must have been in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Then there are devastating details about the intensity of the destruction that emerge from letters and testimonies from postwar trials.
In Euskirchen, a house was burned to the ground.
In the village of Kamp, near the Rhineland town of Boppard, attackers broke into the house of the Kaufmann family, destroyed furniture and lamps, ripped out stove pipes, and broke doors and walls. When parts of the ceiling collapsed, the family escaped to a nearby monastery.
In the small town of Großauheim, located in the state of Hesse, troops used sledgehammers to destroy everything in two Jewish homes, including lamps, radios, clocks and furniture. Even after the war, shards of glass and china were found impressed in the wooden floor.
‘Everything ravaged and shattered’
The documents I found and interviews I listened to revealed how sexual abuse, beatings and murder were commonplace. Much of it happened during the home intrusions.
In Linz, two SA men sexually assaulted a Jewish woman. In Bremen, the SA shot and killed Selma Zwienicki in her own bedroom. In Cologne, as Moritz Spiro tried to stop two men from destroying his furniture, one of the intruders beat him and fractured his skull. Spiro died days later in the Jewish hospital.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, 1938, a Viennese woman described her family’s injuries to a relative:
“You can’t imagine, how it looked like at home. Papa with a head injury, bandaged, I with severe attacks in bed, everything ravaged and shattered… When the doctor arrived to patch up Papa, Herta and Rosa, who all bled horribly from their heads, we could not even provide him with a towel.”
The brutality of the attacks didn’t go unnoticed. On Nov. 15, the U.S. consul general in Stuttgart, Samuel Honaker, wrote to his ambassador in Berlin:
“Of all the places in this section of Germany, the Jews in Rastatt, which is situated near Baden-Baden, have apparently been subjected to the most ruthless treatment. Many Jews in this section were cruelly attacked and beaten and the furnishings of their homes almost totally destroyed.”
These findings make clear: The demolition of Jewish homes was an overlooked aspect of the November 1938 pogrom.
Why did it stay in the shadows for so long?
In the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, most newspaper articles and photographs of the violent event exclusively focused on the destroyed synagogues and stores – selective coverage that probably influenced our understanding.
Yet, it was the destruction of the home – the last refuge for the German Jewish families who found themselves facing heightened public discrimination in the years leading up to the pogrom – that likely extracted the greatest toll on the Jewish population. The brutal attacks rendered thousands homeless and hundreds beaten, sexually assaulted or murdered.
The brutal assaults also likely played a big role in the spate of Jewish suicides that took place in the days and weeks after Kristallnacht, along with the decision that tens of thousands of Jews made to flee Nazi Germany.
While this story speaks to decades of scholarly neglect, it is, at the same time, a testament to the power of survivor accounts, which continue to change the way we understand the Holocaust.
Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of History; Founding Director, USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences