Museum Commemorates Women in the Holocaust

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum commemorates the experiences of Jewish women targeted during World War II in the first such exhibit to focus exclusively on women. Some of the featured women survived the atrocity, some did not.

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Yad Vashem Women's Exhibit 009

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)--Lili (Alice) Kasticher, 21, was deported from Hungary to Auschwitz after being captured during World War II resistance operations and then was sent to a camp in the Sudentenland.

The Yugoslavian-born Kasticher was one of about 900 female prisoners there who worked assembling radio parts, light bulbs and weapons at a factory run by the Nazi regime. When the women were allowed time to tend to personal hygiene once every two weeks, Kasticher seized the opportunity to organize cultural activities, such as painting, poetry and story-writing contests. The 20 or so women who participated created a stage out of boxes, performed skits and conducted debates, made sculptures out of potatoes, set their poems to melodies and dreamed about their liberation.

"I had only one thing in mind, to encourage Jewish women there not to give up, not to be let down, not to be pessimistic and to endure," Kasticher once said. She survived the Holocaust--as did most of the women in her camp group--and emigrated to Israel in 1948, carrying her friends' drawings and poems that she had once concealed in her blouse.

Kasticher died in 1973 but her words and story are brought to new light by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum's multimedia exhibit that features about 50 women in a range of circumstances, some of whom did not survive the six-year atrocity. Berlin-born Regina Jonas, the first woman in history to be ordained as a liberal rabbi, for example, was deported to Auschwitz and murdered there.

"Each story of a woman in the Holocaust is unbelievable," said curator Yehudit Inbar, who spent two years preparing the exhibit with a team of researchers. "There are no dull stories."

"Spots of Light: To Be a Woman in the Holocaust" is the first international exhibit to focus exclusively on women in the Holocaust, museum officials say. It cost more than $500,000 to produce and will last about a year. It opened about a week before Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on April 15.


Many Women Could Not Escape

Because of their duty to care for children, parents and others, most women could not allow themselves to escape to the woods or fight the Nazis, said Inbar, who is named after a grandmother who perished in the death pits of Belarus. She says the exhibit demonstrates that contrary to some popular impressions, women were far from passive victims who went like sheep to their slaughter.

"Actually it's not only that they stayed, but they made their way to their death so meaningful, so human," said Inbar, who met with Women's eNews surrounded by a library of women's Holocaust literature created for the exhibit. "They were at their best from the aspect of humanity . . . This is more important than taking a gun, if you had, and shooting somebody."

Women living in the ghettos, Inbar said, worked in forced labor factories, sold food on the streets and did all they could to sustain their families. They took in orphans, built children's homes, opened public kitchens and took care of the elderly.

Before being deported to the camps, women made life-and-death decisions every day such as which child to take and which to leave behind, she said.

It is estimated that a little more than 3 million Jewish adult women, young women in their teens and young girls were murdered in the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million European Jews. Because Nazi ideology called for the annihilation of the Jewish race, women of child-bearing age were prioritized for extermination.


Feminine Themes, Worldly Artifacts

A mother and daughter visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

The exhibit explores themes such as love, motherhood, food, faith and femininity through personal accounts, diary and novel excerpts, photos, artwork, artifacts, video displays and emotional letters written to loved ones on the eves of the writers' deaths. Words and images are projected on the walls of a major exhibition room. Most of the photos of the women were taken before or shortly after the Holocaust in which the subjects "look like normal women," thus making the exhibit relevant to visitors, Inbar said.

The exhibit delves into the gender-related aspects of women's daily lives and actions--as they fall in love, bear children, cope with illness and care for elderly parents--not just their deaths, says Judy Baumel-Schwartz, the exhibit's historical advisor and chair of the Contemporary Jewry program at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

"This is important because primarily many--if not most--of the historians who dealt with the Holocaust up until the past 20 years did it from either a male perspective or a gender-neutral perspective," says Baumel-Schwartz. "In both cases, it historically denied them the role they had played in practice."

A woman's role during the Holocaust, she said, was to struggle for a semblance of family and community under impossible conditions.

One woman featured, Dita Kirshner, considered it important to record Jewish prayers because she believed that no Jew would survive the Holocaust. She stole stickers from ammunition boxes in the concentration camp where she was confined and used them as paper for recording, in Latin letters, the Hebrew prayers that she heard a nearby woman reciting. Kirshner survived the Holocaust; the woman she overheard did not.


Recipes and Scraps of Cloth

The museum displays personal artifacts that were produced secretly and at great personal risk, such as recipes of gefilte fish scrawled on photos of Hitler, lipstick used to disguise illness before the selection process that targeted the most sickly, a bra sewn together with scraps of cloth.

There is also a tiny comb made out of wire. "A woman needed it not to be pretty, or to comb her hair; because she didn't have hair," Inbar said. "But to reflect that she was a woman before and that she's still a woman."

Berthe Badehi, 75, of Jerusalem, said the exhibit stirred feelings of pride for her mother, Sabine Alzon, one of 10 female survivors interviewed as part of group in a video created for the exhibit by Israeli-born photographer and videographer Michal Rovner.

It's important to speak of women and their role during the war since they were the backbone of the family, Badehi says. Some women--such as her mother who fought in the underground resistance in France--were fighters and many tried to keep their families together any way they could.

When she was 9, Badehi's parents gave her over to a Catholic family in a small village in the Alps, where she lived for three years and survived. Both her parents also survived.

Badehi says her experience with survivors has shown her that women were unselfish during the Holocaust and that they tried to be strong for their husbands, for their children, for everyone. The strength and courage of these women is something Badehi, a volunteer at the museum, says the exhibit makes clear.

"Maybe I am a feminist, but I like to give women . . . their due," she said. "It's important to me."

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

"Project Lifts Curtain on East Bloc Women's Past":
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2650/

"New Museum Documents Lives of Japan's 'Comfort Women'":
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2509/

"Revealing Africa's Other Face":
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1229/

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