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German women and the holocaust by Judith.O.Purver - HTML preview

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The Holocaust is undoubtedly one of the most horrific events, if not the most horrific event, of modern times. At the core of the murder of six million Jews is the chilling truth that a great number of “ordinary” German people were implicated in the genocide, whether through active involvement or compliant inaction. The desire to know why so large a number of people contributed to the evil of the Holocaust has led to discussion of the acts of different groups within the German population. However, with regard to the perpetrators and bystanders there has been little or no discussion of the moral responsibility of women.

Women made up half the German population, yet very few historians have discussed the roles they played or the issue of their moral responsibility. Indeed, more often than not women are portrayed as an uninfluential sector of the population who if anything were victims of Nazi rule themselves. Historians often indicate that women were forced to remain within the non-political sphere, with no influence outside of wife-and motherhood. [Stibbe 1993, 35] Thus, it is suggested that women cannot be held morally responsible because they were unable to do anything to prevent the Shoah.1

1 I use the terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah” interchangeably to describe the Nazi genocide of the Jews.


Alongside this historical and moral “fact” it is important to consider the contemporary debate led by Carol Gilligan which suggests that women are more morally caring than men.2 This is supported by a feeling that women would have been morally unable to implement, perform or ignore the atrocities of the Shoah. [Owings 1993, xii]

The above view would imply that German women can be included in a group of caring individuals who were unable to help the Jews because of their own victimisation by the Nazi regime. I intend to show that this view is misguided. Whilst there is some truth in it, for women were discriminated against by both state and society, it ignores certain facts about the various roles women chose to play in Nazi society. It also discounts those women who resisted Nazi injustice and rescued victims. German women may have different levels of moral responsibility, but they cannot simply be cleared of all guilt

Before proceeding it is necessary to clarify some key terms. Under the heading of perpetrators I include all those people who directly contributed to the Shoah, both the camp guard and the bureaucrat who compiled lists of Jews for deportation. In the bystander group I put those who did nothing active either to harm or to help the Jews.

The bystanders may have been hostile towards Jews, or they may have felt disgusted by the events of the Holocaust, but they did nothing active. When I speak of German women in this paper I mean those German women who were not themselves victimised by the Nazis. They were the “superior” women who fitted in with the Nazi notion of an Aryan woman. I intend no offence by leaving out those German women who were persecuted by the Nazis, such as German Jewish women, Communists and trade unionists, gypsies and 2 See Carol Gilligan, Different Moral Voices.


other “undesirables”; yet the boundaries of the area I have chosen do not leave room to discuss these persecuted German women.

The paper deals with aspects of the moral responsibility of German women. First, I discuss the view of German women proposed by Gisella Bock: namely that all German women were victims of the Nazi regime on account of the anti- and pro-natalist policies of the Nazis. I argue that this is a one-dimensional view of German women and that it fails to recognise and differentiate between the degree and the style of victimisation suffered by Jewish and “Aryan” women respectively. I believe it also has undesirable implications in the assessment of moral responsibility.

I then go on to an analysis of the argument that, though women may not have been true victims, they cannot be held morally responsible because they did not do much more than sustain the private sphere. I agree with Claudia Koonz that this act of sustaining the private sphere reveals, in fact, that women played a complicit role in the events of the Shoah. However, I shall argue that women did more than this as well.

Because some women chose to become Nazis and because other women decided to aid the Jews, I claim that women were able to make moral decisions and thus must be included in the discussion of moral responsibility, rather than being seen as just in a complicit role.

Finally I focus on women as perpetrators. A discussion of the moral responsibility of women would be incomplete without examining the small but significant number of women who were perpetrators. I discuss the problem of women perpetrators who were labour conscripts and how this affects their moral responsibility. I also consider the sexism within the SS, and the brutality of certain notorious female perpetrators. I include a discussion of the wives of male perpetrators, as well as some consideration of the role 3

of German women prisoner functionaries and their actions against Jewish women.

German Women as Victims

“The woman has the task to be beautiful and to bear children. This is not as crude or as old fashioned as it may sound. The female bird preens herself for the male, and hatches the egg for him. In return, the male provides the food.” [Cited in Kolinsky 1993, 14]

As the above quote makes clear, at first glance the Nazi policy on the role of women in society appears to have been simple; the mother was glorified, the emancipated woman was viewed as “an agent of degeneracy and national decline”.

[Stibbe 1993, 35] Women were officially viewed as equal but different: “Equal rights for women means that they receive the esteem they deserve in the sphere nature has assigned to them.” [Hitler, cited in Grunberger 1971, 323] In other words, women were not to hold positions of public responsibility. Most women who had occupied responsible positions in the public domain before 1933 were ejected when the Nazis gained power, and women were forbidden from occupying leading positions within the Nazi party.3 [Grunberger 1971, 322] Women were instead to concentrate on bringing up their “Aryan” children in a female-dominated private sphere. In order to persuade women to take up that role, abortions were banned and child allowances were introduced as a financial incentive to have children. This pro-natal policy existed for all those women who were deemed to be racially and socially desirable. The importance placed on child-bearing led to pressure on many women to become mothers. Matthew Stibbe mentions the harassment suffered by 3 A notable exception is Gertrud Scholtz-Klink who held the position of

“Reichsfrauenfühererin”, the head of the Women’s Bureau. However, her influence outside the domains of motherhood and wifehood was very limited. [See Koonz 1987, 392-394 and Stibbe 1993, 38]


non-Jewish women who didn’t want to have children or who were unable to. One woman who couldn’t conceive tried to kidnap babies in order to attain the ideal of motherhood.

[Stibbe 1993, 36]

A policy of anti-natalism existed alongside the pro-natal aims of the Nazis.

People deemed to be of Aryan race were greatly valued by the Nazis, whereas those considered to be of a lower race, or socially undesirable, or “lacking an orderly family life”, were not esteemed or honoured. [Bock 1983, 169] The Nazi pro-natalist programme excluded these “undesirables”, many of whom were actively prevented from procreation through compulsory sterilisation. Both men and women underwent this horrific procedure.4 One estimate states that by the end of 1934, 27,958 women had been forcibly sterilised and five per cent of these had died from it. [Cited in Stibbe 1993, 36]

Gisella Bock, who has written extensively on this subject, suggests that women were more affected by it than men: sterilization affected mainly the poorer strata of the population and women were over-represented - servants, unskilled workers and jobless housewives, particularly those married to unskilled workers. [Bock 1983, 172]

It is reported by von Saldern that Bock claims women suffered more than men qualitatively as well as quantitatively owing to the close psychological connection between women and their sexual fertility.5 [von Saldern 1994, 143] Bock thus concludes that these Nazi policies were not only imbued with racism but also contained an aggressively sexist component. Bock makes similar claims about the pro-natalist 4 Many of the sterilisation methods were highly experimental and were carried out in concentration camps in terrifyingly inhumane conditions. [See Lengyel 1947, 124-125]

5 I have been unable to obtain a copy of Bock’s book Zwangssterilisation im Nationalsozialismus. Thus, some of the arguments which I present as Bock’s are taken from von Saldern’s article “The Role Of Women in the Nazi State".


policies. Both pro- and anti-natalist policies discriminated against women, for they controlled their lives, forcing them to adopt certain roles and victimising all women, “the inferior as well as the superior”. [Bock 1983, 177] If this portrayal of women under Nazi rule is correct, it implies that women cannot be held responsible for the crimes of the Nazi regime. Women who were viewed as superior were pushed out of positions of social and political power and into the realm of motherhood, whereas those deemed to be inferior were taken to concentration camps and sometimes forcibly sterilised. Bock believes that both groups of women were victims, so implying exclusion from moral guilt for the “superior” Aryan women.

Bock’s argument is thought-provoking. She highlights the anti-natalist policy which ran parallel with the pro-natalism of Nazi Germany. The existence of these policies alongside one another demonstrates the potential applications of eugenic aims, through the employment of anti-natalist and pro-natalist policies. Nonetheless, her conclusion that all women were victims of the regime is a hasty one and needs to be carefully examined.

The implications of the eugenic aim of the Nazis for women are thoroughly considered by Gisella Bock. However, she appears to ignore the question of how it affected men. She is aware that men suffered from compulsory sterilization; indeed she documents the fact that men were subject to castration three years before women were affected. [Bock 1983, 167] In spite of this, men are scarcely mentioned as having suffered (or as having suffered sufficiently) from the eugenic aims of the Nazis. Whilst women may have suffered more at a quantitative level it is rather disturbing to suggest that women suffered qualitatively more than men. This claim implies that men who were forcibly castrated suffered less than women who were compulsorily sterilised; a claim 6

which I believe it is difficult to justify. Von Saldern contends that Bock’s argument that women were affected more than men because their social identities as sexually fertile individuals were destroyed is flawed:

Bock presumes that all women found their identity in child-bearing and motherhood, an argument which applied to some of the women who were sterilized but certainly not to all of them. . . Bock comes “curiously close to implying that non-mothers are not really women”. [Van Saldern 1994, 144]

The pro-natalist policies obviously deeply affected women owing to their biological function and the existence of the strong social pressures to be a mother.

However, men were also affected by pro-natalism. They were positively encouraged to father children, and it was highly desirable to be a family man within the SS. [Koonz 1988, ch.11] This is not to claim that men were targeted by eugenic policies to the same extent as women. Women were regarded as inferior to men by the state and it was men who made and implemented policy decisions. However, men were also targeted by anti-and pro-natalist policies. To state that women were victimised through the pursuit of eugenics, implies that if men also suffered from this policy, they must either be included in the category of “victims” or neither women nor men in general can be classified in this way.

My second objection to Bock’s argument is the use of the term “victim” to describe all women. Women were discriminated against in the Third Reich, and therefore in a certain way they were victimised. However, to label women as victims implies that they were part of the same group as the Jewish victims. But a woman who was under social pressure to have more children was not victimised to the same degree as a Jewish woman or man ripped away from their home, separated from their family, placed in a camp with atrocious living conditions, or sent to the gas chamber. Bock’s claim that 7

“[b]oth Nazi racism and sexism concerned all women, the inferior as well as the superior” is true, but it fails to recognise and differentiate between the degree and style of victimisation suffered by different women. [Bock 1983, 177] Although the Nazis did view women as inferior to men, they did not place women on the same level as the Jews.

Aryan women were still members of a “superior” race. Whilst I accept that different levels of victimisation existed, I believe that it is preferable to avoid the term with reference to German women. To label German gentile women, without qualification, as victims places them on the same plane as male and female Jews, when most German gentile women suffered neither to the same extent as nor in similar ways to the Jewish victims. It also removes the possibility of finding German women morally responsible for aspects of the Holocaust.

Bock’s views on the women of Nazi Germany are misleading, for she appears to ignore the roles women chose to play in Nazi life. Some women actively supported Hitler and his aims. This is demonstrated by the large number of women who voted for the Nazi party in 1932 and 1933 (nearly as many women voted for the Nazis as men). [Koonz 1988, 4] Thus, a large number of women chose to follow a party which was “no friend of female suffrage” and one which they knew was aggressively anti-Semitic. Some women not only voted for the Nazis, but appeared to idolise Adolf Hitler himself. Many love letters were sent to Hitler, calling him such things as “My dear, sugar-sweet Adolf” and

“My heart’s own”. [GRANTA 51 1995, 75] There are numerous reports of female “mass hysteria” in crowds, women with an “uncontrollable urge to touch” Hitler. [Grunberger 1971, 339] Also, by 1936, eleven million of the thirty-five million German women had joined the NS-Frauenschaft, the Nazi women’s organisation. [von Saldern 1994, 151]

Some women played extremely active roles, aiding the eugenic aims through the 8

kidnapping of blonde Polish children, and a small but significant number were guards in concentration and death camps. Thus, one can see that a large number of German women did not just passively acquiesce to racist and sexist rule but actively embraced Nazism and its aims.

Finally, it is worth noting that the desire for a stronger, more “healthy” population and the reactionary policies towards women were not confined to Nazi Germany.

European countries other than Germany introduced measures to curb abortion and restricted contraceptives in order to increase the number of people from “good racial stock”. France introduced awards for “productive” mothers before Germany, with abortion becoming a capital offence in Vichy France in 1942. [Stibbe 1993, 36]

Restrictions were also placed on the professional roles which women could occupy in various countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Britain, where married women were largely excluded from teaching until 1944 when a new state education policy was introduced. [ibid.] This shows that women in many other countries than Nazi Germany were discriminated against as a way of pressuring them to produce more children. If we are to argue that German women who suffered from pro-natalist policies and restrictions on their public roles should be viewed as victims and are therefore free of responsibility for the acts of their country and fellow (male) citizens, then should British, Dutch and French women also be seen as free of blame for guilty acts committed by their countries? Can we or should we assert that half of the population of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s were victims and therefore free of moral responsibility? This seems both unlikely and undesirable. Discrimination touches many individuals at times, but we do not want to say that such large numbers of people are all victims in the same way as the Jews under Nazi rule and therefore free of moral blame. Whilst pro-natalist policies did 9

discriminate against women both in Germany and in other countries this does not mean that German women are entirely free from moral responsibility for the events of the Holocaust.

The Private Sphere

Some feminist scholars have argued that German women cannot be held responsible for the Shoah. They claim that even though women were not victims, their actions are still blameless because they did nothing more than uphold the private sphere.

[von Saldern 1994, 145] The proponents of this view argue that as a group women did little more than bring up their children and provide a pleasant home for their husbands.

Thus, to say they bear some responsibility for the Holocaust is incorrect.

Claudia Koonz argues against this view. In her book Mothers in the Fatherland Koonz argues that, because women upheld the private sphere, a backdrop of normality was created, helping to divert attention from murderous acts. Women cooked, cleaned, brought up their children and provided a stable family life. They equipped the perpetrators with a family which “offers refuge to its members [and] prepares them to face society outside.” [Koonz 1988, 388] Whilst Koonz does not call these acts guilty she insists they were acts of complicity which enabled the perpetrators to forget about their job of murder while at home.

Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness provides some practical examples that serve to support Koonz’s argument. Sereny’s book documents her conversations with Franz Stangl. Stangl was Kommandant at the Treblinka and then the Sobibor death camps, and he oversaw the deaths of more than a million victims. [Rittner and Roth 1993, 270]

Talking of Stangl and his wife, Sereny concludes that “he was profoundly dependent on 10

her approval of him as a husband, a father, a provider, a professional success - and also as a man.” [Sereny 1974, 78] Stangl himself claimed that his main joy was his home and his wife: “All I wanted was just to close the door of my house and be alone with my wife.” [Sereny 1974, 30] The continuation of a normal family life seemingly enabled him to come home and forget about his day, just as today a banker may work from nine until five and yet be able to cease thinking about his job when he returns home, relaxed by the comfort of seeing his children, eating dinner, and watching a film with his wife.

According to Koonz, German women do not escape responsibility through their occupancy of a non-political private sphere. The upholding of the private sphere was in itself a morally relevant act. German women have a special female guilt, because they continued as normal, cooking, cleaning, and looking after their children. This notion of a special female guilt has been criticised by some feminist scholars, for they argue that it is wrong to condemn women for continuing to practise their gender-specific roles, particularly in a society where there was little flexibility in changing roles: As long as the “guilt” of women is seen as bearing and raising children, in the work done for the family and in the “traditional” role of women, who were said to be at the centre of National Socialist racial policy, there is hardly a chance of obtaining a new view. [Cited in von Saldern 1994, 147]

Also, it is argued that “the real contribution of women to Nazi crimes occurred in non-traditional functions external to the home.” [Cited in von Saldern 1994, 155] Whilst this is a valid retort to Koonz, I do not believe that it invalidates her argument. I believe that one of the implications of Koonz’s position is that both men and women under the Nazi regime should have been aware of the consequences of their actions and that to continue as normal, as though nothing was happening, was morally reprehensible. Men also continued to work in roles viewed as traditionally male; through joining the army and 11

protecting the nation from people viewed as “enemies of the state”. Yet few, surely, would propose that this removes their moral responsibility.

It is true that for the most part women didn’t appear to change their daily lives in Nazi Germany. They continued to do the same sort of things as they had before 1933.

Their jobs did not change from that of an unemployed builder to a member of a police battalion who killed Jews, as a man’s might have. Also women’s actions in general did not actively harm the Jews. Later I shall address the fact that women’s roles in some ways did change. They too marched in Nazi rallies or joined Nazi groups such as the NS-Frauenschaft (the Nazi women’s organisation). First I shall explore the proposal that German women are excluded from moral responsibility because they did not actively harm anyone, on account of their occupancy of the private sphere.

The primary role6 of many women in Nazi Germany was that of wife and mother.

Women in the Third Reich had little choice about their occupation. They simply performed the “non-political” tasks of the housewife and mostly did not choose to perform acts which harmed Jews. Is this sufficient exoneration for their lack of resistance to the Shoah? The majority of Germans were bystanders, and an even larger majority of German women were bystanders, yet it is not only action which causes harm; inaction, too, can contribute to evil. The absence of protest and of efforts to help Jewish people enabled anti-Jewish persecution to continue and escalate. If a greater number of Germans had resisted these policies of the Nazis, it is likely that fewer innocent lives would have been taken. The bystander must accept some responsibility for what happened. Thus, even if the role of German women did not change, I argue that it should have done.

6 I say primary role, for as I shall discuss later, many women also adopted more aggressively political positions.


German society had changed, a fascist state was snatching the freedom of innocent citizens, and therefore a moral woman should have changed the role she was playing in society.

I have argued that as a group German women cannot be viewed simply as victims. Indeed some women were perpetrators. However, as for the majority, most German women suffered some level of discrimination, though not to an extent that they were unable to exercise a degree of control over their lives. If German women in the Third Reich knew what was happening and could have helped the Jews, can we say they bear some burden of guilt? I believe we can.

Women knew that something evil was happening to the Jews. Even if they had no secure knowledge of the death camps, they saw their Jewish neighbours compelled to wear the Star of David, prevented from shopping in Aryan shops, and finally taken forcibly from their homes and to an unknown destination from which they did not return.

Sereny argues that women whose husbands worked for the SS often knew of the crimes their husbands were involved in:

No one who has gone into these matters can continue to believe that SS men never told their wives about their activities. One example of this is Gustav Münzberger, who was at the Sonnenstein euthanasia institute before he went to Treblinka. “Well,” Frau Münzberger told me, “I knew after a while what he was doing. He wasn’t supposed to say of course, but you know what women are,” and she smiled comfortably. “I probed and probed and finally he told me. It was awful of course,” she added, just as comfortably, “but what could we do?” [Sereny 1974, 106]

She could in fact have done something, as is demonstrated by the answer to Sereny’s questioning of Frau Stangl on what her husband would have chosen if she had given him an ultimatum - either her or the job. “I believe that if I had ever confronted Paul with the alternatives: Treblinka - or me; he would . . . yes, he would in the final analysis have 13

chosen me.”7 [Sereny 1974, 361]

Whilst women were not in a strong economic position to help the Jews, some women did help. A particularly poignant example reported by Frances Henry is of a woman throwing food through the windows of Jewish houses after Jews had been banned from Aryan shops. [Henry 1984, 99] This does not, on the face of it, appear to be an act of great significance. Whilst it required courage, neither great planning nor a large amount of money were needed. Nor was it an act which would have helped large numbers of people or saved Jews from the fate of the concentration and death camps.

Nevertheless, it was an act of resistance, an act of compassion for fellow human beings, and most importantly it was an act which was a natural extension of the housewife’s role.

It is important to note, further, that some German women did more than this; they actually risked their lives in order to rescue Jews and resist the Nazis. Take for example the German woman, Maria Countess von Maltzan. Von Maltzan helped to save Jews from 1936 onwards. Along with other rescuers, she escorted groups of Jews out of Berlin and on to a train headed for Sweden, bribing the train conductor. Her flat was always

“crammed with people” seeking refuge from Nazi persecution, and it was invaded by the SS on at least one occasion. [Block and Drucker 1992, 154] At the age of 24 Gitta Bauer also made the decision to provide a refuge for a Jewish woman whom she hid for the last year of the war. Bauer not only hid this woman but decided not to tell her parents, so as to protect them from the burden of knowledge and possible persecution. [Block and Drucker 1992, 136-141] The acts of these two woman show us that some women were 7 Frau Stangl actually changes her mind about this later, sending a letter to Sereny saying

“I have always lived honourably”, but Sereny believes the first response was the more heartfelt and true.


prepared to risk everything and that they believed they had a duty to fight injustice. Gitta Bauer is “still... ashamed to be German, one of the generation that killed 6 million”, and yet she was one of the few who felt compelled to sacrifice her comfort in order to oppose the monstrous policies of the Nazi regime. [ibid., p. 139]

I believe that many women were in a position to offer some help to the victims, whether it was feeding or hiding them. However, this is not to say that women’s ability to help was altogether equal to men’s, given their inferior position in society. Although circumstances varied greatly between individuals, men were on the whole economically stronger and the decision-makers within families. Therefore men were generally in a better position than women to aid persecuted Jews. Also, for the most part women were the primary carers for elderly parents and children, placing pressure on them not to jeopardise their lives.8 Frau Brixius, interviewed by Alison Owings, says:

“Things had gone so far, you could not undertake anything without being killed. It was already too late. We all woke up too late. It didn’t help either, if you yourself were done away with.” She said that because German women were responsible for elderly parents and children, they were the least independent and therefore least likely to risk their lives. [Owings 1993, 213]

I think that this point is relevant when examining the moral responsibility of German women. Whilst I believe that the family was a relevant factor when German men were deciding whether they could offer help to persecuted Jews, it is perhaps a more applicable explanation for why so many women adopted a bystander position. But it is not a completely adequate explanation for female inaction because women also chose to enter the Nazi public sphere and they publicly embraced Nazi aims.

Women had some scope, albeit limited, to occupy a “female” political sphere.

8 Interestingly, neither of the rescuers discussed above had children; nor did they live with elderly parents.


Eleven million women joined the NS-Frauenschaft, and membership of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM) was compulsory from 1936 onwards.9 [Kolinsky 1993, 17]

Whilst these public groups were intended to uphold “female” values and virtues, they also became small fighting communities. The preservation of female values along with calls for everyone to “fight for their Volk” created a natural tension in women’s positions. They performed “womanly” tasks in order to fight for their beliefs. Nursery teachers looked after children and taught them to read and write, but they also preached that Hitler was the Führer and that Jewish children were bad. Thus, acts within the domain of motherhood became aggressively political:

Female social workers provide one example of this process. They had initially wanted to transform the natural resource of “motherliness” into a humanitarian profession. But under the Nazis they often ended up preparing the way for the

“selection” and elimination of so-called “inferior life.” [von Saldern 1994, 149]

This supports Koonz’s claim that the continuation of family life and “family values” involved acts of complicity by women, but it also surpasses her claim, for it implies that traditional “female” occupations became aggressively political and were incorporated into a female public sphere. The female public sphere encouraged young girls to be military mothers and to be proud of their heritage and their racial background. It inspired women to take a partisan stance that would in itself eradicate their political rights. Even more worryingly, the existence of such a sphere revealed the pervasiveness of Nazi aims and the depth of the acceptance of anti-Semitism, propagated by women and young girls as well as by men. There are studies which reveal that anti-Semitism was rife amongst women: Frances Henry cites research by Sarah Gordon which found that more German 9 The NS-Frauenschaft was the collective organisation of Nazi women’s groups, and the Bund Deutscher M≅del was the Nazi group for girls.


women than German men had anti-Semitic tendencies. [Cited in Henry 1984, 104]

The majority of women adopted bystander positions towards the genocide of the Jews. Despite some level of discrimination against women by the regime, women managed to incorporate Nazism into their life, and some actively embraced Nazism and all its aims. Women contributed to the continuation of a semblance of normality, which can be viewed as aiding the male perpetrators, enabling them to return to a “safe haven” called home. However, women also did more than this. They knew of the persecution of the Jewish people and many were in a position to provide aid. Yet, on the whole, women did not help. Whilst I accept that women were in structurally disadvantaged positions, they were neither rendered altogether incapable nor were they moral inadequates. If women knew what was happening to the Jews and were able to help without great risk to their lives and the lives of their children, then they must be viewed as bearing some responsibility. To regard women as morally innocent of the events of the Holocaust is to miscalculate the help women would have been able to give. It also implies that women are not to be viewed as moral agents because of their position in society. Finally, the suggestion that women are morally excused of the crimes of the Shoah ignores the small but significant number of women who were perpetrators and co-perpetrators, a matter to which I now turn.

Women as Perpetrators

. . . an east German woman and former Nazi guard, aged 79, is expected to face prosecution for the murder of a young girl in a concentration camp. . .the accused.

. . murdered the girl in front of witnesses at the Malchow camp - a satellite of Ravensbrück. . .She was organising... a death march... when a young girl prisoner pleaded not to be separated from her mother... The accused beat the girl with a rubber truncheon and then kicked and trampled on the prostrate girl with her boots until she died. [Traynor 1997a, 1-2]


This description of a murderous act by a Holocaust perpetrator is shocking. That any human being can be so cruel and brutal to a young girl wanting to be with her mother is horrific; that the perpetrator of this bloody crime is a woman perhaps increases the abhorrence and incredulity felt by the reader. Whilst the gender of the perpetrator shouldn’t matter, those who commit brutal crimes are widely expected to be male.

Society and tradition regularly cast men as aggressive and the makers of war whilst portraying women as gentle and peace-making. Thus, what little discussion there is of female perpetrators in the Holocaust focuses on their deviancy; on how they differed from women who sustained “normal” female values. This occurs to a much greater extent than in the discussion of male perpetrators. As Koonz points out it is probably because we feel that women’s participation in such events requires a “major... departure from the normal values and experiences of women.” [Koonz 1988, 404] Apart from accounts that mention the most sadistic acts of women perpetrators, few systematic studies exist of women as perpetrators.10 Researchers seem to prefer to view these women as

“statistically insignificant.” [ibid.] In this final section of the paper I survey the material available to me on women perpetrators, and try to show that, though they were few in number, they are nonetheless important. They help to deepen our understanding of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, perhaps enabling us to comprehend a little more about how so many people, male and female, became involved in the murder of millions of innocent people.

Between 3,000 and 3,500 women guards are known to have worked in the camp 10 I have been unable to find any such works in English, though there are some references in German.


system between 1939 and 1945.11 [Smith 1994, 322; Traynor 1997b, 4] They were drawn from all social classes and had previously held various occupations, from factory workers to opera singers. [Smith 1994, 322] Most of the female guards supervised women inmates, although a few were nurses and doctors in the camps. According to both Milton and Smith the majority of these women were labour conscripts; very few were volunteers and practically none were members of the Nazi party. [Milton, 1984, 224; Smith 1994, 322] The fact of labour conscription amongst these perpetrators raises a problem as to their guilt. How much choice did the women have about where they were conscripted to work, and how much control did they have over the nature of their tasks? If, once they arrived in a camp they wanted to leave, were they able to? How, in general, does the fact that they were conscripted affect the issue of moral responsibility?

I have found little discussion of female perpetrators who were labour conscripts, with one notable exception: that of Frau Fest, who is interviewed by Alison Owings. Fest was a factory worker in 1939 and aged 19, but her hand was injured and she was released to help with the “Kriegseinsatz” (mobilization for total war). In 1944 she was told that she was being “drafted to watch over foreign work forces”. [Owings 1993, 317] This consisted of joining the SS and serving as a guard in Allendorf, a subsidiary camp of Ravensbrück, where she was in charge of a group of Hungarian Jewish women.12 Fest insists that she had no idea of the nature of Ravensbrück before her arrival. She says that she felt like a prisoner herself and intensely disliked the conditions for the Jewish women 11 Most sources cite the number as 3,000, however a recent article in The Guardian suggests that the number may be 3,500 or more. [Traynor 1997b, 4-5]

12 Ravensbrück was the sole Nazi concentration camp that imprisoned only women and children.


in her camp. She tried as much as she could to help her charges by giving them extra food and claims she didn’t carry a weapon. As for the other guards, she says that most of them viewed their tasks as “just a job”, and apart from the head female guard, Käte Hoem, few were violent towards the prisoners. However, at the time Fest thought her task necessary for the war effort. It was only with her transfer to another camp, Sömmerda, that she decided that the treatment of the Jews was immoral and unjustified.

[Owings 1993, 317-319]

Fest’s story implies she was a pawn in a larger game and was unable to change anything, not even her own job. According to her, she was appalled by the treatment of the Jews, but thought her job was part of the war effort. But if she was indeed appalled by the conditions of the prisoners, how could she so readily believe it was justified, even for the war effort? Anna Fest never mentions whether she asked for a transfer to a different job, one not directly related to the genocide against the Jews, so we are not sure how easy it would have been for her to move. However, there is widespread agreement that people who asked for a transfer away from death camps in general received permission. Why did Anna Fest stay? She was not there to further her career, nor, she claims, was she a particularly brutal woman guided by sadistic or anti-Semitic impulses.

It is possible that she was afraid, for she mentions feeling as though she were a prisoner herself and also claims that she was harassed by male guards who taunted her for being a lesbian, owing to her close friendship with another woman. Yet she seemingly had a good relationship with the camp Kommandant who she felt to be a “nice man”. When she was transferred he sent a message to her new Kommandant that she was to be treated well. This does not suggest that Fest was afraid to approach her boss for a voluntary transfer.


Perhaps she was not as reluctant a perpetrator as she implies. It is possible that her memory and conscience deceive her about the role she played. Perhaps she was spurred on by anti-Semitism, although her testimony does not acknowledge she was anti-Semitic . Or maybe she was a brutal woman. Owings confirms that testimonies from survivors of Allendorf “substantiate the official proceedings that with few exceptions, the SS women guards were considered brutal women who intensified the fascist rule of the K Z.” [Cited in Owings 1993, 326, emphasis added] The exceptions are not named.

Indeed, although Fest portrays herself as a non-violent and kind guard, no survivors would testify in her defence in court, because, Fest contends, they were not allowed to.

Despite this, she escaped punishment owing to a document stating that she had not been a volunteer. Her insistence that she didn’t carry a weapon may well be true, for there is no indication that all women guards in the camps did carry weapons. However, it is worth noting that many female defendants in the Belsen Trial claimed that they did not carry a weapon, even though there was testimonial evidence to the contrary. [Phillips 1949, 207-280]

The testimony of Anna Fest combined with other knowledge we have of labour conscripts cannot altogether clear them of moral responsibility for the events of the Shoah. Fest was cleared of legal responsibility. However, we know that many of the murderers of Jews were not volunteers. Daniel Goldhagen shows this through his analysis of Police Battalions, whose conscripts were enthusiastic executors of cruel and genocidal acts. [Daniel Goldhagen 1996, 181-280] Even if women were conscripts, it is reported by Germaine Tillion that they mostly adapted quickly to their new role: One little Aufseherin, twenty years old, who was at first so ignorant of proper

“camp manners” that she said “excuse me” when walking in front of a prisoner, needed exactly four days to adopt the requisite manner, although it was totally 21

new for her. . . As for others, a week or two, a month at the most, was an average orientation period. [cited in Smith 1994, 322]

Women such as Fest may not have been exceptionally brutal, but they may have been influenced by their situation and complied with the rules of the camp, where it was standard for guards to beat victims. Even if they did not succumb to the pressure of their situation these women at least witnessed and facilitated one of the most atrocious crimes against humanity. Women guards, whether volunteers or not, must therefore accept a high degree of moral responsibility for their silent acquiescence and active role in the murder of the Jews.

It is interesting to note that the material on women camp guards often mentions the sexism which women endured within the SS. It may appear a mockery to the evil suffered by the Jewish and other prisoner victims to take time discussing the victimisation suffered by these female murderers. However, it is important not to view the perpetrators in a one-dimensional way. Whilst scholars of the Shoah are concerned with studying the perpetrators because they contributed directly to the death of some 6

million Jews, there is also a need to try to understand them: to find out how these people functioned, what they thought, felt, talked about and why they were there. Thus, in an attempt to comprehend the female perpetrators in the SS it is relevant to document the sexism they endured. Both Milton and Smith point to it as a direct reason for the notorious brutality of some female guards.

SS women were not highly regarded within the institution. Few attained elevated positions in the SS hierarchy and most were lowly camp guards. Even those who did reach higher positions were not deemed to be on a par with their male equivalents. This undoubtedly reflected the sexism inherent in society at that time, but it was also possibly 22

due to the unease some men felt about women being involved in genocide. Indeed the presence of women in concentration and death camps appears to be diametrically opposed to the official Nazi line on the separate and distinct roles of men and women assigned by nature. This proposed that whilst “the function of men is to produce life and the task of men at times is to take life”, women’s function should be that of bearing and bringing up children. [Smith 1994, 319] On this account women should not be involved in genocide. Even the word “perpetrator” embodies a sense of masculinity.13 Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was particularly condemnatory of the women in the SS, for he felt that they were inefficient and had a poor sense of duty. On hearing that a woman was to command the women’s camp at Auschwitz he protested,

“Which of my officers would be willing to take his orders from a woman?” [Höss 1959, 138] Höss also complained of the “epidemic of lesbianism” which he claims developed as a result of women living together in the camps; a charge which was used throughout the SS as a means to oppress women.14

How did this sexism affect the female perpetrators? Sybil Milton suggests that a desire for equality incited women perpetrators to do their jobs in a brutal manner. [Milton 1984, 225] In other words, in order to be accepted as an SS guard some women believed that they needed to show that they were better than men at performing aggressive and cruel tasks, so “they seemed to engage in a bizarre rivalry emulating the excesses and brutalities of their male superiors”. [ibid.]

It is difficult to know how widely applicable the above claim is without having 13 “Perpetrator” is derived from a Latin term meaning “one who can ‘perform in the capacity of a father’”. [Smith 1994, 331]

14 See the discussion of Frau Fest above.


more information about a larger number of female camp guards. Nonetheless we do know of women perpetrators notorious for their sadism. Irma Grese and Dorothea Binz in particular were renowned for their cruelty. Tillion speaks of Binz as follows: Whenever she appeared somewhere, one literally felt touched by the breath of evil. She would walk slowly among the ranks, her crop behind her back, searching with menacing little eyes for the weakest or most frightened woman, simply to beat her black and blue. [Cited in Konnilyn Feig 1981, 138]

Grese, who was trained at Ravensbrück and then worked at Auschwitz and Belsen, is portrayed in the literature as almost demonically sadistic. She apparently derived sexual enjoyment from whipping women’s breasts and watching the infected sores which subsequently developed being lanced. [Smith 1994, 323] Irma Grese was a young woman of only 19 when she left home to join the SS Concentration Camp Service, and yet her four years as an SS guard gained her a reputation of immense brutality and cruelty. In her court case Grese admitted to beating prisoners, whilst denying killing anyone or possessing knowledge that any were killed. However, she showed great contempt for the Jews she victimised. When the prosecution stated that witnesses had recounted that she was the worst SS woman in the camp she replied: “Yes, they say so. They are all lying.

These people exaggerated and made an elephant out of a small fly.” [Phillips 1949, 259]

She describes her victims as animals, who treated their accommodation as though it were a latrine. [ibid.] And whilst she beat prisoners, she did not view this as ill-treatment. Irma Grese was a female perpetrator who reportedly possessed few reservations, moral or otherwise, about how she treated her Jewish prisoners. Not only was she revolted by these human beings stripped of all dignity, but she reportedly gained from their suffering, even to the extent of deriving sexual enjoyment from the beating and torture of innocent women.


The same sadism obvious in descriptions of Grese’s behaviour is reflected in accounts of the actions of other female guards. Vera Laska reports how some of the women guards used sex to provoke psychological torment at roll call. They would bring their boyfriends with them and encourage them “to fondle and paw them” in front of groups of women who were starving, afraid, and far away from their loved ones. [Vera Laska 1983, 266] Dorothea Binz and her boyfriend regularly attended floggings together and “were often seen in a passionate embrace during or after this type of ‘ceremony.’”

[Tillion, cited in Laska 1983, 266] Germaine Tillion, a former prisoner at Ravensbrück believes that cruelty and debauchery were closely related in the make-up of members of the SS, both male and female. This is interesting, for testimonies about many of the high-ranking male perpetrators suggest that, whilst also brutal, they were more bureaucratic than sadistic and carried out their tasks in a more clinical manner. This is in contrast to those women who attained relatively high positions in the SS and who are reported as being sadistic. [Smith 1994, 323]

However, is this an accurate observation? Were women SS guards more sadistic than male guards? There are two claims being made here. One is that women who were at the top of the female SS were sadistic. The second is that SS men (those towards the top of the hierarchy in particular) were not so much sadistic as bureaucratic. I think that it is important to put both suggestions into context. High ranking male SS officers were obviously not paragons of virtue. They were brutally aggressive and cruel. However, it is relevant that according to much of the survivor testimony the women were placed in positions of power at least appeared to be more sadistic than their male counterparts.

I say that women appeared to be more sadistic because it is possible that women were seen in this way for the following reasons. Firstly, it is important to remember that 25

there were fewer women within the camp system than men. Thus, women guards would have been more conspicuous, particularly those of them who were as aggressive as the men. Secondly, it may be that women were perceived as being more brutal than their male counterparts because of assumptions about gender-related behaviour. [Koonz 1988, 404] This may have played a role in how the prisoners viewed their female guards.

Nonetheless I am not sure just how valid this suggestion is. Prisoners in concentration and death camps had been stripped of their humanity. They were placed outside of normal society. Normally people are not ripped from their homes and forcibly taken to camps where their possessions are seized from them, their body hair is shaved and they are treated like animals, nor are they beaten upon a whim, nor murdered in gas chambers.

Thus, it is difficult to be sure whether stereotypes about gender-related behaviour continued to be held by the prisoners. Did the Jewish woman who was severely beaten perceive it to be worse if committed by a woman than a man? Or did that woman find the beating to be more brutal and more cruel simply because it was?

There is another plausible explanation for the greater apparent brutality of women guards. In the women’s section of concentration camps female prisoners were more likely to have been under the rule of women guards than men. Thus, the women victims in camps such as Ravensbrück and Auschwitz were most likely to be beaten by their female guards. Female victims perhaps most regularly witnessed brutality by women guards, simply because women, rather than men, were their tormentors on a daily basis.

Johanna Langefeld was a female SS officer who provides a counter-example to the claim that all women officers gaining high positions in the SS were particularly cruel.

She was appointed as the warden of Ravensbrück in 1939 and she appeared ambivalent towards her job and its aims, something which was noticed by both inmates and 26

superiors. Höss, for example, thought she was incapable of running a camp, because of her lack of passion for the job. [Milton 1984, 225] She was forced to resign in 1942.

Milton holds that Langefeld was an exception and that most of the female guards were viciously cruel, not just those who attained high positions in the SS. Whilst I assert that some women were particularly cruel, it is difficult to know whether this can be said for the majority of the 3,500 women who worked in the camp system. Milton, for example, says that women were exceptionally brutal and sadistic and yet she only supports her view with reference to three: Binz, Grese and Mandel. Before we can correctly make claims about gender-related brutality of perpetrators there is a need for further research, covering a larger number of women guards.

Whilst there were up to 3,500 women camp guards there were also other types of perpetrator. Male perpetrators include those who belonged to the Einsatzgruppen and the police battalions, as well as men who worked on the railways and executives and managers of firms who chose to use the Jews as slave labour. However, with reference to women perpetrators what little material there is focuses mainly on those who were camp guards. I believe there are other women who can be put in the category of perpetrator -

women who knew of, condoned, and participated in the persecution and murder of the Jews and other victims. For example, some women were nurses who participated in the T4 so-called euthanasia programme and assisted in monstrous medical experiments.

Other women furthered the eugenic aims of the Nazis through the kidnapping of Polish children of Aryan appearance and placing them with “good” German families. [Smith 1994, 319] However, for the purposes of this paper I will concentrate on women who benefited from the organised murder of the Jews and profited from their labour, their possessions, and their deaths, namely the wives of SS officers.


Take for example the following event:

On April 28 the wife of an SS officer was observed fleeing from Ravensbrück in a carriage pulled by six female skeletons. ‘She was suffering from indigestion from eating too many raisins.’ [Konnilyn Feig 1981, 138]

This story shows that wives of the SS could move from occupying a bystander role to that of being perpetrators in their own right. By virtue of their husbands’ positions such women not only benefited from genocide, but could choose to become active and do things of immense cruelty and barbarity themselves. There are records of other wives acting in a similarly cruel manner. Ilse Koch, the wife of the Kommandant at Buchenwald, became a perpetrator in her own right. She often had prisoners killed at her smallest whim, and she forced the Jews in Buchenwald to build her a personal riding ring. Koch was viewed as a perpetrator in court and was imprisoned for life. [Smith 1994, 322]

Whilst a few women moved from being wives of perpetrators to perpetrators in their own right, it was more commonly the case that wives were indirect participants. For example Frau Kremer regularly entertained the Nazi hierarchy and she accepted a macabre present - a handbag made of human skin. [Smith 1994, 321] Frau Höss, who lived at Auschwitz, benefited from the silk underwear which arrived straight from the gas chambers and she regularly expressed her view that “Jews must disappear from the face of the earth”. [ibid.] She seemingly enjoyed life within a death camp system, voicing the chilling wish, “I want to stay here [in Auschwitz] until I die.” [ibid.] These women can be placed in the category of co-perpetrators. They benefited from the genocide of the Jews and upheld the system through which it was implemented. However, not all SS

wives could have been co-perpetrators in this way. For the majority of SS guards lived in the confines of the camp without their families. It was, in general, the wives of the 28

higher-ranking officers who became close accomplices to murder.

There is another group of women whom I would tentatively include in the group of perpetrators: the female Kapos. Kapos were prisoner functionaries, generally German criminals, given positions of power over Jewish prisoners. These women were not free agents in a true sense, since they were also prisoners. They were mostly criminals and not, therefore, representative of psychologically “normal” women. However, they regularly brutalised the Jewish women, a brutality which their role did not require. An horrific example of female Kapo brutality took place at the Budy camp. Budy was a subsidiary camp of Auschwitz and in 1942 the women’s section of it contained 200

Jewish women who were employed at various heavy labour jobs, such as digging pits, building railroads, and pulling carts loaded with sand and gravel. [Rutkowski 1987, 262]

The women Kapos reported that the Jewish prisoners had attempted to start an uprising.

However, according to a report by Grabner, the head of the Political Section in Auschwitz, the Kapos staged the event for they were concerned that the Jewish women would denounce them for their sexual relations with some SS men. [Rutkowski 1987, 265] What is certain is that there was a massacre of unbelievable brutality. Höss calls it the “Budy bloodbath” and describes the women Kapos as beasts. Broad, a witness to the event, describes the massacre of around 90 of the Jewish prisoners in the following manner:

The yard behind the school building is strewn with bloody corpses of women with severed limbs. . . Half-dead women flop about among the corpses. Their groans mix with the hum of throngs of flies hovering above them, over puddles of blood and smashed skulls. Many contorted bodies are hanging over the barbed wire fence. Others were undoubtedly thrown out of the attic window which was still open. [Cited in Rutkowski 1987, 265-6]


It is apparent from the various unofficial reports15 of the massacre that a monstrous example of brutality had occurred, with German women using clubs, guns, and even an axe. [Rittner and Roth 1993, 321]

This event was thankfully an isolated occurrence. Nonetheless, the German Kapos regularly brutalised their charges, and could even influence the “selection” of prisoners for the gas chambers. [See Millu, 1991] I believe that the Kapos can be included as perpetrators in a broad sense, for some German women Kapos chose to carry out their duties in a manner which increased the suffering - and the death count - of the Jews.

The women perpetrators of the Holocaust were relatively few in number.

Nonetheless, the fact that 3,500 women, and more, actively participated in the Holocaust is relevant to discussions about the moral responsibility of German women. Women, as well as men, tortured innocent human beings. Women chose victims to enter the gas chambers, and women beat other women to death. Thus, any discussion of women and moral responsibility must take these particular women into consideration.

I have argued that the portrayal of women as weak victims of the Nazi state and society is misguided because it disregards how women chose to become actively involved in supporting the aims of Nazi Germany. Women upheld the private sphere, and they also branched out into a female public sphere which furthered the racist eugenic policies of the Nazis in roles dominated by women. Structural discrimination against women did exist and whilst this undoubtedly hindered women from resisting the Nazis, it does not fully explain or excuse the inaction of so much of the female population of 15 No official report of this event has been found. [Rutkowski 1987, 259]


Germany. The bystander position is one with which the majority of us can most easily identify. As Ozick points out “A bystander is like you and me, the ordinary human article.” [Ozick 1992, xii] I do find the bystander position to be the one easiest to identify with, and I also try to appreciate the difficulties encountered by anyone standing up to the Nazi state. As a woman I understand the structural discrimination which women suffered and realise that this partly helps to explain female inaction. Nonetheless, I cannot agree that this puts women outside the ambit of responsibility.

I believe that it is patronising to suggest that women were unable to appreciate the evil of the Holocaust. Indeed, the moral competence of German women is put in question if we say that they could not understand that the genocide of the Jews was an evil they should have helped to prevent. German women may not have realised that six million Jews were being systematically slaughtered, but they knew of Jews being forcibly taken away and not returning - injustice enough to provoke moral outrage.

My analysis of women perpetrators adds another dimension to the discussion of moral responsibility. Even if we were to accept that German women in general were unable to perform as moral agents as a result of structural discrimination, the existence of a group of women who beat, tortured and murdered innocent human beings, upsets that evaluation. These women were first-hand witnesses and direct contributors to the evil of the Holocaust. As individuals they must bear a burden of guilt for their contribution to the calamity: for killing, for brutalising other human beings, and for supporting the inhumane goals of Hitler and the Nazis. These female perpetrators show what women are capable of and undermine the claim that “women wouldn’t or couldn’t do that”. Female perpetrators may have been statistically insignificant but they were not morally insignificant. Think of Elie Wiesel’s sentiment that some events surpass statistical 31

analysis. As he says, statistics are just people with their tears wiped off.

The study of the role of German women and the Holocaust must be encouraged not only because it enables us to evaluate the acts of women and their moral responsibility, but also because it aids the general study of bystanders and perpetrators.

The discussion of German women as bystanders and perpetrators explores these terrible events from yet another angle, providing humanity with another glimpse of how they were possible and why it should try to prevent their recurrence. Whilst some aspects of the Shoah defy straightforward causal explanation it is perhaps only through wide-ranging exploration that we can come closer to an adequate level of comprehension.

I end with a quote which, whilst it focuses on women, should be a lesson to everyone, for unless we recognise our potential to prevent the occurrence of an evil like the Holocaust, can we ever be certain that it won’t be repeated?

I share the concern that, while powerlessness may appear morally innocent, it runs the risk of enforced complicity with the designs of the dominant powers in this world. Not as a Jew, but as a woman, I am also aware that it is sometimes easier to remain powerless than to assume the ethical burden of exercising the power that is possible. Not as a Jew, but as a woman, I have become conscious that a sense of powerlessness is sometimes a self-fulfilling process - if I feel I am powerless, then I will act and speak in a way which will ensure that I remain powerless. [Leddy 1992, 359]



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