Sisterhood and Survival
To honour International Women’s Day, we want to share the story of sisters, Ibi and Judith. During the Holocaust the challenges facing men and women were unique to their genders. Although both men and women were both at risk of extermination, the unique challenges faced by women led to them finding different ways to survive in the concentration camps to their male counterparts. Sisters Ibi and Judith survived the Holocaust due to these extraordinary bonds of female friendship and support.
The goal of the selection process was at Auschwitz-Birkenau was to extract forced labour from new arrivals. Women were more likely to be deemed unfit for work, especially if they were pregnant, had young children or were accompanying elderly relatives. Many women were therefore sent straight to the gas chambers and to their deaths, and not given the chance to survive.
Ibi Ginsburg arrived on the ramp of Birkenau in 1944 with her mother, father and three sisters. They were immediately separated from their father and the other men in their transport. Although guards were told to select individuals over the age of sixteen for labour, clearly Ibi and her thirteen-year-old sister, Judith, looked older than they were; both were selected for forced labour. However, her mother, with two little girls under ten were sent directly to the gas chambers. Ibi just had time to promise her mother that she would take care of Judith before they were separated.
Ibi remembered seeing mothers giving their babies to elderly relatives to look after, not realising that they had just increased their chance of survival by relinquishing their children. Many women who refused to be separated from their children were sent to their deaths alongside their children, or were brutally separated from them. This was a uniquely female challenge in the Holocaust. Motherhood was a danger to survival.
After being selected for forced labour, female inmates were then taken to shower. Hundreds of women were forced to undress together in front of SS men. This was utterly humiliating, as the SS guards would laugh and make lewd comments. Many of these women would have only ever undressed in front of their husbands. After they undressed, they were moved to another room where all their hair was shaven, including body hair and pubic hair. For most women their hair is important for their self-esteem and is an outward sign of their personality, beauty and femininity. By removing it, another element of their humanity was taken. For Ibi and her little sister, Judith, this led to a heart-stopping moment when Ibi thought she had lost her sister. Ibi called out for Judith, only to discover she was standing next to her all along, she just didn’t recognise her any longer:
“And just the voice I recognised because that was the first time I saw her without hair.”
Women in the camps often tried to maintain a level of personal hygiene, which was an attempt to regain some feelings of self-worth, self-control and mental stability. Women, due to their domestic skills around the home also sewed their ill-fitting and dishevelled uniforms to be more comfortable. This wasn’t for vanity purposes, as having a warm, well-fitting outfit to wear whilst working in the elements could mean the difference between life and death.
The anxiety, stress and malnutrition of being in the camps often meant that some women’s periods stopped entirely. This was heart-breaking for many as they feared it meant they would never be able to have children. Just like today, menstruation was stigmatised and women often did not have sanitary products, which added level of shame as they tried to control the bleeding.
Ibi recalled seeing a woman during selection who was on her period and was bleeding, the blood made the water pink. Despite this stigma, women’s periods were a bonding experience, especially for younger prisoners who had their first periods in the camp without their family, calling instead on their fellow inmates for support.
“What is a woman without her glory on her head, without hair? A woman who doesn’t menstruate?”
Erna Rubinstein, Auschwitz survivor
Although some female prisoners were placed in positions of power (such as Kapos, or block-leaders) and abused this power, the majority of female prisoners engaged in a type of camaraderie with their fellow inmates. Women in the camps created camp families, or support systems with relatives and friends from home (if they had not been separated), and even with strangers who came together to support one another. The close relationship formed between female campmates was often given the name lagerschwestern (camp-sisters). There is no male equivalent, which highlights the unique relationships formed between female prisoners.
For sisters Ibi and Judith, remaining together was imperative to their survival. Not only did they support each other through the most horrendous times of their lives, but Ibi was able to honour the promise she made to her mother before they were separated: that she would take care of her younger sister. The sisters also created a group with three girls that they had known from home by sharing a bunk and creating their own camp family.
Ibi and Judith miraculously remained together during their imprisonment at Birkenau, and even during a gruelling death march before being liberated in Dachau on 1st May 1945. The sisters were later reunited with their father after the war.
Sisters Ibi and Judith offers us a remarkable glimpse into the ways that women used their social networks, domestic skills and personal abilities to survive impossible situations. For women who were subjected to such dehumanising experiences including selection and life in camp, their lifelines often became the strong bonds they created with the other women in the same situation. Sisters, in all forms, as it were.
Hannah May Randall – 08/03/21
Agnes Grunwald-Spier – Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust
Sarah Helm – If This is a Woman
Sarah Helm – Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women