Women’s Experience in the Holocaust: ‘It wasn’t true they went like lambs to the slaughter. They fought back’

Agnes's old family photo

Agnes's old family photo - Credit: Archant

Published ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Agnes Grunwald-Spier’s latest book asks how women’s experience of the terrible events of WW2 differed from men’s

Sara Ginaite, July 1944, Vilnius

Sara Ginaite, July 1944, Vilnius - Credit: Archant

It was her own mother’s experience that inspired Golders Green historian Agnes Grunwald-Spier to focus on the female forgers and fighters, daughters and wives who endured the Holocaust.

Women’s Experiences in The Holocaust (Amberley Publishing) is dedicated to Leona Grunwald who gave birth to Agnes in war-torn Budapest in June 1944.

“I thought about my mother,” says the 73-year-old, who has previously penned books on those who saved Jewish lives during the Nazi regime, and those who betrayed them.

“My father had been taken away to be a forced labourer in Russia, my grandfather was taken to Auschwitz while she was having me, then we were sent to the ghetto. It was a harsh place. Hungarian winters are bitterly cold. They had no fuel and little food apart from dried beans. But my mother was able to breastfeed and I was incredibly lucky to survive until the Russians liberated us in January 1945.”

Grunwald-Spier pays tribute to the “resilience and fortitude” of women like Leona in the book, published ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day.

“Most historians are men and tend to focus on the male experience, but women’s experiences were very different,” she says.

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“When the men were taken away, they were left holding the baby, or having to deal with the old folks and do the things women mainly do, like finding food. Some were medics, others resistance fighters, they were resourceful women who sometimes coped better than men.”

Drawing on diaries, unpublished memoirs, letters and personal testimony she wanted to offer a broad a range of female experience.


Lubetkin - Credit: Archant

“So many people think the Holocaust only happened at Auschwitz but there were thousands of other places where Jews were persecuted and killed, I didn’t just want to write about women in the camps.”

Stories include Zivia Lubetkin, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising who survived after leading her group of fighters through the city sewers then continued to mount resistance before taking part in the 1944 Warsaw uprising.

Dr Gisella Perl was a gyneacologist at Auschwitz under Josef Mengele who performed numerous abortions on women inmates which helped save them from the gas chambers.

The Kashariyot were “incredibly courageous” young girls who passed as non-Jews, braving danger and death to transport documents, money, news, ammunition and weapons between the ghettos.

“I wanted to show that it wasn’t true they went like lambs to the slaughter,” says Grunwald-Spier.

“Given the circumstances they had a good record in fighting back. Four were hung for passing ammunition over to the resistance; I write about a dancer who shot an SS officer at the gates of the gas chamber. I hope to give an understanding of their breadth of experience.”

The book features a heartbreaking letter from Leny Jacobs, pregnant with her third child in Holland and debating when and how to go into hiding. “She and her husband were killed, but their three children survived. Many people didn’t believe the worst but her letter is incredibly perceptive about what was going to happen to Europe’s Jews.”

Another case illustrating the pain of parental separation was that of Jacoba and Abraham Obstfeld in hiding above a Haarlem school, who slipped down every evening to borrow paper and cardboard to make storybooks they posted to their son Henri in hiding elsewhere. One 105-year-old interviewee shared an incredible story about her husband being taken away to Dacchau.

“She wasn’t having that, so she rang Gestapo HQ and asked for an appointment. All her friends thought she was barmy, but she chatted to an interesting man for 30 minutes about skiing and the arts.

“At the end he said ‘I really enjoyed meeting you but it will take three weeks and you must do something for me’. She thought he wanted sex but he just wanted a pleasant, civilised conversation twice a week. After three weeks her husband came back.”

Grunwald-Spier’s own parents were reunited in March 1945 and they moved to the UK in 1947.

“They were survivors but they were both embittered by their experiences,” she says.

“My father said it was not a world to bring children into so I didn’t have any siblings or extended family, which makes me really sad. He was a jeweller and when something went wrong over some diamonds, he committed suicide because he couldn’t face the idea of prison.”

Having previously not discussed the Holocaust with her three sons, Grunwald-Spier took an MA in Holocaust studies in 1996 and her dissertation led to her 2010 book The Other Schindlers. She was awarded an MBE in 2016 as a founding trustee of the Holocaust Day Memorial Trust. “I guess I’m a late developer,” she adds.