By Clara Dijkstra
To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, we look at notable women in the archival collections of The Wiener Holocaust Library, who stand out in various ways in their contributions to Holocaust memory and history. They include women who were witnesses to the Holocaust, who were active in different resistance activities, and those who worked to document the atrocities of the Holocaust for future generations.
The Wiener Library has several collections of documents from women who witnessed different aspects of the Holocaust, and crucially, recorded what they saw and what they experienced, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves, in the form of secret diaries written in transit camps. The act of recording can in itself be seen as a form of resistance: a way of bearing witness to persecution.
Ruth Wiener was the eldest daughter of Dr Alfred Wiener, the founder of The Wiener Holocaust Library. She, along with her two younger sisters, Eva and Mirjam, and her mother, Dr Margarethe Wiener, were deported from Amsterdam to Westerbork transit camp in 1943, then Bergen Belsen concentration camp in 1944. She, her sisters and her mother were released from Bergen Belsen in a prisoner exchange towards the end of the war, and sent on a train to Switzerland, but Margarethe Wiener died soon afterwards in a hospital in Switzerland. Ruth Wiener kept a diary while interned in Westerbork, in which she recorded her daily life, including her experience of forced labour in a nearby farm, and her fears that she and her family would be placed on one of the ‘transport lists’ to be moved to another camp.
Esther Pauline Lloyd
Esther Pauline Lloyd, née Silver, was born in London, and moved to Jersey in 1939 where she married Charles William Lloyd. She registered as a Jew with the German occupying authorities, in accordance with local regulations. Lloyd was deported in February 1943 to internment camps, including Compiègne in France and Biberach in Germany. She kept a diary of her experiences, pictured here. Lloyd also launched an intense campaign against her deportation and incarceration and wrote many letters of complaint protesting her treatment. Her husband Charles lodged an appeal with the Military Command in Jersey for his wife’s repatriation, and she was eventually repatriated to Jersey on 24 April 1944.
Many women were actively involved in resistance activities during the Holocaust. Though it is sometimes assumed that women had more passive and less high-risk roles in resistance groups, The Wiener Library’s collections contain documents from women involved in armed resistance and violent acts of sabotage, as well as the transmitting of clandestine information and organising the hiding of Jewish children.
Charlotte Holzer, née Abraham, was a member of the Resistance network the Baum group. Formed in the late 1930s in Berlin, nearly all members of the group were Jewish and in their early 20s, motivated by their commitment to communism and opposition to the Nazi oppression of Jews. Holzer joined the group in 1940, when she was just 21 years old. The group recruited many Jewish forced labourers, and in May 1942 they carried out an arson attack on an anti-Communist and antisemitic Nazi exhibition titled ‘Soviet Paradise’ in Berlin. Most of the group members involved were arrested and executed. Holzer was sentenced to death in 1943 for her role in the group but managed to escape from a prison hospital in 1944. After the war Holzer campaigned in East Germany to preserve the memory of the Baum group.
Róza Robota was a Polish Jew originally friom Ciechanów. She was deported with her family to Auschwitz in 1942, then transferred to Birkenau. Robota played a crucial role in the organisation of the Sonderkommando uprising in Auschwitz in October 1944. At the time, she was working sorting the clothes of those murdered in the gas chambers. She contacted a group of Jewish women working in a munitions factory in Auschwitz. The women managed to pass gunpowder through smugglers to Robota, who then passed it on to Sonderkommando at the Crematoria.
On 7 October 1944, Sonderkommando working at Crematorium IV in Auschwitz blew up the building and launched a mass rebellion. The uprising was swiftly crushed, and the role of Robota and three other women was discovered. They were executed on 5 January 1945. An eyewitness testimony in the Library’s collection given by another Jewish woman imprisoned in Auschwitz describes how Robota and the other women were publicly hanged for their actions.
The Library has a collection of testimonies given by Jewish women who were involved in non-violent Resistance in Belgium through the Comité de Défense des Juifs, which organised the rescue and hiding of Jewish children. These women’s testimonies reveal the care they took to place children in appropriate settings and look out for their welfare, despite the great danger this posed to their own lives.
Hava Groisman (Yvonne Jospa)
Hava Groisman was originally from Romania, but moved to Brussels with her husband Ghert Jospa and joined the Resistance in 1940. After witnessing several mass raids of Jews, Groisman and Jospa founded the Comité de Défense des Juifs (CDJC) in 1942 to try to save as many Jewish children as possible, by placing them with non-Jewish Belgian families or in institutions. The CDJ eventually came to represent most Jewish groups in Belgium and created an extensive bureaucracy for forging papers and ration cards and a network of hiding places for Jewish children, and worked to warn Jews about impending deportations. The CDJ succeeded in hiding around 2,400 Jewish children from the Nazis.
Ida Sterno worked for the CDJ arranging the rescue of Jewish children. Her tasks included finding and inspecting hiding places and maintaining contact with the parents. In her account for The Wiener Library, Sterno described how she arranged for thirteen Jewish girls to shelter in a convent in Anderlecht. The girls were denounced by the Jewish Gestapo informant ‘Jacques’ (Icek Glogowski). The head of the convent, Sister Marie-Aurélie, convinced the Gestapo to postpone the arrests of the girls for a day so that they could pack.
A second resistance group, Front de l’Indépendance, was informed and staged a fake armed raid on the convent with the support of the nuns. The partisans tied the nuns up to make the raid seem more convincing to the Gestapo. The CDJ quickly moved the girls to safe houses. The rescue from Anderlecht convent is an example of how the cooperation between different resistance groups, as well as support from some non-Jews, increased the effectiveness of Jewish resistance in Belgium.
The Wiener Library has many items relating to Jewish women who helped preserve and document knowledge about the Holocaust, both while it was happening, and in the decades following it. This includes past members of the Library’s staff.
Rachel Auerbach was born in the Galician city of Łanowce, and in the 1920s studied philosophy and psychology in Lviv. She then moved to Warsaw and worked as a journalist.
In the 1940s, Auerbach ran a soup kitchen in the Warsaw Ghetto, and was involved in the creation of Emanuel Ringelblum’s underground archive Oyneg Shabes (‘The Joy of Sabbath’) in the Warsaw ghetto. She managed to escape in 1943 and survived in hiding.
After the war, she continued the work of the Ringelblum Archive at the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland. Auerbach ensured that parts of the archive were quickly retrieved from their hiding places.
In 1947, she published a comprehensive account of the extermination camp at Treblinka, titled Oyf di Felder fun Treblinke (‘In the Fields of Treblinka’). In 1950, Auerbach emigrated to Israel, where she headed the Yad Vashem Eyewitness Accounts Department. She fought tirelessly to secure a place for victims’ survival experiences in the history of the Shoah.
Auerbach viewed her commitment as a natural consequence of her own survival, and as a responsibility towards the murdered. In 1960-61, she supported the preparations for the trial against Adolf Eichmann and testiﬁed in court.
Ilse Wolff was originally from Berlin and arrived in the UK in 1939, joining The Wiener Library (then the Jewish Central Information Office) shortly after. She was Chief Librarian of the Library until 1966, where she worked hard to research and publish information on the Holocaust.
She started a series of catalogues such as ‘German Jewry’ and ‘From Weimar to Hitler’ which became key tools of scholarly research, and published a book titled Persecution and resistance under the Nazis in 1960.
Dr Eva Reichmann
Dr Eva Reichmann was born in 1897 in Upper Silesia and earned a PhD in economics in 1921. She married the jurist Hans Reichmann in 1932. She became an expert for the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith.
Following Hans Reichmann’s release from Sachsenhausen after the events of Kristallnacht (the November Pogrom), the couple emigrated to Britain in 1939. Dr Reichmann’s research on Nazi antisemitism was published in 1950 in a book titled Hostages of Civilisation.
From 1942-1943, she worked for the BBC’s German listening service, after which she became the Director of Research at The Wiener Library. Here she led an ambitious eﬀort to record eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Over a period of seven years, and with ﬁnancial support from The Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Dr Reichmann and her team gathered reports from refugees, survivors and others in Britain and abroad. The project gathered more than 1,300 reports in seven diﬀerent languages.