Women as Victims of Structural Violence


by Shelley Anderson

"I want to avert the end through work. Through work by healthy men. Thanks to that the ghetto exists...The Germans wouldn't keep a ghetto for women and children for very long: they won't give them food for one extra day."

Jacob Gens, leader of the Jewish ghetto of Vilna

Forty women gathered for a study weekend around the theme of "Women as Victims of Structural Violence: the Holocaust and ex-Yugoslavia" in early June, near Amsterdam. Each woman comes with her story--there is a pastor, wondering if she should accept a position as a military chaplain; a Filipina student, angry at the violence of poverty; a German educator from Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women; a Dutch nurse, now in her 70s, who still remembers the German occupation of her country; an Amsterdam social worker who shocks the group by saying, "I work with survivors of the Shoah (the Holocaust). They tell me their grandchildren are coming up to them, asking them how they survived. The grandchildren are telling them, ´We must know, because it begins to happen again.'"

The women came with stories, and they left with more stories. And even more questions.


"I'd been teaching about the Holocaust since 1968. One morning in 1978 I woke up and asked myself, ´Where were the women in the Holocaust?'" So Joan Ringelheim, Research Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, began her story. "How did women survive? Did they survive better than men? There was a great deal of hostility towards looking at these questions, perhaps because many were unable to accept that in the Holocaust there was a great deal of sexual humiliation and brutality" from all sides against women. "A Jewish woman survivor once told me that she had had two enemies: ´Nazis and men.'" Ringelheim said.

Ringelheim said we will never know how many people died. But she cites figures from operations by special mobile Nazi death squads, lists of deportations from ghettos: 44 percent killed of those killed during six months of one unit's work were women, 28 percent children; 62 percent of those deported from the Lodz ghetto in 1942 were women, mostly younger women.

More women died than men, Ringelheim believes. She offered few explanations as to why this might be so: in the early days, when escape was still possible, more men than women fled. Children made women's escape harder; many also believed that Jewish men were the target, not Jewish women and children.

What of survival? What helped women survive could also destroy them: many survivors, male and female, commented on the intense emotional relationships women made in the camps, and in resistance groups. The relationships helped the women live, but could also prove emotionally devastating if a friend or comrade died.


The weekend also looked at the situation in ex-Yugoslavia for women, and particularly at the mass rapes. What is unusual about ex-Yugoslavia, Ringelheim said, is not the fact of mass rape in war, but the fact the world paid attention to it. A representative from Vrouwen voor Vrede (the Dutch Women for Peace) said there are perhaps 20,000 documented cases of war rape in ex-Yugoslavia. Estimates of how many women were actually raped range from 200,000 to 500,000. The chances of a war crimes tribunal where rapists would tried grow slimmer and slimmer.


In some attempt to bring hope to the stark brutality, presenters throughout the weekend pointed out that women were not passive victims. Some women inmates in Auschwitz risked their lives to smuggle tea spoon after tea spoon of gun powder out from their forced labor at an armaments factory, until there was enough to blow up a crematorium. Another woman, a young Jewish dancer, forced to strip in a selection line, flung her clothes at an SS soldier, grabbed his gun and shot two guards, while other women in the group attacked guards with their bare hands.

Those are the ones we know about. There are others. "Dr. Janusz Korczak is a hero," said Ringelheim, of the respected pedagogue from the Warsaw ghetto. "He had a chance to escape the ghetto, but decided to go with the orphans under his care to Treblinka. But you never hear of Stefania Wilezynska, who had managed the orphanage since 1911, who actually cared for the children, and who also chose to go with them to Treblinka. You learn nothing of her or the other six women who went with the children. Something that is seen as ordinary behavior for women becomes heroic when a man does it."

Zenica Medica

Women resist the violence in ex-Yugoslavia. Women in Black in Belgrade persist in vigiling against the killing, and provide support for war rape survivors. In Croatia, women have built a place of healing. Zenica Medica is a small building, a rebuilt children's nursery, where a staff of 40--nurses, gynecologists, psychologists--themselves survivors--and other health care workers deal with the physical and emotional scars of women and children war victims. Vrouwen voor Vrede has raised f200,000 (approximately US $100,000) in the Netherlands for the project. The money has helped Zenica Medica acquire two cottages, where women with severe trauma can stay and become economically self-sufficient by tending small garden and raising chickens.

The Future

Someone once said that silence was the only appropriate response to the Holocaust on the part of those who never suffered through it. Silence feels to me like only a partial response. Silence from shock at the horror, yes; silence as part of listening deeply to the survivors, yes; silence because no one who has not gone through a similar experience can presume to comment, yes. But silence will not prevent genocide or the gynocide of war rape. Only action can do that. To act means we must speak, as loudly and as clearly as possible: war is a crime against humanity. Never again.

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