In the dystopia of the Holocaust, pregnancy and childbirth were life-threatening situations – for the mother and the child. In Auschwitz, if a woman were able to conceal her pregnancy long enough to come to term, despite malnutrition and epidemics, the women who helped deliver the baby would sometimes kill the child and dispose of the body in order to save the mother from the Nazi overseers.
Ending Jewish civilization, which was the goal of the Nazi Holocaust, focused particular attention on children and pregnant women, according to Prof. Sara R. Horowitz, who delivered the annual Kristallnacht memorial lecture Sunday night at Congregation Beth Israel.
Jewish men, women and children were all targeted by the Nazis, but their experiences were different, said Horowitz. While female victims of the Nazis may have been doctors, businesspeople, farmers or had other roles, they were particularly under assault as mothers. Horowitz based her lecture, Mothers and Daughters in the Holocaust, on many recorded narratives from mothers and daughters affected by the Holocaust. The harrowing stories involved both unthinkable choices during the Shoah and strained relationships thereafter.
For Jews in hiding, babies could be particularly dangerous. A baby’s cry could betray entire families hiding in attics or under floorboards. In one case, Horowitz recounts a mother pulling her hair out in silence while an uncle smothered her baby as Nazis searched the house in which they were hiding.
Women were routinely forced to make impossible choices between their own welfare and that of their children. In many cases, she said, women given a choice opted to die so that their child would not die alone. In others, mothers knew they could do nothing to forestall the inevitable and saved themselves.
In the concentration camps, pregnant women and young children were automatically selected for death. Horowitz quoted Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor, as saying that the mothers could have been spared but that it would “not be humanitarian” to send a child to death without its mother.
Secret abortions were performed and pregnancies hidden. In one case, Horowitz said, a woman survived to deliver her child by positioning herself among beautiful young women during naked inspections by Nazi guards, hoping, successfully, that the guards’ attentions would be distracted from her condition.
One of the experiments Mengele undertook was to see how long a newborn could survive without nourishment. A woman delivered a baby under his direct supervision and then had her breasts bound so she was unable to feed the baby. Mengele came daily to inspect the situation and take notes.
Experiences during the Shoah had indelible impacts on its victims, their children and grandchildren.
Horowitz reflected on Motherland, a memoir by the writer Fern Schumer Chapman, whose mother was sent from her home on the Kindertransport, which took Jewish children from their homes in Europe to safety in England and elsewhere. Her mother, Edith, never forgave her parents for “abandoning” her, even though she understood that she would have perished along with them had she remained behind.
“At least we would have been together,” Horowitz quoted Edith, noting that the author-daughter’s conclusion was that her mother’s understanding of those early events was “stuck in a 12-year-old’s heart.”
Horowitz also discussed Sarah Kofman, who would go on to become a leading French philosopher. She survived as a hidden child in Paris, with her mother, but the woman who provided them shelter worked to detach Sarah from her mother and from Judaism, which led to difficult relations between all three women after liberation. Kofman never wrote about her experiences during the war until her 60th year, when she penned a memoir of the time and shortly thereafter committed suicide.
Relationships between parents and children after the Holocaust were often difficult. Adults understood both the “preciousness and precariousness” of children. For children born after 1945, many of whom bear the names of victims of Nazism, their relationships with the past and with their parents can bear varieties of scars.
Many parents, having missed normal upbringings, did not intuit how to parent. In one case Horowitz mentioned, a woman who had never witnessed a normal pregnancy and whose mother died in the Holocaust lamented that no one told her what to expect or how to prepare. When labor began while her husband was at work, the woman rode a bicycle to the hospital.
A woman who was forced to murder her own baby during the Holocaust went on to have two sons after liberation. In an Israeli hospital, when a nurse momentarily took her baby away, the woman became hysterical.
“Nobody knew and nobody cared about people from the concentration camps,” Horowitz quoted the woman. “They thought we were mad.”
Mothers who were unable to protect their children during the Holocaust carried concealed memories that sometimes prevented them from normal mothering after liberation.
In many cases, though, the mother-daughter relationship was credited with saving one or both parties. Mothers provided inner strength, a moral anchor and often ingenuity, said Horowitz.
One mother, a seamstress, ingratiated herself with the town mayor by making dresses for the mayor’s wife and daughters, thereby delaying her family’s selection for successive roundups. When at last her family was lined up for the trains, the mayor’s wife insisted the woman be removed so she could finish the dresses she was working on. When the seamstress insisted she could not possibly do good dressmaking while worrying about her family, the mayor’s wife insisted the rest of the family also be removed from the transport.
In last words between mothers and daughters, strength and continuity prevailed, said Horowitz. In face-to-face goodbyes, and in letters and postcards received after a death, mothers granted children “permission to survive” without guilt, urged survivors to tell the world what happened and instructed them not to internalize the perceptions the Nazis had of them.
In one instance, where a young woman was spared while her mother and two young sisters were selected for death, the mother implored her daughter not to become bitter and hateful.
“Don’t let them destroy you,” the mother said.
Horowitz is the director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, and a professor of comparative literature. Her diverse areas of research and writing include cultural responses to the Holocaust. She is a member of the academic advisory board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a former president of the Association for Jewish Studies.
At the start of the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs, representing the Kristallnacht committee, reflected on the symbolism of coming together in the recently completed new Beth Israel synagogue to commemorate an historical event in which “hundreds of synagogues like this were put to the torch and destroyed.”
Cantor Lawrence Szenes-Strauss recited El Moleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer. Holocaust survivors participated in a candlelighting procession. Barry Dunner reflected on being a child of Holocaust survivors. Prof. Richard Menkis introduced the keynote speaker and Rabbi Jonathan Infeld thanked her. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson read a proclamation from the city.
The annual Kristallnacht commemorative event is a partnership between the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Congregation Beth Israel and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver writer and principal in PRsuasiveMedia.com.