Silberman series: "Jewish Girls and Women in Forced Labor"
Janine Holc discusses how her book "The Weavers of Trautenau: Jewish Female Forced Labor in the Holocaust" offers a historical and personal view on how survivors coped with imprisonment.
Content warning: The following article contains mentions of sexual assault and brutal events from the Holocaust.
On Oct. 18, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute held the Sandra Seltzer Silberman HBI Conversations Series: “Jewish Girls and Women in Forced Labor.” Joanna Michlic, an HBI research associate, discussed the book, “The Weavers Of Trautenau: Jewish Female Forced Labor in the Holocaust,” with its author Janine Holc, a specialist in Polish history and politics and political science professor at Loyola University Maryland. Michlic is a social and cultural historian as well as the founder of the HBI Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust. She is also a senior honorary research fellow at University College London’s Centre for Collective Violence in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, the Shulamit Reinharz director of HBI, explained that the Sandra Seltzer Silberman HBI Conversations Series focuses on Jewish women’s history. Silberman first connected with the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute when her daughter, Debra Weinberg, was chair of the HBI Board in 2005. They started hosting a book conversation series in private homes that initially met in Weinberg’s living room. The program expanded to over 14 sites nationwide. In 2021, Weinberg named the program in honor of Silberman, who passed away a few weeks ago.
“The Weavers Of Trautenau: Jewish Female Forced Labor in The Holocaust” focuses on the experiences of Polish Jewish young girls and women who were forced to labor in textile factories in the Czech Republic region of Trautenau during the Holocaust. The women’s ages ranged from 11 to 20 years old. Almost all of them were unmarried and childless.
This event accompanies the art exhibition, “Lives Eliminated, Dreams Illuminated” by Lauren Bergman and Ella Milch-Sheriff. It will be displayed in the Kniznick Gallery in the Epstein Building until Oct. 25 at 4 p.m.
Holc first gave a talk on the history into which her book delves. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland leading to the disempowerment of Jews in Poland, the seizure of their assets, and their loss of civil rights. Heinrich Himmler appointed Albrecht Schmelt to run eastern Upper Silesia as a labor reservoir to supply forced Jewish labor for war production businesses. Sosnowiec, Poland was a significant part of this plan; even though Jews there were able to live in their houses with their families rather than ghettos, they were required to register for the Jewish Council. Once registered, a person could be summoned for labor at any time. There were a wide range of labor placements; a person could be asked to clean someone’s office for an hour or to complete six months of back breaking work building a highway. In the case of the women in Holc’s book, they would be forced to work from 1940 to 1943, seeing the end of World War II.
The young women were taken from Sosnowiec and its surrounding towns in waves of hundreds to work in textile factories in a section of the Sudetenland. In three years, over 3,000 people were taken. Forced laborers made thread and fabric from flax. The area’s demographics included Czechs, Germans, and biracial people. The main labor camp was Parschnitz. Some of these labor camps became concentration camps in late 1943 and early 1944, adopting some of their characteristics: forcing laborers to stand outside for long periods of time for roll calls; deportations to Auschwitz-Birkenau for illness, pregnancy, or theft; and naked selections.
An uncommon feature of the textile factories — which Holc noted could be typical and there is a lack of documentation — was that Jews and non-Jews worked side by side and formed relationships with each other. Some Czech non-Jewish workers left food and medicine in the factory for Polish Jewish girls, while others would be indifferent or hostile. According to the testimonies of survivors from Parschnitz, there were local female guards with little training, no men, and no members of the Schutzstaffel. Originally formed to be personal bodyguards for Adolf Hitler, the Schutzstaffel — the SS — grew to become the main security force and the architects of the Holocaust. They collected intelligence, managed German police forces, and ran the concentration camp system.
Towards the end of the war, Germans fled from the labor camps because of the incoming Soviet army. There was no death march and the Polish Jewish women stayed in their barracks, unguarded and without food, information about the war, and lacking an authority figure. As Allied forces closed in, the SS forcibly evacuated prisoners from concentration camps in “death marches” to prevent them from falling into Allied hands and sharing what happened at the camps. SS soldiers forced inmates to walk long distances under harsh conditions, killing anyone who could not keep up. Many prisoners died from exposure, starvation, and exhaustion.
When the Russian army liberated them in 1945, they brought food and alcohol, celebrating with them. However, the women feared the possibility of sexual violence and recounted that the soliders raped some of the former female Jewish inmates.
Holc approached this book by gathering testimonial excerpts from the Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and organizing their subjects’ reflections into themes. She conducted some interviews but primarily drew from a public collection because she wanted people to be able to do follow-up research. With this research approach, she illustrated a diverse range of reactions and coping strategies the young women used, while maintaining a coherent narrative about the events that occurred. “What I wanted to communicate is the daily life of the social world itself,” she said. “That intense collective shared social world that was created partly by the persecutory system — that infrastructure that the Nazi regime created. But also by the desires, fears, and frustrations of the many hundreds of girls and women who inhabited it.”
One of the themes from the women’s testimonies highlighted the difficulty of the work, but also their pride in mastering it. The women believed that their work was saving their families back home from outcomes like deportation. Holc stated that “The fullness of their memory as adults is intimately connected with their senses of themselves as older siblings in a struggling family who are doing work that is dirty, dangerous, but it’s not degrading. They do not feel humiliated at least as they remember it as adults.”
Michlic’s first question for Holc dove into the intersection between Holocaust studies and women’s studies. Holc said that Holocaust studies continue to connect with more disciplines and encouraged people to examine how certain systems are gendered. For example, persecutory systems like the textile factories were already gendered before Jewish forced laborers came because they preferred female workers.
Beyond researching the impacts of gendered systems on Holocaust studies, Holc also researched how war time disrupted behavioral norms. Jewish women’s behavior exhibited a contradictory quality, because on one hand they had a sophisticated awareness of their Jewishness, but on the other were forcibly uprooted from their cultural communities. Holc used the experience of a Jewish girl climbing up a tank to kiss a Russian soldier after the camps’ liberation as an example of the upending of norms. Moreover, there is a prevalence of risk-taking that Holc doesn’t see when studying women who are concerned about their children or elderly parents during the Holocaust. The subjects of Holc’s book are Jewish women who were younger, unmarried and childless, and thus had fewer responsibilities to protect children or elderly parents. They were more likely to engage in risky behavior. For instance, even though grocery stores run by Poles forbade Jewish customers, some Jews pretended to be Polish to buy food for their family.
The young girls’ separation from their families deeply traumatized them. “The separation from their parents, some of them even say this, was the number one thing that continues to wound them, more so than sexual assault by soldiers, more so than almost starving to death,” stated Holc. The splitting of families was a historicized event, not a minor psychological phenomenon. The Jewish women coped with the harsh conditions by imagining family reunifications.
In 1944, Polish Jewish girls learned what happened in Auschwitz when groups of Hungarian women from the concentration camp were brought to the labor camp. The Hungarian women arrived with shaved heads, wearing only thin dresses, and were visibly traumatized. Even when confronted with evidence of atrocities committed against Jewish people, the Polish Jewish women held onto hope that their family was the exception. A common saying was, “I knew, but I didn’t know,” because they needed that self-delusion to function. Moreover, Holc described that “Their sense of themselves as part of a larger Jewishness, part of a Jewish presence in Europe [and] in Poland, part of a history of Jewishness that has a future … would just disappear if they admitted what was happening.”
Michlic acknowledged how Holc’s work challenges post-Holocaust narratives of redemption. Michlic referenced one of the testimonies; an interviewer asked a survivor if the past ever interferes with her life today, and she responded with “Every single minute.” Trauma from the Holocaust affects survivors to this day and influences styles of storytelling. Holc emphasized that there are experiences survivors are not going to talk about, and stories are the products of writers’ choices on what is intentionally left in and left out. Holc read out a testimony her book ends on that illustrates the difficulty of discussing the past; the interviewee said that there is “so much I can’t talk about, [and] there’s some things I won’t talk about. It’s very difficult. Even more difficult than being beaten.”