The women of Birkenau / Sarah M. Cushman
Includes bibliographical references (p. 369-380)
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Electronic version from ProQuest
The Women of Birkenau is a social history of the women's camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Several groups of women existed: SS employees (guards—Aufseherinnen, telecommunications specialists— Helferinnen, and nurses—Schwestern); prisoner functionaries who ran the camp in exchange for privilege; and average prisoners, mostly Jews, who struggled to survive. Grounded in archival work in Germany, the United States and Poland (inter alia: the Bundesarchiv in Berlin and a private collection in Hamburg; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; and the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), this dissertation analyzes these groups discretely, in comparison to men, and in interactions with each other.The small percentage of women admitted to the camp responded variously to German annihilation plans. Conditions erased social distinctions and forced transgression of convention. The moral and psychological impact of limited personal space and sleep deprivation have gone unexamined. Integrity and honor became visible and measured by action and behavior; one's moral stance existed only in its physical manifestation. Lack of sleep decreased the ability to respond. Prisoner functionaries supervised, interacted more frequently than camp personnel with, and often were violent to common prisoners. Perceived as camp employees, their position exacerbated the fracture of prisoner society and masked the violence of the SS. Yet, functionaries had goals like those of other prisoners. While their behavior seemed erratic and inexplicable, it reflects efforts of women to survive and to help family and friends.Women camp guards (Aufseherinnen) were murderous genocidal accomplices. Their actions were shaped by context: where, when, and with whom they interacted. Aufseherinnen related more coherently and less violently with prisoners who worked inside than with those outside, whose lives were obviously expendable. Aufseherinnen found opportunity and constraint. High levels of pay and power, and opportunity to meet men attracted women, but comforts were few; corruption flourished.Witnesses viewed women functionaries and guards as more violent than their male counterparts. Two factors influenced this distorted perception: expectations that women are not brutal resulting in elevated perceptions of violence, and taboos against male mistreatment of women.Helferinnen were not violent, but they facilitated genocide. Voluntary and committed participants, they held higher positions in camp and racial hierarchies than women guard. There is virtually no scholarly analysis of these women before now.Sexual violence toward women, including medical experiments and sexual slavery, was one of many means of dehumanization. Some prisoners, however, sought comfort through sexual relations.Women prisoners resisted and attempted escape. They focused on mutual aid. Women's escapes were numerically insignificant, but relatively successful.The society that grew up in Auschwitz was a stripped down version of that which existed outside the barbed wire confines of the camp. Women's experiences as guards, functionaries and prisoners add nuance to our understanding of the way genocide is carried out and how people respond to it.
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