Amid the horrors of the Holocaust,atrocities perpetrated by a few brutal women have always stood out. The Nazi killing machine was undoubtedly a male-dominated affair. But according to new research,the participation of German women in the genocide,as perpetrators,accomplices or passive witnesses,was far greater than previously thought.
The researcher,Wendy Lower,an American historian now living in Munich,has drawn attention to the number of seemingly ordinary German women who willingly went out to the Nazi-occupied eastern territories as part of the war effort,to areas where genocide was openly occurring. Thousands would be a conservative estimate, Lower said in an interview in Jerusalem last week.
In dominant literature on perpetrators,you wont find women mentioned, said Dan Michman,historian at Yad Vashem,the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. They challenge so deeply our notion of what is female behaviour,Lower said. But the Nazi system,she added,turned everything on its head.
In an anomalous twist on Christopher R Brownings groundbreaking 1992 book,Ordinary Men,it appears that thousands of German women went to the eastern territories to help Germanize them. They included nurses,teachers and welfare workers. Women ran the storehouses of belongings taken from Jews. Local Germans were recruited to work as interpreters. For women from working-class families or farms in Germany,the occupied zones offered an attractive opportunity to advance themselves,Lower said.
There were up to 5,000 female guards in the concentration camps,making up about 10 per cent of the personnel. Only 1 or 2 per cent of the perpetrators were women,according to Lower. But in many cases where genocide was taking place,German women were very close by. Several witnesses have described festive banquets near mass shooting sites in the Ukrainian forests,with German women providing refreshments for the shooting squads whose work often went on for days.
Some notorious camp guards include Ilse Koch and Irma Grese. Others like Erna Petri are not well known. Petri was married to an SS officer in occupied Poland. She later confessed to having murdered six Jewish children,aged 6 to 12. The children escaped from a railroad car bound for the Sobibor camp. She took them home,fed them,then led them in to the woods and shot them one by one. She said she had done so,because she wanted to prove herself to the men. She was given a life sentence.