Resistance Reconsidered: The Women of the Political Department at Auschwitz Birkenau
I am particularly interested in the forms of resistance and "mutual aid" that these women engaged in on a daily basis.5 This survival strategy has been most notably discussed by Terence Des Pres in his important book The Survivor. This work proposes a representative type of survivor: a caring, strong, social being who survives through contact and support of other and through the maintenance of his/her dignity. Des Pres wrote this book in direct opposition to the more critical interpretations of Frankel and Bettelheim, who present the survivor as a less independent character, infantilized and demoralized by life in the camps. The women of the Political Department were in a position to take more liberties than other prisoners, as they were better housed (to avoid infecting the SS officers with disease), better fed, and in all, better treated than most. However, this does not diminish the unbearable level of fear and anguish experienced by all. These women reacted - and testified - in different ways. There is much to be explored on the different experiences of men and women, and more than ever new research and analysis is being devoted to the experiences of women. The initial fear that making gender distinctions might unintentionally diminish the suffering of either men or women has subsided. Women had different experiences and reacted to them accordingly. They often also recorded them in unique ways. For example, they wrote more memoirs than men despite the fact that fewer women survived. In addition, it seems that their memoirs often focused more on the actions of the group and the community than on the individual. This, however, is a preliminary observation and merits much more extensive inquiry. It certainly holds true for the secretaries in the Political section who testified at the Auschwitz Trial.
In order to approach this subject concretely, it is important to define "resistance" in the specific context of the concentration camp. We must examine the ways in which thinking about resistance has changed, and find a balance between early Holocaust scholarship, which saw Jews as "lambs to the slaughter" and acknowledged only armed resistance, and the more recent temptation to see all acts of defiance as a form of resistance. Raul Hilberg's work on victim responses in The Destruction of the European Jews is a good example of early views of Jewish compliance. Hilberg's study argues that the Jews could have done much more to actively oppose their fate. Hilberg focuses on armed activity and states that "The reaction pattern of the Jews is characterized by almost complete lack of resistance…. Even those who contemplated a resort to arms were given pause by the thought that for a limited success of a handful, the multitude would suffer the consequences."6 In The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness, Yehuda Bauer contests this view. Bauer defines resistance as "any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions, or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters."7 Bauer examines the daily activities of ghetto inmates - including the smuggling of food, the illegal promotion of cultural life and religious activity - and proposes these as legitimate forms of resistance. Hilberg's insistence that only armed activity qualifies as resistance is too simplistic, according to Bauer, because the Jews generally did not have access to arms, which removed their ability to choose to fight. Instead, they fought in other ways.
So, how do we define it in the unique circumstances of the Holocaust, and particularly Auschwitz? The Oxford English Dictionary calls it "the act of opposing or withstanding, or organizing covert opposition to an occupying or ruling power." But does it require a result? Must it be an altruistic, mutual-aid group act, as defined by Des Pres in The Survivor, or does simple self-preservation and self-help qualify as resistance? If survival itself is a form of resistance, particularly in a place designed to murder everyone,8 how do we categorize it when it occurs at the expense of other lives, as Primo Levi described it in The Drowned and the Saved, in his famous chapter "The Grey Zone?"9 In "The Grey Zone," Levi examines the activities of the Kapos at Auschwitz who were put in charge of prisoner blocks and were often accused of some of the worst brutality at the camps, and the Sonderkommandos (special prisoner squads at Auschwitz), who had the horrific task of taking bodies out of the gas chambers and loading them into the crematoria. Levi questions levels of guilt or collaboration in Auschwitz and contends that our definition cannot be black and white - i.e. guilty SS officers vs. innocent prisoners. Using these special squads as his example, Levi argues that these prisoners were in some way participating in the destruction process, yet they cannot be judged as perpetrators. Levi states that "conceiving and organizing the squads was National Socialism's most demonic crime…. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others - specifically the victims - the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence."10
According to Henryk Swiebocki, senior historian at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum and an authority on resistance, there are three major types: first, the saving of human lives; second, the collecting and smuggling out of evidence of the crimes; and finally, acts of sabotage against the Nazi War potential.11 His analysis seems a useful point of departure from which to alter preconceptions of what resistance is. Within these larger definitions we must examine a few relevant queries. First, how do we assess acts of solidarity, certainly an important and widespread phenomenon? Within this lies the second question: what if these deeds are aimed only at friends and family? Further, how do we qualify escapes - the example of Mala Zimetbaum will be discussed - not only those undertaken in order to get information out into the world, but those undertaken alone? And finally, what about the spiritual resistance exemplified by the large majority of women in the Political Department? How do we view the daily activities of these women which include the stealing of food, the smuggling of letters, the attempt to maintain dignity and humanity? The activities of these women may have been on a lower scale than those of men who organized underground resistance or even attempted to destroy the camp, but many, by their very behaviour and disposition, also qualify as heroes.
Heroism in the camps has also been the subject of much scholarly debate and has been addressed by Des Pres in The Survivor and Lawrence Langer in several articles and books. On one hand, Langer contends that "neither heroic endeavour nor selfish exploitation satisfactorily defines the options available to the victims." Langer writes in direct reference to Levi's "Grey Zone" and argues that the "impromptu self (one which takes over when the "conscious self" is left without choices) replaces the faculty of moral choice." This break, this "underlying discontinuity" between the conscious and impromptu self, render irrelevant categories of conscious heroism, spiritual resistance, complicity or guilt.12 Des Pres, on the other hand, deconstructs normative, fictional images of the tragic hero becoming heroic through death, where "the tragic hero finds in death a victory…. He is proof of spirit's contempt for the flesh and death itself becomes the confirmation of greatness."13 In Des Pres' representation of the survivor of the camp, the choice to live (and for Des Pres it is a choice, made early on in the camp experience, when the victim decides to maintain his dignity, his sociability, his will to live) is in itself a form of heroism.
We must be scrupulous in our definition of heroism as it applies to the camps as well, and always keep in mind the uniqueness of the setting of Auschwitz in defining such terms. However we choose to define them, these women provide ample proof of the ability to prolong, improve, and even save lives - of both colleagues and fellow prisoners - through illegal acts of kindness and solidarity. Having raised questions about various types of resistance, I propose that spiritual resistance is a valid category for the examination of the particular acts of these women.14
Maryla Rosenthal was a survivor who testified at the trial and who suffered from the trauma and residual fear created by the circumstances of working in the Political Department as the secretary for Wilhelm Boger. In the search for evidence about Boger's crimes, Rosenthal, a survivor who had recently moved from Israel to Berlin, was one of the first women to be called in for interrogation. She was interviewed by the Landeskriminalamt (LKA) of the state of Baden-Württemberg, (State Criminal Investigation Dept. - a subsidiary of the public prosecutor's office dedicated to investigating criminal matters put before the prosecution for trial) on March 2, 1959. Before being captured by the Nazis in April 1942, Rosenthal had lived in Krakow and worked as a secretary and translator of Polish, German, English and French.
In July 1942, she was brought to Auschwitz and initially delegated to work in the sandpits at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. This work was extremely taxing and caused her to fall ill both from hunger and abuse. She was quite aware that being ill meant certain death in the hospital and was therefore terrified of the roll calls, which often lasted four hours and were virtually impossible for her to withstand with swollen legs and fever. She therefore took a huge risk and spoke up on one occasion, lying about her language abilities when an SS-Aufseherin (female guard) asked for someone who could speak Czech to act as a translator in the Political Department. In this way she became the official translator for the Political Department and worked very closely with Boger.15 In this way she also demonstrated her willingness to lie in order to survive.
Rosenthal's main duty with Boger was to translate his "interrogations" of Polish prisoners. Because these interrogations were often so brutal and deadly, Rosenthal witnessed and reported to the court atrocities that were inexpressibly gruesome; however, she had very little negative to say about Boger, and especially his behaviour towards her and the other Jewish women in the Political Department. She stated that
Boger was very nice to me and I cannot complain about his actions towards me. He even went as far as to regularly give me a portion of his own food, which would be left on his plate, under the pretense that I should wash his dishes. He also got clothing for me from the Birkenau camp. I remember these things quite well as Boger often put himself in danger of being punished if he was found out. He was also very nice to the other Jewish female prisoners who worked in the Political Department, and we all liked him very much. This may sound unbelievable, but I still remember this very well and I have to tell the truth. I also remember that Boger didn't have any real outspoken hatred for Jews. In contrast, however, he would always tell me how he hated the "Pollocks."16
Rosenthal's impression of Boger as a "nice man" lacking in anti-Semitic sentiment was most striking because he qualified as one of the worst sadists at the camp who was certainly gratuitous in his violent treatment of prisoners, be they Polish, Jewish or German. It became obvious throughout the trial that there was enough evidence of Boger's crimes to convict him of murder beyond any doubt. However, Rosenthal's Boger was kind, sensitive, and sometimes even regretful when he had to interrogate prisoners. She was willing to admit that Boger was one of the most feared men in the camp, was known as the "Devil of Birkenau," and that prisoners often spoke of the massacres that would occur after he had entered the men's camp at Birkenau. She was always quick to follow such admissions with conditions: "I never knew anything exact about this. Boger never spoke to me about such things. ... for this reason I cannot, to my best intentions, say anything about where or when Boger shot people...."17 Rosenthal constantly referred to her bad memory and her forgetfulness regarding any specific detail about Boger. In the context of the "Boger-swing," she admitted to knowing of the existence of such an instrument of torture but insisted it was never referred to as the "Boger swing" but only the "Swing," and more often, the "Talking Machine." She recalled vaguely one instance in which Boger used it and the prisoner was so badly beaten she was sure he was near death.
In her recollection of a most famous case, that of a Slovakian Jewish prisoner named Lilly Tofler, Rosenthal again defended Boger. Tofler, another secretary, had attempted to smuggle a letter out to her lover in the Birkenau men's camp. The letter was discovered, according to Rosenthal, by either Grabner (head of the Political Department) or Kirschner, another guard there. She was then interrogated by Boger and later shot to death. Rosenthal stated that "Boger was very sorry about the imprisonment of this Slovak and told me that if the letter she wrote had not been put into the hands of Grabner or Kirschner, this situation could have been dealt with differently."18
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.