The murderers are loose! They search the world All through the night, oh God, all through the night.
Gertrud Kolmar, a brilliant Jewish writer, included those words in a poem she called "Murder." The exact date of her death in Auschwitz--she was deported from Berlin during the winter of 1943--is unknown, but her cry lives on. Its anguish laments the ruthless murders of millions of women, Jews foremost among them, in the "Final Solution."
German deportation and death lists often included gender identification. Women and men were segregated in concentration and death camps, and early on Jewish women were treated better than Jewish men. However, once World War II began in 1939 and the Final Solution was under way in 1942, Jewish women were increasingly at risk.
German authorities considered elderly Jewish women useless to the war effort. They were therefore sentenced to death by starvation, disease, shooting, or gas. Of more troubling concern were Jewish women of child-bearing age. On one hand, their work for the Third Reich could be productive. On the other, their menace was especially acute because they could produce Jewish children. The Final Solution had to prevent that outcome.
Hundreds of thousands of Jewish women were killed at Treblinka. Hundreds of thousands more were worked to death or gassed at Auschwitz. Still others were subjected to forced labor, brutal medical experiments, and death at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women that opened near Fürstenberg, about 50 miles north of Berlin, in May 1939. Designed to hold several thousand prisoners, its population soared to more than 40,000 in 1944.
Women from over 20 countries were among the more than 100,000 who were imprisoned in Ravensbrück at various times. About 13.5 and 5.5 percent of that number were Jews and Gypsies, respectively. Death claimed about 92,000 of the camp's total prisoner population. About 6000 people were gassed in the camp's final months, when the Germans selected Ravensbrück as a destination for prisoners evacuated from camps in the East, as the Red Army forced Germany's retreat. No other concentration camp in Germany had such a high percentage of murdered prisoners.
Holocaust scholar Myrna Goldenberg aptly sums up the situation: The hell may have been the same for women and men during the Holocaust, but the gender-related horrors were different. The last words of her poem "The Woman Poet"--"do you hear me feel?"--suggest that Gertrud Kolmar would agree.