The HerStories project conveys European Jewish history of the 20th century through the biographies of seven Jewish women. The stories presented within this project – on the website, in educational materials, in the exhibition, and in all the other project results – are used to shed some light on the diversity and complexity of female Jewish experiences of the 20th century. Lisa Pinhas, Rosa Rosenstein, Katarina Löfflerova, Ludmila Rutarova, Rosl Heilbrunner, Irena Wygodzka, Vera Szekeres-Varsa are seven women whose stories are told in this project, who didn’t know each other and never met - but all of them were born in Jewish families in the first decades of the 20th century, they all survived the Holocaust, and all somehow managed to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. 

“Following the example of several others who have written a few pages about the men's concentration camps, it is now my turn to give you some details about the women's camps, as I have experienced them”, writes Lisa Pinhas in her memoirs – written, re-written, edited and re-edited for 30 years after the events that she describes. What is striking in this opening sentence is that it sounds very calm, modest, careful, and polite. A rather surprising beginning of a story that recalls terror, dehumanization and mass murder on an unimaginable scale… And it clearly indicates that Pinhas decided to tell her own story, and share her personal experiences at a time when the voices of men – former concentration camp prisoners – had already been heard and had their suffering recognized. This is how Lisa Pinhas indicated that the voices of women were missing in the narratives about concentration camp experiences. Her written account was brought to the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens in the 1980s, after her death. This was an extremely important period in the development of Holocaust studies: the first significant attempts to investigate and describe the specific fate and experiences of women during the Holocaust date back to the early 1980s. 


Although extensive research on the Holocaust had previously been carried out, it was either rather general or concerned mainly the experiences of men. A conference “Women surviving the Holocaust”, organized by scholars Joan Ringelheim and Esther Katz in 1983, is considered to be a breakthrough. The aim of this conference was to broaden knowledge about the Holocaust and the experiences of women during this period, and to identify and understand Jewish women's responses to the catastrophe and their coping strategies in the tragic reality, taking into account the particular dangers that they faced as women. Later, in the second half of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, important works were published that opened the way for further research. One of the most important is the volume Different Voices. Woman and the Holocaust, edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (1993). Among these pioneers were Myrna Goldenberg, Dalia Ofer, Judy Baumel, Marion A. Kaplan, Sybil Milton. An important role in the further popularization of the topic was played, among others, by works by Nechama Tec, Elizabeth R. Baer and Paula Hyman. In their research, the above-mentioned authors focused particularly on the fate of women during the Holocaust, the conditions of a physiological (biological) and social (cultural) nature, and also raised questions of the changes in the structure of families and larger communities - changes resulting from various forms of discrimination and persecution. Thus, the gender approach to the historiography of the Holocaust appeared in mainstream consciousness only in the 1980s, and was fully established in the next decade.


In the 1990s, several groundbreaking books were written on this subject in the USA and Europe, and this upward trend in research and publications continues to this day. There is a growing awareness that although the scale of the suffering of both Jewish men and Jewish women during the Holocaust cannot be compared in any way, because all European Jews, regardless of gender and age, were condemned to death by the Nazis, the experiences of men and women nonetheless differed significantly. Both their understanding of the situation they found themselves in was different, as well as their memories of the survivors and the narratives they constructed. These differences resulted, among others, from gender determinants, and therefore it is necessary to re-analyse the already known facts related to the Holocaust, focusing on the consequences of the application of social norms regarding femininity and masculinity. The research into gender-specific experience was also expanded beyond the fate of Jewish women, and also began taking into account, among others, Romani and Sinti women. With time, the experiences of LGBT+ groups were included in the study of the Holocaust.


As early as the 1980s, the first controversies related to this approach to the subject appeared. The discussion was still ongoing in the 1990s and has not been closed to this day: accusations against scholars of the Holocaust that adopt a gender perspective remain. The objection, however, results primarily from a misunderstanding of their purpose, and sometimes also from the attitude to the Holocaust itself as a kind of "inviolable holiness", about which, out of respect for the victims, one should not "theorize" in this way,  in the context of gender or other, possibly more conceptual issues. To show their conviction that specific research into the lives of women during the Holocaust is unnecessary, some historians have repeatedly argued that women were murdered as Jews, not as women. Some historians also pointed out that Nazi racism did not make any distinction between genders, and therefore separate studies of the fate of women during this period are hardly justified. Moreover, there are voices claiming that this approach to the subject distorted the image of the Holocaust, as a contemporary feminist approach could not be applied to those times. However, historians studying the gender aspects of the Holocaust did not mean to belittle the tragedy or compare who suffered more, but to better understand these events as a whole, by incorporating the female experience into mainstream Holocaust research. It was, and still is important to see the role of the traditional model of femininity and masculinity in shaping behavior in extreme situations, and how this traditional model fell apart in the particular circumstances of our interests.


Nazi ideology aimed at the annihilation of all persons identified as Jews. However, neither the victims, the perpetrators, nor the witnesses of the Holocaust lived in a social void. All of them were influenced by and practiced deeply ingrained cultural and social gender norms at the various stages of the so-called "Final Solution," even though at the ideological level the main criterion was racial. If one delves into the Nazi vision of the role of a woman, the question of fertility comes first: German fertility and motherhood were almost "sacred", and the main role of an "Aryan" woman was to give birth to racially pure children. Thus, Jewish fertility and Jewish motherhood posed a threat to “racial purity,” which meant that Jewish women were targeted by the Nazis in a double sense. Precisely because the German Nazis defined their "enemies" according to a racial criterion, both men and women fell within that definition. And it is precisely the way they treated women and girls that allows us to fully see that the Holocaust was an unprecedented act of genocide – one of total extermination.


Today, studies on the Holocaust in terms of gender consist of a wide variety of issues: from the general differences in the treatment of women and men by the Nazi Germans and their allies at the initial stages of the Holocaust, as well as the impact of discriminatory laws on the lives of women and men, through the situation in ghettos (when the traditional roles in families ceased to function and the social structure changed), through the system of labor and concentration camps, in which women and men were separated, to mass executions of men and women, which were also often carried out separated by gender. These research interests include strategies of survival, help, reactions to exclusion and threats to life, as well as forms of resistance developed by women and men. Early studies on this subject still include some gender stereotypes – assigning women and men specific features and roles, e.g. ones that facilitate or hinder adaptation in the ghetto or concentration camp. Over time, already in the 21st century, the awareness of stereotypes and the sensitivity of researchers has increased, and the approach to the issue gradually changed, a change that is still ongoing. 


The approach to issues long considered taboo has also changed. They are related to, for example, women's physiology and threats that affect women in particular, including sexual violence and its consequences. In the first, and especially in the second decade of the 21st century, the issue of sex work in ghettos and concentration camps, questions related to pregnancy, childbirth, contraception and abortion in these inhumane conditions (an issue that is clearly featured in Rosa Rosenstein’s story), the problem of sexual abuse of girls and women in hiding places and in partisan units, and rapes committed in ghettos and camps became less a taboo. An important aspect of the research is also the place of women among the perpetrators of the Holocaust, including as kapos (kapo - prisoner functionary assigned to supervise other prisoners) and guards in concentration camps (as portrayed in Lisa Pinhas’ accounts from Auschwitz and Ravensbrück).


New discoveries and new research threads keep emerging, constantly broadening the scope and perspective of research. It is absolutely not about focusing solely on female physiology or violence against women, nor about portraying the women while ignoring the experience of men. It is important to point out the differences that occurred at all stages of the Holocaust, both in the treatment of victims by the perpetrators and in the perception of reality by both women and men in the ghettos, in the camps, in the hiding places, and in partisan groups. The goal of a gender-sensitive approach to historical research of the Holocaust should be to understand different ways of experiencing these situations.


The educational project HerStories, implemented by an international consortium of partners in six countries, aims to highlight the experiences of seven women from seven European countries. Seeing their biographies in a wider cultural, social and political context helps us understand the backgrounds of these women, their identities, and their decisions. The scope of telling these Jewish women’s stories is not limited to the period of Nazi persecution and the Holocaust – instead, this project’s purpose is to present the whole story of each woman, from her family background and (if possible) early childhood to various aspects of her life through several decades after the Second World War, going as far as the beginning of the 21st century. This broad, multi-faceted picture of the lives of each of them allows us to see – through their subjective views – general issues, such as the specificity and functioning of Jewish communities in different countries, social and political changes in Europe in the 20th century, etc. However, we also see details - the specificity of a given family and social circle. The womens’ family situation, backgrounds, social status, education and many other factors are interesting in itself, but also in the ways in which they influenced their situation during the Holocaust and after the war.


The materials created in this project are based on three different historical sources. The majority of them – five women’s stories – are based on the resources from the Centropa Archive: oral history interviews conducted at the beginning of the 21st century with Irena Wygodzka, Rosa Rosenstein, Katarina Löfflerova, Ludmila Rutarova, and Vera Szekeres-Varsa. The story of Lisa Pinhas can be presented through her own memoirs, and various documents and artifacts from the collection of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens. In these six cases we could rely on first person narratives of Holocaust survivors. The seventh story – the one of Rosl Heilbrunner – is a different case: this is a reconstructed family narrative told by the second generation, in this case Rosl’s daughter Dory Sontheimer.


The womens’  stories begin with them narrating how they grew up in Jewish families before the war, their memories of their education, work, relations with their families and friends, everyday struggles, plans and hopes. They include the experiences of the Second World War and the Holocaust: stigmatization and persecution, deportation, hiding or flight, separation and loss, hopelessness and isolation, but also the subjects of hope and survival, resilience and resistance. And then they narrate their way of rebuilding their lives after the Holocaust – their ways of coping with loss and trauma, the decisions and choices they made after the war. Taken together, these individual stories paint a vivid and diverse picture of Jewish women’s lives in 20th century Europe.


We have to remember that these seven personal stories show only a fraction of the realities of the 20th century in Europe, and should be embedded in the broader historical context. They do not replace textbook knowledge, but rather augment it. Any personal experience, even the most profound, is not in any way identical to historical knowledge, but certainly – and this is no less important – has a strong influence on one’s attitudes towards and perceptions of the world. We also need to take into account that the factual level of some stories is up for discussion. These are oral history interviews or memoirs – personal narratives, therefore, not a story told by professional historians. This is connected with the mechanisms of human memory, which are sometimes surprising: images seen later in life in photographs or films, information from books and conversations etc. are woven into the personal stories and can become an integral part thereof. Inaccurate dates or numbers, as well as pieces of information that are not part of a person’s own experience, certainly need to be verified and checked against actual findings by historians. But in these stories the most important thing is their universal message, the universal dimension of what the seven women experienced in their lives. Each story contains dramatic choices, fear, pain, helplessness and loneliness, and at the same time each story is about resilience and hope.


Through the fates of real persons and their experiences, we can show how historical events impacted the individuals, how they shaped their lives, and we can search for deeper, universal meanings. The stories of these women also encourage reflection on fundamental issues, such as good and evil, empathy and indifference, tolerance and xenophobia. Projects like HerStories have to be seen not only as a simple transfer of knowledge, but also – and above all – as a way of educating and shaping attitudes.







Different Voices. Women and the Holocaust, ed. Carol Rittner & John K. Roth, Paragon House, St. Paul 1993.

Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis and the Holocaust, ed. Elizabeth R. Baer & Myrna Goldenberg, Wayne State University Press, Detroit 2003.

Grądzka-Rejak Martyna, Kobieta żydowska w okupowanym Krakowie (1939-1945), Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Kraków 2016.

HerStories website: 

Hilberg Raul, Zagłada Żydów europejskich, vol. 1-3, Wyd. Piotr Stefaniuk, Warszawa 2014.

Kobiety wobec Holocaustu: historia znacznie później opowiedziana, ed. Elisabeth Kohlhaas et al., Fundacja na Rzecz MDSM, Oświęcim 2011.

Kobiety wojny: między zbrodnią a krzykiem o godność, ed. Alicja Bartuś, Fundacja na Rzecz MDSM, Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim 2014.

Przecież ich nie zostawię. O żydowskich opiekunkach w czasie wojny, ed. Magdalena Kicińska & Monika Sznajderman, Czarne, Wołowiec 2018.

Pinhas Lisa, Narrative of Evil: Lisa Pinhas Confronts the Holocaust, The Jewish Museum of Greece, 2014.

Stöcker-Sobelman Joanna, Kobiety Holokaustu: feministyczna perspektywa w badaniach nad Shoah. Kazus KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, Trio, Warszawa 2012

Tec Nechama, Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust, Yale University Press, 2004.

The Legacy of the Holocaust: Women and the Holocaust, ed. Zygmunt Mazur et al., Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 2007.

Women and the Holocaust: New Perspectives and Challenges, ed. Andrea Pető et al., Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, Warszawa 2015.

Women in the Holocaust, ed. Dalia Ofer & Lenore J. Weitzman, Yale University Press, Londyn 1998.



Anna Wencel