The Second World War saw bombings, illness, food shortages, and fear as neighbour turned on neighbour, and the death of an estimated six million prisoners in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, making it one of the darkest periods in history. Amongst the darkness, fear, and hatred were acts of kindness, bravery, and messages of hope that must be remembered. In honour of Holocaust Memorial Day, we look at the lives of six women, who in different ways resisted the Nazi regime.
*Trigger warning for mentions of mentions of violence, execution, rape and abortion.
Disclaimer: Sagas of she is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This means that if you make a purchase through one of our links we may earn a small commission. To find out more click here
Zinaida, was born on the 20th of February, 1926 in Leningrad. In the summer of 1941, just as Operation Barbarossa began, Zinaida and her younger sister, Galya, were sent to live with their grandmother in Zui, northern Belarus. Beginning on the 22nd of June, 1941, German forces began to advance into Soviet territory, covering 200 miles in just a week. A month later, am estimated 2.5 million Soviet soldiers were injured, missing, or dead. Henry Sakaida’s Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45, tells that Zinaida first came face to face with Nazi soldier’s when they arrived at her grandmothers farm and tried to confiscate the family’s cattle, during which one of the soldier’s struck Zinaida’s grandmother, making the war personal for the young girl.
In 1942, when Zinaida, was sixteen she joined the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, better known as the ‘Young Avengers’ an underground resistance movement against the Nazis based in Belarus. She began by distributing Soviet propaganda leaflets, stealing German weapons for Soviet soldiers and spying on German troops. Once Zinaida had proved herself, she was given weapons training and became more involved sabotage operations against the Nazis, and during her time as a resistance fighter killed a number of Nazi soldiers.
It was in August of 1943, that Zinaida carried out her most legendary operations by infiltrating a German garrison and poisoning the soldiers food. By posing as a cooking assistant, Zinaida was able to successfully infiltrate the kitchen that supplied the local Nazi garrison in Obol. Whilst preparing the meals for the soldiers, she lasted the food with poison causing many soldiers to fall ill with some dying as a result. Being a Soviet, Zinaida was suspected immediately, to prove her innocence she took a bite of the food herself, and when she showed no sign of illness was released by the Nazis. After leaving, Zinaida fled to her grandmother’s house and just as the troops had fallen ill. Her grandmother fed her whey to counter the poison, however, when she failed to return to work the next day the Germans began to look for her, forcing her to flee.
Despite being a fugitive, Zinaida continued working with the Young Avengers, attacking Nazi patrols that were rounding up resistance fighters. However, in 1944, Zinaida was captured when she attempted to infiltrate the garrison from which she had recently escaped. Her objective was to infiltrate the camp once and find out why sabotage mission had failed. Once handed over to the Nazis, she knew her only chance of survival was to escape. Whilst being interrogated, she grabbed a pistol from the desk and shot her interrogator and two Nazi guards and escaped into the forest next to the base. Unfortunately, her escape was short lived, and she was recaptured and taken to Goryany, where she was interrogated and brutally tortured and sentenced to death. When she was just a month shy of her eighteenth birthday, Zinaida was marched out into the forest and was executed by gunshot.
Such was her contribution to the Soviet’s resistance the Zinaida was posthumously awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union,” in 1958, making her the youngest female awarded what is the Soviets highest honours, and later was awarded the Order of Lenin. There are plaques and monuments dedicated to her bravery in a number or Russian towns.
Sophie Scholl, was born on the 9th of May 1921, in Forchtenberg, Germany. Sophie, along with her brother Hans, who would later be executed alongside her, had joined the Hitler Youth, as was expected of children growing up in 1930s Germany. Although, Sophie was troubled when her Jewish friend was not allowed to join with her, she was believed the movements rhetoric and propaganda which influenced her schooling leading her to clash with her father, who was anti-Nazi. Jud Newborn and Annette Dumbach in their book, ‘Sophie Scholl and the White Rose’ recount once such confrontation:“One evening, walking along the Danube, he had turned to his children suddenly and hissed “All I want is for you to walk straight and free through life, even when it’s hard.” Her father was later arrested when his employer overheard him calling Hitler “the scourge of humanity.”
After their father arrest, Sophie and Hans began to become disillusioned by the Nazi party. Hans, had witnessed firsthand the ugliness of war due to his time in the medical corps, so in 1942, along with like-minded students at the University of Munich began to express their anti-Nazi beliefs. Initially the group painted slogans including, “Hitler mass murder” or “freedom” on buildings, but even such small acts where dangerous. Sophie, did not join her brother until June of 1942, when she discovered leaflet under her desk which read,
“Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day?”
Having read the pamphlet, Sophie felt conflicted, it was a crime to not to report anti-Nazi literature immediately, yet she went in search of Hans in his university apartment. Her brother was not home, but as Sophie waited for him she noticed a book by the German poet Friedrich Schiller open on his desk. As she examined the page, she noticed that several words were underlined, the same words used in the pamphlet she had just read. Realising her brother must have had something to do with it, Sophie confronted him upon his return. When he finally admitted his role, Sophie decided to join them, becoming a member of the White Rose movement.
Buying paper and stamps from different post offices to avoid suspicion, the group continued to work on their campaign, collecting quotes and copied them with a mimeograph. The second pamphlet read; “Since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity.” Whilst the third called for “the sabotage of armament plants, newspapers, and public ceremonies, and the awakening of the “lower classes.” With each new pamphlet, the Gestapo became more driven to find the authors, arresting anyone at the slightest suspicion of collaboration.
In July 1942, Hans and three fellow members of the White Rose were ordered to spend their summer break working as medics at the Russian front. On their way to the front, they passed the Warsaw ghetto and where horrified by what they saw, and When they reached Russia, they saw that despite the Nazis claims, Germany was losing to the Soviets. Returning to Germany in November, they increased the number of pamphlets they published and travelled by train across Germany to distribute their leaflets, hoping to create the impression the White Rose was a vast and organised network with public support. When in February of 1943, the Germans admitted to their defeat at the hands of the Soviets, members of the group spray painted slogans including “Freedom,” “Down with Hitler” and “Hitler mass murder” on the walls of public places, believing Nazi Germany was weakening, they just needed people to see it.
On the 18th of February, 1943, Sophie and Hans arrived at the University of Munich campus with a case full of the White Roses sixty pamphlets, they distributed them around the campus, in classrooms and hallways, and dropped them from a balcony so they fell from the sky as students left class. Although reports vary as to whether it was both of them or Sophie alone on the balcony. They had been seen by a janitor as they distributed leaflets, were arrested soon after. Sophie was interrogated seventeen hours, and when she was finally taken to “People’s Court” in the Munich Palace of Justice, she had a broken leg. Kathryn Atwood described the events in the courtroom in her book, ‘Women Heroes of World War II’.
“The courtroom was a bevvy of Hitler supporters. The judge launched into a tirade about how the members of the White Rose were weakening Germany. The defendants were not given an opportunity to speak. And then, suddenly, a voice called out. It was Sophie. “Somebody had to make a start!” she yelled. “What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare say it out loud!”
Sophie, her brother Hans and another member of the White Rose were sentenced to death and within hours the three were led to the guillotine. As she stood ready to face her fate, Sophie lamented, “Such a fine sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” She was just twenty-one. In the wake of the executions a pro-Nazi rally was held at the university, where the janitor who reported them received a standing ovation.
Annelies Frank, was born on the 12th of June 1929, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Otto and Edith Frank, with an older sister Margot. On June 12, 1942, Anne turned thirteen and received a red-and-white plaid diary for her birthday, she began writing in it the same day, “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” What she wrote has become a literary classic, as she recorded the two years her family spent in hiding.
As the Nazi regime began to gain support, Otto, moved his family to Amsterdam, where he began a company trading pectin, a gelling agent used in jam making and herbs and spices. Anne seemed to enjoy living in the Netherlands, she learned the language, and had friends at her school. However, on the the 1st of September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland beginning World War Two, and in May 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, with the Dutch army surrendering in just five days. With the arrival of the Nazis, the lives of Jewish residents became increasingly difficult as new laws and regulations were implemented. These included, Jews no longer being able to visit parks, cinemas, or non Jewish shops, and when Jews were forbidden from owning businesses, Otto, lost his company, and Anne was forced to transfer from a public school to a Jewish one.
Fearing what was to become, Otto had begun to furnish a place for the family to hide in the annex of his warehouse. His fears were realised, when on the 5th of July 1942, Margot received a call up to a ‘labour camp’. Realising they had little option, the family went into hiding the next day along with four other Jews, Hermann and Auguste van Pels and their son, Peter, and Fritz Pfeffer. With the help of non-Jewish friends including, Miep Gies, who smuggled in food and supplies the family would remain hidden for two years.
During her confinement, Anne continued to write in her diary, recounting her day to day life, her insecurities and fears at being captured. Heartbreakingly she wrote of a future she would never have, in which she became a journalist or writer. She also wrote short stories and copied lines from books she had read in her ‘Book of Beautiful Sentences’. Whilst listening to Radio Orange, Anne heard the pleas made by the Minister of Education of the Dutch government in England to hold on to war diaries and documents. This inspired Anne to begin rewriting her individual diaries into a running story, titled Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex). She never completed the task, her last entry was on the 1st of August, 1944, just three days later, acting on a tip-off from Dutch informers, the annex and its inhabitants were discovered.
After being discovered, the Frank family was transported to Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, and from there to Auschwitz. A month later, Anne and Margot were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. The family were never to be reunited, with Otto the only one from the annex to survive. Edith died in January 1945, just days before Auschwitz was liberated. Faced with appalling conditions at Bergen-Belsen, Margot and Anne died from Typhus. After being liberated from Auschwitz, Otto returned to the Netherlands, where he was reunited with his daughter’s diary and other family papers, which had been secured by his friends who had searched the hiding place once the Gestapo had left.
Anne’s diary, which was published in Dutch with the title, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It has since been translated into 70 languages and been adapted for stage and screen. Within its pages are a story of fear and adversity, and Anne’s enduring message of hope that, “…in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
Franciszka Manheimer-Rosenberg, better known as Franceska Mann, was born on the 4th of February 1917, in Warsaw, Poland. She was an actress and dancer, having studied dance in dance schools of Irena Prusicka. In 1939, Franceska placed fourth out of 125 ballet dancers during a competition in Brussels, and was considered to be one of the most promising dancers of her generation in Poland, in both the classic and modern style. At the outbreak of war, Franceska was twenty-two and working as a dancer and performer at the Melody Palace Night club and was well-known throughout the country, yet her status could not save her from the fact she was Jewish.
In 1940, Franceska was one of 400,000 Jews who were forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. Located in the Polish capital, it’s location allowed the Germans to watch over them. The conditions in the ghetto were horrific, and it is believed that thousands died due to the unsanitary conditions and starvation. Although it was not known at the time, the ghetto served as a rudimentary ‘holding pen’ for the first Jews to be sent to ‘work camps’ for elimination.
Details of Franceska’s life become less clear once she is placed in the ghetto, with several differing accounts and accusations made about her. Whilst it’s known there were a number of resistance groups within the ghetto, it’s not known if Franceska was a member of any. Rather than resist directly, some tried to escape, and it’s thought Franceska was amongst them, using the lightness of her complexion to hide within the Aryan quarter of the city, allowing her to avoid being sent to Treblinka. As the real nature of the ‘work camps’ became known, rumours began to circulate that by making connections at Hotel Polski, you could pay to have paperwork produced that would guarantee safe passage to neutral parts of the world. A popular theory was that, Allied forces had negotiated with the Germans to trade Jewish prisoners for German prisoners of war, however, all was not as it seemed, and the ‘trade agreement’ was fabricated by the Nazis to lure out Jews who had gone into hiding. Some, accounts suggest that the ‘trade agreement’ was legitimate at one point, but was later highjacked by the Nazis. There have been accusations made against Franceska, suggesting she betrayed her own people in order to receive paperwork that would free her.
On the 23rd of October, 1943, Franceska, along with 1700 fellow Jews arrived at Auschwitz – Birkenau. As the train stopped none of them panicked as they had been told it was their last stop before crossing the border into Switzerland, from there they would go on to South America and safety. This was not the case, and for most it would be the last journey they ever took.
The events that were about to unfold are based on eye-witness testimony of those their that day including, Jerzey Tabau, whose testimony was documented at the Nuremberg Trials. Once unloaded from the trains, passengers were told they were being taken to the showers to be disinfected before being allowed to cross the border, instead the women were then sent towards what were actually gas chambers. When they were ordered to undress, some hesitated, sensing that all was not as it seemed. When some of the SS men noticed them hesitating to follow things became “…chaotic with the guards starting to hit the women and force the rest to undress.” It was at this moment that Franceska used her dancing talent to distract the guards, by stripping seductively and enticing a guard close to her. With the guard in reach, Franceska is said to have,
“…removed one of her high-heeled shoes, and smashed it into the face of an SS officer named Schillinger. Once she hit him, she was able to grab his pistol from his waistband. Franceska then fires the gun twice at Schillinger, and then one more at his comrade SS officer Emmerich.”
This inspired the women with her to take action and begin attacking the guards so fiercely that it’s said one guard had his nose ripped off and another had his scalp almost torn from his head. No matter how fiercely they fought, the women were soon outnumbered and outgunned by the SS guards who continued to arrive. Many of the women were killed by machine gun fire, those that remained were either taken outside and executed or put into the gas chamber.
There are conflicting accounts as to how Franceska died, some accounts say she was shot upon the arrival of reinforcements, while others claim that she took her own life with the pistol that she used to kill her captors. However it happened, it is clear that she was smart, brave and unwilling to surrender without a fight.
Irena Krzyźanowska was born on the 15th of February 1910, to her parents Stanislaw and Janina Krzyźanowski, in Warsaw Poland. She married Mieczyslaw Sendler in 1931 and worked as a social worker. When war broke out in 1939, twenty-nine year old Irena was working for the Department of Social Welfare and Public Health of the City of Warsaw. After the German occupation, Irena used her job to help the Jewish community, however, offering any aid became almost impossible and extremely dangerous once the ghetto was sealed off in November 1940.
Despite the danger she faced if caught, Irena devised a way to get into the ghetto to help those housed in the squalid conditions. Irena, managed to obtain a permit which allowed her to enter the ghetto to ‘inspect the sanitary conditions, however, once inside she quickly established contact with activists from the Jewish welfare organisation. Working with her contacts in the Jewish welfare organisation, Irena smuggled Jewish babies and small children out of the ghetto by hiding them in the bottom of her tool box or in the burlap sack she kept in the back of her truck. During her visits Irena would take her dog with her, which would bark lovingly at the Germans as they let her in and out, the guards wanted to be away from the dog and so never got too close to her truck, and as a bonus the barking would cover the sounds the children would make. Once out of the ghetto, she arranged hiding places for them in the Aryan quarter.
In 1942, the Council for Aid to Jews (Zegota) was established, after 280,000 Jews had been deported from Warsaw to Treblinka. Ireland was one of its main activists, and whilst most of the ghetto’s population had already been killed, the organisation was essential in the rescue of those that remained. Taking care of the thousands of Jews who were in hiding, paying for the upkeep of their hiding places and medical care.
In September, 1943, four months after the Warsaw Ghetto was completely destroyed, Irena was appointed director of Zegota’s Department for the Care of Jewish Children. Irena, whose underground name was Jolanta, used her contacts in various orphanages and institutes for abandoned children, to send Jewish children there, with a great many of the children being sent to the Rodzina Marii (Family of Mary) Orphanage in Warsaw, and to religious institutions run by nuns in nearby Chotomów, and in Turkowice. Whilst the exact number of children saved by Sendler and her partners is unknown, it is estimated to be upwards of 2500.
Knowing arrest could happen at any moment, Irena buried a glass jar beneath a tree in her garden. Inside the jar was a record of all of those she had helped, the coded addresses of children in the care of Zegota and large sums of money to pay to those who had helped Jews escape. On the 20th of October 1943, Irena was arrested for her underground activities, she was beaten and said to have had both her legs broken, yet she refused to give up the names of those she helped or those who helped her. For her activities, Irena was sentenced to death and sent to the Pawiak prison, however, underground activists managed to bribe officials to release her. Despite her close call with death, Irena was not deterred from continuing her activities. Eventually, the risk became too great and Irena was forced to go into hiding, causing her to miss her mother’s funeral.
After the war, Irena used her records to try and track down any surviving family of the children she had hidden, with so many dead, there were few reunions. When no family could be found, Irena worked to ensure the children were fostered or adopted by good families. Irena received many decorations for her war time heroics. In 1946, she was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit and the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour.
In 2007, Irena was up for the Nobel Peace Prize, she was not selected, Al Gore won for his slide show on Global Warming. Irena, died on the 12th of May 2008, aged 93.
*Trigger warning for mentions of mentions of violence, execution, rape and abortion.
Gisella Perl, was born on the 10th of December 1907 in Máramarossziget, which was then part of Hungary, but after the Trianon peace treaty of the 4th of June 1920, it became part of Romania. At age sixteen, Gisella graduated from high school, despite being the only female and only Jewish student she was top of her class. Despite her obvious intelligence, her father, Maurice Perl initially refused to allow her to study medicine in fear that it would lead her to “…lose her faith and break away from Judaism.” However, a few months later he relented after she swore on a prayer book that, “…wherever life will take me, under whatever circumstance, I shall always remain a good, true Jew.” In an interview with the New York Times in 1982, she recalled that, upon payment from her first patient she brought her father a prayer book, with his name engraved in it.
Gisella went on to become a successful gynaecologist practicing in Sighetu, where she married Doctor Krauss, and had two children. In March, 1944, Gisella, her husband, son, parents, and extended family were sent to Auschwitz. They were able to save their daughter from being sent to Auschwitz by hiding her with a non-Jewish family. Upon arrival at Auschwitz the family were immediately separated, with Dr. Joseph Mengele, the German physician and SS Captain of Auschwitz, assigning Dr. Perl to work in the hospital.
In her account after the end of the war, Gisella recalled her duties where at first very standard, “I had to bandage bloody heads, treat broken ribs, and clean wounds.” This was soon to change, she was ordered to tell Mengele, who was known as ‘the Angel of Death’ of any women within the camp who were pregnant. He said, these women would be sent to a different camp, where they would receive better care and more nutrition. This initially led to women approaching him directly saying they were pregnant, soon however, Gisella began to realise the awful truth which she recalled in her New York Times article, “(The women) were all taken to the research block to be used as guinea pigs, and then two lives would be thrown into the crematorium.” It was then, that she decided there would never be another pregnant woman in Auschwitz. Despite her resolve, she had no medicine, medical instruments, or training and was unprepared for the emotional enormity of that which she was about to undertake.
Whilst some women arrived at the camp already pregnant, more became pregnant once inside the camp where rape and sexual exchanges were rife, as women’s bodies became objects SS officers and some male prisoners felt they had a right to possess. Sex was used as a commodity, in exchange for goods and extra food, Gisella recounted her own encounter. On her arrival she was issued men’s shoes which were too big for her, knowing she would need string to tighten them she approached a male prisoner how was in possession of some string, despite offering him her bread ration he demanded her body. Despite her revulsion, Gisella knew she needed that string if she was to survive and be able to carry out her work. Like too many other women, she was forced to trade the only thing she had to survive, this situation led not only to feelings of shame and embarrassment, but could also lead to life threatening pregnancies.
Sex was not just traded, it was taken by force. Despite decrees bing issues against engaging in sexual acts with Jewish women, there was a barracks in Auschwitz which the SS used to sexually molest and rape Jewish prisoners. A survivor recounted a story in which she recalled;
“I was with my mother and we saw these women in striped uniforms with blonde hair, some longer than others. And I remember asking my mother why they were allowed to have hair while we weren’t. My mother said to me, because that is how the SS like them. I never knew what that meant at the time.”
When Gisella, discovered a prisoner was pregnant, she would explain the realities of the situation to the expectant mother. If the SS were to find out about the pregnancy, both the mother’s life and that of the unborn child’s would be over. Some women chose to take the risk, but for those who did not she would perform abortions with no medical instruments, anaesthesia, bandages or antibiotics on the filth floors of the barracks. When a woman managed to carry her pregnancy to term unnoticed by the SS, Gisella would deliver the baby, and when asked would silently take the breath away from the newborns in order to save the mother. She was only able to do so by forcing herself to envision a world after the war was ended, where women could have children with their husbands and raise the children away from the horrors of the camp.
Beyond surgeries on pregnant women, Gisella tended to the wounds the SS inflicted on women during their whippings, and any other conditions the women had. She recalled in her autobiography, ‘I was a Doctor in Auschwitz’ that she felt helpless without her medical instruments and so would treat those in her care with her voice, telling them stories and assuring them that they would one day sing again.
In 1945, with the Russians approaching, the Germans hurriedly shut down the gas chambers, and Gisella was moved first to a camp near Hamburg and then to Bergen-Berlsen. When the war was over and the camp liberated, Gisella began to search for her family, however, she, and her daughter who had been hidden away with a non-Jewish family were the only survivors. Despite saving so many lives in Auschwitz, the guilt at her actions weighed heavily on Gisella leading her to attempt suicide in 1947.
Thankfully she survived, and years later was invited to the United States to speak with other doctors and medical professionals as an ambassador of the six million killed in the Holocaust. Whilst in the States, she was invited to lunch by Eleanor Roosevelt, despite initially declining in the grounds she was kosher, Eleanor insisted and provided a kosher lunch for Gisella. In her New York Times article, Gisella, recalled that it was during that lunch, Eleanor encouraged her to “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again.”
In 1951, Gisella was granted U.S. citizenship and moved to New York, where she began working as an infertility expert at Mount Sinai hospital. Later she would open her own medical practice on Park Avenue where she was in practice for 43 years, delivering an estimated 3,000 healthy babies, as she recalled in her autobiography that each time she entered the delivery room, she would pray, “God, you owe me a life—a living baby.”
In 1979, Gisella moved to Herzliya, Israel, not only to be with she daughter and grandson but as she explained to fulfil a promise;
“After four days in the cattle car that took us to Auschwitz, suddenly the SS officers opened the door, and prisoners in striped pajamas threw us out. My father and husband both embraced me, saying, ‘We will meet someday in Jerusalem.’”
Gisella, died in 1988, aged 88 as is remembered as ‘The Angel of Auschwitz’. Her book Is was a Doctor in Auschwitz’ was the first and only book to discuss the sexual violence women experienced.
This was perhaps one of the hardest posts I have had to research and write, reading the horrors faced by these six women and by extension the Jewish community at the hands of the Nazi regime, left me feeling angry, sad, and contemplating if I would have the strength to resist as they and others did. As horrid as the subject matter is, it must be spoken of, the stories told, and their deeds recounted so they are never forgotten. As much as we might wish we could, we can not go back in time and change it, undo the hurt, and bring back those lost. What we can do is ensure they are remembered, stand resolute against those who try to divide us by race, religion, class or sexuality, and when it seems like the darkness is all around, remember Anne Frank’s message that, “…that people are really good at heart.”
One last thought, please consider following @AuschwitzMuseum on Twitter, whilst it isn’t pleasant content, it is important that we remember those that lost their lives.