Female guards, like these with
the SS at
Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times
There were notorious camp guards like Ilse Koch and Irma Grese. And lesser known killers like Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer and a mother who was convicted of shooting to death six Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland; or Johanna Altvater Zelle, a German secretary accused of child murder in the Volodymyr-Volynskyy ghetto in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
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.
would be a conservative estimate,” Ms. Lower said in an interview in
While most did not bloody their own hands, the acts of those who did seemed all the more perverse because they operated outside the concentration camp system, on their own initiative.
Ms. Lower’s findings shed new light on the Holocaust from a gender perspective, according to experts, and have further underlined the importance of the role of the lower echelons in the Nazi killing apparatus.
dominant literature on perpetrators, you won’t find women mentioned,” said Dan
Michman, the chief historian at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’
Remembrance Authority in
Ms. Lower, 45, presented her work for the first time at this summer’s workshop at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. She has been trying to decipher what motivated these women to commit such crimes.
“They challenge so deeply our notion” of what constitutes normal female behavior, she said. But the Nazi system, she added, “turned everything on its head.”
said she worked for many years at the
In an anomalous twist on Christopher R. Browning’s groundbreaking 1992 book, “Ordinary Men,” it appears that thousands of German women went to the eastern territories to help Germanize them, and to provide services to the local ethnic German populations there.
They included nurses, teachers and welfare workers. Women ran the storehouses of belongings taken from Jews. Local Germans were recruited to work as interpreters. Then there were the wives of regional officials, and their secretaries, some from their staffs back home.
from working-class families or farms in
up to 5,000 female guards in the concentration camps, making up about 10
percent of the personnel. Ms. Grese was hanged at the age of 21 for war crimes
committed in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; Ms. Koch was convicted of participating
in murders at
Browning’s book chronicled the role of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101,
which helped provide the manpower for the elimination of most Polish Jewry
within a year. The book mentions one woman, the young, pregnant bride of one of
the captains of the police battalion. She had gone to
Only 1 or 2 percent of the perpetrators were women, according to Ms. 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.
was married to an SS officer who ran an agricultural estate, complete with a
colonial-style manor house and slave laborers, in
She told her interrogators that she had done so, in part, because she wanted to prove herself to the men.
Zelle went to
Westerheide’s region, about 20,000 Jews were wiped out. He and his loyal
secretary were tried twice in
survivor, Moses Messer, said he saw the woman he knew as Fräulein Hanna
smashing the toddler to death against the wall. He told lawyers in
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