"There was cruelty on every single level," Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita from Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., told students at Bexley High School as she spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust.
More than 11 million people died at the hands of the Nazis. Only 10 percent of the children in Nazi-occupied Europe survived.
But it was the women who struck up a different resistance, said Goldenberg, and they relied on specific tools to deal with the horrors and survive. They faced unique fears because they were women, fears that haunted the survivors well into life after the Holocaust.
Goldenberg spoke with a number of classes at Bexley High School last week as the teens delved into the subject of genocide. She cautioned the younger generation to be exacting about their reading and viewing selections when it comes to the Holocaust, counseling them to remain informed and consider different versions of the past.
"Memory is very important, yet it must be evaluated," she told them.
Goldenberg is not a Holocaust survivor herself, but decided to study the unique experiences of women following a haunting visit to Vienna and the Mauthausen slave-labor camp in her 30s while on sabbatical to write her doctoral dissertation.
"I walked into the gas chamber and my husband said I started to scream," she recalled. "I was so traumatized by that experience that I didn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I was in that gas chamber."
Death in the gas chambers, she quickly found out, was only one of the horrors many women faced. Rape, even though it was outlawed under the Nuremberg Laws, was common, said Goldenberg. It was not the horrifying act that made it a crime, but rather that the Nazis were "race-polluting" -- or rassenschande, as it was called, if they partook in the act.
Holocaust survivors interviewed by Goldenberg were ashamed of rape at the hands of German soldiers, feeling that they would be labeled damaged goods and never be able to marry.
One woman Goldenberg interviewed from France whispered her secret to the scholar in the kitchen of her home, her husband nearby. She had never told him, or her children or grandchildren, even though decades had passed, because of fear and shame.
"Why is it such a secret?" Goldenberg asked. "It's because they don't want that smear on their family."
Others, said Goldenberg, spoke of the act in the third person, as a way to cope with it.
Women also feared becoming pregnant as a result of a rape. Pregnant women were deemed "useless" by the Nazi soldiers, explained Goldenberg, and were driven to the gas chambers because they could not work.
Women also faced the fear that because their starvation caused cessation of menstrual periods, they would not be able to bear children later in life -- if they survived, said Goldenberg. Women are nurturers, and were raised at the time to provide for a family. It was their goal in life -- to be a good wife, mother, grandmother, she explained. That dream was affronted on every level.
But there were also survival techniques unique to the women of the Holocaust. Goldenberg pointed to food as one of the most powerful survival techniques used by women in concentration camps.
It wasn't the talk of food -- but recipes -- that occupied their thoughts.
"They created community cookbooks," said Goldenberg. "They exchanged recipes that had been in their families for years, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. It would keep women alive -- it was a defiant act against the Nazis."
Because of their nurturing nature, Goldenberg said women also formed surrogate families.
"They became camp mothers. They became camp sisters. They took care of one another." In one instance, she said a number of women at a camp traded their rations for an entire day in exchange for one apple for a "sister" delirious from a high fever.
"Bonding was very important."
Goldenberg admitted that she talks quite a bit. She often wanders from story to story, but always retells the tales from the perspective of the women of the Holocaust.
While going through an old book one day, she found a picture of a child who looked just like her mother. When she confronted her mother about this, Goldenberg discovered the many women in her own family who had died at the hands of Nazi soldiers.
A scholar of the Holocaust, Goldenberg's book, Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust (co-edited with Elizabeth Baer), has been described as "a significant and compelling work."
She speaks with groups around the country, spreading the word about the resistance and triumph of the women of the Holocaust.
She has also served as the editor of and frequent contributor to magazines and journals, and has been recognized by the Association of Community College Trustees and the Community College Humanities Association for outstanding teaching. She has been recognized by various groups for her civil rights and community activism.