Heroic women from Holocaust highlighted in museum exhibit
"Spots of Light: To Be A Woman In the Holocaust" runs through Sept. 6 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. | Mike Isaacs ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 30, 2011 12:20AM
Many women who lived during the Holocaust were extraordinary in their own way, their stories a testament to courage and determination in unimaginably horrific times.
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s newest traveling exhibition documenting their lives then isn’t about a chronological journey the way some of its previous shows have been.
Rather, it’s a tapestry more than a timeline, a mosaic of lives that paint a picture of the role forced on many everyday women at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.
By the time one moves through this thoughtfully arranged and text-dense exhibition, there’s a feeling of having come to know some of the women presented here.
“Spots of Light: To Be A Woman In The Holocaust,” which originated at Yad Vashem in Israel, will be on display at the Skokie facility through Sept. 6.
It has a different look and feel than previous exhibitions, which were more in keeping with the upstairs permanent display — winding pathways taking visitors through concentrated periods of history before emerging in a much more hopeful time and place.
“Spots of Light” is staged in an open, airy room with the history of its subjects projected on clean white walls. These projections came from the Yad Vashem exhibition, but Skokie museum curator of collections and exhibitions, Arielle Weininger, has done a masterful job in augmenting them with artifacts from the museum’s own collection.
The museum’s permanent display includes about 500 artifacts though its overall collection is closer to 14,000 items.
“Having shows like this is an opportunity for us to have more objects from the collection on display and the ability to tell more of our local survivors’ stories,” she said. “The majority of these items have never been shown in our museum before.”
The show has played in other European museums, but this is the first time in North America. And only the Yad Vashem and the Illinois Holocaust Museum exhibitions have paired the wall projections with their own collection items.
Weininger was especially attracted to “Spots of Light,” she said, because of the use of new media in depicting its subjects. Some of the projections include brief video insets — such as a home movie from nearly 70 years ago of one of the women getting married.
“Because it was a new media show, it was attractive to me because new media pulls in younger audiences,” Weininger said. “You don’t expect to see a Holocaust-themed exhibition in this way.”
Yad Vashem Museums Division and Senior Art Director Yehudit Shendar, who attended the opening last week, told the museum that the title of the exhibition has two meanings.
“‘Spots of Light’ is a double entendre,” she said. “Each women has a single torch, and together they create a light-filled environment.”
Asked what it meant to be a woman in the Holocaust, Shendar said that there were many beautiful females who existed during such inhumane times.
“The beauty of these females, the great femininity pre-war left them with a request to return after,” she said. “Within only a year after liberation the Jewish women were again sexy and beautiful.”
Unlike other exhibitions, this one doesn’t include many photos of its subjects at their worst physically — when the concentration camps and death camps took their toll. Most of the photos are from just before and after the war.
“Womanhood has to do with beauty and being clean, but this was not allowed during the Holocaust,” Shendar said. “Beauty and hygiene, however, soon became needed for survival. It protected them from lice and parasites with diseases.”
Broken down into 10 themes, the exhibition presents its female subjects under headings that include “womanhood,” “motherhood,” “friendship,” faith” and perhaps most unlikely, “food.”
“Women fantasized about food,” Shendar said. “They would imagine a meal and create very elaborate, festive meals. Many times they would remember and share recipes of their mothers and grandmothers.”
We meet several women who share extraordinary stories about how they approached food in dire circumstances.
Rebecca Teitelbaum wrote 110 recipes while she was in the Ravensbrueck concentration camp in northern Germany. Some she remembered from home and some she received from friends while in the barracks.
“We were very tried and I wrote about food,” writes prisoner Valy Kohn. “We ate with our thoughts. I recorded what others said about food — recipes. We wrote about food all night.”
Edith Gombus also recorded recipes as a way to protect herself from wretched conditions.
“It was bitterly cold,” she writes. “We shivered not only because we lacked proper clothing, we were desperately hungry. So we began to talk about glorious food, food that was served around the table during better times.”
In Auschwitz, Trude Kassowitz would pretend to visit someone as her guest and be served coffee and cake while sharing recipes.
“We did it to overcome this sense of hunger,” she writes.
During the Holocaust, many men were the first taken away to camps leaving women to fend for themselves and sometimes for their children without much money.
Their stories in the ghettos and in concentration camps, in hiding or on the run, show a determined will to survive and to hold onto a cherished previous life.
Lina Beresin, a professional seamstress, used available materials including liners from men’s jackets, to make a bra while interned in a concentration camp. She wore that bra for seven months until liberation on Jan. 23, 1945.
Under the exhibition’s topic of “love,” we see home movies from the marriage of Jim de Zwarte and Rosa Wertheim in Amsterdam in 1942. And there are poignant reminders of how relationships were ripped apart.
“Today, I’ll go to bed early,” writes a woman to her lover who was taken away. “I’m thinking about you. I miss you. I lie down to sleep without a goodnight kiss from you.”
Another section of “Spots of Light” shows us the role faith played in some women’s lives during the Holocaust.
Prisoner Chaya Kroyn writes how she found pages from a prayer book and picked them up and kissed each of them “with an excitement and love that I didn’t know my soul bore.”
“I asked myself whether God in heaven sees what’s happening in the world that He created and whether he has the ability to save us.”
Women banded together in many cases, forming deep friendships even after surviving long death marches.
There are also heartbreaking accounts, of course. Some women who were captured when pregnant gave birth alone in camps and had to throw their babies under bunks, into sewers and into the latrines in order to save themselves.
It’s no wonder that the exhibition’s space around the 10 chosen themes includes plenty of benches so visitors can sit and read and digest such dense material.
Shendar said the designer in Israel originally was skeptical about the exhibition, suggesting the material might be better suited for a book. But she and others were determined.
“We ultimately created an exhibition that utilized words in a contemporary manner which engages museum visitors,” she said.
Moreover, the extraordinary artifacts Weininger has added for the Skokie version extends “Spots of Light” beyond just written words. Many of these items are remarkable in how they line up with the main display, a reflection of the commonality of women’s experiences during the Holocaust.
Under glass case is a small recipe book written by a female prisoner, which uncannily fits with the writings of others about food. On the inside of the book are first-hand reports about scheduled deportations of men.
Also displayed is a bra made by a camp’s female prisoner, which matches Bersein’s story.
Among the artifacts are journals, books, drawings, a camp uniform from a political prisoner, a dress worn by a woman on the run and jewelry just to name a few. Behind each item is a woman’s story, someone who fought to reclaim her life.
A mother who went into hiding with her daughter in a ghetto made up fairytales to keep her child amused. The 6-year-old daughter during that precarious time used watercolors to draw the stories her mother told her, a collection in the exhibition.
What you will not see in “Spots of Light” though is information about the perpetrators of the inhumanity that crashed down on European Jewish women.
“There are no swastikas,” Shendar told the Skokie museum. “There is no barbed wire, no Nazi attire and no chimneys.”
“Spots of Light,” she said, is intentionally restricted to the female response to the Holocaust, aiming singularly to empower the female story.