The Forgotten Writers of the Shoah

What the work of women survivors can tell us about the horrors of life in the camps

Edith Bruck in her Rome apartment (Tania Cristofari/Contrasto/Redux)
Edith Bruck in her Rome apartment (Tania Cristofari/Contrasto/Redux)

Few things could have prepared me for meeting one of the last great chroniclers of the Holocaust. In July 2018, I found myself in Edith Bruck’s elegant, book-filled apartment in central Rome. Bruck, originally born in Hungary, is now 92. She had invited me that day because I’d begun translating some of her short fiction. As she sat on one of two pristine white couches, she was relaxed, surrounded by photos documenting a prolific commercial and literary career, including work for the theater and television. I, however, was feeling a little anxious. Sitting on the edge of the white couch opposite Bruck, I shuffled through my notes, hoping to ask her about certain passages that were proving tricky. But I quickly jettisoned that idea, and listened instead to whatever she chose to tell me in her authoritative, Hungarian-accented Italian. Sitting erect on that white couch, her tall frame still lean and her fine, straight hair neatly pulled back, she said, “Our lives as survivors don’t belong to us. They belong to the history that we’ve lived.”

At the age of 12, she was deported with her family from Tiszabercel, a tiny town near the border with Ukraine. Her mother died at Auschwitz, probably immediately, and her father died at Dachau. A brother also perished. Edith and her sister were shuttled between several concentration camps, principally Auschwitz but also Bergen-Belsen, Christianstadt, and Dachau. Bruck miraculously survived the Holocaust and has spent a lifetime giving “unforgettable testimony of her descent into the underworld,” as Primo Levi wrote of her work. After the war, she settled in Rome and began writing in Italian, a language she uses as a buffer when accessing her most painful memories. In addition to her memoirs, Bruck’s nearly two dozen books include novels and works of poetry, many touching on her survival. “Language is my country,” she has said.

Bruck has been called the most prolific writer of Holocaust narratives in Italian, and while gazing around her living room, I was awed by her unwavering commitment to tell the story of what she saw, which she considers a “lifelong inheritance.” What had brought me to her was the realization that Bruck added something different to my understanding of the Holocaust. The year before, I’d begun reading her short stories from the early 1960s and 1970s. Unlike many other women survivors who wrote about their experiences only late in life, Bruck began documenting her experiences almost immediately, and her nearness to the events is palpable. She composed her first manuscript, in Hungarian, not long after being liberated, but lost it as she restlessly moved from country to country. She decided to rewrite it, this time in Italian, after settling in Rome, and published it in 1959 at 28.

Bruck’s clear-eyed honesty—bordering on bluntness—compelled me to read book after book. In the novel Lost Bread, she tells the story of Ditke, a young Jewish girl whose family is seized by the Nazis in Hungary—a clear stand-in for Bruck. She writes that within hours of losing sight of her mother, Ditke was approached by another prisoner who had been at Auschwitz long enough to become a hated kapo—a prisoner who served as a functionary for the camp’s guards. The kapo pointed to the smoke that was rising from a nearby building. “Do you see that smoke?” she said to Ditke. “[Your mother] became soap like mine.” In Signora Auschwitz, a memoir about visiting Italian schools to bear witness, Bruck calls living with the memory of the camps an “endless pregnancy,” her womb forced to carry a “monster conceived in Auschwitz” that she can’t ever deliver. In a story from her 1974 collection, Due Stanze Vuote, a Holocaust survivor returns to her native village, where she is greeted like a hero, even a saint, by those who did nothing to help her family. One woman offers her eggs in atonement, saying, “How hungry you were before you were taken away and I never gave you anything unless it was on loan. Wretched me! My conscience has been eating away at me ever since. Take these, and free me from my sin.”

Neither Signora Auschwitz nor Due Stanze Vuote is available in English, as is the case with most of Bruck’s other books—these translations are my own. Letter to My Mother appeared in English in 2006—17 years after its original Italian publication—brought out not by a major house but by an academic publisher. Bruck’s first book, Who Loves You Like This, was only published in English in 2000—a full 41 years after its Italian debut. Her best-known appearance in English is unacknowledged: Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning film from 1997, is considered by film scholar Millicent Marcus and others to be inspired by the title story of Bruck’s 1962 short story collection, Andremo in Città. In Italy, Bruck has long been mentioned in the same breath as Primo Levi, who wrote a glowing introduction to Due Stanze Vuote—I am translating that collection now with the help of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. How can Edith Bruck be largely unknown in America, home to the second-largest Jewish population in the world?

Bruck is not the only female survivor whose work is relatively unknown. Consider, by comparison, Elie Wiesel’s Night, which sold two million copies after being chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club in 2006. Similarly, Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man has been translated into 40 languages. In America, the only universally known book about the Holocaust that wasn’t written by a man is The Diary of Anne Frank, which, while essential reading, cannot tell us about conditions in the camps or the pain of surviving, since poor Anne never returned.

In Italy, Bruck has long been mentioned in the same breath as Primo Levi, who wrote a glowing introduction to Due Stanze Vuote. How can Edith Bruck be largely unknown in America, home to the second-largest Jewish population in the world?

In the past 30 years or so, many women survivors have published accounts of their experiences. Among books written in Italian, two have been translated into English: Giuliana Tedeschi’s There Is a Place on Earth in 1992 and Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau in 1991. Further accounts have been translated from French, Polish, and German. “Women continue to publish their reflections in many languages,” writes Sara Horowitz in the 1998 anthology Women in the Holocaust. “Nevertheless, works by women survivors are cited less frequently in scholarly studies, women’s experiences are rarely central to the presentation of a ‘typical’ Holocaust story, and significant works by women fall out of print, becoming unavailable for classroom use.”

And what tales these women have to tell. Clandestine pregnancies, fear of sexual predation, menstrual cycles in the Lager—these are topics not touched on in Holocaust literature by men. (The Lager—which is short for Arbeitslager, or “work camp”—is the name often used by Jewish prisoners when referring to the camps.) In Smoke Over Birkenau, Millu writes about a fellow prisoner who went into secret labor at the death camp. In the English translation by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, we read about a group of women who work feverishly to assist the pregnant woman—desperately searching for water—and then tidy up so no sign of the birth remains. Once it’s over, one of the women shouts, “The blood! Quick, wipe up the blood!” Another tried to conceal the newborn child “next to his mother in the darkest corner of the bunk, then piled on blankets every which way to hide them both.”

It’s not easy to determine how many children were born in Nazi concentration camps. Frediano Sessi, author of the 2020 Italian book Auschwitz, estimates about 250 women may have given birth in that concentration camp. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum puts the number of children born in Auschwitz closer to 700. And of course, children were born in other camps, too. No matter what this number is, pregnancy and childbirth are fundamental to the experiences of women in the camps. “The most infamous distinction between the sexes was the German treatment of pregnant women,” write Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, editors of Women in the Holocaust. To put it bluntly, pregnant prisoners were typically killed—and if they managed to give birth, mother and child were both killed. That’s in part because in Judaism, women carry on the Jewish line.

Tedeschi, who was born in Milan and worked as a teacher, also wrote about a fellow prisoner named Edith who gave birth while in the Lager. The pregnant woman holed up in a corner of the women’s barracks, where hundreds of prisoners were celebrating a rare day off: Christmas Day. “In that corner of the dormitory,” she writes, “amid the deafening racket, Edith was alone. Her husband, if still alive, was far away in another concentration camp and unaware he was about to become a father.” Shortly after the baby boy was born, he was put “in a cardboard box in the cellar.” Tedeschi wept, her “head under the blankets.”

In some ways, women faced even worse conditions under the Nazis than men did, as survivors such as Levi attest. Chief among his reasons: the presence of the gas chambers at the center of the women’s camp at Auschwitz, which was called Birkenau. He wrote about this in an introduction to Millu’s book, describing the “crematoria” as “inescapable, undeniable, their ungodly smoke rising from the chimneys to contaminate every day and every night, every moment of respite or illusion, every dream and timorous hope.”

Goti Bauer’s barrack was adjacent to the gas chambers at Birkenau. Bauer, who was born in Czechoslovakia and moved with her family to Italy as a child, counts herself lucky that she only spent six months living next to the ungodly smokestacks. “The methods practiced inside there become contagious at a certain point; they reduce you to a condition that’s no longer human,” she said in an Italian interview from 2004 with Daniela Padoan, published as Come una rana d’inverno: Conversazioni con tre sopravissute ad Auschwitz (“Like a Frog in Winter: Conversations with Three Women Survivors of Auschwitz”).

As the comments of Levi and Bauer attest, women prisoners under the Nazis encountered the same inhumane treatment that their male counterparts faced, and then they were forced to withstand more: “Jewish women carried the burdens of sexual victimization, pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, killing of newborn babies in the camps to save the mothers, care of children, and many decisions about separation from children,” writes Joan Ringelheim in Women in the Holocaust.

Tedeschi and other women survivors have described the pain of having to remove their clothing before shaving all of their hair. “No prisoner had been admitted to the camp without having first been brutally deprived of every female grace, every aspect of her femininity,” she writes in There Is a Place on Earth. To be stripped of the two things demanded of women by ’30s and ’40s society—modesty and traditional beauty—severed an immediate link to life before the camps. “It was one blow after another for women— an attack on our feminine identity. The hair loss, the nudity, the sudden solitude and especially the separation from our children,” Tedeschi told Frediano Sessi in Auschwitz (translation my own).

When Bruck and her family were seized by the Nazis, she was immediately struck with another blow: her period. In Letter to My Mother, Bruck writes that there was nothing she could use in the transport wagon, so her mother ripped off a strip of her own clothes to absorb the blood. Liliana Segre, an Italian survivor who now has a lifetime appointment to the Italian Senate, pondered such a problem when she arrived in Auschwitz in 1943, saying that she worried about what she would do when her period arrived each month. How would she handle it amid such deprivation and violence?

She needn’t have worried. “Whether it was because of our fear or the severe scarcity of food … almost no one got their period,” she told Padoan in Like a Frog in Winter. In a speech before the European Parliament marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Segre further outlined the ways the Nazis attacked female identity: “We were young, but we looked old. Without sex, without age, without breasts, without menstruation, without underpants. That’s how you take away a woman’s dignity.”

But there was something that the Nazis expected the women to keep with them on their journey to the camps that the men did not: their children. And since children were destined for the gas chambers, so, too, were many young mothers, who were faced with a terrible dilemma. Could they hand their young children over to older female relatives, who were already marked by the Nazis for death, and save themselves—but damn their children? “This was a choice that men did not have to face,” write Ofer and Weitzman.

Notably, in Letter to My Mother, Bruck imagines a frank, nuanced dialogue with her mother about that exact choice. She shares the anguish she still felt over their separation at Auschwitz, when her mother pushed her away as they arrived at the camp—and saved her daughter’s life. “You shouted,” Bruck writes, “letting my hand go, letting me go, pushing me away from you, letting the soldier’s blows drive me to the other side, in the opposite direction.”

Since women’s lives before deportation were shaped by domestic work and other forms of care, they brought these concerns with them to the camps. Ruth Bondy argues that women were also more affected by the trauma of losing their homes and took pains to recreate them, however fleetingly, in the Lager. “Women, more than men, tried to convert their place on the three-tiered bunks into a surrogate home,” she writes of Theresienstadt in Women in the Holocaust, “by covering the mattress with a colored sheet, hanging photographs on the back wall, or laying a napkin on the plank that housed their possessions.”

And women often formed friendships that may have helped them weather the atrocities of the camps. Bruck writes again and again (including in Lost Bread, published this July in a translation by Gabriella Romani and David Yanoff) of her female relationships: her separation from her mother and her dependency on her sister. In the novel, Bruck depicts in great detail the pains Ditke and her sister took to keep each other alive after being deported. “Judit fainted four times in succession,” she writes, after their transfer to yet another camp. “I grew desperate and screamed for her not to leave me, rubbing snow on her mouth as I shook her and, terrified, begged her to open her eyes …”

Some women duplicated the social networks that had been formed back in the ghetto or their native villages, where in the company of other mothers they had learned the value of cooperation. Many women formed friendships with so-called “camp sisters,” with whom they risked punishment to share food and other privileges.

Charlotte Delbo, a French resistance fighter who spent nearly a year at Auschwitz, kept track of the days she was imprisoned along with the names of fellow internees, so that anyone who was released could report back to family members about the prisoners who didn’t survive. She wrote three books about her experiences in the camps, including Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance and Auschwitz and After, which features biographical details and descriptions of her fellow prisoners.

The women prisoners of Birkenau were expected to sing while they marched into camp, while an orchestra of female violinists played Mozart by the gates.

One word that dominates these books is we. Delbo was assigned to a research lab at Auschwitz, and she writes about the interdependence of her fellow workers. “In the morning, we helped one another button up all the way down the back,” she writes, “and in the evening we did the same to undress.” Her books read almost like collective works, so prominently does she include the experiences of her fellow prisoners.

Delbo came to especially rely on her Lager mates when she suffered a bout of intense thirst that swelled her gums and tongue such that she could no longer close her mouth. She temporarily lost the full use of her senses. Her friend Carmen arranged for them to join a demolition crew working near a water supply. “In the morning, clutching my companions, still mute, haggard, lost, I let myself be led,” she writes, “and without their help would have walked into an SS [officer].” She drank as much as she could manage from a pail of water while her friends kept a lookout for the guards, surviving her thirst thanks to the care of other women.

There’s something else about Delbo worth noting: hers are among the minority of books by women survivors that have been translated into English. Segre, the survivor with a lifetime appointment to the Italian Senate, co-authored a book on the testimonies of women survivors (Voices of the Shoah) that remains untranslated. Similarly, Padoan’s 2004 book of lengthy interviews with Segre, Bauer, and Tedeschi—filled with glimmers of insight into the way women bore their survival—is also untranslated. Segre said that despite being reduced to an appalling physical condition, the women prisoners of Birkenau were expected to sing while they marched into camp, while an orchestra of female violinists played Mozart by the gates. After they had survived, the women tried in various ways to move on, with Bauer even making the unusual decision to remove her tattooed concentration camp number—something she would come to bitterly regret, as nothing could in fact erase the experience. The book in turn cites dozens of other Holocaust-related accounts in various languages, many by women and nearly all untranslated.

Bruck’s quintessentially female observations about surviving the Holocaust come from her memoir Signora Auschwitz, which, as mentioned, has yet to make it into English. The title refers to the inadvertent nickname that emerged in her encounters with nervous Italian students who knew little about the Holocaust—and who mistakenly called her “Mrs. Auschwitz” instead of “Mrs. Bruck.” The first time it happened, Bruck writes, the student in question was nervous, and the slip-up didn’t faze the author—but only because she’d become inured to the continued ignorance and anti-Semitism she routinely encountered. She told me that during the years she spent talking about the Holocaust in Italian schools, she often felt like a museum piece, with teachers wanting her to speak only about deportation or a day in the Lager, while avoiding topics like anti-Semitism or the historic attitudes of the Catholic Church toward Jews. Bruck struggled to keep these school visits up, despairing of the indifference she often discovered, but she was more worried about what would happen if the next generation didn’t know more about the Holocaust.

Would anyone have dared to call Primo Levi “Mr. Auschwitz”? It seems clear that even with something as fundamental as the Holocaust, women’s voices remain largely lost, marginalized, or stubbornly secondary, though survivors both male and female share many of the same horrific memories. And yet, within the sphere of survivor groups and Holocaust studies, distinguishing between kinds of suffering under the Nazis has often been discouraged. According to the authors of Women in the Holocaust, there’s long been resistance to highlighting women’s experiences because it’s seen by some as a distraction that could foment polarization among victims—potentially leading to the “banalization of the Holocaust.” Holocaust scholars and survivors have been wary of comparing the suffering of those who were imprisoned lest it appear that some perished in the camps because they weren’t strong enough, rather than the real reason: the Nazis’ unrelenting campaign of terror.

But as feminist scholars and others argue, recognizing women’s experiences of deportation and imprisonment in the concentration camps gives us a fuller picture of that harrowing period. Fully half of the people deported were women. What’s more, women’s perspectives on concentration camps were shaped by the specific roles that they fulfilled in society in the 1930s and 1940s. Take Bruck’s depiction of the memory of Auschwitz as an “eternal evil pregnancy” she’s forced to carry forever—so different from how Levi or Wiesel have framed the experience, and in no way a diminishment of the horrors they faced.

Bruck is now one of a few eyewitnesses left in Italy—36 years after Levi’s suicide left her “orphaned” among survivors. She began writing about her experiences in the Holocaust while young, and though she has written books about other topics (including one last year about her fervent friendship with the Pope), for six decades, she has continued to publish fiction, poetry, and nonfiction about the unparalleled nature of survival. Her life’s work has been to bear witness: she sees little in the world that permits her to stop, more than 70 years after her release from Auschwitz.

At that first visit with Bruck in 2018, and again in 2022, when I saw her a second time in that same book-filled Rome apartment, she was mindful of the weight of memory. As she wrote in her poem, “Why would I have survived?”:

I carry within me
Six million dead souls
Who speak my language
Who ask man to remember
Man, who has such a poor memory

She said that upon first learning of Levi’s death in 1987, apparently by suicide, she was beside herself—in part because she didn’t think he had the right, as a survivor, to end his life. “Ours is a lifelong inheritance,” she told me in Italian. “The dead cannot speak, so we must speak for them.”

We’ll likely never understand in full how something as barbarous as the Holocaust occurred—how man could conspire against man in such evil ways. But we can never stop trying to understand, and as elderly Holocaust survivors like Bruck are reaching the end of their lives, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism are flaring up once again, with far-right movements flourishing again in many parts of Europe. It’s worrisome to think that many people are unaware of some of the most harrowing episodes of the Holocaust. Or even worse, that some could conclude there’s nothing else we can learn, when so much women’s writing remains untranslated or simply ignored. If we don’t start paying attention to their words, can we really say we are keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jeanne Bonner  was a 2022 NEA Literature Fellow in Translation and a 2021 fellow at the New York Public Library. Her translations have been published by The American Scholar, the Kenyon Review, and Asymptote. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times and on CNN and NPR.


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