It was not long before nurses, secretaries, and teachers began to grasp that the war was, as Hitler wished, a campaign of annihilation. For individual women, this moment of realization occurred during the journey eastward, through overheard conversations in a train compartment, at border crossings, of when they arrived. Nearing the genocide was jarring for most women, since they were not formally trained in violence, either in committing it or responding to it. For the men it was different. Young men in Germany were raised in the shadow of the Great War’s graphic, often homoerotic imagery of brutal trench warfare. Hitler Youth exercises often focused on overcoming fear, shaming cowards, enduring pain, and forging bonds of comradeship like those of a gang. Marching exercises, shooting drills, public flogging of nonconformists, and regular military training prepared the young men to kill. German women, aside from the specially trained camp guards, did not receive this degree of military indoctrination, nor did they form gangs to commit atrocities.
Because very few of the women who arrived in the East had received any preparation for witnessing or assisting in the execution of mass murder, their varied reactions to the Holocaust reveal less about their prewar training than about their character and ideological commitment to the regime. Their responses ranged from rescue at one extreme to direct killing at the other. But the number of ordinary women who contributed in various ways to the mass murder is countless times larger than the relative few who tried to impede it.
Mostly out of curiosity but also greed, many German women came face-to-face with the Holocaust in one of the thousands of ghettos in the East. These “Jewish-only” districts were officially forbidden territory; those who entered did so against Nazi regulations. Despite official threats and bans (or perhaps because of them), ghettos became sites of German tourism. And there was a distinctly female feature of this emerging pastime: shopping trips and romantic outings.
One Red Cross nurse in Warsaw had nothing planned for her day off. Her friend greeted her with a surprise: “Today we are going in the ghetto.” Everyone goes there to shop, her friend gushed. The Jews place all their personal items on the street, on planks and on tables – soap, toothbrushes, cosmetics, shoelaces, w whatever you need. Some even offer the items from their own extended hands. The nurse was hesitant to defy German rules by entering the ghetto, but her friend reassured her that German doctors were going there also, to meet with Jewish doctors who would advise them about treating typhus. The two women went on their shopping adventure, and afterward the nurse recorded that she’d seen poverty and filth much worse than in the Polish population. The “ghetto smell” of “those people” stayed with her for a long time.