Note: This oral history is a recording of a classroom presentation. Grun thus skips over any substantive discussion of her personal biography and moves directly to a description of the labor and camp conditions that she endured.
Although Nazi ideology held strict views of separate male and female gender roles, these were not typically extended to Jewish concentration camp prisoners.1 Men and women were routinely segregated from one another within the Nazi camp system, but female prisoners were also subjected to harsh conditions, brutal mistreatment, and physically grueling forced labor. In the featured clip, Ester Grun discusses her memories of forced labor during the Holocaust—as well as the physical and emotional impacts of her experiences.
Grun was born in Hungary in 1923, and her family was deported to Auschwitz during the massive wave of deportations of Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944. Her entire family was murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but Grun was sent from there to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. There, she and her fellow prisoners were forced to work outdoors in freezing weather under the threat of physical abuse.2 Grun's camp experience was shaped by the time period in which she was interned there. In late 1944, German forces were suffering repeated losses. Earlier in the war, Nazi authorities often distributed forced labor tasks more along gender lines, with men receiving more heavily physical labor and women sorting clothing or doing more delicate motor tasks (such as making ammunition in factories). Grun's story, however, displays the breakdown of any such distinctions by late 1944, as Nazi Germany faced mounting military defeats and labor shortages.
At Ravensbrück, Grun was forced to chop wood outside in bitter cold, move heavy carts of vegetables, and carry dead bodies out of the barracks. She describes how emaciated and physically weak she was throughout these ordeals, noting that her flimsy clothing was useless against the cold. One incident, recalled in this clip, involved her selection for labor that involved moving heavy, ice-covered Persian rugs that had been looted from Jewish homes. Grun then describes being beaten by "a female SS guard" and forced to continue with the removal of dead bodies.
Grun's experiences challenge common assumptions about what constituted female labor in the camps and ghettos over the course of the war. Many female prisoners of Ravensbrück carried out the delicate handwork of assembling electrical components for German rockets. At the same time, others—like Grun—were forced to do strenuous physical labor. Grun's story demonstrates that Nazi authorities made little distinction between their treatment of male and female prisoners.3