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.
Ester Grun was born in Hungary in 1923. Her mother was murdered at Auschwitz during the Hungarian deportations in the spring and summer of 1944. Her father and two brothers survived. In December 1944, she was sent from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women, where she, like her fellow prisoners, was forced to work outdoors in freezing conditions, performing slave labor and suffering beatings.1 In this five-minute clip from a two-hour testimony (given as part of a classroom presentation at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York), Grun discusses her memory of this forced labor, and its physical and emtional impact.
Grun's camp experience is shaped by the time-period in which she was interned there, in late 1944, when the Germans were suffering repeated losses. Earlier in the war, forced labor tasks might have been separated by gender, with men receiving more physical labor, and women engaged in more delicate motor tasks (such as making ammunition in factories), or sorting clothing, or other stereotypically domestic jobs. Grun's story, however, displays the breakdown of any such distinctions by late 1944, as the Germans were in the midst of their defeat. Indeed, instead of being given less arduous tasks in the camp, she was forced to chop wood outside in bitter cold, move heavy carts of vegetables, and carry bodies out of the barracks. Before 1944, this latter task was a predominantly male activity.2 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 Persian rugs that had been looted from Jewish homes. Grun then describes being beaten by "a female SS guard" and then 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 as time went on. Many female prisoners of Ravensbrück carried out the delicate handwork of assembling electrical components for German rockets. At the same time, others, like Grun, conducted arduous physical labor. While the former example promotes the misconception that women were "spared" the same strenuous and deadly slave labor that male prisoners of concentration camps endured, Grun's story demonstrates that the Nazis made no such distinction between men and women in the camps.3