Women and the Holocaust

A tiny piece of cellophane smudged with bright red lipstick, a bra hand-sewn with thread from a blanket, a comb made out of scrap wire and a camp uniform adorned with a single bead. These are some of the artifacts on show at a new exhibition at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. "Spots of Light" is a stunning multimedia exhibition that displays Holocaust experiences from a feminine perspective for the first time, pinpointing the ways in which women held on to their identity under unbearable circumstances.

More than 3 million women—Jews and other minorities—from all over Europe were sent to the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Unlike standard documentation of the Holocaust, this is not an exhibition of blame or a catalog of evidence but a glimpse into the most intimate moments of women struggling to live against all odds. Women in ghettos, partisans hiding out in forests, young brides who write letters to their mothers explaining that their loved ones will soon return—all are given a place here. So although many of the women did not survive the atrocities, a few of them succeeded in retaining a grain of humanity. "Rather than asking what the Nazis did to them, we asked what they did," says Yehudit Inbar, the exhibition's curator. The result is a very personal look at the shattered lives of girlfriends, daughters and mothers.

In what at first glance appears to be an empty gallery, changing fragments of women's lives are illuminated on stark white walls in poems, letters, journals and even make-believe recipes–chocolate mousse, honey cake and vanilla sugar. "We ate with our thoughts," one prisoner wrote. "I wrote what others said about food on whatever scraps of paper I could find, on pictures of Hitler."

Clinging to life, a 17-year-old Romanian wrote to her boyfriend before being deported to her death: "The heaviest weight of all [is] to see that no one needs me, to know, to think, I'll fade into nothingness like smoke." Miriam Sperzling, a Polish woman, held on by carefully applying lipstick every time she moved camp and before every selection. Margot Fink always made a point of tidying up her hair with the crude comb and two rollers she hid in her pocket from the watchful eyes of her captors. And almost ludicrously unhinged from reality, Lina Beresin wore a bra she had made out of the coarse lining of men's jackets for every day of the seven months she was held in a concentration camp.

At the opening last week, a few hundred visitors stood in silence as a chilling new video by artist Michal Rovner was shown in an alcove off the main gallery. In the video, entitled "To be a Human Being," fragments of the testimony of 10 women survivors are set against blurry images in a changing forest, and tiny figures are almost swallowed up by crude smudges of color moving slowly across the screen. In the background is an eerie, continuous clicking sound. "This is the pulse of the video," Rovner said at the opening. "It's shooting in the distance, it's a train on the track, it's a typewriter and it's flames crackling in the sky."

Rovner filmed each woman separately using several cameras at different angles, later juxtaposing images of the same woman in repose as she reflects. "I was looking for a moment of the imagination that creates an alter reality," says Rovner. One of the women tells how she was given a mirror by her grandparents, and told: "We will not be with you. But you will get up in the morning and look yourself in the eyes."

A visitor to this exhibition will not come away with a deeper understanding of the processes that fired the Holocaust but will grasp a little of what these women went through in their moments of daily heroism. "It's not about the power of history," Inbar explains, "it's about the power of people."