Women recall their roles in WWII resistance and Holocaust; Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses, edited and with an introduction by Vera Laska. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 330 pp. $29.95.
The setting: Europe in the early 1940s. Who would be suspicious of a man and woman simply traveling together and looking perfectly normal? Or, a group skiing by night toward an international border? They are just people out for a lark; or are they? In both cases, a woman in the resistance could be guiding the others to safety from the Nazis.
According to this new book, which includes accounts by Jews and non-Jews, women were less likely to be suspected of illegal activity in those days, and so they were ideal couriers and protectors. In Denmark, women recruits came ''from all walks of life, from the intelligentsia to simple fishmongers, fighting with spiritual weapons of anti-Nazi propaganda . . . as code clerks and radio operators, couriers and spies, nurses and illegal welfare workers. Their participation in the resistance did not mean that these women suddenly became 'politicized.' They saw people in trouble, so they wanted to help. It was as simple as that and as logical.''
The same diversity was found in the resistance of other countries - including Germany itself. And many paid for their work with their lives.
The first of the book's three sections, comprising roughly half of the text, presents first-person accounts by women active in the resistance. ''The French Connection'' tells, among other things, of the quickie ski course the writer and and her friends tried to give the people they were helping. Their major achievement was teaching their pupils to use the ''pants brake''!
''Noah's Ark'' was a resistance network named by the Germans for its members' practice of taking animals' names. ''Women in the Resistance'' tells how ''Hedgehog,'' the Ark's leader, escaped from jail by crawling through the bars of her cell window. All the other accounts are equally exciting and often inspiring.
The second section is composed of accounts of life in the concentration camps , also written by people who were there. In contrast to the first section, it makes grim reading. The book's editor, Vera Laska, was confined in Auschwitz. She presents an account that seems twice as horrifying because its tone is so matter-of-fact. Women tell of human vivisection and other experiments, of brutality and endless hunger, to mention just a few of their trials.
In addition to her thorough introduction, which provides basic background on the Holocaust and the resistance, Ms. Laska introduces each excerpt providing the time, place, and setting. Her careful annotations explain specific terms and identify individuals mentioned in the accounts.
The last and shortest section deals with ''Women in Hiding.'' Of these, perhaps the most moving is the last, titled, appropriately enough, ''A Happy Ending.'' Written by Simon Wiesenthal, the well-known Nazi hunter, it tells how he was reunited with his wife after the war. Each thought the other was dead and yet felt compelled to make a search.
Thanks to a remarkable set of occurrences, a mutual friend found Mrs. Wiesenthal. However, another person - who didn't know what she looked like - had to go alone to bring her to Mr. Wiesenthal's location. The friend thought he could find her simply by putting a note on the local Jewish Committee's bulletin board. When three women showed up, each claiming to be the right one, he was in a quandary. But his solution was ingenious. As he told Mr. Wiesenthal before bringing in the woman he had finally chosen:
'' 'If she isn't your wife, I'm going to marry her myself. . . . I thought it safest to bring the one I liked best. That way, I knew even if she was not your wife, I would. . . . ' ''
Fortunately, his friend had brought the right one.
Numerous books have been published about the millions of Jews who suffered or perished in the Holocaust, but this is one of the few to tell of the millions of others who were also victims. Scholarly in its approach, meticulous in its inclusion of background material and a fine select bibliography, this book tells of love and strength, courage and the will to live. The women whose voices speak in it are well worth heeding.