More and more women are being brought to light for their heroic feats and brilliance throughout history, and it is in this article where I want to shine the light on the trials of women who deserve to have their stories heard. It is no surprise that most known people in history are men; women have not been deemed as important in the past. But women are part of the foundation of civilization, and it is time that they are recognized. These two women who follow put their lives on the line during the Second World War in order to save countless lives, and it is important that their names be known.
Born in St. Veit, Austria on March 16, 1898, Maria Stromberger went on to become a nurse deeply dedicated to her job. While working in one of the infectious disease hospitals in Königshütte, Poland, she met two men who had been released from Auschwitz and upon hearing their stories she became inspired. On October 1, 1942, upon her own request—and against the wishes of her sister—Maria transferred to Auschwitz where she became Oberschwester (matron) of the SS Revier. She was sworn to absolute secrecy and was told she could not converse with the inmates, nor could she send letters for them. Feeling terrible about the atrocities she witnessed on a daily basis, she was able to gain the trust of Polish inmates, where she then began working with the camp’s underground resistance.
Soon after, she began carrying out small actions that would endanger her life, but that would ultimately help the prisoners. She would set aside rations meant for SS officers so she could give them to prisoners, and was able to give one inmate a key to the attic so he could access medications. Only months after she transferred to Auschwitz, she started smuggling items in for prisoners. Much needed medicine, opium and glucose for the sick, food, and word from the outside. She came to hide sick prisoners in a bathroom so they could recover instead of being sent to the gas chamber and warded SS officers away by telling them it was filled with infectious clothes.
Maria then moved on to more daring feats. She smuggled out letters from prisoners to deliver to a contact in Königshütte, then began to smuggle in pistols, ammunition, and explosives for camp uprisings. She gave resistance members poison that they could take in case they were caught so they would not be tortured for information. Although nurses were prohibited from entering the main camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, she was able to make three visits to each camp and smuggle out documents in a hollowed out clothes brush. With these documents and rolls of undeveloped film she was able to smuggle out as well, Maria Stromberger laid the grounds for the first pamphlets distributed by the resistance in Vienna to show the nightmare that was playing out in Auschwitz. In January of 1945, she was transferred out of Auschwitz and did not return.
After the war ended, the French military arrested Maria under the suspicion that she worked for the SS and killed inmates through injections, a regular method of murder in the camp. She wrote to one of the members of the resistance who vouched for her to the French authorities, and she was set free.
The sheer bravery that Maria showed is astounding. Every day she helped the resistance, every kind act she did for the prisoners, she was putting her life at risk. She transferred to Auschwitz on her own accord because she heard of the atrocities that were being committed, and even returned when she was ill so she could continue helping the resistance. Her cleverness and dedication to humanity allowed her to gain the trust of the SS guards in the camp and go about her business right under their noses. She is, by far, one of the most phenomenal women I’ve ever come across, and I feel that as a historian I owe it to her to share her story.
Odette Hallowes was introduced to me years ago through a few fleeting minutes on the History Channel. I knew little of her, and forgot about Odette until my friend mentioned her to me when I was discussing my article.
Odette was born in 1912 in Amiens, France, and by 1939 was married to Roy Hallowes with whom she had three children. After her husband enlisted in the British army, she and her children moved to Somerset with Odette’s mother, where Hallowes heard the radio broadcast that changed her life.
The broadcast called for people to send in photos of French, Belgian, or Dutch beaches to prepare for future raids. Odette accidentally wrote to the War Office instead of the broadcasted address that she knew Boulogne quite well, and offered her service to the Allies. She was then recruited into the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a division designated for sabotage.
Odette was sent to Burgundy but was stopped under the request of Peter Churchill, head of the circuit that had received her. He deemed her too valuable for her intimate knowledge of the French landscape and settled her near Annecy, France while he went back to London. While there, Odette was approached by a Colonel Henri claiming to be anti-Nazi, who wanted to get in contact with the Allies. She shooed him away with contempt and told her partner, Bargee (his codename), who in turn informed London.
Odette was instructed to keep away from the “anti-Nazi”—and for good reason. On April 16, 1943, the man who had approached her, actually named Sergeant Bleicher of the Abwehr — the German intelligence organization — arrested Odette and Bargee. Odette was tortured mercilessly by the Gestapo in Paris. Her spine was branded and her nails were torn out one by one, she was subject to extensive periods of solitary confinement, and was put on a diet that had her starving to death. The entire time, Odette maintained that she was the leader of her circuit and not Churchill. She refused to give up any information about other SOE members, and she was eventually condemned to death at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her cell was right next to the crematorium, where she thought she could hear the screams of prisoners being burned alive.
During their initial months as prisoners, Odette was able to convince her captors that Peter Churchill was her husband, and he was the cousin of Sir Winston Churchill. This crafted lie she maintained throughout her sentence brought her terrible treatment once she was moved to Ravensbruck, but ended up being the reason for her survival. Still awaiting her execution by May 1945, Odette was told to get into the camp commandant’s Mercedes, with the intention to trade her over to the Americans with the hopes that he would get a lighter sentence. The commandant surrendered to the Americans who had been closing in, and Odette was delivered back to London where she found Churchill to still be alive. Ironically enough, it was Odette who testified against him at the Nuremberg Trials in 1950, where he was sentenced to death.
Due to the serious health problems Odette developed during her years of imprisonment, it took months to rehabilitate her and a year to help her psychologically. She was awarded the George Cross, the first woman to be rewarded so.
Odette blatantly refused to give information to her captors, even under extreme torture. Her strength and willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of the Allied cause makes her one of the strongest women I’ve ever studied, and one of the many brave women of WWII.
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