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May 7: Pregnancy as a Death Sentence

May 7, 2013

kovno_ghettoErnst Shtiz of the Gestapo decreed on this date in 1942 that all pregnant Jewish women in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania would be executed if their pregnancies were not terminated by mid-September. The ghetto had been established the previous June with some 29,000 Jews, 10,000 of whom were murdered in October. The remaining residents worked as slave laborers for the German military, mostly outside the ghetto’s boundaries. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry ruled that an abortion was permissible in order to save a pregnant woman from the consequences of the decree; the life of the woman took precedence, particularly since fetuses and babies were threatened with death along with their mothers. At the same time, the ghetto underground formed a group of women who were responsible for smuggling out children with documentation. “Great heroism was shown when children were taken outside the ghetto,” testified one survivor. “Three-year-old Tamara Ratner was put asleep with an injection of luminal to ensure she did not make a sound. Ida Shater together with the child’s father took the living parcel over the ghetto fence and left on the doorstep of Lithuanian children’s home . . . The home’s director Baublis was informed beforehand on such occasions. His trusted teachers expected children and took them into the home as ‘deserted children.’ ” In 1943, more than 300 Jewish fighters escaped from the Kovno Ghetto to join with partisan forces; the Jewish Council as well as some Jewish police collaborated with them.

“[Q]uite a few women refused to give in to the decree. They went underground in order to evade the prohibition, and with the help of the medical committee located near the ghetto labor department, they were released from their work obligations until they delivered their babies in secret. Dr. Aharon Peretz, one of the gynecologists in the ghetto, said that . . . because of the intensive abortion work and the shortage of proper hospitalization and treatment supplies in the ghetto, some of the operations were performed in the strangest and most dreadful conditions. Deliveries were performed in secrecy mainly by specially trained midwives, while doctors were called only in cases of severe complications.” —Leah Preiss, Jewish Women’s Archive