‘Where Were All The Jewish Women During The Holocaust?’

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“Jewish women from Subcarpathian Rus who have been selected for forced labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau, march toward their barracks after disinfection and head shaving.”

(http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=8603. Accessed: 9/11/2014)

In 2014 most people would assume that everyone knows about the Holocaust. They would know that it was the cold, calculated and systematic attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe by the German Reich during the Second World War (Rummel, 1992). Popular films like Schindler’s List, survivor testimonies like The Diary of Anne Frank, and places of remembrance such as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have immortalised the Holocaust in our collective memory and ensured that this catastrophic historical event will always be remembered. However, through the process of remembering we have also forgotten.

We have forgotten that although all Jews were destined for extermination by Hitler and the Nazi’s during the Second World War, the experiences that men and women had on their way to this end were sometimes very different (Weitzmen and Ofer, 1998). It appears that in the process of reconstructing and memorialising the Holocaust, the experiences of Jewish women within Nazi concentration and extermination camps has been regarded as the same as men’s, or have been forgotten all together. This is not to say that this has been a deliberate aim of those who have played important roles in ensuring that the Holocaust is remembered. Rather, it has perhaps come as a consequence of a world that has long prided the experiences and histories of men over those of women.

The stories and experiences of Jewish women during the holocaust were lost to us for a long time and up until the 1980s they were not to be seen or heard except when noted in the testimonies of male survivors. So what changed? Up until the 1980s it was assumed by many that gender and sexuality had not made a difference whatsoever in the experiences had by Jewish men and women during the holocaust. It was not until the ‘radical sixties’ when popular movements for equality of sexuality and gender would see the emergence of the women’s liberation movement and influence the creation of ‘Women’s Studies’. Women’s Studies was where feminist historians began to research and write about the lives and experiences of women in the past. It was within this context that historians began to ask questions about gender and the holocaust which soon paved the way for a small but substantial body of work that focused on the experiences of Jewish women during the holocaust to take place.

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Women survivors huddled in a prisoner barracks shortly after Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz camp. Auschwitz, Poland, 1945.

(http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=8603. Accessed: 9/11/2014)

In the last thirty years the body of research that sheds light on the experiences of Jewish women within Nazi concentration and extermination camps has evolved steadily. Scholars have looked at women’s experiences upon deportation, arrival, their lives within the camps and even their resistance in the face of atrocity. However it has become apparent that whilst a number of prominent historians in this field of holocaust study have added to our wealth of knowledge, there appears to be one very important problem emerging within this historiography. This problem comes down to two words- ‘partial interpretation’.

It has become apparent that a partial interpretation has been presented about Jewish women’s experiences within Nazi camps. This is because of the way that historians have chosen to interpret and represent the past. It appears that a number of prominent historians in this field have reconstructed the lives of Jewish women so that they fall in line with societies pre-conceived ideas about gender roles and female behaviour (Waxman, 2011). These historians include pioneers in the field like Sybil Milton, Vera Laska, Myrna Goldenberg and Judith Baumel, all of which have provided uncomplicated versions of the past where Jewish women are presented as unproblematic victims. These historians have confined their analyses to looking at how women were vulnerable sexually under Nazi rule and how their previous roles as home-makers and wives helped them cope within the camps.

By only focusing on these two avenues of analysis these historians have provided a generalised view of the past, presenting a small number of Jewish women’s experiences as a representation of the majorities. These accounts were important steps in creating a space where the voices of some female survivors could be heard on their own and not just as apart men’s testimonies. However the consequence of these interpretations is that Jewish women’s experiences that do not align with those that are represented as the majority are left out. Thus Jewish women who didn’t try to save their children but killed them, who didn’t share food, recipes and clothing, who didn’t try to protect one another and who chose to react to the unthinkable conditions of camp life in ways that contradict societies views of how women should behave, are left out of the historiography. Because these women’s stories are left out of the narrative of the holocaust, they become silenced and forgotten once again.

However, there is hope! In recent years prominent historians emerging in this field in a twenty first century context like Sarah Horowitz, Zoe Waxman and Anna Reading have begun to strongly advocate for historians to start presenting a more holistic version of the past. They argue for not generalising but rather highlighting the individual experiences of Jewish women in Nazi camps, recognising all women’s experiences instead of just a few that confine to what society wants female behaviour to look like. Nonetheless a focus on the role that gender played in the holocaust and how Jewish women experienced Nazi camps as Jews and Jewish ‘women’ can only further our understanding of this particular historical event.

Bibliography

Ofer, D and L. J. Weitzman (eds) Women In the Holocaust. Binghampton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1998.

Rummel, R.J. Democide. New Brunswick: Transaction publishers, 1992.

Waxman, Z. “Women in the Holocaust” in Niewyk, D.L. The Holocaust. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011.

Suggested Further Reading

Ofer, D and L. J. Weitzman (eds) Women In the Holocaust. Binghampton: Vail-Ballou Press, 1998.

Reading, Anna. The Social inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, culture and memory.  New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Rittmer, C and J.K Roth (eds) Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Waxman, Z. Unheard Testimony, Untold Stories: The Representations of Women’s Holocaust Experiences, Women’s History Review, 12:4 (2007), p. 661-677

 

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4 comments on “‘Where Were All The Jewish Women During The Holocaust?’

  1. This was a really interesting topic- partly because I love anything that is related to the Holocaust and World War II. i actually did my research project on Experiences of prisoners in Auschwitz Birkenau and i spent a little time researching women’s experiences. It would be fantastic to read your actual project as well… I like how you have examined the way in which women have been researched in history and explained it with ‘partial interpretation’. It would be good if you could add in like a further reading list- just so I can where you got your sources from (you did mention a few) but would be great if you could list a few more examples. Also what was your main primary source that you used? Awesome stuff i really enjoyed this!

  2. alissa sazenis says:

    This was a really interesting topic- partly because I love anything that is related to the Holocaust and World War II. i actually did my research project on Experiences of prisoners in Auschwitz Birkenau and i spent a little time researching women’s experiences. It would be fantastic to read your actual project as well… I like how you have examined the way in which women have been researched in history and explained it with ‘partial interpretation’. It would be good if you could add in like a further reading list- just so I can where you got your sources from (you did mention a few) but would be great if you could list a few more examples. Also what was your main primary source that you used? Awesome stuff i really enjoyed this!

    • Hi Alissa and thank you for taking the time to read my blog post, i’m glad you found it just as interesting as I did. My research essay actually focused on the ‘historiography of Jewish women’s experiences within Nazi concentration camps’, thus my primary sources were the actual histories themselves. I did not use anything like memoirs or testimonies because my focus was on how historians themselves have interpreted women’s experiences. For an essay last semester I focused on one particular memoir by Olga Lengyel who was a survivor of Auschwitz so for the capstone essay i chose to focus on the historiography rather than the memoirs themselves. I also chose to look at the historiography in terms of how it has evolved over time and so I focused on a number of histories rather than just one.

      If you would like to look into this topic more I would suggest starting with the ‘Suggested Further Reading’ list I have included at the end of my blog post because those collections hold a number of articles from a number of prominent historians in this field. As well as these any works by Myrna Goldenberg, Judith Baumel, Sarah Horowitz, Joan Ringelheim, Zoe Waxman, Anna Reading and Dan Stone are all very prominent historians in this field and have written a number of important works on this topic. These can be found through a multisearch on the universities library page. I would list them here for you but there is just so many that it would probably be easier for you to chase them up when you have the time.

      Cheers, Allie 🙂

  3. cassandraegger says:

    I was immediately intrigued by your article as last year I did a project on the impact of gender and how women played a key role in rebuilding Jewish society within Displaced Person’s ghettos after the war.

    I am interested to know how many of the historians of this topic are Jewish themselves as a reason to why they have been representing women how they would like them to be represented. Is it perhaps because their history was based on presenting the stoic values of women during such extreme and horrendous conditions as a heroic tribute to female holocaust survivors.
    The evidence suggests and as you have pointed out from the emerging stories since the 1980s that women were targeted specifically by Nazi’s due to their status as females and the carriers of the next generation. Communication between Heinrich Himmler and Auschwitz doctor Clauberg reveal the doctor was experimenting to find a sterilisation method that would be quick and also be administered without the victim’s knowledge.( http://remember.org/witness/links.let.ster.html)Why was sterilization to be a secret from it’s victims? It was an attack on Jewish femineity, women would wonder if they had naturally lost their ability to bear children. After all why bother with sterilisation if they were all to be murdered?

    The family was a huge symbol in the Jewish community after the war. It was a symbol of overcoming the plans of Nazism and surviving. Michael Brenner in his book After the Holocaust rebuilding the Jewish lives in postwar Germany estimates there were 1000 Jewish weddings in Belsen alone between 1945-47 (p.26) Atina Grossmann also notes that directly after the war Jewish people had the highest birth-rate in the world. Many women who survived had spent their formative years in the camps (older and younger were killed) and were now to play a maternal role in their fractured society. What we have here is women coming straight out of this experience and into the roles of wives and mothers. Do you think that this has impacted the early scholarship of women in the holocaust? Or even how victims remember their own experience? For instance Margarete Feinstein notes that tales of fatherhood in survivor’s recollections was absent but maternal tales were prominent. I would love to know what sources historians have used to uncover the history of women as deviating from traditional maternal roles in the camps.

    It was very interesting to read about your project.

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