Return to Women Writing the Holocaust
1. A Feminist Critique of the Holocaust?
What precisely would be accomplished through an exploration of women’s specific experiences in the Holocaust and their contributions to its memorialization?Would it be an addition to the Holocaust canon which differs only quantitatively,i.e. which becomes part of the ongoing attempt to record as much information as possible, to exhaustively describe and to specify and secure the Holocaust within as many subdivisions as possible? In the case of Holocaust Studies, it seems, the sum of the parts is indeed greater than the whole; its scholarly legitimacy isreinforced with every new “X and the Holocaust”–for example “Poland and the Holocaust,” “Children and the Holocaust,” “Medical Experiments and the Holocaust,” “Literature/Music/Art/ Drama and the Holocaust,” “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” even “Herbert Hoover and the Holocaust,” to name only a few ofthe categories in the several bibliographies available. Despite this proliferation of subdivisions, however, the very exhaustive Bibliography on Holocaust Literature, edited by Abraham J. and Hershel Edelheit, did not feature a heading for “Women and the Holocaust” until the publication of volume two of its 1990 supplement. And a quick glance at the indexes of most works of Holocaust literature indicates that women, as an issue, do not merit much mention (usuallynone). The occasional article or, even more rarely, monograph which does bother to bring up the topic of women invariably notes the dearth of material on the subject.
It is precisely this disturbing omission that the authors of several recentanthologies and critical works wish to address. Beginning in approximately 1983, with the first (and only) “Conference on Women Surviving the Holocaust” in NewYork and the concurrent publication of Marianne Heinemann’s Gender and Destiny:Women Writers and the Holocaust, and continuing through the late 1993 publication of Carol Rittner and John K. Roth’s Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust and a work-in-progress by Joan Miriam Ringelheim, there has been great effort on the part of a small but determined faction to insert women’s specific voices,experiences, and analyses into the canon of Holocaust Studies. The path to justification for such critiques, however, is a slippery one. These authors must manage to state their case without appearing to threaten what many scholars seeas the hard-won, and continually challenged, legitimacy of the discipline. And they have some formidable opposition in their way; such distinguished figures as Hannah Arendt, Cynthia Ozick, and Helen Fagin maintain that the nature of this particular subject, of genocide on a scale that is nearly incomprehensible, seems to make such critiques as the feminist one a little trivial. As Rittner and Roth summarize:
Focusing on the particularity of women’s experiences, they [Arendt, Ozick, andFagin] have argued, involves two dangers: 1) It may denigrate the Holocaust’ssignificance by turning the Shoah merely into an example of sexism. 2) It maydetract from the much more fundamental fact that, as Ozick once put it, “TheHolocaust happened to victims who were not seen as men, women, and children butas Jews.”1
Rittner and Roth defend the project, however, by adding:
The counterargument, however, is more compelling. Precisely because the Nazis targeted Jews and others in racial terms, they had to see those victims in their male and female particularity. Far from reducing the Shoah to an example of sexism, emphasis on what happened to women reveals what otherwise would remain hidden: a fuller picture of the unprecedented and unrelenting killing that the’Final Solution’s’ antisemitism and racism entailed.2
For whoever finds this argument rather milque toasty and apologetic, as I do, they continue with:
Different Voices’s contents, however, go further than that. In addition to building on [poet] Gertrud Kolmar’s hope that someone will “hear me speak,” they also resound versions of her aching question “But do you hear me feel?” Moved by voices like hers, we recognize that no good thing should be taken for granted. This sensitivity can strengthen determination against forces of the kind that silenced her and so many of her sisters.3
Is it not, however, suspect that this passage adopts a traditional language of femininity, appealing to “sensitivity,” albeit determined, as opposed to the enemy “forces?”4 Finally, Rittner and Roth close their introduction appearing toestablish that, indeed, this is merely a quantitative and not a qualitative supplement:
Many people know about the Holocaust through male survivors such as Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel. The narratives of their experiences have gained a wide audience, and rightly so. Fewer people know about the Holocaust through survivors such as Charlotte Delbo, Ida Fink, and Isabella Leitmer. It is fair to say that Holocaust memory has been shaped most decisively,and Holocaust scholarship has been influenced most frequently, by men. Remembering the Holocaust is an incomplete act, however, if the voices heard, and the silences commemorated, are predominantly male.5 What women and men remember is not identical…That exploration and emphasis should occur not because women’s voices are necessarily clearer or better than men’s–though in many individual cases they are–but because they are women’s voices reflecting on their own particular experiences in ways that no one else can do for them. The need, however, is notjust to let women speak for themselves. Of equal, if not greater, importance is the need for them to be heard.6
We’ll let that subtle gibe in the beginning ofthe second paragraph slide for a moment as we identify just what points are being established here. It is suggested first, that there has been, whether purposely or no, the frequent substitution of male voices of witness for female ones, or,read another way, simply the wholesale omission of female voices; second, that the Holocaust did indeed include gender-specific experiences; third, that the ability of men to narrate the gender-specific experiences of women is inadequate,due obviously to their own exclusion from them and as well to a more general suspicion that, for unspecified reasons, they would be unreliable authors.
Other points are drawn less explicitly. The opposition of women to men reflectsthat of women/sensitivity to enemy/force. There is the beginning of a suggestion that women do indeed narrate in a qualitatively different manner, but not one that is, Rittner and Roth are quick to affirm, although rather half-heartedly,”clearer or better.” Having selected Gertrud Kolmar to represent the female voice in their introduction, they have selected a voice that is indeed sensitive,poetic, emotional, “aching,” and in doing so manage to reinforce the stereotype of women as emotional and men, therefore, as logical.
This approach may simply be an attempt to be nonthreatening. Women’s voices do not really threaten the structural dimension of the patriarchal canon if they serve to stimulate emotional response rather than to present rational critiques. One can, after all, understand Rittner and Roth’s hesitation. Accompanying any investigation as to the worth of individual Holocaust texts must always be the question of ethics. Is it not only destructive but blasphemous to criticize this information gleaned from murder; have the testimonies, fictions, theoretical works, research papers, approached the status of sacred texts? Is the compulsion to speak at all far more important than to speak as a woman?
A more analytic approach is taken by Marianne E. Heinemann’s Gender and Destiny. Heinemann also acknowledges the quantitative value of women’s experiences, since obviously women have a more accurate and “privileged perspective” of their own memories than men.7 The inclusion of women’s voices, therefore, would broaden the spectrum of issues that Holocaust Studies could include within its domain. But Heinemann’s book is more devoted to an attempt to deconstruct the narratives,fictional and nonfictional, written by female survivors, and to isolate theirmain themes with an eye towards identifying an iconography of the Holocaust unique to women. “[To] assume that Holocaust literature by men represents the writings of women is to remain blind to the significance of gender in history and literature. Men and women live in different cultural spheres in all known societies and have experienced many historical epochs and turning points in quite different ways,” she writes. “Until examination has shown whether men and women experienced and wrote about the Holocaust in the same way, research which implies the ‘universality’ of men’s writing and experience will be inadequate.”8
To this end, she surveys a substantial amount of Holocaust literature written by women and makes her remarks within four areas of analysis: on what she sees as the female-specific themes of anatomy and destiny, on characterization, on the description of intimate and/or sexual relations, and on the attempt by each author to inscribe her work(s) with authenticity. It is within the first area that she locates the experiences and therefore the issues most definitive of women’s narratives: amenorrhea and the fear of sterility; maternity, especially viz. the separation of mother and daughter; sexual victimization, both physical and psychological; the confluence between appearance/attractiveness and survival.Men do record all of these brutalities in their own narratives, Heinemannasserts, but not nearly as often or as the most overriding concerns. But despite her attempt to isolate these by and large as female experiences, Heinemann writes:
Ultimately the feminist significance of women’s Holocaust texts is that they areas representative of the general Holocaust experience as men’s texts. Like the narratives of men, they represent the specific forms of suffering of one sex, the unique experiences of an individual, and universal aspects of the Holocaust experience.9
Through a strange rhetorical twist, Heinemann suggests both that women’s experience of the Holocaust is significant, because unique, and that it is not, however, so significant as to be an end in itself. The “ultimate” purpose of this uniqueness is, rather, to surrender to the whole, bringing the reader with it. I cannot help but read into this yet another kind of apologetics: one which justifies the specific recognition of women’s Holocaust texts by subordinating them to a higher purpose. Why Heinemann here subtly negates her own discourse,implying that moments of great suffering yield to a larger, asexual, universal voice, is puzzling.
There may be something both essential and essentialist in these orientations of Rittner and Roth and of Heinemann. Naomi Seidman identifies it, in analyzing the issue of gender in German discourses of fascism, as:
…part of a larger trendinside and outside feminism of accepting an ahistorical, apolitical and valorizedview of women, maternity and separatism…but even a feminist admission thatwomen’s relatively clean record in the area of human atrocity may be due to theirpositions outside the spheres of power fails to take into account the possibilitythat a separation from power can dangerously approach an abdication of thepositive uses of power…10
By failing to assign women an active role in the fascistic universe, such discourse implies women’s innocence and some sort ofdeep inner goodness. Seidman continues, noting a variation of that strategy also in the description of female victims of fascism:
…the implicit frameworks in which Jewish and German women under fascism are often discussed, in scholarly literature and in popular texts, have some interesting and I think disturbing similarities. [German President Richard] von Weizsaecker’s linking of female suffering and female adherence to human values…”In the darkest years [i.e., theThird Reich], they guarded the light of humanity from being extinguished,”reappears in accounts of Jewish women’s rather more intense accounts of victimization.11
In Seidman’s opinion, this strategy collapses the identities of perpetrator and victim, implying that all women in the sphere of Nazi influence were victims somehow of Nazi brutality and that the suffering of women in the camps is mirrored by the hostile imposition onto German women of an ideology antithetical to their natural gentility (pun intended).12 The association of victimization and virtue is mirrored, moreover, in Jewish historiography in general.13
I will examine the issue of romanticization and the Holocaust in more depth later. But for the moment a more primary point needs to be firmly established: can the specific voice of the female Holocaust survivor in fact belocated? Different Voices and Gender and Destiny both maintain that it can (and to have done so), but as we have seen, the existence of this voice is more negative than positive. Women’s experience often exists by virtue of having not participated in male experience, in a form which does not sufficiently penetrate patriarchal structures enough to threaten, and for the ultimate purpose of disappearing, of willingly submitting itself to a higher, non-gendered purpose. I do not find these approaches satisfactory, yet I am still convinced that there is such a voice, or at least that it is the specifically male voice which has assumed the status of universal speaker and behind which something is being concealed.