1. A Feminist Critique of the Holocaust?

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1. A Feminist Critique of the Holocaust?

What precisely would be accomplished through an exploration of women’s specificexperiences 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 aspossible, to exhaustively describe and to specify and secure the Holocaust withinas many subdivisions as possible? In the case of Holocaust Studies, it seems, thesum of the parts is indeed greater than the whole; its scholarly legitimacy isreinforced with every new “X and the Holocaust”–for example “Poland and theHolocaust,” “Children and the Holocaust,” “Medical Experiments and theHolocaust,” “Literature/Music/Art/ Drama and the Holocaust,” “The Vatican andthe Holocaust,” even “Herbert Hoover and the Holocaust,” to name only a few ofthe categories in the several bibliographies available. Despite thisproliferation of subdivisions, however, the very exhaustive Bibliography onHolocaust Literature, edited by Abraham J. and Hershel Edelheit, did not featurea heading for “Women and the Holocaust” until the publication of volume two ofits 1990 supplement. And a quick glance at the indexes of most works of Holocaustliterature indicates that women, as an issue, do not merit much mention (usuallynone). The occasional article or, even more rarely, monograph which does botherto bring up the topic of women invariably notes the dearth of material on thesubject.

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 publicationof Carol Rittner and John K. Roth’s Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust anda work-in-progress by Joan Miriam Ringelheim, there has been great effort on thepart of a small but determined faction to insert women’s specific voices,experiences, and analyses into the canon of Holocaust Studies. The path tojustification for such critiques, however, is a slippery one. These authors mustmanage to state their case without appearing to threaten what many scholars seeas the hard-won, and continually challenged, legitimacy of the discipline. Andthey have some formidable opposition in their way; such distinguished figures asHannah Arendt, Cynthia Ozick, and Helen Fagin maintain that the nature of thisparticular subject, of genocide on a scale that is nearly incomprehensible, seemsto make such critiques as the feminist one a little trivial. As Rittner and Rothsummarize:

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 Nazistargeted Jews and others in racial terms, they had to see those victims in theirmale and female particularity. Far from reducing the Shoah to an example ofsexism, emphasis on what happened to women reveals what otherwise would remainhidden: 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 milquetoasty and apologetic, as I do, theycontinue with:

Different Voices’s contents, however, go further than that. In addition tobuilding on [poet] Gertrud Kolmar’s hope that someone will “hear me speak,” theyalso resound versions of her aching question “But do you hear me feel?” Moved byvoices like hers, we recognize that no good thing should be taken for granted.This sensitivity can strengthen determination against forces of the kind thatsilenced her and so many of her sisters.3

Is it not, however, suspect that this passage adopts a traditional language offemininity, appealing to “sensitivity,” albeit determined, as opposed to theenemy “forces?”4 Finally, Rittner and Roth close their introduction appearing toestablish that, indeed, this is merely a quantitative and not a qualitativesupplement:

Many people know about the Holocaust through male survivors such asViktor Frankl, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel. The narratives of their experienceshave gained a wide audience, and rightly so. Fewer people know about theHolocaust through survivors such as Charlotte Delbo, Ida Fink, and IsabellaLeitmer. 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, andthe silences commemorated, are predominantly male.5 What women and men rememberis not identical…

That exploration and emphasis should occur not because women’s voices arenecessarily clearer or better than men’s–though in many individual cases theyare–but because they are women’s voices reflecting on their own particularexperiences 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 isthe 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 beingestablished here. It is suggested first, that there has been, whether purposelyor no, the frequent substitution of male voices of witness for female ones, or,read another way, simply the wholesale omission of female voices; second, thatthe Holocaust did indeed include gender-specific experiences; third, that theability 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 generalsuspicion 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 suggestionthat women do indeed narrate in a qualitatively different manner, but not onethat is, Rittner and Roth are quick to affirm, although rather half-heartedly,”clearer or better.” Having selected Gertrud Kolmar to represent the female voicein their introduction, they have selected a voice that is indeed sensitive,poetic, emotional, “aching,” and in doing so manage to reinforce the stereotypeof women as emotional and men, therefore, as logical.

This approach may simply be an attempt to be nonthreatening. Women’s voices donot really threaten the structural dimension of the patriarchal canon if theyserve to stimulate emotional response rather than to present rational critiques.One can, after all, understand Rittner and Roth’s hesitation. Accompanying anyinvestigation as to the worth of individual Holocaust texts must always be thequestion of ethics. Is it not only destructive but blasphemous to criticize thisinformation gleaned from murder; have the testimonies, fictions, theoreticalworks, research papers, approached the status of sacred texts? Is the compulsionto 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, sinceobviously women have a more accurate and “privileged perspective” of their ownmemories than men.7 The inclusion of women’s voices, therefore, would broaden thespectrum of issues that Holocaust Studies could include within its domain. ButHeinemann’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 Holocaustunique to women. “[To] assume that Holocaust literature by men represents thewritings of women is to remain blind to the significance of gender in history andliterature. Men and women live in different cultural spheres in all knownsocieties and have experienced many historical epochs and turning points in quitedifferent ways,” she writes. “Until examination has shown whether men and womenexperienced and wrote about the Holocaust in the same way, research which impliesthe ‘universality’ of men’s writing and experience will be inadequate.”8

To this end, she surveys a substantial amount of Holocaust literature written bywomen and makes her remarks within four areas of analysis: on what she sees asthe female-specific themes of anatomy and destiny, on characterization, on thedescription of intimate and/or sexual relations, and on the attempt by eachauthor to inscribe her work(s) with authenticity. It is within the first areathat she locates the experiences and therefore the issues most definitive ofwomen’s narratives: amenorrhea and the fear of sterility; maternity, especiallyviz. the separation of mother and daughter; sexual victimization, both physicaland 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 despiteher attempt to isolate these by and large as female experiences, Heinemannwrites:

Ultimately the feminist significance of women’s Holocaust texts is that they areas representative of the general Holocaust experience as men’s texts. Like thenarratives of men, they represent the specific forms of suffering of one sex, theunique experiences of an individual, and universal aspects of the Holocaustexperience.9

Through a strange rhetorical twist, Heinemann suggests both that women’sexperience 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 thisuniqueness is, rather, to surrender to the whole, bringing the reader with it. Icannot help but read into this yet another kind of apologetics: one whichjustifies the specific recognition of women’s Holocaust texts by subordinatingthem to a higher purpose. Why Heinemann here subtly negates her own discourse,implying that moments of great suffering yield to a larger, asexual, universalvoice, is puzzling.

There may be something both essential and essentialist in these orientations ofRittner and Roth and of Heinemann. Naomi Seidman identifies it, in analyzing theissue 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 thefascistic universe, such discourse implies women’s innocence and some sort ofdeep inner goodness. Seidman continues, noting a variation of that strategy alsoin the description of female victims of fascism:

…the implicit frameworks inwhich Jewish and German women under fascism are often discussed, in scholarlyliterature and in popular texts, have some interesting and I think disturbingsimilarities. [German President Richard] von Weizsaecker’s linking of femalesuffering 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 ofvictimization.11

In Seidman’s opinion, this strategy collapses the identities ofperpetrator and victim, implying that all women in the sphere of Nazi influencewere victims somehow of Nazi brutality and that the suffering of women in thecamps is mirrored by the hostile imposition onto German women of an ideologyantithetical to their natural gentility (pun intended).12 The association ofvictimization and virtue is mirrored, moreover, in Jewish historiography ingeneral.13

I will examine the issue of romanticization and the Holocaust in moredepth later. But for the moment a more primary point needs to be firmlyestablished: can the specific voice of the female Holocaust survivor in fact belocated? Different Voices and Gender and Destiny both maintain that it can (andto have done so), but as we have seen, the existence of this voice is morenegative than positive. Women’s experience often exists by virtue of having notparticipated in male experience, in a form which does not sufficiently penetratepatriarchal structures enough to threaten, and for the ultimate purpose ofdisappearing, of willingly submitting itself to a higher, non-gendered purpose. Ido not find these approaches satisfactory, yet I am still convinced that there issuch a voice, or at least that it is the specifically male voice which hasassumed the status of universal speaker and behind which something is beingconcealed.

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