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6. Mary Lowenthal Felstiner: Women, Modernity and the Holocaust

Felstiner believes that Life? or Theater? is deeply the work of a woman, and accordingly, describes her articles and book about Charlotte as feminist. Yet criticism of her work, as with that of Charlotte’s, has rarely focused on this issue.

I think that the fact that it’s a feminist book has probably been an asset to people who already are interested in these issues, but a lot of people just ignore it completely. I’ve noticed that in reviews, it’s just as if it wasn’t there, as if it was just an individual story about somebody who was female, but what difference does that make…And my sense was that although the truth is, given any encounter between an SS officer and a Jew, the plot will develop along the same lines…you already know the denouement…And although anybody who got as far as Auschwitz, you also know what’s going to happen to them, that sooner or later they’re going to die, so in a sense there’s no “story”…Even given that, the fact that there are these tiny variations on the plot leads you to ask, why are there those variations, why was it different for some people than for others?What was personal about it for me is just my rage that she died. I can’t reconcile myself to it. And in some ways, feminism was my response–response may be too rational a word–my reaction of rage, because at least I could say one rational thing: That she was more likely to have perished because she was a woman, and not only that, but misunderstood her fate, because she was a woman.137

What Felstiner brings to the larger discussion of the Holocaust is a compelling argument that gender is not merely a sidebar issue in the counting of the dead. There are no decisive figures on the number of people who perished in the Shoah. The Nazi rush to destroy as much evidence as possible once it became clear that Germany would lose the war, the sheer staggering number of the dead, many of whom had already been burned or buried, like one giant many-headed corpse, in mass graves, and the difficulty of defining which dead belonged to the Holocaust: only those who died in the camps? those who starved in the ghettos? who perished in hiding? in rebellion? those whose unavoidable deaths from illness and exhaustion fell on the days after V-E Day?…these considerations have made a final unambiguous count impossible. The most quoted figure is that of approximately eleven million people, at least six million of whom were Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, the Nazis murdered 250,000 Poles, 20,000 Roma and Sinti (the preferred name of the”Gypsies”), an uncounted number of homosexuals, 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war,and up to 1.3 million Jews, one of whom was Charlotte Salomon. For any given transport, a small number were registered–given tattoos, a uniform, and a minuscule chance at life, although the vast majority of these died of privation,disease, and brutal work. But most–Salomon among them–were sent immediately to the gas. What Felstiner contends, and which has never before been suggested, is that sex was not merely one of the many, and often described as wholly illogical and arbitrary, criteria for selection, it was the criterion.

How much it mattered to be born male in a punitive world has not, even now, passed into thinking on the Holocaust. It hints at privilege where we are at pains to show privation. It raises the divisive fear that women had it worse. But worse on what grounds? When a mother tried to keep a nursing infant fed? Or when a father lost the chance to help his child? When a man was dragged to a torture camp like Sachsenhausen or when a woman went frantic to get him out? When a woman got tossed a crust for enduring rape or when a man ran out of anything to trade for food? When a woman was waived toward the gas holding her child’s hand or when a man was waived into slavery first? When a man was deported for being circumcised or when a woman was doomed due to pregnancy?Still it must be said: In that crucial moment on the ramp, one sex was chosen disproportionately for death.

What helped make the Final Solution a novum–a “new thing” in the history of humankind–was not the open all-male propaganda against a Jewish race but the stealthy intentional murder of a Jewish female sex. Once we see that women did not die of inborn physical frailty–for they lasted longer than men in the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos–then the issue becomes clear. Along the stations toward extinction, from arrest through transport to selection, each gender lived its own journey. It was the weighting of each stage of the Final Solution against women that counted at the end.138

The numbers Felstiner provides are convincing, and disturbing. Of the 72,444 total deportees from France, forty-three percent were female. Yet of those selected for slave labor from this number, only thirty percent were women. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, out of the total 381,455 deportees so selected from 1942 through 1945, 67.5 percent were men, 32.5 percent were women. When the Allies came to Auschwitz in January of 1945, eighty-three percent of the surviving prisoners they found were men. And, Felstiner reports, “in the six Auschwitz warehouses still intact at the time of liberation, Soviet troops found 348,820 men’s suits and 836,525 dresses.”139

Felstiner says that at the time of her research, she found these numbers baffling. What she realized, what makes her write that Charlotte Salomon “was more likely to have perished because she was a woman, and not only that, but misunderstood her fate, because she was a woman,”was this:

…the system was fundamentally targeting women. That was the primary target, was women, and that was really a terrific surprise to me, since, in that sense, I believed Nazi propaganda, I mean, I fell for it. It’s all about men…Nazi propaganda was one hundred percent about men and therefore there’s something anomalous and mysterious about the fact that they bothered with women at all. So it looks to me as if the real Nazi obsession was with women.140

In other words,the widely publicized Jew Suss images of lecherous, slimy Jewish men terrorizing Aryan women served in a capacity more secretly insidious than the manipulation and inspiration of anti-Semitic fears: they diverted attention away from the deliberate and methodical elimination of the progenitors of the Jewish race, the women.

Why did the Nazis invert their announced aim, their promise in propaganda and the Degenerate Art Show and Kristallnacht–to eliminate male rivals in the economy and the arts?On the ramp the primary secret purpose of deportation was finally acted out: to “deprive Jewry of its biological reserves”; to “obliterate the biological basis of Jewry,” said Himmler to Hoess; to eliminate “the germ cell of a new Jewish revival” (“Keimzelle eines neuen judischen Aufbaues”), said the Wannsee Protocol.

It was the Nazi view of all women as cell-bearers that condemned the Jewish ones. Even within the lowest life-form–the anti race–women ranked lower still, for spawning it. In Hitler’s cliche, “Every child that a woman brings into the world is a battle, a battle waged for the existence of her people.” Because women in their biology held history, one gestating Jewish mother posed a greater threat than any fighting man. To be father to a child had no impact on selection. To be a mother in fact or in future–that was the final sentence.

Genocide is the act of putting women and children first. Of all the deceptions a death camp settled on, this one went down deepest. This was the hardcore of the Holocaust.141

The Holocaust is often characterized as an explosion of irrationality and emotional violence, a momentary deviation from the trajectory of progress; often, too, it is suggested that it had to do in part with the psychopathology of the SS leaders and with a certain quality of the German state.Yet extensive psychological testing of the SS at Nuremberg did not show them tobe abnormal,142 and even a cursory glance at post-World War II history indicates that the Nazi state has hardly been only one capable of mass murder: the United States, after all, alone of the nations, has used an atomic bomb to kill.

What the Holocaust is, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, is the ultimate test of modernity:

The truth is that every’ingredient’ of the Holocaust–all those many things that rendered it possible–was normal; ‘normal’ not in the sense of the familiar, of one more specimen in a large class of phenomena long ago described in full, explained and accommodated(on the contrary, the experience of the Holocaust was new and unfamiliar), but in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilization, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world–and of the proper ways to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society.143

What was most modern about the Holocaust, and of the modern genocides which have followed, Bauman claims, was its weapon: racism.

Modernity made racism possible. It also created a demand for racism; an era that declared achievement to be the only measure of human worth needed a theory of ascription to redeem boundary-drawing and boundary-guarding concerns under new conditions which made boundary-crossing easier than before.144

With the conversion of the Western world from a theological order to a rational and scientific one, anti-Semitism became less a religious quarrel than a racist one. And whereas one could, arguably,convert from one religion to another, one could not possibly convert from one’s natural, genetic, racial identity. “Man is before he acts,” Bauman explains,”nothing he does may change what he is. That is, roughly, the philosophical essence of racism.”

It is also, of course, the essence of sexism, and it can be extrapolated from Bauman’s coherent arguments that among the qualities of our civilization–“its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world”–are not only imperialism and racism, but sexism as well. The dualism of the sexes runs deep into the foundations of our ordered, scientific, rational society. At one point, Bauman mentions that the emergence of the modern scientific method and the rationalization of everyday life occurred simultaneously with the most violent episode of witch-hunting in history, and that therefore the “irrationality” of witch-hunting was obviously not a phenomenon entirely divorced from the forward drive of Reason.145 What Bauman neglects here to note was that witch-hunting was a deeply gendered phenomenon:that by and large, it was men who hunted women. In fact critical discourse explicates the witch-hunting fervor at this time as in part a manifestation of the anxiety which emerged as male-dominated modern medicine came to supersede women’s roles as midwives and healers. The transition was eased for the incomers by branding women’s activities as magic and witchery.146

The misogyny of the Nazi movement is undisputed. The Third Reich’s ideal woman was a submissive child-bearing hausfrau, or as the well-known motto goes, “Kinder, Kirche, Kuche“(“Children, Church, Kitchen”).147 The degree to which the Nazi definition of the female sex was linked to their reproductive capacity is indicated by Ute Frevert,who quotes Hitler himself to make her point: “In the education of the girl the final goal always to be kept in mind is that she is one day to be a mother,”Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf.148 Goebbels, in turn, wrote, “A woman’s duty is to be attractive and bear children. The idea is not as vulgar and old-fashioned as it might seem. A female bird makes itself beautiful for its mate and hatches out her eggs for him.”149 And Helen Feig, author of Hitler’s Death Camps, writes:

[A]t its core the racial theory rested upon women. Some object to the phrase “anatomy is destiny,” but the very fact that women bore children played a vital part in determining the status and role of both Aryan and non-Aryan women…The Aryan woman left the factory for her rightful place in the home and was dedicated to her rightful task, that of bearing children. The non-Aryan woman left her home for the labor squads and the factories if she was fortunate, for the gas chambers if she was unfortunate. Childbearing was forbidden. Her children who were born were destroyed; those growing in her were aborted.150

“The fascination [of the Nazis] with biology,” summarizes Felstiner, “means that women represent a threat that is absolute.”151 This conclusion “almost borders on the self-evident,” she continues,152 yet it is one which would be revolutionary to the study of the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, some would read into this an accusation of grand conspiracy, a tone of hysteria, and, more seriously, a trivialization of the Holocaust. This speaks more, I am convinced, to the anxiety of the threatened than to the veracity of the threat. The links between genocide and modernity, and between modernity and misogyny, need to be further explored.


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