6. Mary Lowenthal Felstiner: Women, Modernity and theHolocaust

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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, andaccordingly, describes her articles and book about Charlotte as feminist. Yetcriticism of her work, as with that of Charlotte’s, has rarely focused on thisissue.

I think that the fact that it’s a feminist book has probably been an assetto people who already are interested in these issues, but a lot of people justignore it completely. I’ve noticed that in reviews, it’s just as if it wasn’tthere, as if it was just an individual story about somebody who was female, butwhat difference does that make…And my sense was that although the truth is, givenany encounter between an SS officer and a Jew, the plot will develop along thesame lines…you already know the denouement…And although anybody who got as far asAuschwitz, you also know what’s going to happen to them, that sooner or laterthey’re going to die, so in a sense there’s no “story”…Even given that, the factthat there are these tiny variations on the plot leads you to ask, why are therethose variations, why was it different for some people than for others?

What waspersonal about it for me is just my rage that she died. I can’t reconcile myselfto it. And in some ways, feminism was my response–response may be too rational aword–my reaction of rage, because at least I could say one rational thing: Thatshe 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 tothe larger discussion of the Holocaust is a compelling argument that gender isnot merely a sidebar issue in the counting of the dead. There are no decisivefigures on the number of people who perished in the Shoah. The Nazi rush todestroy as much evidence as possible once it became clear that Germany would losethe war, the sheer staggering number of the dead, many of whom had already beenburned or buried, like one giant many-headed corpse, in mass graves, and thedifficulty of defining which dead belonged to the Holocaust: only those who diedin the camps? those who starved in the ghettos? who perished in hiding? inrebellion? those whose unavoidable deaths from illness and exhaustion fell on thedays after V-E Day?…these considerations have made a final unambiguous countimpossible. The most quoted figure is that of approximately eleven millionpeople, at least six million of whom were Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, theNazis 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 giventransport, a small number were registered–given tattoos, a uniform, and aminuscule chance at life, although the vast majority of these died of privation,disease, and brutal work. But most–Salomon among them–were sent immediately tothe gas. What Felstiner contends, and which has never before been suggested, isthat sex was not merely one of the many, and often described as wholly illogicaland arbitrary, criteria for selection, it was the criterion.

How much it matteredto be born male in a punitive world has not, even now, passed into thinking onthe Holocaust. It hints at privilege where we are at pains to show privation. Itraises the divisive fear that women had it worse. But worse on what grounds? Whena mother tried to keep a nursing infant fed? Or when a father lost the chance tohelp his child? When a man was dragged to a torture camp like Sachsenhausen orwhen a woman went frantic to get him out? When a woman got tossed a crust forenduring rape or when a man ran out of anything to trade for food? When a womanwas waived toward the gas holding her child’s hand or when a man was waived intoslavery first? When a man was deported for being circumcised or when a woman wasdoomed due to pregnancy?

Still it must be said: In that crucial moment on theramp, one sex was chosen disproportionately for death.

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

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

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

…the system was fundamentally targeting women. That was the primarytarget, was women, and that was really a terrific surprise to me, since, in thatsense, I believed Nazi propaganda, I mean, I fell for it. It’s all about men…Nazipropaganda was one hundred percent about men and therefore there’s somethinganomalous and mysterious about the fact that they bothered with women at all. Soit 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 terrorizingAryan women served in a capacity more secretly insidious than the manipulationand inspiration of anti-Semitic fears: they diverted attention away from thedeliberate and methodical elimination of the progenitors of the Jewish race, thewomen.

Why did the Nazis invert their announced aim, their promise in propagandaand the Degenerate Art Show and Kristallnacht–to eliminate male rivals in theeconomy and the arts?

On the ramp the primary secret purpose of deportation wasfinally acted out: to “deprive Jewry of its biological reserves”; to “obliteratethe biological basis of Jewry,” said Himmler to Hoess; to eliminate “the germ cellof a new Jewish revival” (“Keimzelle eines neuen judischen Aufbaues”), said theWannsee Protocol.

It was the Nazi view of all women as cell-bearers thatcondemned the Jewish ones. Even within the lowest life-form–the antirace–womenranked lower still, for spawning it. In Hitler’s cliche, “Every child that awoman brings into the world is a battle, a battle waged for the existence of herpeople.” Because women in their biology held history, one gestating Jewish motherposed a greater threat than any fighting man. To be father to a child had noimpact on selection. To be a mother in fact or in future–that was the finalsentence.

Genocide is the act of putting women and children first. Of all thedeceptions 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 ofirrationality and emotional violence, a momentary deviation from the trajectoryof progress; often, too, it is suggested that it had to do in part with thepsychopathology 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 indicatesthat the Nazi state has hardly been only one capable of mass murder: the UnitedStates, after all, alone of the nations, has used an atomic bomb to kill.

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

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

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

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

With the conversion of the Western worldfrom a theological order to a rational and scientific one, anti-Semitism becameless 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’snatural, genetic, racial identity. “Man is before he acts,” Bauman explains,”nothing he does may change what he is. That is, roughly, the philosophicalessence of racism.”

It is also, of course, the essence of sexism, and it can beextrapolated from Bauman’s coherent arguments that among the qualities of ourcivilization–“its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of theworld”–are not only imperialism and racism, but sexism as well. The dualism ofthe sexes runs deep into the foundations of our ordered, scientific, rationalsociety. At one point, Bauman mentions that the emergence of the modernscientific method and the rationalization of everyday life occurredsimultaneously with the most violent episode of witch-hunting in history, andthat therefore the “irrationality” of witch-hunting was obviously not aphenomenon entirely divorced from the forward drive of Reason.145 What Baumanneglects 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 discourseexplicates the witch-hunting fervor at this time as in part a manifestation ofthe anxiety which emerged as male-dominated modern medicine came to supersedewomen’s roles as midwives and healers. The transition was eased for the incomersby branding women’s activities as magic and witchery.146

The misogyny of the Nazimovement is undisputed. The Third Reich’s ideal woman was a submissivechild-bearing hausfrau, or as the well-known motto goes, “Kinder, Kirche, Kuche“(“Children, Church, Kitchen”).147 The degree to which the Nazi definition of thefemale 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 thefinal 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 beattractive and bear children. The idea is not as vulgar and old-fashioned as itmight seem. A female bird makes itself beautiful for its mate and hatches out hereggs for him.”149 And Helen Feig, author of Hitler’s Death Camps, writes:

[A]tits core the racial theory rested upon women. Some object to the phrase “anatomyis destiny,” but the very fact that women bore children played a vital part indetermining the status and role of both Aryan and non-Aryan women…

The Aryanwoman left the factory for her rightful place in the home and was dedicated toher rightful task, that of bearing children. The non-Aryan woman left her homefor the labor squads and the factories if she was fortunate, for the gas chambersif she was unfortunate. Childbearing was forbidden. Her children who were bornwere destroyed; those growing in her were aborted.150

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

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