2. Lucille E.: The Gender Politics of Survival
I derive the strongest support for this view as I turn from secondary to primaryliterature. In From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, survivor LucilleE. relates her experiences in the Lodz ghetto, in Auschwitz, at forced labor nearNeuengamme, and finally in Bergen-Belsen, where, perhaps only days from deathfrom typhus and starvation, she encounters liberation and the British. Upon herrecovery, E. facilitated the arrest and conviction of forty SS; fluent in German,she had been for a period assigned secretarial duties at Neuengamme, and hadmemorized the names and addresses of the SS to whom correspondence was regularlysent.
To me the most stirring chapters, “Auschwitz” and “The Scarf,” were thosewhich focused on the moments when the Nazis’ trajectory of destruction, havingresulted in the deaths of her father and mother and the deportation andsubsequent murder of her little sister, finally encroaches upon Celia, the nameby which E. refers to herself.14 After living in the Lodz ghetto for three years,she is deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Upon her arrival, she is stunned anduncomprehending, unable to react until a Kapo begins to shave her, under theharsh direction of an SS woman:
She was obese, stuffed into a uniform severalsizes too small for her ample body. She was about thirty-five years old, withfrizzy blond hair, not even five feet tall. Her squinty eyes were hidden behindthick, rimless glasses. She laughed, enjoying every minute of our degradation.Pure hatred mixed with fear and pain swirled in my brain until I silentlyscreamed and swore revenge.
As if reading my thoughts, the SS woman slapped myface hard with the back of her hand. My head reeled back, but the Kapo kept onclipping. As she shaved my armpits and all other body hair, I concentrated on myhatred: hatred for her, hatred for the Germans who had reduced me to thissweating, naked creature, without hair, without dignity. I was no longer a humanbeing to them, just an expendable Jew. I remembered my father and sister: hadthey been brought to a place like this to endure a similar degradation–or, as inthe case of my father, to be murdered? Would I ever know? I wanted to scream, tokick, to scratch. Instead, I stood in silent rage.
I looked at the mountains ofhair around us, hair of every conceivable color. What would they do with all thishair? For several minutes, we stood motionless, then felt the hands of the Kapopushing us toward the swinging doors. I was startled by a reflection in the upperglass panels–an oval, egg-shaped head with two dark eyes and large, protrudingears. Was this hideous sight me? I lifted my arms to touch my head, but revoltedby the reflected image, I dropped my hands, denying for a moment the shock, thenightmare that was me.15
Celia passes the selection of Dr. Mengele and is loadedonto one of a line of cattle cars. After three days inside the car, she arrivesat Dessauer Ufer, a work camp near Hamburg, where she is put to work clearingbomb damage in and around the city. As she moves and lifts heavy girders andshards of glass, continually soaked by the fall rain, she is tormented not somuch by the labor or the elements as by an apparently irrational desire:
I stillwished for something to cover my bald head, but not because of the cold wind ordriving rain. It was, of all things, vanity. I thought of my once long, shinybrown hair and wondered if vanity was still possible. Who cared? What didanything really matter? But for some strange reason, it still mattered to me–evenbeyond the pain of my frostbitten toes, icy hands, and rain-drenched body.16
Onemorning, she spies a long, dirty rag in the rubble and stares at it longingly.Despite having been threatened with beatings or death for stealing, Celia grabsit and hides it between her thighs. Exultant, she continues to work. Later inthe day, she is approached by the Obersturmbannfhrer, who the women on the crewcall Der zahnlose Lahme, the toothless lame one, at the expense of both hiswooden leg and of his masculine pride, which apparently feels the twinge ofhaving been assigned to command a group of women. The women’s ability to mock hismasculinity, however, is far overshadowed by his ability to kill, and he ishardly depicted in the narrative as a figure of fun. The Obersturmbannfhrertells Celia that he needs her to translate, and leads her around the back of abombed-out building. When he grabs her and begins to grope at her body, she iscertain that he has discovered her theft, that “My absurd vanity would be mydeath.”17 When he thrusts his hand between her legs, however, and feels thehidden scarf, he pushes her from him and shouts, “You filthy, useless bitch!Pfui! Menstruating!”18 Celia runs back to work, her absence unobserved andherself unable to quite comprehend what had just happened. “That night in thebarracks,” she writes, “I gently washed my priceless rag in cold, soapless water.In the morning, I tied the still-damp scarf around my shaven head.”19
In thisfinely tuned passage, the irony is evident: the scarf, far from having caused herdeath, has rescued her from certain rape and likely murder. This irony isdeepened by the amennorhea of most female prisoners, especially those who, likeCelia, had been surviving for some time on meager camp or ghetto diets. TheObersturmbannfhrer’s ignorance of this simple biological fact would seem to drawout at least one difference between the experiences of men and of women, but whatone reads through even these short sections of From Ashes to Life is far morecomplex.
Reading of Celia’s anguish over the loss of her hair, one feels pity forthis young woman,20 but is it unnatural to feel a bit of what might be describedalmost asÉdisdain? Celia mourns the loss of her hair as she has mourned the lossof her family, and we as readers shake our collective head at her vanity, knowingthrough our hindsight what she does not, or at least of which she is not certain:that Auschwitz is only one of the death camps, if the biggest, that as she staresin horror at her bald reflection people are choking on Zyklon B gas, that the airis polluted day and night with the smoke of burning human flesh, that the totalof eleven million dead, six million of whom will be Jews, has nearly beenreached. It is difficult not to compare Celia’s experience with that of ElieWiesel (as described in his memoir Night), who also arrived in Auschwitz in 1944,to compare the loss of her hair with Wiesel’s loss of God, and her horrifiedfascination with her loss of beauty with Wiesel’s almost total lack ofdescription of outer metamorphosis,21 except for the ravaging of male bodies bystarvation, and his focus instead on the inner moral changes Nazi brutalitywreaks. Celia stares into the mirror having just arrived at Auschwitz, and feelsalready a sense of total loss; Wiesel does not gaze upon his own image until thepenultimate passage of Night, after he has witnessed what he unambiguouslyasserts are the worst horrors possible. We may not wish to view Celia’s very realpain as petty, but it simply doesn’t quite adhere to our image of the unbearabletrials and suffering of the Holocaust survivor. And moreover, Celia (and Lucille)knows this, knows that her honest reaction somehow is not quite right, is “absurdvanity.”
Yet she also insists that the shaving of her head amounts todegradation. Why is this so subtly, yet undeniably, difficult to comprehend?Where have we, as readers, learned what a Holocaust survivor is meant to think,feel, mourn, desire? In order to experience a feeling of, if not disdain, atleast disappointment or anticlimax at this point, we must have already formed aconception to which we expect Celia, both as survivor/author and as narrativedevice, to adhere. Celia’s reaction, however, is far from an aberration; in factthe violence of her sentiments is repeated by a great many women survivors andauthors. For example, in Different Voices, Livia E. Bitton Jackson writes:
Thehaircut has a startling effect on every woman’s appearance. Individuals become amass of bodies. Height, stoutness or slimness: There is no distinguishingfactor–it is the absence of hair which transformed individual women into likebodies. Age and other personal differences melt away. Facial expressionsdisappear. Instead, a blank, senseless stare emerges on a thousand faces of onenaked, unappealing body. In a matter of minutes even the physical aspect of ournumbers seems reduced–there is less of a substance to our dimension. We become amonolithic mass, inconsequential. The shaving had a curious effect. A burden waslifted. The burden of individuality. Of associations. Of identity. Of the recentpast. Girls who have continually wept at separation from their parents, sistersand brothers now began to giggle at the strange appearance of their friendsÉWhenresponses to names comes forth from completely transformed bodies, recognition isloud, hysterical. Wild, noisy embraces. Shrieking, screaming disbelief.22
Throughthis context, in fact, the loss of hair is a more primal torment than the loss offamily: it cuts deep into the self, mutilating it beyond recognition or reach.Shaven, the women see themselves as an indistinguishable mass, each of themdeprived of their individual identity and worth, so degraded that they are noteven capable of normal human reactions. The loss of their hair is indeed verymuch like Wiesel’s loss of his God; it opens a gulf between them and anycomprehensible order. Sybil Milton forms the connection between hair andspirituality more concretely:
Religious Jewish women, who, once married, kepttheir hair covered in public under either a wig or scarf, felt both a physicaland a spiritual nakedness, thus unprotected and exposed to the whims of theirNazi tormentors.23
The hair must be covered after marriage because it has assumedthe character of a secondary sex characteristic: it is an indicator, like thebreasts or genitals, of a woman’s sexuality. To be unwillingly shorn, for bothmarried and unmarried Jewish women, is quite literally a mutilation, akin to theslicing off of a breast. Even for an assimilated Western European Jew likeLucille, hair must have been an important indicator of decency and worth.24
Theexamination of the issue of hair can also take place within the larger study ofwomen’s concern for their personal appearance in the camps, in comparison to men.In the Proceedings of the Conference: Women Surviving the Holocaust, this concernis interpreted not as vanity, but as a strategy for survival:
Women were alsoable to protect themselves to a small extent by maintaining a concern for theirpersonal appearance. Many memoirs from several camps report similar experiences:
“My first impulse was to concentrate on making myself more presentable. Under thecircumstances it may sound ludicrous. What real relationship was there between myspiritual existence and the unsightly rags on my body? Who knows, but in a subtlesense, it was real. I began to look around me and saw the beginning of the endfor any woman who had had the opportunity to wash (which was rare) and had notdone so, or for women who felt the tying of a shoelace was that much wastedenergy.”
This remark is repeated with small variations in many different campsettings. Care for one’s appearance despite the lack of water and sanitaryfacilities was a way of maintaining some part of one’s former identity andcontinuity with a previous and remembered life.25
In the Proceedings and in otherworks on the subject, “feminine” traits are transformed into tactics for survivaland into “spiritual resistance”: women’s training in the kitchen facilitatestheir ability to share and extend the meager supply of food, to the point wheremany interned women found it possible to plan ahead and save food for holidaycelebrations and to give some to the children in the camps; women were far morelikely than men to make an effort to sweep and clean their barracks, therebyminimizing the spread of disease; their socialization as nurturers resulted inthe creation of “‘artificial’ families based on need and proximity rather thanblood relationships. The concept of ‘mother’ was relativized…Together theyscrounged for food which they shared, and maintained a mutually supportivenetwork as a ‘new family’–a new, cooperative, personal bond between women helpingeach other.”26 In comparison, “Men appear to have been more competitive towardstheir fellow inmates,”27 and, Sybil Milton adds, “Women in Gurs, Theresienstadt,and Bergen-Belsen reported that men ‘were selfish and undisciplined egoists,unable to control their hungry stomachs, and revealed a painful lack ofcourage.'”28
Each of these authors adds that biological factors played a part aswell in the relative abilities of women and men to survive; women appear to havebeen more physically resilient to starvation than men, due to a larger averageproportion of body fat to muscle. However, I find all these quotes, especiallythe last, to be indicative of another sentiment, another large and complex threadof analysis running through the literature on women and the Holocaust. Milton’sreport that men in the camps were competitive and “selfish” is particularlysuspect for the precise reason that men’s attempts to narrate women’s campexperiences are suspect: since women and men were strictly separated in thecamps, it is difficult to ascertain on what basis and in what context thesecomments were made. With so little information given, the point reveals itself tobe less a serious comparison of male and female behavior than an obvious attemptto link women’s “resilience,” whether biological or socially learned, to acertain heroism.
In fact the overriding message of the 1983 Conference is thecelebration of women’s ability to survive under oppression, especially incomparison to men. An exchange from a panel comprised of both male and femalesurvivors clearly indicates as much:
Panel participant A, female: “Men weredemoralized and women went right on nurturing.”
Panel participant B, male: “Well,speaking for myself, I zeroed in on survival, just to survive. There was no mento men relationship other than that. Everybody wanted to survive…From the women’spoint of view, I don’t know. I was, when the war broke out, fourteen years old.Not too much human development there you know. I know there was a numbness in allof us. It was like a paralyzing effect. You know, after the war a lot ofquestions have been risen [sic.] why we didn’t fight back and all that. Some ofus did, but not enough. So, in my case, I just wanted to survive. I didn’t steal.I’m not aggressive by nature. I just took whatever came along. Some of them mighthave wanted to run away. I didn’t want to run away. It just happened that Isurvived. I don’t attach anything heroic about it. If there is any inkling thatif some of us did something we would survive, I don’t know about it. In myopinion we survived by luck. As far as interrelationship with other men, therewas none.”
A: “I haven’t been able to understand, and I’ve heard it said a numberof times, that having the role of protector taken away from a man was extremelydamaging to you. It is somewhat mysterious to me as to why you can’t do someversion of that role in protecting a younger person, in allowing oneself to beprotected by an older man. Why can women convert nurturance into nurturing otherwomen in the camps? Why can’t the men convert their roles as protectors?”
B: “Well, I think not knowing from one hour to the next played a big part. Here weare with a group of people. We worked together and in the evening they are notthere. You don’t even know what happened to them. It wasn’t a steady flow likeyou are my neighbor, I am moving, I will give you my address. The man is the headof the house and the mother is the mother hen and that is instilled in us. Ourchildren from this generation feel that we are choking them, we’reoverprotective…”[ends]29
The tone in which survival is celebrated here hasdisturbing implications. I cannot summarize them better than Seidman, who writes:
…the understandable Jewish need to discover, recognize and honor Jewishresistance and heroism has resulted in the widespread practice of what could becalled “interrogating the victim”…perhaps there is little else to do with therage and confusion, the need to understand and continue living, than turn thequestions on the victims. Victims and survivors of fascist terror are called uponto attest to their ethical decisions, their survival skills, praised formaintaining their dignity. But by honoring the heroes, don’t scholars end updishonoring those who were not heroic, and sometimes virtually ignoring theregime that engineered a system deliberately designed to make heroism virtuallyimpossible? To expect heroism from victims or to romantically attribute it tothem is to treat the Holocaust as if it were a character test, rather than aprogram of systematic dehumanization.30
It is precisely this tendency to make theShoah into a character test that Joan Miriam Ringelheim addresses in her landmarkarticle, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research,” publishedfirst in 1985 in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. The articlebegins in the familiar vein, as an attempt to “make graphic the complexityof…Jewish women’s lives because of the connections between biology and sexism.”31Ringelheim wishes to examine which vulnerabilities might be defined as havingbeen specific to women in the Holocaust; she points out that women’s biology andmaternal function made certain atrocities, such as forced abortion and thenecessity of killing their or other women’s babies, singular threats. She addsthat cultural sexist attitudes exposed women in particular to violence “in theform of humiliation, molestation, rape, and sexual exchange,” not only in thecamps but in the ghettos, in resistance groups, and in hiding and passing aswell.32 She proposes also to investigate the validity of the claims of women’ssuperior ability to adapt and survive in these settings.
Ringelheim interviewsseveral women survivors in the attempt to recapture both a sense of the Holocaustexperience in its entirety and the particularities of these women’s experiences.From this data, she draws the conclusion that “Some of the differences perceiveddo appear as transformations related to gender,”33 in the manner described above.Thus far, her analysis does not deviate from the sentiments expressed in the 1983Conference.
The second part of the article, however, takes an abrupt and ratherremarkable turn. Ringelheim begins by writing:
The language and perspective inPart I recapitulate some of the research I had written up before May 1984, when Ibegan to see serious problems in my work arising at least in part from myunconscious use of cultural feminism as a frame through which to view Jewishwomen survivors.34
She is, she explains, responding chiefly to Ti-GraceAtkinson’s article “Female Nationalism,” which criticizes mainstream Westernfeminism, calling it “the search for a mythical history, the cult of femaleness, the glorification of motherhood, naturalism, and separatism, [so that] femaleconsciousness [became] the source and arbiter of world reality.”35
Ringelheimproceeds to summarize the main attributes and historical significance of this”cultural feminism”:
Politically cultural feminism can be associated with thebreakup of the New Left and the deradicalizing of feminism in the early 1970s…
Cultural feminism was a reaction against at least two views: 1) radicalfeminism’s position that women are an oppressed class, and 2) the position ofboth New Left politics and radical feminism that personal liberation isimpossible without widespread social change. The reaction shifted the territoryof liberation from an insistence on the need for changing materialist conditionsto a belief in changing the inner life, consciousness, culture, and so on.36
Acorresponding shift in academia accompanied this development; women’s studiesturned “inward,” framing discussions of gender around the issues of consciousnessand culture.37 Scholarly literature on women’s studies in this period focused onan attempt to articulate a universal female archetype for the purpose of imbuingand empowering women with a sense of past, and therefore present, importance.Writers such as Nancy Chodorow, with her focus on mothering and nurturing,adopted methods of cultural anthropology, examining the roles of women inexisting pre-industrial civilizations and drawing parallels to the legacy ofwomen in Western industrial society.
Ringelheim’s objection to cultural feminismfollows a pattern which originated with the critiques on the part of “ThirdWorld” women such as Atkinson and Trinh Minh-ha of some of the traits of what isnow casually referred to as “70’s feminism.” Such critiques attacked dominant,academia-bound cultural feminism as essentialist and elitist. Ringelheimsummarizes:
While women’s consciousness, “herstory,” culture, and so on becamethe standard by which to understand and judge the world, there was confusionabout whether the quintessential woman–the most typical or representativewoman–was to be a woman of the past or a new woman of the future. The confusionresolved itself in a psychoanalytic mode: the past is the future. Then strugglesarose about which woman of the past would serve as a model. The result was thatwe did not emerge with a consciousness, let along a politics, that producedgenuine solidarity with all women, though we did advance different claims tosuperiority.38
Cultural feminism’s failing, Ringelheim charges, is its inadequacyto inspire social change. In fact, it derails revolutionary impulses by claimingto empower without confronting social structures such as the state, family,marriage, or organized religion, and without challenging institutions ofoppression. In place of the risks and inconveniences of activism, it invokes whatRingelheim believes to be an imaginary liberation, that of the past. This”archaeological perspective” amounts to a condescending and superficial adoptionof the cultural forms of “primitive” societies in the guise of the discovery of auniversal woman’s culture and community. “Thus, cultural feminism entrenches usin a reactionary politics of personal or lifestyle change, in liberation of theself.”39 Ringelheim sees this as a lonely liberation, and one that is damaging toany real hopes for women’s solidarity and critical engagement with the world. Itsvery acceptance by mainstream institutions, she claims, is the hallmark of itsmediocrity: “Since the cultural feminist position has few, if any, points ofconflict with the establishment, the government can more easily adopt or adapt itas a cheap substitute for real change. Cultural feminism is endorsed andsupported because it poses no threat.”40
It is not enough, she writes, to merelyreinterpret women’s lives; liberation can come about only with strategies ofactive change. Her own project attempted to reinterpret the experiences of womenin order to celebrate their survival, and in doing so, ended up suggesting aromanticization and valorization of oppression. “Oppression does not make peoplebetter,” she continues, “oppression makes people oppressed. There is no sense infighting or even understanding oppression if we maintain that the values andpractices of the oppressed are not only better than those of the oppressor, but,in some objective sense, ‘a model [for] humanity and the new society.'”41 Inhighlighting the contribution of female friendship and bonding to women’ssurvival of the Holocaust, Ringelheim acknowledges having avoided the issues ofterror, isolation, and death, instead pitting Jew against Jew, man againstwoman, in a contest of worth.
Ringelheim concludes by formulating a series ofinquiries which, in her opinion, should replace the “woman-centered” perspective.Her questions are difficult, and may even seem cruel ones to ask of Holocaustsurvivors, but they mark an attempt to abandon romanticization and to describethe Holocaust in all its complexity. I repeat here only some of her questions:
Dowe lie in order to survive, no matter what the level of oppression? Do the womensurvivors of the Holocaust lie? Engage in self-deception? Bad faith? Just nottell the truth? Mythologize in order to keep surviving? Does the women’sunderstanding of themselves during the Holocaust differ from what happened? Howdo the survivors deal with life having been such a ghastly disappointment becauseof the Holocaust? How live with themselves unless they transform the story? Isthe story they tell less about the Holocaust than about present suffering overthe past and the attempt to survive its memory? Is the only possibility forsurvival of any kind the creation of some “cover story” for an individual or apeople? How often do survivors say things because they have a sense of obligationto their group, as women or as Jews? Are there patterns to these transformations?Do we have the right as researchers to uncover this story? An obligation? How dowe as researchers transform the stories we hear? How should we?
Is it amethodological and theoretical mistake to look at women and the Holocaust fromthe vantage point of their difference rather than from that of oppression? Why domany women survivors believe they survived better than men?…Is it the only thingto hold onto in a world that pays so little attention to them either as women oras survivors?
What is resistance? Is anything an oppressed woman does an act ofresistance? Is survival resistance? What if a person kills herself?…Is dyingresistance?…singing on the way to the gas chamber…stealing…hiding…killing theenemy?…See how the term becomes neutralized–worse, destroyed. Such slippage inlanguage suggests that all Jews became heroes or martyrs and all women heroines.Can that possibly make sense of what happened?…Manipulation of the system is notresistance, even though it can mean survival. Do women know more about themanipulation of systems than about resistance to systems? What is therelationship between manipulation and survival? If we believe that survival isresistance, we may end up with the notion that armed or active resistance is nota priority or that it stands on equal footing with living through the Holocaustin any way possible.
Did anyone really survive the Holocaust?42
Ringelheim’sanxiety encompasses both ends of any dialogue that could occur between historiansand survivors. She is concerned not only with the proper methods of recording,interpreting, and building into a narrative the data supplied by the survivors,but also with the narratives the survivors are telling themselves. If she is toquestion her own interpretation of the reality of the Holocaust, she mustquestion the interpretation of the survivors, who are susceptible to the samefoibles as she; if she is instinctively drawn to romanticize and celebrate, mightnot they be as well? As Lawrence Langer asks:
Does a self-conscious literaryvoice intervene here between the experience and the effect, so that language andimagery obscure even as they seek to clarify? Perhaps; perhaps not. But as weexamine definitions and redefinitions of self emerging from victim narratives, wemust keep in mind that each one of them represents a combat, more often than notunconscious, between fragment and form, disaster and intactness, birdsong andpandemonium.43