3. Women Writing the Holocaust
3. Women Writing the Holocaust
Just as Ringelheim and her colleagues wish to delve into the seeminglystraightforward idea of the Holocaust memoir or study and expose aspects of it interms of gender, and, in Ringelheim’s case, of political and socialresponsibility, other scholars have studied the issues of autobiography andgender, and some of their observations are useful here. I make this move,however, with timidity: is it really possible to compare the Holocaust withanything else? I must assume that it is, or else Ringelheim’s questions arepointless; the information they might supply will have no application in thisworld.
In order to figure out what has happened and is happening to the voices offemale witnesses of the Shoah, it seems to me, I must examine not only theexclusion, inclusion, or appropriation of their narratives by others whocirculate within the discourse inscribed “Holocaust Studies,” but also how thesewomen write themselves into that discourse in the first place. Most of myprevious discussion has dealt with these women’s qualities as survivors, withtheir actions and reactions within the Holocaust space and time; the prominenttendencies within such critiques seems to be to collapse the qualities ofSurvivor with the qualities of Woman (or Women), using the one to explicate andcelebrate the other. But the examination seems incomplete without examining thesewomen’s qualities as witnesses and writers. My focus here turns decisively fromthe methods and strategies of survival to the methods of interpreting andtranslating the survival experience into a narrative comprehensible by others. Inthe genre of memoir, this is a dual task. The memoir attempts to describe thenarrator’s experience of a specific historical event–this is the memory ofmemoir. Thus, unlike the more general category of “autobiography,” the narrativewill always have two referents: the self and that historical event. Moreover, theaudience to whom the narrative must be comprehensible is a diverse one. Itincludes not only the specific academic, historian, or student who might chooseto examine a survivor’s narrative, but more generally the non-survivor…not s/hewho died in the Holocaust, but s/he who has not lived the experiences of theHolocaust.
In their book Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography, BellaBrodzki and Celeste Schenck argue that notions of self-articulation and narrativeidentity have been inscribed by a wholly masculine tradition:
[the] assumptionhas been that autobiography is a transparency through which we perceive the life,unmediated and undistorted…The (masculine) tradition of autobiography beginningwith Augustine had taken as its first premise the mirroring capacity of theautobiographer: his universality, his representativeness, his role as spokesmanfor the community. But only a critical ideology that reifies a unified,transcendent self can expect to see in the mirror of autobiography a self whosedepths can be plumbed, whose heart can be discovered, and whose essence can bedefinitively known. No mirror of her era, the female autobiographer takes as agiven that selfhood is mediated; her invisibility results from her lack of atradition, her marginality in male-dominated culture, her fragmentation–socialand political as well as psychic…44
The woman cannot possibly mirror her era ifher era denigrates and ignores her experience and subjectivity. The masculinistautobiographies, Brodzki and Schenck continue, “rest upon the Western ideal of anessential and inviolable self, which, like its fictional equivalent, character,unifies and propels the narrative.”45 Not until Roland Barthes’ 1977autobiography, they claim (entitled, appropriately, Roland Barthes par RolandBarthes), does a male autobiographer recognize the mirror’s capacity to distortas well as reflect and thereby the autobiography’s capability of “polygamousmeaning,”46 an insight which begins to make possible the legitimization ofmulti-faceted female subjectivity.47
The tone of wry humor and doggeddetermination is familiar: it is the same mixture of bitterness and passion whichinfuses Different Voices and the Proceedings of the Conference: Women Survivingthe Holocaust. Just as these works propose to explode the concept of “survivor,”revealing its masculine bias and introducing the particularities of the femininesurvival experience, the feminist exploration of autobiography seeks to introducethe issue of gender to the autobiographical “I”. As Susan Groag Bell and MarilynYalom note, “Men rarely make an issue of their gender because the genericmasculine has been the norm in Western society for at least three millennia, withwoman conceptualized as derivative from and secondary to man.”48
Heinemann writesthat “No one has explored whether women and men write the same or differentlyabout other camp inmates when they write their Holocaust memoirs,”49 and suggeststhat women’s Holocaust memoirs would pose interesting challenges to feministanalyses of narrativity such as the above. She cites Estelle Jelinek asrepresentative of the feminist claim that men usually characterize their livesand themselves in self-confident, self-aggrandizing terms, whereas women write ina more self-effacing style, asking the reader for an affirmation of self-worth.But Heinemann observes a tone of heroism and self-aggrandizement in the Holocaustnarratives of both men and women, through especially the exaggeration of smallgestures of resistance to deny apathy and complicity. 50
The problem with thisanalysis is that there is a great difference between being a self-aggrandizingmale voice and utilizing that voice. In her last chapter on “Authenticity,”Heinemann discusses the methods in which Holocaust memoirs manage to effectivelycommunicate both the Shoah’s extreme temporo-spatial otherness and its historicalreality. How successful a claim to authenticity is depends on many factors: howlong after the event the memoir is composed, the reliability of the author’smemory, the position the author held in the camp hierarchy and to what portionsof camp life s/he was privy, the ability to portray brutality without overtaxingthe reader’s capabilities, and to what degree the memoir corroborates alreadyaccepted accounts, to name but a few. Here Heinemann admits that the voice ofmemoir is hardly an uncoded and “naked” one, but one carefully composed andcalibrated vis--vis both the potential readership and the existing body ofsimilar work.
Yet Heinemann appears to take the “heroic” voice of women’sHolocaust memoir at face value, without questioning too deeply the origin of thatvoice. Her argument parallels her earlier claim to a higher and asexual purposeto Holocaust memoir: in the difficult act of recollecting such abnormalcircumstances, some aspects of gender conditioning yield to the more universaltraits of “honor.” But do the voices of both women and men yield? Rather,Heinemann suggests that it is the voices of women which change noticeably,adopting the language of self-aggrandizement which has been visible in malememoir all along. The disturbing implication is that women do not and perhapscannot have a heroic voice of their own, but instead must “masculinize” theirdiscourse to express such sentiments. It may very well be that women feelcompelled to authenticate their characterizations of heroism by adopting thefamiliar male discourse–does there exist another? And yet it is undeniable thatthere were heroic women in the Holocaust, that there have always been and arestill such women, and that they are no less women for being heroic.
In fact,women’s particular heroism has been linked to literature, specifically, by EllenFine. Fine begins, as I do, with Dan Pagis’s poem “Written in Pencil in a SealedBoxcar,” and writes:
What is interesting in this poetic interpretation of thepost-Eden world is the central role given to Eve, mother of the two enemybrothers, and link between good and evil. Eve has given birth to Cain, theworld’s first assassin, who has, as Elie Wiesel points out, committed the firstgenocide. Eve, mother of creation, becomes a victim of her son’s injustice: sheis condemned to be destroyed. Yet in defiance and in desperation, she iscompelled to bear witness.51
At such a moment, Fine states, even the attempt towrite becomes an act of resistance, not only against the actual threat of death,but against the threat of the loss of faith in the rest of humanity.52
She statesthis even more emphatically later, describing literature not merely as ametaphorical act of resistance to the Holocaust, but as an actual and employedone:
Of all the strategies for survival and for preserving memory, the one thatattests most to the triumph of the human spirit is the recollection ofliterature. Remembering, reciting, and sometimes even composing fragments ofliterary works served as forms of spiritual nourishment…Reaching out toliterature in the midst of the Holocaust despair served different functions: itwas a way of holding onto one’s heritage and tradition; of affirming one’sidentity as a human being in the face of brutality and degradation; it was avehicle of communion and sharing. Literature became an instrument oftranscendence, a means of partaking in a realm larger than oneself.53
The use ofliterature, Fine continues, functioned as a means of covert and inwardresistance: spiritual resistance. And according to Frieda Aaron, a survivor ofthe Warsaw Ghetto uprising and of Majdanek, the link between this privateliterary resistance and organized action was actual. “The initial purpose of thiscreativity was neither the poem for itself nor even the poem as bearer ofwitness–since without writing materials this was hardly possible,” Aaron haswritten, “but rather the process…What is most significant is that these momentsof creativity were the ones when the spirit to help each other was mostapparent.”54
Unfortunately, Fine never discusses the particular confluencesbetween the specific female experiences of the Holocaust and the use of literaryresistance; she simply cites no male survivors or authors in her discussion. Weare left unaware of any comparable, or for that matter, contradictory sensibilityin the world of the male survivor. Fine’s analysis of the use of literature inthe camps as a means of resistance is poetic, but it resonates uncomfortably withJoan Ringelheim’s concern that the idea of resistance has been overdetermined tothe point of meaninglessness. If literature functioned as a means of resistancein the camp setting, does it somehow continue to function in that way? Do workscomposed in the camps but written down and published after liberation differ insome manner from works written many years later? Moreover, for every survivorFine discusses who credits literature as a means to her survival, there are somany dead who no doubt looked to literature as well; an example, although a maleone, is Mikls Radnti, who died on a death march to Hungary and was found in amass grave in 1946, with a notebook full of poems in his pocket. Did Radntilook upon his poems as a charm for survival? Did he believe that by recording hisimpressions of those days, he was predicting a point where he would be able tore-read them as mere memories, sometime in the far-off and never realized future?
It would also seem that to call Holocaust memoir an act of resistance somehowflattens the work in question. Such a qualification refuses, and in fact seems toforbid, judgment of the work based on literary and aesthetic merit, substitutinga certain equivalence and noble untouchability among all such memoirs.
At thispoint, a return to Lucille E.’s experiences in the form of an interview with E.herself can perhaps illuminate the reactions a survivor might have herself tothese tangled lines of inquiry. I spoke with E. for about two hours at her homein Oakland on May 17, 1994, asking her about her book and sharing with her myresearch on this paper thus far. I asked her what she thought resistance was, andher reply was far-reaching:
I can only give you my opinion, of course. To me,resistance is something that is active, it is not passive. You fight, you use agun, you use a stick, and you take your chances, you know that the odds areagainst you. It is active resistance. You inflict as many casualties as you can,knowing, that in the end, you will not come out of it. That I call resistance.Survival is quite something else. Survival can be manipulated, and it was by somepeople, not by many but by some. Survival is a matter of luck, a matter offriendship, a matter of help from other sources. Survival is not something thatyou can actively control. Resistance you can control. You resist, you fight, tothe best of your ability and to your last breath. But you won’t survive.55
InE.’s experience, to resist involves the assumption of death. A survivor who hasalso been a resistor is a rare exception, not the norm.
But in fact E.’s ownparticular experience in writing and publishing her book does feature a certainamount of resistance: not to the Holocaust, but to today’s Holocaust discourse.Her own difficulty, as revealed in our conversation, was not so much in finallyconfronting her own memories after fifty years as in attempting to compile andedit them to correspond to preexisting conceptions of Holocaust memoir:
CatherineBernard: I wanted to ask you to tell me the story of your writing your book, ofhow it came to be written…
Lucille E.: Well, I met a poet here in Berkeley,Maika Tussman, and she just asked questions, pretty much at random. It was in theseventies, early eighties. And I told her incidents, and she said, “Oh, make somenotes and write it down, you’ll probably never write a book, and you’re not ahistorian, but just put it down nevertheless.” And I did, and I sent a couple ofthem out, and a couple of them were published, translated…
CB: Where were theypublished? LE: In Israel, translated, and in Germany. And I never gave itanother thought until I stopped working in the eighties, and then I decided maybenow is the time to get the material out, and clean it up.
I had met a young…oh,she wasn’t young, my age (laughs)…a woman who had gotten her Ph.D. at UC, and Ijust met her occasionally, and she asked me some questions, and she said, “Sendme the material,” and I waited two years before I did. I didn’t see her inbetween. I didn’t talk to her.
CB: Why did you wait?
LE: I wasn’t ready. Iwasn’t ready to go public, as the saying goes. I mailed her the material, and shecalled me, and she remembered, and she said, “Let’s try and work on it.” And atfirst, we did sort of hit and miss, and some topics I found very difficult to putdown on paper…like for instance my sister, I just, just couldn’t put this onpaper. It was that difficult. Then I stopped working in the mid-eighties. Therewere twelve chapters, we went one chapter at a time. We cleaned it up, she askeda lot of questions, and she would make suggestions: “This is too long,” or “thisis too short,” and “this has no details,” and “this has too many details.” Andsome stories had ten rewrites, or eight rewrites.
CB: When she would say thingslike that, what was your reaction, were you very receptive, or…?
LE: Yes. Myvanity was not hurt, I didn’t question it. I did not always agree, but I thinkthat most of the time we did agree, we were of the same opinion. And then I sentsome things out to publishers, and the answer came back, “It’s well written, butwe have too much Holocaust stuff.”
I finally decided to get an agent, and shepretty much had the same results. Except for a year and a half ago, when apublisher said, yes, we’ll take it. Out of the blue. She and I knew that thispublisher, who had a different editor four years ago, had rejected it. We nevertold them that. This time they accepted, and it took them twelve months topublish it.
Stories, and history, go in cycles. It’s like fashion, long skirts,short skirts, it’s the same with the Holocaust. Now it’s popular, and then peoplehave had enough, and nothing happens for a few years. And then there is aresurgence, probably partly Schindler’s List, although I started publishing thebook before Schindler’s List, and maybe it had just been quiet for ten years andnobody had done much or said much, and all of a sudden, it became a topic again.And then maybe people realized that the children of the time are old now, youknow, they’re in their late sixties, early seventies, late seventies, and afterthey are gone, there are no more eyewitnesses. So, the publisher was very pleasedwith the manuscript, they’ve never published Holocaust material before…they hadpublished a variety, as you can see inside the book, of topics…some literature,some art, some movie related, et cetera, and the chief editor turned it over toan editor in Colorado. I never met the man. We never corresponded. His editingwas…good, however, he wanted to make a novel out of it. He wanted it beautiful,he wanted it to be very smooth, and very polished, and life wasn’t polished, Ididn’t want it to be polished. I wanted it to be harsh, and abrupt.
When thefirst edit came back, I took exceptions to some of the things. When he started toput, to put in a paragraph at the beginning of a chapter that he totallycomposed, it was his own composition…
CB: Well, it was your book…
LE: Then Isaid no. I can’t live with it. I might take something out of it, but theparagraph as it stands, I cannot live with. So Harriet [her agent] and I thenwrote over the edit, and had pages and pages and pages of comments, andparagraphs, and whatever, and then three months later, it went to a young woman,I think in the San Mateo area, who was an actress by training, she was educatedin the East at one of the eastern colleges, but she freelances as an editor. Andwhen she got ahold of it, she edited quite differently. First of all, she wasconcerned about time, or places, she was concerned that it would be in propersequence, that it wouldn’t be mislabeled, be misspelled. And then her editing wasgentle. She would always attach a yellow slip and she would say, “Don’t you thinkif we substitute this word for this word, it’s more relevant,” and I would saythat probably seventy-five percent of the time we went along. Twenty-fivepercent, she either missed the message or the point, and we said no. And it wasjust amazing how two people can edit so differently. The fellow in Colorado camehighly recommended, he has a degree in English Lit, he took Holocaust Studies incollege–he’s probably about 35 years old–but I had the impression that he reallydidn’t know what it was all about, it was too difficult to comprehend. Whether itwas a lack of knowledge, or lack of background, or that he just couldn’t relateto it, was difficult to say. I never met him, I never corresponded with him, thatwould be interesting, but it just isn’t done.
CB: Do you think it might haveanything to do with gender?
LE: I think it might have something to do withgender. I like to believe it does…(laughs)
CB: I do too. (laughs)56
Although toattempt to make generalizations based solely on E.’s experience would be foolish,her story is nonetheless telling. In a sense, the reaction of her male editor issimilar to that of Elie Wiesel. Both are preoccupied above all else with the lossof overarching meaning and sense in the Holocaust: Wiesel in the loss of thereligious structures and narratives which codified his world, and the editor withthe effect Lucille’s fragmented and alogical experiences have on traditionalideals of narrative flow. The “beauty” the editor desired was a beauty ofcoherency. It is the beauty of reflection, of life through the visage of aunified and homogeneous self. Lucille cannot comprehend his vision of herexperiences; moreover, she is offended by it. She is then surprised by the easewith which her next editor, female, accepts, without questioning, herdiscontinuous narrative vision. Again, one can hardly derive conclusive resultsfrom this one example, but it informs nicely the theoretical apparatus of Brodzkiand Schenck, Bell and Yalom.
Is there a way to incorporate the voices of womenwriters of the Holocaust without romanticizing oppression, without invokingmonolithic conceptions of gender, a way which recognizes that activity did notensure survival and yet is able to appreciate and differentiate levels and genresof activity? I would like to be able to invoke the specifics of gender into adiscussion of the Holocaust witness, but not in such a manner as to imprisonindividuals within gender definitions. Rather, can we not develop a discourse inwhich gender is permitted to circulate without being either a scandal or the soledeterminant, in which female affiliations are recognized as both important andheterogeneous? Finally, hope of hopes, is there a way to suggest that thecreativity manifested in these women’s voices also demonstrates that suchaffiliations are always, to a degree, chosen? It would be, to say the least,refreshing to discover a description of women’s subjectivity as other than thatwhich has been rejected by men.
In order to illustrate the deep roots ofHolocaust Studies’s discomfort with the issue of gender, I turn to the mostwidely-read of all memoirs of the Shoah: the Diary of Anne Frank, first publishedin 1947 (a full eleven years before Wiesel’s Night) and now ubiquitous to schoolcurriculums all over the world. The treatment of her remarkable testament bearswitness to the rapidity and ease with which it came to be understood that onecould write as a witness or write as a woman, but not as both.