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3. Women Writing the Holocaust

Just as Ringelheim and her colleagues wish to delve into the seemingly straightforward idea of the Holocaust memoir or study and expose aspects of it in terms of gender, and, in Ringelheim’s case, of political and social responsibility, other scholars have studied the issues of autobiography and gender, 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 are pointless; the information they might supply will have no application in this world.

In order to figure out what has happened and is happening to the voices of female witnesses of the Shoah, it seems to me, I must examine not only the exclusion, inclusion, or appropriation of their narratives by others who circulate within the discourse inscribed “Holocaust Studies,” but also how these women write themselves into that discourse in the first place. Most of my previous discussion has dealt with these women’s qualities as survivors, with their actions and reactions within the Holocaust space and time; the prominent tendencies within such critiques seems to be to collapse the qualities of Survivor with the qualities of Woman (or Women), using the one to explicate and celebrate the other. But the examination seems incomplete without examining these women’s qualities as witnesses and writers. My focus here turns decisively from the methods and strategies of survival to the methods of interpreting and translating the survival experience into a narrative comprehensible by others. In the genre of memoir, this is a dual task. The memoir attempts to describe the narrator’s experience of a specific historical event–this is the memory of memoir. Thus, unlike the more general category of “autobiography,” the narrative will always have two referents: the self and that historical event. Moreover, the audience to whom the narrative must be comprehensible is a diverse one. It includes not only the specific academic, historian, or student who might choose to examine a survivor’s narrative, but more generally the non-survivor…not s/he who died in the Holocaust, but s/he who has not lived the experiences of the Holocaust.

In their book Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography, BellaBrodzki and Celeste Schenck argue that notions of self-articulation and narrative identity have been inscribed by a wholly masculine tradition:

[the] assumption has been that autobiography is a transparency through which we perceive the life, unmediated and undistorted…The (masculine) tradition of autobiography beginning with Augustine had taken as its first premise the mirroring capacity of the autobiographer: his universality, his representativeness, his role as spokesman for the community. But only a critical ideology that reifies a unified, transcendent self can expect to see in the mirror of autobiography a self whose depths can be plumbed, whose heart can be discovered, and whose essence can be definitively known. No mirror of her era, the female autobiographer takes as a given that selfhood is mediated; her invisibility results from her lack of a tradition, her marginality in male-dominated culture, her fragmentation–social and political as well as psychic…44

The woman cannot possibly mirror her era if her era denigrates and ignores her experience and subjectivity. The masculinist autobiographies, Brodzki and Schenck continue, “rest upon the Western ideal of an essential and inviolable self, which, like its fictional equivalent, character,unifies and propels the narrative.”45 Not until Roland Barthes’ 1977 autobiography, they claim (entitled, appropriately, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes), does a male autobiographer recognize the mirror’s capacity to distort as well as reflect and thereby the autobiography’s capability of “polygamous meaning,”46 an insight which begins to make possible the legitimization of multi-faceted female subjectivity.47

The tone of wry humor and dogged determination is familiar: it is the same mixture of bitterness and passion which infuses Different Voices and the Proceedings of the Conference: Women Surviving the Holocaust. Just as these works propose to explode the concept of “survivor,”revealing its masculine bias and introducing the particularities of the feminine survival experience, the feminist exploration of autobiography seeks to introduce the issue of gender to the autobiographical “I”. As Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom note, “Men rarely make an issue of their gender because the generic masculine has been the norm in Western society for at least three millennia, with woman conceptualized as derivative from and secondary to man.”48

Heinemann writes that “No one has explored whether women and men write the same or differently about other camp inmates when they write their Holocaust memoirs,”49 and suggests that women’s Holocaust memoirs would pose interesting challenges to feminist analyses of narrativity such as the above. She cites Estelle Jelinek as representative of the feminist claim that men usually characterize their lives and themselves in self-confident, self-aggrandizing terms, whereas women write in a 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 Holocaust narratives of both men and women, through especially the exaggeration of small gestures of resistance to deny apathy and complicity. 50

The problem with this analysis is that there is a great difference between being a self-aggrandizing male voice and utilizing that voice. In her last chapter on “Authenticity,”Heinemann discusses the methods in which Holocaust memoirs manage to effectively communicate both the Shoah’s extreme temporo-spatial otherness and its historical reality. How successful a claim to authenticity is depends on many factors: how long after the event the memoir is composed, the reliability of the author’s memory, the position the author held in the camp hierarchy and to what portions of camp life s/he was privy, the ability to portray brutality without overtaxing the reader’s capabilities, and to what degree the memoir corroborates already accepted accounts, to name but a few. Here Heinemann admits that the voice of memoir is hardly an uncoded and “naked” one, but one carefully composed and calibrated vis-ˆ-vis both the potential readership and the existing body of  similar work.

Yet Heinemann appears to take the “heroic” voice of women’s Holocaust memoir at face value, without questioning too deeply the origin of that voice. Her argument parallels her earlier claim to a higher and asexual purpose to Holocaust memoir: in the difficult act of recollecting such abnormal circumstances, some aspects of gender conditioning yield to the more universal traits 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 male memoir all along. The disturbing implication is that women do not and perhaps cannot have a heroic voice of their own, but instead must “masculinize” their discourse to express such sentiments. It may very well be that women feel compelled to authenticate their characterizations of heroism by adopting the familiar male discourse–does there exist another? And yet it is undeniable that there were heroic women in the Holocaust, that there have always been and are still 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 Ellen Fine. Fine begins, as I do, with Dan Pagis’s poem “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar,” and writes:

What is interesting in this poetic interpretation of the post-Eden world is the central role given to Eve, mother of the two enemy brothers, and link between good and evil. Eve has given birth to Cain, the world’s first assassin, who has, as Elie Wiesel points out, committed the first genocide. Eve, mother of creation, becomes a victim of her son’s injustice: she is condemned to be destroyed. Yet in defiance and in desperation, she is compelled to bear witness.51

At such a moment, Fine states, even the attempt to write 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 states this even more emphatically later, describing literature not merely as a metaphorical act of resistance to the Holocaust, but as an actual and employed one:

Of all the strategies for survival and for preserving memory, the one that attests most to the triumph of the human spirit is the recollection of literature. Remembering, reciting, and sometimes even composing fragments of literary works served as forms of spiritual nourishment…Reaching out to literature in the midst of the Holocaust despair served different functions: it was a way of holding onto one’s heritage and tradition; of affirming one’s identity as a human being in the face of brutality and degradation; it was a vehicle of communion and sharing. Literature became an instrument of transcendence, a means of partaking in a realm larger than oneself.53

The use of literature, Fine continues, functioned as a means of covert and inward resistance: spiritual resistance. And according to Frieda Aaron, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and of Majdanek, the link between this private literary resistance and organized action was actual. “The initial purpose of this creativity was neither the poem for itself nor even the poem as bearer of witness–since without writing materials this was hardly possible,” Aaron has written, “but rather the process…What is most significant is that these moments of creativity were the ones when the spirit to help each other was most apparent.”54

Unfortunately, Fine never discusses the particular confluences between the specific female experiences of the Holocaust and the use of literary resistance; she simply cites no male survivors or authors in her discussion. We are left unaware of any comparable, or for that matter, contradictory sensibility in the world of the male survivor. Fine’s analysis of the use of literature in the camps as a means of resistance is poetic, but it resonates uncomfortably with Joan Ringelheim’s concern that the idea of resistance has been over determined to the point of meaninglessness. If literature functioned as a means of resistance in the camp setting, does it somehow continue to function in that way? Do works composed in the camps but written down and published after liberation differ in some manner from works written many years later? Moreover, for every survivor Fine discusses who credits literature as a means to her survival, there are so many dead who no doubt looked to literature as well; an example, although a male one, is Miklos Radnoti, who died on a death march to Hungary and was found in a mass grave in 1946, with a notebook full of poems in his pocket. Did Radnoti look upon his poems as a charm for survival? Did he believe that by recording his impressions 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 somehow flattens the work in question. Such a qualification refuses, and in fact seems to forbid, judgment of the work based on literary and aesthetic merit, substituting a certain equivalence and noble untouchability among all such memoirs.

At this point, 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 to these tangled lines of inquiry. I spoke with E. for about two hours at her home in Oakland on May 17, 1994, asking her about her book and sharing with her my research on this paper thus far. I asked her what she thought resistance was, and her 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 a gun, you use a stick, and you take your chances, you know that the odds are against 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 some people, not by many but by some. Survival is a matter of luck, a matter of friendship, a matter of help from other sources. Survival is not something that you can actively control. Resistance you can control. You resist, you fight, to the best of your ability and to your last breath. But you won’t survive.55

In E.’s experience, to resist involves the assumption of death. A survivor who has also been a resistor is a rare exception, not the norm.

But in fact E.’s own particular experience in writing and publishing her book does feature a certain amount 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 finally confronting her own memories after fifty years as in attempting to compile and edit them to correspond to preexisting conceptions of Holocaust memoir:

Catherine Bernard: I wanted to ask you to tell me the story of your writing your book, of how 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 the seventies, early eighties. And I told her incidents, and she said, “Oh, make some notes and write it down, you’ll probably never write a book, and you’re not a historian, but just put it down nevertheless.” And I did, and I sent a couple of them out, and a couple of them were published, translated…

CB: Where were they published? LE: In Israel, translated, and in Germany. And I never gave it another thought until I stopped working in the eighties, and then I decided maybe now 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 I just met her occasionally, and she asked me some questions, and she said, “Send me the material,” and I waited two years before I did. I didn’t see her in between. I didn’t talk to her.

CB: Why did you wait?

LE: I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to go public, as the saying goes. I mailed her the material, and she called me, and she remembered, and she said, “Let’s try and work on it.” And at first, we did sort of hit and miss, and some topics I found very difficult to put down on paper…like for instance my sister, I just, just couldn’t put this on paper. It was that difficult. Then I stopped working in the mid-eighties. There were twelve chapters, we went one chapter at a time. We cleaned it up, she asked a lot of questions, and she would make suggestions: “This is too long,” or “this is too short,” and “this has no details,” and “this has too many details.” And some stories had ten rewrites, or eight rewrites.

CB: When she would say things like that, what was your reaction, were you very receptive, or…?

LE: Yes. My vanity was not hurt, I didn’t question it. I did not always agree, but I think that most of the time we did agree, we were of the same opinion. And then I sent some things out to publishers, and the answer came back, “It’s well written, but we have too much Holocaust stuff.”

I finally decided to get an agent, and she pretty much had the same results. Except for a year and a half ago, when a publisher said, yes, we’ll take it. Out of the blue. She and I knew that this publisher, who had a different editor four years ago, had rejected it. We never told them that. This time they accepted, and it took them twelve months to publish 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 people have had enough, and nothing happens for a few years. And then there is a resurgence, probably partly Schindler’s List, although I started publishing the book before Schindler’s List, and maybe it had just been quiet for ten years and nobody 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, you know, they’re in their late sixties, early seventies, late seventies, and after they are gone, there are no more eyewitnesses. So, the publisher was very pleased with the manuscript, they’ve never published Holocaust material before…they had published 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 to an editor in Colorado. I never met the man. We never corresponded. His editing was…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, I didn’t want it to be polished. I wanted it to be harsh, and abrupt.

When the first edit came back, I took exceptions to some of the things. When he started to put, to put in a paragraph at the beginning of a chapter that he totally composed, it was his own composition…

CB: Well, it was your book…

LE: Then I said no. I can’t live with it. I might take something out of it, but the paragraph as it stands, I cannot live with. So Harriet [her agent] and I then wrote over the edit, and had pages and pages and pages of comments, and paragraphs, 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 educated in the East at one of the eastern colleges, but she freelances as an editor. And when she got a hold of it, she edited quite differently. First of all, she was concerned about time, or places, she was concerned that it would be in proper sequence, 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 think if we substitute this word for this word, it’s more relevant,” and I would say that probably seventy-five percent of the time we went along. Twenty-five percent, 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 came highly recommended, he has a degree in English Lit, he took Holocaust Studies in college–he’s probably about 35 years old–but I had the impression that he really didn’t know what it was all about, it was too difficult to comprehend. Whether it was a lack of knowledge, or lack of background, or that he just couldn’t relate to it, was difficult to say. I never met him, I never corresponded with him, that would be interesting, but it just isn’t done.

CB: Do you think it might have anything to do with gender?

LE: I think it might have something to do with gender. I like to believe it does…(laughs)

CB: I do too. (laughs) 56

Although to attempt 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 is similar to that of Elie Wiesel. Both are preoccupied above all else with the loss of overarching meaning and sense in the Holocaust: Wiesel in the loss of the religious structures and narratives which codified his world, and the editor with the effect Lucille’s fragmented and a logical experiences have on traditional ideals of narrative flow. The “beauty” the editor desired was a beauty of coherency. It is the beauty of reflection, of life through the visage of a unified and homogeneous self. Lucille cannot comprehend his vision of her experiences; moreover, she is offended by it. She is then surprised by the ease with which her next editor, female, accepts, without questioning, her discontinuous narrative vision. Again, one can hardly derive conclusive results from 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 women writers of the Holocaust without romanticizing oppression, without invoking monolithic conceptions of gender, a way which recognizes that activity did not ensure survival and yet is able to appreciate and differentiate levels and genres of activity? I would like to be able to invoke the specifics of gender into a discussion of the Holocaust witness, but not in such a manner as to imprison individuals within gender definitions. Rather, can we not develop a discourse in which gender is permitted to circulate without being either a scandal or the sole determinant, in which female affiliations are recognized as both important and heterogeneous? Finally, hope of hopes, is there a way to suggest that the creativity manifested in these women’s voices also demonstrates that such affiliations 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 that which has been rejected by men.

In order to illustrate the deep roots of Holocaust Studies’s discomfort with the issue of gender, I turn to the most widely-read of all memoirs of the Shoah: the Diary of Anne Frank, first published in 1947 (a full eleven years before Wiesel’s Night) and now ubiquitous to school curriculums all over the world. The treatment of her remarkable testament bears witness to the rapidity and ease with which it came to be understood that one could write as a witness or write as a woman, but not as both.


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