2. Lucille E.: The Gender Politics of Survival

 Return to Women Writing the Holocaust 

2. Lucille E.: The Gender Politics of Survival

I derive the strongest support for this view as I turn from secondary to primary literature. In From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, survivor Lucille E. relates her experiences in the Lodz ghetto, in Auschwitz, at forced labor near Neuengamme, and finally in Bergen-Belsen, where, perhaps only days from death from typhus and starvation, she encounters liberation and the British. Upon her recovery, E. facilitated the arrest and conviction of forty SS; fluent in German,she had been for a period assigned secretarial duties at Neuengamme, and had memorized the names and addresses of the SS to whom correspondence was regularly sent.

To me the most stirring chapters, “Auschwitz” and “The Scarf,” were those which focused on the moments when the Nazis’ trajectory of destruction, having resulted in the deaths of her father and mother and the deportation and subsequent murder of her little sister, finally encroaches upon Celia, the name by 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 and uncomprehending, unable to react until a Kapo begins to shave her, under the harsh direction of an SS woman:

She was obese, stuffed into a uniform several sizes too small for her ample body. She was about thirty-five years old, with frizzy blond hair, not even five feet tall. Her squinty eyes were hidden behind hick, rimless glasses. She laughed, enjoying every minute of our degradation.Pure hatred mixed with fear and pain swirled in my brain until I silently screamed and swore revenge.As if reading my thoughts, the SS woman slapped my face hard with the back of her hand. My head reeled back, but the Kapo kept on clipping. As she shaved my armpits and all other body hair, I concentrated on my hatred: hatred for her, hatred for the Germans who had reduced me to this sweating, naked creature, without hair, without dignity. I was no longer a human being to them, just an expendable Jew. I remembered my father and sister: had they 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, to kick, to scratch. Instead, I stood in silent rage.

I looked at the mountains of hair around us, hair of every conceivable color. What would they do with all this hair? For several minutes, we stood motionless, then felt the hands of the Kapo pushing us toward the swinging doors. I was startled by a reflection in the upper glass panels–an oval, egg-shaped head with two dark eyes and large, protruding ears. Was this hideous sight me? I lifted my arms to touch my head, but revolted by the reflected image, I dropped my hands, denying for a moment the shock, the nightmare that was me.15

Celia passes the selection of Dr. Mengele and is loaded onto one of a line of cattle cars. After three days inside the car, she arrives at Dessauer Ufer, a work camp near Hamburg, where she is put to work clearing bomb damage in and around the city. As she moves and lifts heavy girders and shards of glass, continually soaked by the fall rain, she is tormented not so much by the labor or the elements as by an apparently irrational desire:

I still wished for something to cover my bald head, but not because of the cold wind or driving rain. It was, of all things, vanity. I thought of my once long, shiny brown hair and wondered if vanity was still possible. Who cared? What did anything really matter? But for some strange reason, it still mattered to me–even beyond the pain of my frostbitten toes, icy hands, and rain-drenched body.16

One morning, 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 grabs it and hides it between her thighs. Exultant, she continues to work. Later inthe day, she is approached by the Obersturmbannfuhrer, who the women on the crew call Der zahnlose Lahme, the toothless lame one, at the expense of both his wooden leg and of his masculine pride, which apparently feels the twinge of having been assigned to command a group of women. The women’s ability to mock his masculinity, however, is far overshadowed by his ability to kill, and he is hardly depicted in the narrative as a figure of fun. The Obersturmbannfuhrer tells Celia that he needs her to translate, and leads her around the back of a bombed-out building. When he grabs her and begins to grope at her body, she is certain that he has discovered her theft, that “My absurd vanity would be my death.”17  When he thrusts his hand between her legs, however, and feels the hidden scarf, he pushes her from him and shouts, “You filthy, useless bitch! Pfui! Menstruating!”18 Celia runs back to work, her absence unobserved and herself unable to quite comprehend what had just happened. “That night in the barracks,” 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 this finely tuned passage, the irony is evident: the scarf, far from having caused her death, has rescued her from certain rape and likely murder. This irony is deepened by the amennorhea of most female prisoners, especially those who, like Celia, had been surviving for some time on meager camp or ghetto diets. TheObersturmbannfuhrer’s ignorance of this simple biological fact would seem to draw out at least one difference between the experiences of men and of women, but what one reads through even these short sections of From Ashes to Life is far more complex.

Reading of Celia’s anguish over the loss of her hair, one feels pity for this young woman,20 but is it unnatural to feel a bit of what might be described almost as disdain? Celia mourns the loss of her hair as she has mourned the loss of her family, and we as readers shake our collective head at her vanity, knowing through 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 stares in horror at her bald reflection people are choking on Zyklon B gas, that the air is polluted day and night with the smoke of burning human flesh, that the total of eleven million dead, six million of whom will be Jews, has nearly been reached. It is difficult not to compare Celia’s experience with that of Elie Wiesel (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 horrified fascination with her loss of beauty with Wiesel’s almost total lack of description of outer metamorphosis,21 except for the ravaging of male bodies by starvation, and his focus instead on the inner moral changes Nazi brutality wreaks. Celia stares into the mirror having just arrived at Auschwitz, and feels already a sense of total loss; Wiesel does not gaze upon his own image until the penultimate passage of Night, after he has witnessed what he unambiguously asserts are the worst horrors possible. We may not wish to view Celia’s very real pain as petty, but it simply doesn’t quite adhere to our image of the unbearable trials and suffering of the Holocaust survivor. And moreover, Celia (and Lucille)knows this, knows that her honest reaction somehow is not quite right, is “absurd vanity.”

Yet she also insists that the shaving of her head amounts to degradation. 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, at least disappointment or anticlimax at this point, we must have already formed a conception to which we expect Celia, both as survivor/author and as narrative device, to adhere. Celia’s reaction, however, is far from an aberration; in fact the violence of her sentiments is repeated by a great many women survivors and authors. For example, in Different Voices, Livia E. Bitton Jackson writes:

The haircut has a startling effect on every woman’s appearance. Individuals become amass of bodies. Height, stoutness or slimness: There is no distinguishing factor–it is the absence of hair which transformed individual women into like bodies. Age and other personal differences melt away. Facial expressions disappear. Instead, a blank, senseless stare emerges on a thousand faces of one naked, unappealing body. In a matter of minutes even the physical aspect of our numbers seems reduced–there is less of a substance to our dimension. We become a monolithic mass, inconsequential. The shaving had a curious effect. A burden was lifted. The burden of individuality. Of associations. Of identity. Of the recent past. Girls who have continually wept at separation from their parents, sisters and brothers now began to giggle at the strange appearance of their friends. When responses to names comes forth from completely transformed bodies, recognition is loud, hysterical. Wild, noisy embraces. Shrieking, screaming disbelief.22

Through this context, in fact, the loss of hair is a more primal torment than the loss of family: it cuts deep into the self, mutilating it beyond recognition or reach.Shaven, the women see themselves as an indistinguishable mass, each of them deprived of their individual identity and worth, so degraded that they are not even capable of normal human reactions. The loss of their hair is indeed very much like Wiesel’s loss of his God; it opens a gulf between them and any comprehensible order. Sybil Milton forms the connection between hair and spirituality more concretely:

Religious Jewish women, who, once married, kept their hair covered in public under either a wig or scarf, felt both a physical and a spiritual nakedness, thus unprotected and exposed to the whims of their Nazi tormentors.23

The hair must be covered after marriage because it has assumed the character of a secondary sex characteristic: it is an indicator, like the breasts or genitals, of a woman’s sexuality. To be unwillingly shorn, for both married and unmarried Jewish women, is quite literally a mutilation, akin to the slicing off of a breast. Even for an assimilated Western European Jew like Lucille, hair must have been an important indicator of decency and worth.24

The examination of the issue of hair can also take place within the larger study of women’s concern for their personal appearance in the camps, in comparison to men.In the Proceedings of the Conference: Women Surviving the Holocaust, this concern is interpreted not as vanity, but as a strategy for survival:

Women were also able to protect themselves to a small extent by maintaining a concern for their personal appearance. Many memoirs from several camps report similar experiences:”My first impulse was to concentrate on making myself more presentable. Under the circumstances it may sound ludicrous. What real relationship was there between my spiritual existence and the unsightly rags on my body? Who knows, but in a subtle sense, it was real. I began to look around me and saw the beginning of the end for any woman who had had the opportunity to wash (which was rare) and had not done so, or for women who felt the tying of a shoelace was that much wasted energy.”

This remark is repeated with small variations in many different camp settings. Care for one’s appearance despite the lack of water and sanitary facilities was a way of maintaining some part of one’s former identity and continuity with a previous and remembered life.25

In the Proceedings and in other works on the subject, “feminine” traits are transformed into tactics for survival and into “spiritual resistance”: women’s training in the kitchen facilitates their ability to share and extend the meager supply of food, to the point where many interned women found it possible to plan ahead and save food for holiday celebrations and to give some to the children in the camps; women were far more likely than men to make an effort to sweep and clean their barracks, thereby minimizing the spread of disease; their socialization as nurturers resulted inthe creation of “‘artificial’ families based on need and proximity rather than blood relationships. The concept of ‘mother’ was relativized…Together they scrounged for food which they shared, and maintained a mutually supportive network as a ‘new family’–a new, cooperative, personal bond between women helping each other.”26 In comparison, “Men appear to have been more competitive towards their 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 of courage.'”28

Each of these authors adds that biological factors played a part as well in the relative abilities of women and men to survive; women appear to have been more physically resilient to starvation than men, due to a larger average proportion of body fat to muscle. However, I find all these quotes, especially the last, to be indicative of another sentiment, another large and complex thread of analysis running through the literature on women and the Holocaust. Milton’s report that men in the camps were competitive and “selfish” is particularly suspect for the precise reason that men’s attempts to narrate women’s camp experiences are suspect: since women and men were strictly separated in the camps, it is difficult to ascertain on what basis and in what context these comments were made. With so little information given, the point reveals itself tobe less a serious comparison of male and female behavior than an obvious attempt to link women’s “resilience,” whether biological or socially learned, to a certain heroism.

In fact the overriding message of the 1983 Conference is the celebration of women’s ability to survive under oppression, especially in comparison to men. An exchange from a panel comprised of both male and female survivors clearly indicates as much:

Panel participant A, female: “Men were demoralized 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 men to men relationship other than that. Everybody wanted to survive…From the women’s point 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 all of us. It was like a paralyzing effect. You know, after the war a lot of questions 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 might have wanted to run away. I didn’t want to run away. It just happened that I survived. I don’t attach anything heroic about it. If there is any inkling that if some of us did something we would survive, I don’t know about it. In my opinion we survived by luck. As far as interrelationship with other men, there was none.”

A: “I haven’t been able to understand, and I’ve heard it said a number of times, that having the role of protector taken away from a man was extremely damaging to you. It is somewhat mysterious to me as to why you can’t do some version of that role in protecting a younger person, in allowing oneself to be protected by an older man. Why can women convert nurturance into nurturing other women 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 not there. You don’t even know what happened to them. It wasn’t a steady flow like you are my neighbor, I am moving, I will give you my address. The man is the head of the house and the mother is the mother hen and that is instilled in us. Our children from this generation feel that we are choking them, we’re overprotective…”[ends]29

The tone in which survival is celebrated here has disturbing implications. I cannot summarize them better than Seidman, who writes:

…the understandable Jewish need to discover, recognize and honor Jewish resistance and heroism has resulted in the widespread practice of what could be called “interrogating the victim”…perhaps there is little else to do with the rage and confusion, the need to understand and continue living, than turn the questions on the victims. Victims and survivors of fascist terror are called upon to attest to their ethical decisions, their survival skills, praised for maintaining their dignity. But by honoring the heroes, don’t scholars end up dishonoring those who were not heroic, and sometimes virtually ignoring the regime that engineered a system deliberately designed to make heroism virtually impossible? To expect heroism from victims or to romantically attribute it to them is to treat the Holocaust as if it were a character test, rather than a program of systematic dehumanization.30

It is precisely this tendency to make the Shoah into a character test that Joan Miriam Ringelheim addresses in her landmark article, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research,” published first in 1985 in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. The article begins in the familiar vein, as an attempt to “make graphic the complexity of…Jewish women’s lives because of the connections between biology and sexism.”31 Ringelheim wishes to examine which vulnerabilities might be defined as having been specific to women in the Holocaust; she points out that women’s biology and maternal function made certain atrocities, such as forced abortion and the necessity of killing their or other women’s babies, singular threats. She adds that cultural sexist attitudes exposed women in particular to violence “in the form of humiliation, molestation, rape, and sexual exchange,” not only in the camps but in the ghettos, in resistance groups, and in hiding and passing as well.32 She proposes also to investigate the validity of the claims of women’s superior ability to adapt and survive in these settings.

Ringelheim interviews several women survivors in the attempt to recapture both a sense of the Holocaust experience in its entirety and the particularities of these women’s experiences.From this data, she draws the conclusion that “Some of the differences perceived do 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 1983 Conference.

The second part of the article, however, takes an abrupt and rather remarkable turn. Ringelheim begins by writing:

The language and perspective in Part I recapitulate some of the research I had written up before May 1984, when I began to see serious problems in my work arising at least in part from my unconscious use of cultural feminism as a frame through which to view Jewish women survivors.34

She is, she explains, responding chiefly to Ti-Grace Atkinson’s article “Female Nationalism,” which criticizes mainstream Western feminism, calling it “the search for a mythical history, the cult of femaleness, the glorification of motherhood, naturalism, and separatism, [so that] female consciousness [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 the breakup of the New Left and the deradicalizing of feminism in the early 1970s…Cultural feminism was a reaction against at least two views: 1) radical feminism’s position that women are an oppressed class, and 2) the position of both New Left politics and radical feminism that personal liberation is impossible without widespread social change. The reaction shifted the territory of liberation from an insistence on the need for changing materialist conditions to a belief in changing the inner life, consciousness, culture, and so on.36

A corresponding shift in academia accompanied this development; women’s studies turned “inward,” framing discussions of gender around the issues of consciousness and culture.37 Scholarly literature on women’s studies in this period focused on an attempt to articulate a universal female archetype for the purpose of imbuing and 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 in existing pre-industrial civilizations and drawing parallels to the legacy of women in Western industrial society.

Ringelheim’s objection to cultural feminism follows a pattern which originated with the critiques on the part of “Third World” women such as Atkinson and Trinh Minh-ha of some of the traits of what is now casually referred to as “70’s feminism.” Such critiques attacked dominant,academia-bound cultural feminism as essentialist and elitist. Ringelheim summarizes:

While women’s consciousness, “herstory,” culture, and so on became the standard by which to understand and judge the world, there was confusion about whether the quintessential woman–the most typical or representative woman–was to be a woman of the past or a new woman of the future. The confusion resolved itself in a psychoanalytic mode: the past is the future. Then struggles arose about which woman of the past would serve as a model. The result was that we did not emerge with a consciousness, let along a politics, that produced genuine solidarity with all women, though we did advance different claims to superiority.38

Cultural feminism’s failing, Ringelheim charges, is its inadequacy to inspire social change. In fact, it derails revolutionary impulses by claiming to empower without confronting social structures such as the state, family,marriage, or organized religion, and without challenging institutions of oppression. In place of the risks and inconveniences of activism, it invokes what Ringelheim believes to be an imaginary liberation, that of the past. This”archaeological perspective” amounts to a condescending and superficial adoption of the cultural forms of “primitive” societies in the guise of the discovery of a universal woman’s culture and community. “Thus, cultural feminism entrenches usin a reactionary politics of personal or lifestyle change, in liberation of the self.”39 Ringelheim sees this as a lonely liberation, and one that is damaging to any real hopes for women’s solidarity and critical engagement with the world. Its very acceptance by mainstream institutions, she claims, is the hallmark of its mediocrity: “Since the cultural feminist position has few, if any, points of conflict with the establishment, the government can more easily adopt or adapt it as a cheap substitute for real change. Cultural feminism is endorsed and supported because it poses no threat.”40

It is not enough, she writes, to merely reinterpret women’s lives; liberation can come about only with strategies of active change. Her own project attempted to reinterpret the experiences of women in order to celebrate their survival, and in doing so, ended up suggesting a romanticization and valorization of oppression. “Oppression does not make people better,” she continues, “oppression makes people oppressed. There is no sense infighting or even understanding oppression if we maintain that the values and practices 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 In highlighting the contribution of female friendship and bonding to women’s survival of the Holocaust, Ringelheim acknowledges having avoided the issues of terror, isolation, and death, instead pitting Jew against Jew, man against woman, in a contest of worth.

Ringelheim concludes by formulating a series of  inquiries which, in her opinion, should replace the “woman-centered” perspective.Her questions are difficult, and may even seem cruel ones to ask of Holocaust survivors, but they mark an attempt to abandon romanticization and to describe the Holocaust in all its complexity. I repeat here only some of her questions:

Do we lie in order to survive, no matter what the level of oppression? Do the women survivors of the Holocaust lie? Engage in self-deception? Bad faith? Just nottell the truth? Mythologize in order to keep surviving? Does the women’s understanding of themselves during the Holocaust differ from what happened? How do the survivors deal with life having been such a ghastly disappointment because of the Holocaust? How live with themselves unless they transform the story? Is the story they tell less about the Holocaust than about present suffering over the past and the attempt to survive its memory? Is the only possibility for survival of any kind the creation of some “cover story” for an individual or a people? How often do survivors say things because they have a sense of obligation to 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 do we as researchers transform the stories we hear? How should we?Is it a methodological and theoretical mistake to look at women and the Holocaust from the vantage point of their difference rather than from that of oppression? Why do many women survivors believe they survived better than men?…Is it the only thing to hold onto in a world that pays so little attention to them either as women or as survivors?

What is resistance? Is anything an oppressed woman does an act of resistance? Is survival resistance? What if a person kills herself?…Is dying resistance?…singing on the way to the gas chamber…stealing…hiding…killing the enemy?…See how the term becomes neutralized–worse, destroyed. Such slippage in language 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 not resistance, even though it can mean survival. Do women know more about the manipulation of systems than about resistance to systems? What is the relationship between manipulation and survival? If we believe that survival is resistance, we may end up with the notion that armed or active resistance is not a priority or that it stands on equal footing with living through the Holocaust in any way possible.

Did anyone really survive the Holocaust?42

Ringelheim’s anxiety encompasses both ends of any dialogue that could occur between historians and 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 to question her own interpretation of the reality of the Holocaust, she must question the interpretation of the survivors, who are susceptible to the same foibles as she; if she is instinctively drawn to romanticize and celebrate, might not they be as well? As Lawrence Langer asks:

Does a self-conscious literary voice intervene here between the experience and the effect, so that language and imagery obscure even as they seek to clarify? Perhaps; perhaps not. But as we examine definitions and redefinitions of self emerging from victim narratives, we must keep in mind that each one of them represents a combat, more often than not unconscious, between fragment and form, disaster and intactness, birdsong and pandemonium.43

Go to the Top of the Page || Return to Women Writing the Holocaust