Summary | Part I | Part II | Part III | Footnotes

Part I

In the last two decades there has been an increased interest in women's recollections of their Holocaust experiences.1 In 1998, Marion Kaplan mentioned "a relationship between gender and memory,"2 and in a new anthology, Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, Pascale Rachel Bos emphasizes that "men and women experience, remember, and recount differently."3 But it is not always easy to articulate gendered thinking. This said, I wish to focus on female survivors' remembering German Holocaust language and its mode and tone of delivery. It was a language of aggression that targeted people and may even have been the catalyst for violence.

The utterances of the German perpetrators often manifested sexual or societal prejudices against women. But first and foremost they revealed the discriminatory Nazi race ideology. It was noticeable in the German directives and antisemitic policies that governed Germany and the German-occupied regions. That language's context is gone now, but it remains lodged in a dark corner of German collective memory. For survivors it is very much alive. In their recollections it is still conflated with precise personal moments that are synonymous with the horror of the Holocaust.

Initially I had set out to interview both male and female survivors. Only one man was willing to talk to me, and he requested to remain anonymous.4 This reluctance may have had to do with my being female and, perhaps more significantly, being German in origin. Since the women were more forthcoming, I present here mainly their voices, and it is for this reason that my study first gained a gender-specific tenor. It is not easy to assess to what degree this willingness or unwillingness to share these Holocaust memories is gendered. I will therefore simply report the facts that I encountered. This includes the observation that in existing memoirs, language references pertaining to the German perpetrator occurred more frequently when the author was female.

General studies on the force of speech of perpetrators or oppressors explain "words that wound," "verbal assaults," and "speech acts."5 John Austin was the first to say that "the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action ,"6 and Judith Butler states that speaking can turn into "a bodily act."7 The context of the words determines their salience and modulates their power. In such cases language is not spoken-it is performed. Butler's focus includes the victims of hate speech and their vulnerability as receptors:

To be addressed injuriously is not only to be open to an unknown future, but not to know the time and place of injury, and to suffer the disorientation of one's situation as the effect of such speech. Exposed at the moment of such a shattering experience is precisely the volatility of one's "place" within the community of speakers .8

Most forms of linguistic aggression result from a power imbalance between speaker and addressee. This was the case when Jews experienced the Nazis' dehumanizing and threatening language in situations of persecution and murder. Survivors' recollections substantiate that words became "speech actions,"9 sometimes accentuating both antisemitism and sexism.

In spite of this, some (non-German) Jews who had learned German as part of their general education before the war have maintained an appreciation of classical German literature and poetry. Often, the women I interviewed wanted to speak German with me and were proud that they still remembered it. They also had used German in post-war exile in their communication with fellow Jews. When I asked whether they had been to Germany and/or had spoken with Germans, with few exceptions, they emphatically said they had not and had no desire to do so. In fact they made no secret of their repulsion at such a thought, which one interviewee, originally from Poland, expressed with incredulity: "Why would anybody want to visit Germany?"10 This strong reaction made it evident that the memory of their life-threatening experiences overrode connecting their pre-war German with present-day Germany or Germans. For most of these survivors, I had been the first German with whom they had spoken of their Holocaust memories. They can easily be triggered by a single German word from a past that, to them, still represents large-scale, one-sided aggression.

This imbalance of power left usually no more or very little agency to the victims. In addition, Nazi Germany, with its fierce determination to erase all Jewish life did not shy away from killing defenseless women. Despite this extreme vulnerability, there were cases in which women attempted revolt, sabotage, and sometimes desperate attacks on the perpetrator.11 Even when facing death, a last expression of resistance or defiance may have been verbal or a mere gesture. Emanuel Ringelblum, in his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, recognized both the heroism and ultimate defeat of the Jewish women and felt that "[t]he historian of the future will have to devote a fitting chapter to [them] during the war."12 Another eyewitness, the poet Abraham Sutzkever, could only capture the horror of annihilation. The death of one woman represents many in his moving poem "Burnt Pearls,"

And no one [c]an still recognize the woman washed in flame For whom, of all her joys, Burnt pearls in ashes is the sum of what remains.13

The relatively few survivors of this catastrophe serve as witnesses for numerous others who perished and could not give testimony. Before focusing on their experiences that center around the Nazis' injurious speech and its context, we need to consider its historical origins. It was the National Socialist view of the world that first began to change vernacular German. During Hitler's Germany, Victor Klemperer named it lingua tertii imperii, or LTI, the language of the Third Reich. He recorded it secretly in his now famous diaries of that time, both as a language expert and targeted Jew.14 A current compilation of terms is Nazi Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich.15 It has retrieved this language to define it for scholars and students of today and tomorrow. Many of its entries reveal the distinction between that which was considered German or "Aryan" (arisch) and that, which was deemed "alien" (artfremd). This fundamental division escalated the racial rhetoric of denigration and hatred against those whom the National Socialists sought to exclude from their country as "un-German" (undeutsch).

One of the most perfidious slogans directed against the unwanted German-Jewish citizens, already in the early nineteen thirties, was "Juden raus!" ("Jews out"). It verbalized the threatening intent to bar them from the (mystical) German community (Volksgemeinschaft) and eventually to drive them from home as well as from this cultural and linguistic environment. Although aimed at all Jews, the ramifications affected Jewish men differently form Jewish women. The former were targeted first, often assaulted and led off to concentration camps. In the pre-war period, they were usually released after a few weeks of brutal incarceration. The women and children had to cope with the psychological, economic, and societal consequences and (different) fears. Marion Kaplan phrased it succinctly,

Although the calamity that hit German Jews affected them as Jews first, they also suffered based on gender. First of all, racism and sexism were intertwined in the minds of the torturers. The Nazis attacked Jewish men first, demolishing their careers and businesses and leaving women to carry the burden of maintaining their homes and families, of keeping their households and communities together.16

In addition, the verbal aggression intensified with the implementation of restrictive and discriminatory laws. The Jews of Germany thus came to experience their mother tongue as the language of persecution. From 1938 on, it was accompanied by state-organized or instigated acts of terror. The best-known incident is the November pogrom that is generally referred to by the innocuous name Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). The actions of that night confirmed the intimidating command "Juden raus!" Konrad Ehlich calls this transition "the 'illocutive' act [that] marks the change from speech action to unmitigated force."17

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.