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

Part III

The second name for female deportees was "whore" (Hure) as "one of the first and most common insults."41 Ironically, it was used against women in the concentrationary world, where they were hardy recognizable as sexual beings. It confirms that, in general, men "tend to think of women in sexual terms whatever the context, and consequently any term denoting women carries sexual suggestiveness to the male speaker."42 A vile variation was "you pregnant lice" ("ihr schwangeren Filzläuse"), even if there was no pregnancy.43 From an advantageous power position, the female guards at Auschwitz also employed this sexist language, which was meant to be demeaning and intimidating.

The role of sex in the camps has been discussed in different studies about women and the Holocaust and mentioned in various memoirs. Rape of Jewish women did occur although, strictly speaking, according to the National Socialists' Race Laws, sexual involvement between a German and a Jew was defined as Rassenschande (defilement of [the German] race) and a criminal offence. For this reason, the Nazis no longer applied traditional ways of treating women during war, so that they did not function as trophies or spoils, a status that historically had at least saved their lives.44 For the regime, Jewish women had to be annihilated as bearers of the next generation of Jews. This applied to their children as well, who were usually murdered immediately upon arrival at the death camps. Survivor Filip Müller was witness to a killing scene of mothers and their children at Auschwitz: "There was a confused sound of many voices, weeping, and children's cries, above which rose shouts of [the perpetrators' German] commands and curses."45 In reference of such facts, Ringelblum wrote with understandable emotion, "Even in the most barbaric times, a human spark glowed in the rudest/heart, and children were spared. But the Hitlerian beast is quite different. It would devour the dearest of us, those who arouse the greatest compassion-our innocent children."46 Also Eli Wiese often mentions the incomprehensible Nazi murder of one-and-a-half million Jewish children during the Holocaust.

But Nazi Germany had planned to eradicate Jewish life globally, root and branch. For most, nothing helped to "sustain the body," and even language served to "threaten [and end] its existence."47 Before the actual mass killing there was usually a camp process called Selektion (selection). Even today, survivors who experienced it recall the Nazi meaning of this word, i.e., to be selected to be murdered immediately, to do slave-like work under inhumane conditions, or to face another Selektion, usually conducted brutally by the SS, soon after. Women often did not get a second chance. Survivor Judy Cohen did, and she says, "Even today, if I can, I avoid this word: Selektion." She links it to "our struggle to survive each day, each hour, or even each minute."48 Trudi Birger connects a different experience to this word at the Stutthof labor camp: "In the hospital barrack the Nazi officers staged a small, private selection for their own amusement. They made the sick women take off their clothes and prance back and forth, naked, in front of them, like models in a fashion show. They looked them over carefully, making nasty little jokes to each other, and they decided which ones were fit for work or sexual abuse."49

Judy Cohen, having survived Auschwitz, has a language memory of a different kind. It was on one of the infamous forced death marches from the concentration camp, moving west, that she and a "pitiful remnant of the [original] 500 young women" were allowed a night's rest in a barn from their deadly trek. The next morning, she recalls hearing a changed tone of voice and the incredible German words, "Fräulein, Sie sind frei" ("Ladies, you are free").50 Although highly suspicious-the Germans were known for their verbal trickery and irony-this simple phrase conveyed to her and her group that times had changed suddenly; it was May 5, 1945. Now, the Jewish women had become Fräulein again. Also, the pronoun usage of the formal address in German, Sie, suggested a return to polite language. It signified a sudden equality between the interlocutors, Germans and Jews. Heretofore, the character of the semantic power of language had been made clear by the use of the familiar du and absence of Sie because Jews had not been considered worthy of decent, let alone formal address. Ruth Elias observed this shortly after her arrest in 1942, "The [polite] address Sie had disappeared completely from the Nazis' dictionary."51 In Judy Cohen's case, the return to civilized discourse and the more "normal" world happened literally over night, and the first indicator was the language used by a German. The military commands and insults had vanished, yet they would live on in the memory of the survivors.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, most of these women first internalized this Nazi aggression of an unprecedented, vicious kind. But in their subsequent testimonies, both written and verbal, one encounters those injurious German words and phrases. Not many survivors want to dwell on the gendered behavior of the enemy during the war that spared neither Jewish woman nor child, but many a German word has remained etched in their memory-ready for recall at any given moment as if by tripwire. It conveys the correlation of speech, ideology, and atrocious acts and gives voice to the Nazis' merciless treatment of Jews. Contrary to what one might think or hope, articulating these frightful experiences has little cathartic effect for survivors. Instead, the process of recalling gives rise to renewed trauma and pain. As encoded memories, these German words from the past can elicit rage in the present.

One way of dealing with such rage has been found by Ruth Liberman, artist and child of survivors in Germany after the war. She shoots hated German words with a pistol. At a shooting rage, she takes target practice in order to aim at them. Perhaps psychologically she carries the burden of her parents suffering as a child of survivors, since one of her "executed" words is Burde (burden). Word Shot is the appropriate title of her work-in-progress. It is a fusion of text and art and contains words perforated by bullet holes. Planning to expand this project, she states, "I have a whole list of [German] words I despise, and I intend to shoot them all."52 One would have to examine carefully each word she has chosen and what it represents in her memory in order to arrive at an analysis of the function of gender here. I simply wish to show the interconnectedness of history, language, and memory and one more case of powerful and lasting negative associations with the German language. It also demonstrates the psychological dilemma involved when survivors or their offspring either verbalize or creatively express the traumatic events of the past. Strictly speaking, it is not just remembering, but reliving them mentally through words that bear its emotional force.

For Jewish victims and many of their children, the German language had lost its connotation with positive human interaction. This became differently significant when German was the mother tongue, as was the case with the poet Paul Celan. As survivor and victim, he tried to seize the enemy's language after the catastrophe. Having escaped annihilation, he used German in a new and dramatic way not only to lament his people but also to defy and forcefully accuse the perpetrator. In his powerful post-Holocaust poem, "Death Fugue" (Todesfuge), he assigns the responsibility of death-he does not use "murder" (Mord)-to the German Herrenrasse (master race) and reminds us, still in the present tense, that "death is a master from Germany" ("Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland").53

But there is also a terrible sadness in his repeated phrase, "your golden hair Margarete/ Your ashen hair Sulamith" ("Dein goldenes Haar Maragrit/ dein aschenes Haar Sulamit"). Celan chose two recognizably German and Jewish names for women and two telling adjectives, "golden" and "ashen." With these he juxtaposed the continuing life of a German woman and the fate of an annihilated female Jew and thus evoked "parallel histories" of two archetypal experiences, one, a self-defined, living "Aryan" and the other condemned to death for the crime of being a Jew.54 Their presence/absence mirrors this contrasting and encompassing German/Jewish reality. The murder of Celan's mother at the hands of the Germans belongs to the latter.

Concurrent with the Holocaust, and often difficult for us to imagine, was the practice of the so-called civilized language of the German world. The perpetrators, be they educated or not, could enjoy cultured communication in societal and domestic situations with their own German (arteigen) kindred. The dilemma remains, how to consider a German language that is emblematic of irreconcilable opposites: expressing life for one and death for the other. It is not surprising that German non-victims prefer to ignore this bipolarity. For surviving victims of the Nazi era German remains a language of persecution and genocide, as evidenced in their testimonies and narratives. For Holocaust scholars, one task is to grapple with this linguistic irony.

Karin Doerr teaches German and Women's Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and is the coauthor, with Robert Michael, of Nazi-Deutsch/Nazi-German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich (Greenwood Press, 2002).

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.