Abstract | Violence And Sexuality As A Theme In Memoirs By Women Survivors
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Memoirs written by women survivors of the Holocaust share certain characteristics with those written by men, such as a narrative structure that begins with belonging and then moves to humiliation , isolation, deprivation, and finally annihilation.

Men and women survivors both describe gratuitous and deliberate violence by Kapos and SS. However, womenís memoirs also share strikingly similar characteristics with each other that differ from menís memoirs and that stem from their experiences as women and as Jews --- thus a double victim --- in a misogynists, racist totalitarian society.

Womenís memoirs yield anecdotes that demonstrate womenís resourcefulness in the hells of the ghettos and camps. Thus womenís narratives are rich resources of the characteristic of an alternative social structure based on traditional feminine values. The experience of women during the Holocaust shows that traditionally feminist values of cooperating and caring are important conditions for the perpetuation of civilization, irrespective of religious, ethnic, or nationalist identification.

"If you are sisterless, you do not have the pressure, the absolute responsibility to end the day alive."1

Written by Auschwitz survivor Isabella Leitner, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, these words provoke an examination of womenís experiences during the Holocaust. Her memoir, together with hundreds of other descriptions of concentration camp experiences from the perspective of a woman, provides a new dimension to Holocaust studies. Although an enormous amount of material has already been generated about the Holocaust, most of it focused on the historical events, whether from German, American, or Russian sources, and most of it has assumed a male-centered perspective. That is, the experiences of Jewish men have been documented and generalized as if they were as true for women as they were for men.2 Although Nazis carefully defined the Jew in Germany, they distinguished between Jews by sex, officially renaming them either Israel or Sara. This measure was an attempt to disconnect them from the custom that linked them to their ancestors, the specific persons for whom they were named, and thus their Jewish heritage.3 Hence all German Jews regardless of class or other variables, were categorized only as either Jewish men or Jewish women.4 The examination of the literature of women Holocaust survivors suggests that we are confronted with a unique genre, one that is driven by the twin circumstances of racism and gender. Analysis of the differences and similarities in the experiences of Jewish men and women is controversial. A few scholars and survivors have suggested that such comparisons are inappropriate, divisive or politically motivated. On the other hand, as Raul Hillberg points out "The road to annihilation was marked by events that affected men as man and women as women."5

Thus womenís memoirs reveal "different horrors" of the "same Hell."6 Generally, the discussions of the experiences of women that were unique to women document the particular cruelties women endured, but few scholars have discussed the implications of womenís experiences. 7 It can hardly be overemphasized that the literature about and by Jewish women who lived under Nazi control reflects a double vulnerability as both Jews and Women. Their writings reflect their experiences from three perspectives, all three of which are a function of a double vulnerability as Jewish women: (1) biological differences from men, (2) gender-specific socialization patterns, and (3) as implied by Leitnerís admonition, the ethic of caring that both reflected and was generated from their experiences as women. That women were regarded differently from men stems from deep-seated Nazi ideology that was rooted in patriarchy and racism. Hitlerís frequently repeated statement, "The Nazi Revolution will be an entirely male event,"8 forewarned us of the political goal of male Aryan supremacy and of a social structure that denied all Jews both essence and existence. Although Hitler praised the prolific Aryan mother as the equal of the Aryan soldier, National Socialism rendered German women invisible except as child bearers and child raisers. The ideal Nazi wife was the wholesome, athletic, peasant typeóa domestic mother and helper to her husband: "Her whole world is her husband, her family, her children, her house."9 This unrealistic vision of women as mothers of the Aryan race delayed Hitlerís approval of their conscription in the war effort."10

His vision of Jewish women, however, was far more costly. When in 1934, Hitler equated Jewish intellectualism with emancipated "new woman" he essentially informed the world that his social plans would reflect his political aims. To Hitler, activist Jewish women, such as Rosa Luxemburg, symbolized the evils of Jewishness and, in particular, Jewish women: "She and other women activists Jewish and non-Jewish women alike, were remembered with fear and loathing as examples of what National Socialism was pledged to prevent."11 One woman survivor, the daughter of a Jewish father and Christian mother, noted sardonically that "the Nazis were so male-oriented that they considered children of Jewish fathers more Jewish than children of Jewish mothers, the opposite of [what holds true in] traditional Jewish law."12

The treatment of men and women differed during the course of the Third Reich according to the needs of the Reich at any given time and to the needs and whims of leaders and individual soldiers of the Reich. Joan Ringelheim argues forcefully that the Nazis deported more Jewish women than Jewish men and, for a variety of reasons, killed more women than men.13 Raul Hilberg cites similar demographics but, drawing from ghetto statistics and Einsatzgruppen records, states categorically that more men were killed in the earlier war years than women. He attributes this difference in death rate to the fact that many more men than women were given hard labour assignments in the ghettos and were killed in the first mass murders in the USSR and Serbia. Furthermore, explains Hilberg, because of the need to develop a huge slave labor supply for the concentration and work camps, far more women than men were gassed immediately upon their arrival at Auschwitz and other camps.14 Presumably, in the first few years of Nazi expansion, men were more valued as labourer than were women. It is also probable that more women than men were gassed because their small children clung to them when SS doctors separated men and women as they disembarked from the trains that brought them to the death camps.

Survival figures, though, are unreliable because of the loss of written records in the chaos of war and liberation.15 The German sources themselves are suspect because Nazi statistics were prepared with an eye toward documenting the success of a 1000-year Third Reich. More troubling perhaps is the fact that we are forced to acknowledge that , in a society that perverted both morality and truth, statistics take on an impossible burden of proof. We are required, therefore, to supplement German sources by relying on inferences drawn from the confluences of many sources, written and oral, about the same events as well as from primary materials that are strongly corroborated by other primary materials.


1. Isabella Leitner, Fragrments of Isabella (New York: Dell, 1978), p.44.

2. Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family and Identity in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. vii-xi. Kaplan explains that "there has been an unfortunate tendency among historians to view a history of Jewish men as Jewish history but a history of Jewish women as womenís history, thereby marginalizing womenís lives and history." See also Kaplan, The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany: The Campaigns of the JFB, 1904-1938 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979).

3. It is the custom among European Jews to name their children after an admired deceased relative.

4. For an excellent discussion of German Jewish women during the Nazi era, see Sybil Milton, "Women and the Holocaust: The Case of German and German-Jewish Women," Monthly Review Press, pp.297-333 (1984).

5. Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), p.126.

6. Myrna Goldenberg, "Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust," in Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust, ed. Roger Gottlieb (Mahwah,NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), pp.150-66.

7. Carol Rittner and John Roth, eds., Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (New York: Paragon House, 1993), the first anthology in English devoted to womenís experiences in the Holocaust. See also Sybil Milton, "Women and the Holocaust: The Case of German and German-Jewish Women," in When Biology Became Destiny, ed. Renate, Bridenthal, Atina Grossman, and Mariod Kaplan (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984),pp.297-333; Marlene Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers of the Holocaust (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Joan Ringelheim, "Thoughts about Women in the Holocaust," in Thinking the Unthinkable, ed. Gottlieb, pp.141-49; Goldenberg, "Different Horrors, Same Hell"; idem, "Testimony, Narrative, and Nightmare: The Experiences of Jewish Women in the Holocaust," in Women and Jewish Culture, ed. Maurie Sacks (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995),pp.94-106.++

8. Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martinís Press, 1987), p.56.

9. Adolf Hitler, from Volkischer Beobachter, 9 Sept. 1934, in Inside Hitlerís Germany: A Documentary History of Life in the Third Reich, ed. Benjamin C. Sax and Dieter Kunz (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1992).

10. Jill Stephenson, "The Wary Response of Women," in The Nazi Revolution, ed. Allan Mitchell (New York: D. C. Heath, 1990), pp. 167-765; idem, Women in Nazi Society New York: Harper & Row, 1975), esp. pp. 185-99. See also Elaine Martin, Gender, Patriarchy, and Fascism in the Third Reich: The Response of Women Writers (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press 1933), for a superb collection of essays on the interconnections of patriarchy and fascism in twentieth-century Germany.

11. Yaffa Eliach, "Women and the Holocaust: Historical Background," Women of Valor: Partisans and Resistance Fighters, 6(4):8 (Spring 1990).

12. Allison Owings, Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgbers University Press, 1993), p. 453. Eliach also says that "while the status of he Aryan woman in Nazi Germany was distinctly second class, Jewish women were not just inferior to men, but to the entire Aryan race." Ibid., p.8.

13. Ringleheim, "Thoughts About Women and the Holocaust," p.147.

14. Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, pp. 126-30.

15. Yet it must be remembered that the Holocaust was and still is unique and the "in Auschwitz, more persons were killed than anywhere ever before at one place on this planet," according to Lore Shelley, ed., Auschwitz: The Nazi Civilization: Twenty-Three Women Prisonersí Accounts (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992), p.1. One of Shelleyís narrators, who worked in the Political Section as secretary to Pery Broad, explained that when the Russians approached Auschwitz, the "SS tried to destroy as much incriminating evidence as possible. For many weeks we had to burn documents." Ibid., p.10.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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