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Rethinking Traditional Responses

Jewish behaviour during the Holocaust poses more issues. How, for example, do we categorize the effects of isolation that Jews experienced? Given what we know about women’s bonding and socialization as nurturers and caregivers, can we assume this isolation affected women and men differently? If so, in what ways? One recent study suggests the Jewish women were victimized early through isolation by German women. In Frauen, Allison Owings, studied 29 representative German women who lived through the war. Almost universally, the German women described the extraordinary fear that gripped the nation—fear of dissent at any level. Repeatedly, they defended their passivity by invoking a ubiquitous fear of the Gestapo. For one German woman about to take a vacation with her husband and child "letting a Jewish woman water (her) plants would have been enough" to arouse the Gestapo’s suspicion.67 Yet ambiguity persists: some of the women were embarrassed by their fear of being suspected of helping Jews, but hey also unashamedly defended Hitler: "What he gave us young girls back then somehow must still be there, that one cannot condemn it all….We did love our Fuehrer, really! It was true. And when that’s inside you as a young person, it doesn’t leave so quickly."68

Perhaps even more relevant is the fact that German women were far more involved with church-related and secular charities than men. Nazi racism "the linchpin of National Socialist and domestic policy", shaped so-called social welfare programs throughout Germany.69 Awareness of legalized discrimination, if not genocide, was unavoidable, yet women - even those who attended church regularly - managed to ignore it, focusing instead on rewriting their role in the new Germany to compensate for their diminished status.70 Church-related women deceived themselves into concentrating on strengthening their churches rather than on acting devoutly. That most Protestant women saw Hitler as their savior led one historian to claim that women were more ideologically influenced by racism than were men.71. Nazi emphasis on motherhood appealed to Catholic women.72 In either case, organized religion in Germany - which involved far more women than men - served Nazi purposes: "Indeed, one could invoke religion in defense of one’s anit-semitism."73. Thus, from the perspective of the victim or the bystander, women experienced the war differently from the way men did. And the usual vehicles for establishing and perpetuating the ethic of caring and community and principle of spiritual courage worked in the service of an amoral government.

The Nazi machine was fueled by an official unrestrained racist policy and profound and long-standing attitude of patriarchy and misogyny. Although the ultimate lessons of the Holocaust do no focus on gender specifics, traditionally feminist values of cooperating and caring are important conditions for the perpetuation of civilization, irrespective of religious, ethnic, or nationalist identification. Women’s experiences, particularly in response to societies mired in violence and struggles for power, teach us to reexamine the values and characteristics that have been associated with the literature and lives of women with an eye toward internalizing them in our development as reasoning individuals and as members of a responsible community.


67. Owings, Frauen, p.76

68. Ibid., pp.181-83.

69. Michael Phayer, Protestant and Catholic Women in Nazi Germany, (Detroit, MI: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990),p. 100

70. Ibid., p.71

71. Ibid., p.49.

72. Ibid., pp.62-64

73. Ibid., p. 83.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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