Women’s Voices in
Hungarian Holocaust Literature|
Dr. Katalin Pécsi
Dr. Katalin Pécsi is an essayist and a lecturer in the field of contemporary Jewish literature and film and numerous issues related to the Holocaust and Jewish women’s literature.
She is the Director of Education at the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center in Budapest. She is a co-founder of Esther's Bag (Esztertáska)- a small, but energetic Jewish women's group which contributes to the recovery of the lost world of Jewish women and to make these women visible in the male-centered Jewish culture.
Bibliography: "Itt nincsenek pillangók? (There are no Butterflies Here?) Pécsi, Katalin, edit (An anthology of contemporary Jewish prose), Budapest, Polgart Publishing House, 2000.
I. Holocaust and Gender
Two years ago, when I gave a lecture about a similar topic in Budapest, the lecture’s title and introduction made my mostly male audience quite indignant. Why do I want to polarize the Holocaust-experience as a male-female question, and perhaps suggest that women suffered more, or behaved better?, they asked. How can I have the audacity to “measure suffering”? And on what basis do I dare to state that the most well-known and famous Holocaust-narratives do not always talk about the “general human aspects”, but are mostly about male experiences?
Many thought that even the question I posed was strange, forced, or downright suspicious: why would women have lived through different things and in different ways than men? And even if women survivors had things to tell, too, who kept them back from writing their own memoirs? (A more sophisticated partner in this dispute, one who does not brush the very topic away immediately, may add that I was wrong even in my basic assumption, namely that for decades, male experience dominated the formation of the general human Holocaust-narrative: we have Anna Frank’s diaries, don’t we…)
Indeed, nothing shows it better than this diary, which has become a bestseller, that the “gendering” of the Holocaust-experience can be productive! Anna Frank’s writing is so exciting for the already two generations grown up after the Holocaust because she talks about her small, human, everyday problems and joys. While we are reading what she wrote, we become friends with the adolescent “hero” and “narrator.” That is, this narrative is deeply humane. (Is this what men call “the bottom view of history?”)
If we look at our bookshelves, we won’t find many woman authors next to our books by Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, Améry, Bettelheim, Kosinczki, Semprun and Borowski. (Although this question can be brought up about the whole world literature in general, too.) It was Saul Friedlander[i] who articulated, a few years ago, that the “master narrative” emerging from the many Holocaust stories we know that we have been getting the male viewpoint: men’s experiences and memories became the "norm”.
II. Women about the Holocaust
Laughing a lot, my grandmother used to tell me the same stories: how she smuggled a message from the convict station they were gathered in, asking her little sister for summer dresses, since she will need them desperately in the labor camp…. The great story after they got released: with the help of a list her son found my grandmother in the camp, but she did not want to get off her wooden bunk to have a look at the young man asking for her, since she was just about to go to the dentist, her face swollen – she did not want any man to see her in a state like that… (We, her teenager grandchildren, were of course grinning candidly: our grandmother, though well in her years, was still an acknowledged, proud lady…
As I grew up, I always hoped to find women’s Holocaust-stories similar to those of my grandmother’s. Thanks to the historians and psychologists we have known about the importance of oral history for quite a while: we know that women’s narratives have another point of view and mood. The researchers collecting stories about the Holocaust have realized that women tell different stories in a different way. For this reason, it would be really important to come to know their narratives as well, not only the ones told by men, independent of gender and considered as universal for all victims.
Looking around in a bookshop in any Holocaust Museum in the world you can find a great number of books written by women. The Hungarian publishers are not really interested yet in their memoirs, as they don’t consider these memoirs as “real literature” – though they might be priceless “treasuries”.
Aranka Siegal[ii], born in Beregszász, publishing as an American, wanted originally nothing more than just to bear witness to what happened to her, struggling with her memories as well as with the English language. But her two books written about the deportation, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and her vicissitudes after the war became bestsellers in many countries, praising the author as the “Hungarian Anna Frank”, although the books are not based on a real or fictive diary.
Another "Anna Frank”, Edith Bruck had first moved to Israel, then settled down and became famous in Italy. Her book “Ki téged úgy szeret” (“Who loves you like this”)[iii] is based on her autobiography: it shows the story of a girl, telling us about her growing up in a poor peasant family, about the deportation, the impossibility of returning home and her struggles getting to and in Israel.
The Holocaust was a taboo as a Jewish topic in Hungary for decades, and although now and again there was a book published, I presume that we, children of survivors, tried to put together the mosaics from the newly published books by Semprun and Peter Weiss, and not from the memoirs of our parents’ Hungarian contemporaries. Although quite a few personal memoirs had been published directly after the war, they did not become well known for some reason – so they did not become part of the Jewish canon either. [iv]
Well, these first stories told by Jews – by Jewish women! – were unknown to the next generation, growing up, just like the “Jewish” novels or “novels with a Jewish motive” from the second wave, published almost at the same time, in the middle of the seventies. (The same happened to Imre Kertész: his novel, Fateless, was published in 1975. It was then deliberately held back.[v]
My most recent example about the disinterest of both publishers and the “people of books” is a brilliant woman’s Holocaust memoir, which was published in 1994, but I have never seen it in bookstores.[vi] I ran into it by accident in the basement storeroom of my new workplace, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest. Its author, Judith Magyar Isaacson was born in a Hungarian town, Kaposvár, into an assimilated Jewish family. She was a young girl when she and her family were taken to Auschwitz. Her memoir is one of the most harrowing and powerful books written by a woman about the Holocaust, but its publication went still quite unnoticed in the country where she was born. Many people read it in the US, and it has been published in German as well.
A gender-focused examination does not aim at measuring who suffered more: a mother or a father who lost a child.[vii] And it does not intend to “divide” victims either, when it treats the experiences and the memoirs of men and women separately.
We also see the “group” itself as more “differentiated” today: we know that neither the categories of “men” and “women”, nor the category of “Jews” are homogenous. We can talk not only about men and women, but also about religious and secular, Zionist and assimilated Jews. About people who lived in smaller towns and those who lived in bigger cities. Sefarad and Ashkenazi, poor and wealthy people, belonging to these smaller groups or categories, assume different experiences and ways of life.
III. Why have women stayed in the background?
Literature has traditionally been a “male territory.” “Women appeared as professional writers only very late, and because of this, histories of literature are usually thought of as a history passed on from fathers to sons. Because of this, the literary canon consists of works mostly written by men. This shaped the tradition according to which the author is almost always a man (or if she happens to be a woman biologically, then she ceases to function as a woman in society).” Thus it is self-evident that the literary tradition – as gender-focused literary theory has pointed out – “lacks patterns for women: a maternal line of descent.”[viii]
Of course, not only publishers can be blamed for the lack of women – but women writers themselves, too.
Before WW II, Hungarian women writers of Jewish origin did not identify themselves as such [ix] and since the Holocaust, new generations of women writers have again been unwilling to write about their Jewish and/or women’s identity. So the female side of the East-Central European Jewish existence is absent from the general Jewish narrative.
East of the Elbe gender is as problematic as ethnicity. During the first – communist period of feminism, - women were told that they were “emancipated” and “equal” in society and were therefore not expected to behave or express themselves in any way different from men. An important reason, why Communism declared feminist self-expression unnecessary was that it considered it a danger for the regime. The situation of Jewish women was further aggravated by the old Jewish fear of being “different.” Mimicry, the art of superficial resemblance – a semblance of assimilation, the attempt to be invisible as Jews, regardless of what they actually felt in their heart or intellect, or might even discuss among groups of intimate friends whom they could trust – was necessary for the survival of the Jews. To a certain degree this same mimicry was useful for women writers as well, and is still necessary today in a world in which acts of segregation are still more dominant than acts of unification.
IV. Feminine subject, feminine speech
In women’s writings about the Holocaust, new topics appear, which until now have not been among the canonized literary topics: besides the themes of physical and psychological defenselessness and the dread of terror, new narratives have been born about solidarity and friendship between women.[x]
Women’s Holocaust-narratives have an overwhelming force: but what makes their effect different from the works written by men, that is, according to the “canon”?
Talking about a feminine way of seeing and narration, we have to raise two questions:
1. Did women survivors of the Holocaust have different experiences (as well) from their male companions?
2. Do women talk about their “experiences” in a different way from male narrators?
Nazi ideology is characterized not only by racism, but also by sexism,: the idea that men are superior to women.[xi]
Because of the racial and sexual superiority of the Nazis (apparent both in their ideology and propaganda) Jewish women were targeted doubly. They were subjects of hatred not only as Jews, but as mothers and sexual beings, too. (Jewish children were regarded as “enemies”, thus being pregnant counted as a crime against the Empire.) [xii]
Nudity makes men dehumanized – and women de-feminized. Women were more defenseless bodily: and the body is also that which shapes gender identity. We cannot neglect that in their Holocaust memoirs, these testimonies, woman is the metaphor of the Victim, and the role of female body can be traced as “both a catalyst and site of remembrance” - as Karen Remmler says.[xiii]
Pregnancy, induced abortion, sterilization, missing menstruation or giving birth in a camp are experiences that were added to the terror everyone had to suffer. Women soon ceased to be “women” in the hell they had gotten into; and we know of many survivors who could never restore a positive relationship to the “woman inside”. [xiv] At the same time, those women who had children, had to gather all the strength they had to be able to stand strong as mothers, to defend and help their children.
They had also different chances to survive: pregnant women and women with young children were usually sent to the gas chambers at the very first selection. (On the other hand, women are better at bearing things and suffering; they have hundreds of years of practice, and this increased their chance of survival.)
Most of the women who survived remained silent throughout their lives. They never talked about being humiliated, raped, or forced into prostitution. There are experiences that could never be told, their memories preserved. Therefore, these traumas are culturally not represented. (What it was like to come back from the lager without one’s child or children – and never to talk about it, to mention just one.) We do not know the memories of female capos either: we only know what fellow prisoners have told us in their memoirs. (As women’s memoirs testify, sometimes the prisoners felt sympathy for, and sometimes even a kind of solidarity with the Jewish women capos. Judit Magyar Isaacson managed to avoid becoming a capo but she did not blame the woman who accepted the position. On the other hand, one day Edith Bruck’s capo showed her, – with an almost friendly gesture – that she should look for her mother in the smoke coming from the crematorium.)
Being raped – that only happened to other women; but almost all women’s memoirs talk about the dread of male violence, the fear of being raped by SS soldiers and male capos or of being taken with the “girl transport” to the Russian front, or the fear of being raped by the liberating soldiers.[xv] "Thousands of women were raped during the war, but no one hears about them”. “Those Anne Franks who survived the rape don’t write their stories”.[xvi]
Hiding with false identification papers, in houses protected by foreign embassies, in the ghetto or a concentration camp, women had to fight for their daily survival alone: they had to take on male tasks and roles. However, they worked out strategies that were different from those of men: they cooperated more, and it seems that they formed stronger spiritual bonds with their mates. (Many memoirs show that not only family members supported each other, but, being dependent on one another, new “mother-daughter-sister” relationships were formed, too.[xvii])
Thus we have to examine what kind of “feminine topics”, values, ways of behavior appear in the narratives of surviving women.
In what follows, I will talk about a few women’s memoirs: the examples I have chosen show that when women talk about their bodies, the loss of their hair or the clothes they were wearing in camps, they do not simply elevate “small”, seemingly less remarkable themes into the great topmost of suffering, but also enhance the expressive force of these: each motif has a meaning behind itself, and thus what cannot be expressed, still becomes somehow representative.
My first example shows how the women who published their recollections depict – with a fine, seemingly small, but all the more powerful, allusive motif – the moment when they realized that their fate was irreversible. Aranka Siegal depicts the moment when her mother baked the last bread in a way that cannot be forgotten: up until that moment, the leaven put aside for the next weekend had been passed on by mothers to daughters, from generation to generation…[xviii]
“ …Mother turned her flour sack upside down to bake the last of the flour into bread. ‘ I am not going to bother to save the growing yeast for the next baking’ – she said. ‘There is no next. This is the last of our flour, and who will be here to bake bread’”
As Edith Bruck remembers: her mother did not explain to her children why they had to be afraid, but she sent her daughter up onto the attic with the pots they used only at Passover, and made the remark that they would probably not use them any more, anyway. Neither of them describes violence in a direct way: they both use the technique of omission.
“Wearing nice dresses” can metonymically express the sharp difference between the “happy times of peace” and the era of exclusion: Aranka Siegal from Beregszász and Judit Magya Isaacson from Kaposvár[xix] both recall how nice “Hungarian” dresses they wore as girls; Judit Magyar writes about how she had been honored by having been chosen to recite a patriotic poem at a school commemoration. However, the continuation immediately shows that the “Hungarian dress” was just a costume, to maintain an illusion: Judit Magyar’s 15th March recital was interrupted by the shouts of her anti-Semitic classmates; and Aranka Siegal only counted as “Hungarian” in Sub-Carpathia, until she, as an enthusiastic member of the Hungarian minority, greeted Horthy – not much later, the “Hungarians” did not consider her a Hungarian any more, and sent her whole family into death.
Judit Magyar, who, as a teenage girl, was quite responsive to feminine patterns, kept watching whom she liked or disliked even in the cattle wagon: she gives a detailed description of young women’s hairstyles, or their skin. Arriving at Auschwitz, the sensitive girl is shocked by the nudity and baldness of women: "Our heads were shaved quite bald. Without hair, even in women’s clothes everybody looked like men. For two days we couldn’t get used to it and we always told each other ‘please, Mr or – hello, my little boy”.[xx]
A “good” dress obtained in the camp, besides giving more chance to survive, is also a means of “preening” oneself, and thus helped to keep one’s self-esteem, and psychologically healthy. "I was enormously proud of that bit of sky-blue cloth, having outwitted the whole Lager system for it…I sneaked it back to the lager, hidden under my blouse. I hemmed it with a needle…, I washed it in ersatz coffee I stole at the risk of my life…”.[xxi]
Judit gets a piece of her aunt’s dress, then exchanges her bread portion for a needle and sews a “scarf” for herself, with thread unrevealed from a blanket. Or: They (he women – PK) would tare pieces of their long dresses and cover their heads to look nicer. Women are the strangest people I ever could imagine, and the most interesting is that I am of the same sort. We were sewing,, chattering, singing…[xxii]
Cutting women’s hair, depriving them of this symbol of femininity, is obviously one of the most awful ways of humiliation. But it is also clear that the momentary meaning of the situation may also depend on the attitude of the victims. Edith Bruck[xxiii], as a rebellious teenager, tried to “take an advantage” of the shock of losing her hair in the ghetto of Sátoraljaúhely:
"They ordered us to cut our hair short. (…) I was twelve years old, and I felt sorry for my hair. My mother’s hand was trembling as she stood there holding the scissors. (…) To encourage her, I began to laugh. I told her (…) that I would look like a young lady with short hair. I looked for a mirror, and then I was looking for my face… But then I persuaded myself that I had become much more interesting.” And another hair-related memory, from later on, in the train: "My mother kept combing and caressing my short hair, and she tried to comfort me: she told me that I would soon have long hair again, and I would wear it in plates, decorated with colorful ribbons, as I had used to. She searched through our few belongings for a miserable little red bow, and attached it to my hair…”
Aranka Siegal, who had her mother as an accomplice, also tried to transform the humiliation of having their hair cut into something positive:
"…I wanted to protest, but looking up at her concerned face, I could understand that she had to do it…I bit my lips and listened to the squeaking sound of the shears as they clipped away my damp hair ... After she (my mother) finished, she combed it all through several times, then got up and told me to stand up... She pulled a small hand mirror from her apron pocket and gave it to me. "Take a look. I think this length suits your face. It makes you look more grown-up, don’t you think?” …I relaxed my teeth and tasted blood…”I like it”, I said to Mother.
"I think Judi will like it, too. It is more like what she calls ’modern’…”Oh, Piri, you look so stylish with your modern haircut”, Mother exclaimed, mimicking Judi’s flamboyant way of speaking…”[xxiv]
Another topic to explore would be the mother-daughter relationships under such difficult conditions. There were mothers who lost heart, and “became like children” themselves, and there were determined, strong-minded mothers, who could organize things well, and who tried to make things somehow “normal”. Aranka Siegal’s mother used sheets to divide the space in a brick factory into separate “apartments” for privacy and kept urging people to clean themselves properly. Caring about one another was most important in those days. Judit Magyar and her mother felt they had to rearrange their barren room right after the liberation: "…we transformed our drab room: two mattresses made a corner couch, a pile of SS blankets served for bedspreads and rugs. Mother placed a brilliant arrangement of wild flowers on the windowsill”.[xxv]
Of course we see mothers through their daughters’ eyes – I do not know of any memoir written from the opposite perspective.
The description of mother-sister-girlfriend relationships in the camps is also exceptionally significant because these stories, (partly) about cooperation and partly about love prove that not only better working conditions, good clothing or food guaranteed survival. It also indicated that it wasn’t the absolute truth that physically stronger prisoners had more chance of survival. Besides this, due to the graphically and sensitively described woman characters and situations, today’s reader can also understand better that the Holocaust is not about millions of faceless, completely dehumanized victims[xxvi].
I don’t know whether feelings of solidarity were stronger among women than selfishness, or whether it’s just that women like more to recall those memories that built, rather than destroyed their personality. According to Judit Magyar:
“I was quite desolate sometimes that I know so little about life and people. Now I got it. I learned very much about both in quite a short time”.[xxvii]
We should not neglect the specifics of writing either: survivors often wrote what had happened to them right after the liberation, but their memories were so tormenting and painful that many of them stopped writing. In other cases, the writers of recollections were not satisfied with their work, as they felt they were unable to render what they had gone through, the things they meant to share with the readers. Many authors rewrote their memoirs years or decades later; and there are always irreconcilable differences between what the two (or sometimes more) versions emphasize.[xxviii]
Judit Magyar wrote a short summary of what had happened to her right after the liberation, in the autumn of 1945, as an explanation for her American love whom she met during the liberation, and who became her husband, and for his family. In the end of the 1980s, she wrote a book, and had already finished it when she came upon this first version, consisting of only a few pages, among her papers. Edith Bruck also wrote her recollections immediately after the liberation. However, her manuscript got lost, and she rewrote the memoir later, in Italy.
V. The image of women and recollection
Following the male canon, we are still more or less blind to specifically feminine experiences. During the last few years, gender has not become a widely accepted point of view or area of research. At the same time, there are more and more new books that direct our attention to explicitly and specifically feminine or masculine experiences. We can hope that after a while the perspective of gender will lose its peculiarity, just like other points of view, which had been regarded as odd, but had become self-evidently productive and significant.[xxix]
We can state that besides the characteristic thematic specifics of women’s Holocaust experiences (or besides their characteristic silencing of certain experiences), a characteristically feminine way of expression has been formed, too, in women’s narratives.
A special characteristic feature of women’s Holocaust narratives is the female character. In the male canon, women are mostly powerless victims, or the emblematic remains of an older Jewish world. In women’s Holocaust memoirs, however, these women are the main characters. They are visible and they have particular, specific features: they respond to oppression, they resist, and fight.
"Failing to recognize the gendered nature of women’s suffering, consigns them to silence and a second un-mourned death”.[xxx]
According to the notes attached to the novel, the author started to write her autobiographical story at the end of the year 1945 in Hungary, in her mother tongue. However, the note-book she wrote it in got lost while fleeing to Czechoslovakia. She restarted it several times, and eventually wrote it in 1958-59 in Rome, in Italian. [Back to essay]
[iv] Ágnes Zsolt: Éva lányom. Napló. (“My Daughter, Éva. A Diary”) Új Idők Kiadóvállalata, Budapest, 1947. Mária Ember mentioned the diary among the authentic reports published immediately after the war, and György Szőke wrote in detail about the publishing of the diary, touching upon the suicide of the mother, Ágnes Zsolt.
Teri Gács: A mélységből kiáltunk hozzád. (“We Call You From The Barathrum”), Emlékezések, Tabor kiadás, 1946. Teri Gács’s authentic report talks about the Glasshouse in the Vadász street, where more than five thousand Jews were harboured. (We know painfully little about the Glasshouse, as we haven't got the remotest conception for example about the role of women in the Zionist movements.)
Ágnes Fedor: Különös karnevál. ("Strange Carnival”) Magyar Téka, 1947. Ágnes Fedor’s interview-novel shows her family hiding with false documents, suffering from the miseries entailed by wearing a masque. [Back to essay]
[v] The first in the row was a novel written by a woman: Ágnes Gergely’s novel from 1973, A tolmács (“The Interpreter”), Szépirodalmi, 1973, opened a new chapter, talking about everything following the deportation – i.e. the possible ways of living for the Jews after the war: stay or leave? What does Israel/Palestine mean for the Jewish survivor from Europe? What is the right decision: assimilation or the self-imposed "ghetto”? [Back to essay]
It was followed by Hajtűkanyar ("Hairpin Bend”) by Mária Ember. (Szépirodalmi,1974.)
Mária Ember tries to show the unshowable from a child’s point of view – a method often used by the rememberers. It is not only genuine because the author herself lived through the Holocaust as a child, but because the viewpoint of a child, being naive and wise at the same time, stultify the attempts trying to explain and understand the situation.
From the end of the eighties on, there has been a constant increase in the number of the publications concerning Jewish themes, but hardly any of them were written by women. A rare exception is Magda Székely’s Éden, a thin "talking book”, full of family photographs. It is actually a memoir, as Magda Székely talks about her family, childhood, being in exile and in hiding. It is a highly interesting and moving book. [Back to essay]
[vii] Langer, Lawrence: The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, New Haven; Rosenfeld, Alvin H.: A double dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indiana, 1980. [Back to essay]
[xiv] The researcher Júlia Vajda held a lecture about the story of "M. néni” at the "Gender and Violence” conference in Budapest, in 2003 ("A Sterilized Life”). She continued the story later, as one of our "untold stories”: Magunkra hagyva ("Left alone”) (http://www.nextwave.hu/esztertaska/tortenetek.htm). [Back to essay]
[xvii] I don’t know whether there indeed existed a stronger solidarity between women than men in camps. However, according to the memoirs I know, women talk more about this subject. – P.K. [Back to essay]
[xxii] Judit Magyar, ibi., p. 151. My grandma told me a similar story: it went about how hard it was to get a needle, but at last she managed it and could embroider the collar of her uniform with thread unstitched from the seam of a blanket. She just wanted to look pretty – at the concentration camp as well… [Back to essay]
[xxvi] Ruth Kluger’s reviews a memoir that depicts a similarly interesting mother-daughter relationship: “Survival at Auschwitz in Landscapes of Memory”. The Guardian, Saturday March 15, 2003. [Back to essay]
[xxviii] Cf. Andrea Pető: "… The author, Mrs. K., has already conquered her own nightmares in her memoirs: we can all learn a lot from her. Yet it is exactly the first piece, the most painful one, the one that was the most difficult to write that we cannot read, and we can see this as symbolic. We don’t always write about our own fights with the past, with the shadows of our family, to the wider public. But it is our task to publish everything that was meant to reach the wider public. And perhaps we can read all those Shoah memoirs written by women and for women once in one volume, and reading them may help many of us to be able to write those ‘very first pieces’.” “A női holocaust visszaemlékezések” (“Women’s Holocaust Memoirs”). In: Esztertáska, www.nextwave.hu/esztertaska [Back to essay]
[xxix] One can tell the same about any new perspective in research. Louise Vasvári, a linguist living in New York, reads the well-known story of the “taming of the shrew” as a typical narrative of violence against women. Who would have asked earlier why the audience is rolling with laughter when the unruly wife is “given a lecture” on the stage? Another example is the work of Sidra Ezrahi, one of the most significant researchers of the literature of the Holocaust. She recalled in a lecture she gave in Budapest, in 2003, how her professors had been dumbfounded when she announced that she wanted to write her dissertation about the Holocaust-literature at the English Department of the Brandeis University: "But there is no such thing!” We know by now that the study of works of literature, films and other works of art about the Shoah does not just signify an external choice of theme and viewpoint. [Back to essay]