to professor Yosef Yerushalmi, in his classic text on collective Jewish
memory, Zakhor, the Holocaust has already engendered more historical research
than any single event in Jewish history.[i] However,
the voluminous research engendered' by the 1980s, the time when Zakhor
was published, did not represent a fully inclusive account of Shoah and
was wanting in at least one area of study - gender. A recent corrective
to this lacuna in the field of Holocaust studies is the investigation of
gender as a category of inquiry.
response to this new embrace of gender's inclusion there have been both
remarks and attacks - notably Gabriel Schoenfeld's acerbic Commentary article,
"Auschwitz and the Professors."[ii] Schoenfeld rails
against a whole series of academic approaches to the study of the Holocaust
which he claims trivialize the calamity that befell the Jewish communities
of Europe; he reserves his harshest criticism for gender -based analysis.
He accuses feminist scholars of having an agenda while characterizing their
work as frivolous and self-serving. Others charge that the focus
of the Holocaust as an enormous overarching tragedy may get splintered
and fragmented in the quest by individual groups to claim their niche of
persecution and victimhood.
Myrna Goldenberg, whose research and publications examine experiences of
Jewish women during the Holocaust, presents an opposing opinion.[iii]
She insists that gender is a significant factor for analysis and needs
to be included in order to give a more complete historical picture of the
analysis should be viewed as a complementary, rather than rivalrous arena
of inquiry in the field of Holocaust studies; it adds more nuance to a
subject dense with information about predominantly male-centred political
institutions and initiatives, reflective of evidence from male perpetrators
and, until recently, analyzed most commonly by male academics.
examining the subject of Jewish persecution during the Shoah, gender is
certainly an important factor to consider.[iv]
Jewish women were victims of the Nazis because they were Jewish; because
they were Jewish women they were victimized as Jews and
as women. The differing experiences of suffering between men and
women were often a function of the fact that women were vulnerable to the
Nazis in ways specific and exclusive to women. The threat of sexual victimization
and the dangers posed by pregnancy and childbirth were unique to women.
should also be a significant consideration in relation to the topic of
Jewish resistance and non-resistance during the Holocaust. The oft-used,
but offensive expression, that Jews went to their deaths like sheep to
the slaughter, is a reference to a perceived overwhelming passivity on
the part of the Jews during the Shoah. The state of being passive in a
more general sense has an associative link with the feminine, if one defined
this adjective in terms of gender. It is this perceived Jewish passivity
and seeming lack of agency associated with women in particular that Martha
Lubell and Barbara Attie address in their estimable documentary entitled
Daring To Resist: Three Women Face the Holocaust.
and Attie skillfully introduce the viewer to each of the three women resistors
featured in her film. Lubell and Attie's accomplishment begins with her
choice of subjects who each have a different medium of resistance peculiar
to her location, temperament, and circumstance.
Rodbell and her family emigrated from Germany to Holland in 1933, seeking
safety from the Nazis. Barbara's talent for ballet and fierce determination to
live helped her survive while passing as a Christian. The rest of her family
perished in Auschwitz. Using the privilege of her position as a ballerina,
Barbara participated in numerous resistance activities. Possessing special
papers which allowed her to stay out after curfew, she helped distribute
underground newspapers, and, under the cover of darkness, assisted in the
transportation of people who had to be moved from one hiding place to another.
Lack experienced anti-Semitism as a young schoolgirl in Budapest. She responded
by joining a Zionist youth group. By the age of 19, Shulamit was leading
groups of Jews in underground border crossings to Romania. Caught and imprisoned,
she persuaded the SS to keep her fellow prisoners alive.
the most striking of the three stories is that of Faye Schulman. Schulman
learned professional photography as a young teen in Poland. Her camera
made her useful to the Nazis and kept her alive when her entire ghetto
was slaughtered. Faye joined a forest partisan unit and photographed their
resistance activities while she waged war and cared for the wounded. Faye's
own words succinctly reveal the essence of her ordeal: When it was time
to be hugging a boy, I was hugging a rifle.
three varied and remarkable portraits broaden our understanding of resistance
during the Holocaust. In Daring To Resist, resistance is practiced
with forgeries, smuggling, dance, photography and wit. An act of resistance
might involve the use of guns and explosives, but is not reducible to it.
In depicting a range of activities which broadens the scope of how an act
of resistance is characterized, Lubell and Attie's film necessarily raises
one of this topics most pertinent questions - how does one define an act
of resistance? This issue is particularly relevant for those interested
in the study of women in the Holocaust; defining resistance more narrowly,
as exclusively an act waged with arms, would exclude many of the feats
accomplished by women.
more sophomoric productions might not spare the viewer from usually tedious
didacticism, Daring to Resist illustrates examples of resistance,
but does not claim to define the topic. Instead, the film poses many other
necessary questions about resistance. What motivated those who chose defiance
rather than submission? What obstacles were faced while attempting to resist?
What is the nature of courage? Viewers learn both the intricacies involved
in planning an act of resistance and the great risks involved in carrying
them out. We see the details of how heroes, or should one say, heroines,
choosing women from three different areas of Europe (Poland, Hungary and
Holland) all of which experienced the unfolding of the Final Solution at
different times and in differing ways, Lubell and Attie's film gives fuller
geographical and political scope in which to comprehend the evolution of
the Shoah. The three women also come from varied cultural and religious
backgrounds. From Rodbell's acculturated, assimilated Berlin environment,
to Lack's participation in Zionist youth groups in Budapest to Faye's more
traditional religious Jewish life in an Eastern European shtetl, the manner
in which each woman resisted was inextricably linked to her culture, the
resistance methods available to her, and, of course, circumstance and chance.
For instance, fighting as a forest partisan was not a resistance option
readily available in urban Amsterdam. Conversely, transporting children
to safe houses while passing as a German didn't lend itself well to the
situations faced by most Jewish women whose pre-war universes were informed
by the shtetl.
on the notion that women and men experienced the Holocaust in similar yet
differing ways, the telling of three women's stories of survival by resistance
highlights the commonality of men's and women's experiences while giving
some detail of where their ability to fight genocide diverged. There certainly
were significant gender differences in both survival and resistance activities
during the war, sometimes to the advantage of one or the other. For example,
women could often pass' more easily on the Aryan side since they were not
marked as Jewish. As a result, women in the resistance were often chosen
to act as couriers or saboteurs. In Lubell and Attie's film, Barbara Rodbell
was able to pass as a Christian, even renting a room in the home of a pro-Nazi
German woman and performing ballet on Dutch stages in front of audiences
packed with German soldiers. Some experiences were also clearly gender-specific
for example, Shulamit Lack's incarceration in a Hungarian prison with a
group of Roma (Gypsy) prostitutes lead to moments of mutual support.
defiant acts of Shulamit, Faye and Barbara typify three genres of resistance;
in fact, these three portraits are quite representative of resistance activities
in their respective countries: forest partisans in Eastern Europe, the
Zionist movement's activities of smuggling and forgeries in Hungary, and
passing and underground activities which involved finding safe havens for
Jews in Holland. However, Lubell and Attie's film, in its choice of its
three particular types of resistance activities and by emphasizing overt
acts of heroism, somehow almost inadvertently de-genders' the theme of
the film itself by linking women's resistance activities to men's resistance
work, rather than focusing on those aspects of resistance that were unique
to women. And while their tales are certainly heroic, they are not in fact,
wholly representative of Jewish women's resistance experiences during the
one video can address all the issues of resistance in one hour - Lubell
and Attie certainly had to make some difficult content choices, hence the
subtitle Three Women Face the Holocaust. Lubell and Attie's decision
to present just three individual stories is both the strength and the weakness
of the documentary, depending on the expectations one brings to the film.
While each viewer is privileged with a richly-detailed account of each
woman's life, the narrow narrative focus on just three individual stories
does not give a panorama of Jewish women's resistance experiences during
World War II. Perhaps a more inclusive account of women's resistance during
the Holocaust would have included at least one woman's story of spiritual
resistance, of small yet nonetheless important acts of defiance such as
the keeping of diaries in ghettos and concentration camps, or the emergence
of camp sistering and surrogate families which women formed in camp barracks.
While some scholars might question the validity of labelling these measures
as resistance, their very existence should, at the very least, be acknowledged
within the film. Working in underground movements, assisting with clandestine
border crossings, passing as a gentile, and taking up arms were not activities
that could have even entered into the realm of the possible for the elderly,
the very young or the infirmed.
three women are especially articulate and weave compelling and gripping
chronicles of their lives before, during, and after the war. Each woman's
life story is greatly complemented by excellent photographs, and, in the
case of Shulamit Lack, by rare home movies. With such a wealth of precious
archival material, the documentary moves beyond the basic format of visual
history interviews which mostly rely on static close-up shots of survivors
recalling the events of their lives during the war. Lubell and Attie's
film has an animated, vibrant quality throughout, with each woman's photographs
lending a rich visual texture to the stories being told. Faye Schulman's
photographs of her life in the Molotava Brigade are treasures; they still
resonate with intense feeling and character. In one picture, Faye is holding
a large rifle next to her leopard pattern coat in a snowy forest; one gets
a real taste of life on the edge in the depth of a Polish winter. Additionally,
both Lack and Rodbell are filmed returning to the sites where the events
they describe in the film took place. Scenes of contemporary Amsterdam
and Budapest are contrasted with the narratives being recalled; the effect
is almost surreal.
is clearly a paucity of documentaries on the general subject of resistance,
with the topic of women's resistance rarely, if ever, touched. Lubell and
Attie's film stands as a much-needed visual corrective to this fascinating,
yet neglected chapter of Holocaust history. In line with Goldenberg's more
general comments on gender analysis, a gendered study of resistance adds
an additional layer of knowledge in which to understand the Holocaust.
With Daring To Resist, Lubell and Attie adeptly and movingly fill
this void. Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is its success in returning
the women's survivor's voice. The testimony of each of these three witnesses
is the point of departure for Lubell and Attie's film and its primary focus
throughout. Recalling the facts and events of their own lives, these unique,
deeply personal stories, replete with detail and character, paint richly
woven, sensitive and respectful portraits of three young Jewish women who
resisted a fate prescribed to them during World War II.
Goldenberg, Myrna. Lessons Learned From Gentle Heroism: Women's Holocaust
Narratives. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science. November 1996:78-93.
Schoenfeld, Gabriel. Auschwitz and the Professors. Commentary June
Weitzman, Lenore J. and Dalia Ofer, Introduction: The Role of Gender in
the Holocaust. Women in the Holocaust. Eds. Dalia Ofer and Lenore
J. Weitzman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. 1-18.
Yerushalmi,. Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.
New York: Schocken Books, 1989.
Carla Rose Shapiro is a Ph.D.
candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. She
is also a curator of Holocaust-themed exhibitions.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.