Book Reviews

Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation - Esther Fuchs, ed.

Oxford and Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1999. xv + 143 pp. Notes and index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-761-81343-8; $29.50 (paper), ISBN 0-7618-1344-6.

Reviewed for H-Holocaust by Elizabeth R. Baer <>, Dean of the Faculty/Dept of English, Gustavus Adolphus College, MN


Challenging the 'Master Narrative' of the Holocaust

Esther Fuchs' anthology of essays is a welcome addition to the emerging body of scholarship devoted to studying gender and the Holocaust. Such studies are surprisingly few, given the maturity of the fields of both Holocaust Studies and Women's Studies. One can mention in a sentence or so the names of the early pioneers who began writing on the topic of women and the Holocaust: Myrna Goldenberg, Sybil Milton, Joan Ringelheim. One can add the names of Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossman and Marion Kaplan, whose anthology When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany broke new ground in 1984, as well as Marlene Heinemann who, in her 1986 book, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, called for more gendered analysis of the Holocaust -- a call scholars are only now beginning to answer. And one should mention two other anthologies: Carol Rittner and John Roth's 1993 Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, which is still a classroom staple; and the recent Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, which reportedly has sold 3500 copies in cloth, an indication of growing interest in, and acceptance of, such a critical approach. Other scholars whose recent books have contributed to our understanding of the topic include Judith Baumel, Rachel Brenner, Brana Gurewitsch, Lillian
Kremer, Ruth Linden, Diane Plotkin and Roger Ritvo, and Claudia Schoppmann.

Why such a paucity of texts in a field which has produced hundreds of books and, most recently, studies of the reception of the Holocaust as depicted in books and films (see, for example, Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life and Tim Cole's Selling the Holocaust, both published this year)? Several speculations are possible: feminist analysis may appear to some to trivialize the Holocaust, to valorize one victimhood over another, or to overshadow anti-Semitism as cause of the Holocaust in presenting the sexist aspects of the Nazi genocide. Many people, including many survivors, find the kind of differentiation of experience inherent in such analysis to be distasteful or inconsistent with their own experience. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of efforts at doing gendered analysis is Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, who remarked in the June, 1998, issue of that journal that such studies were undertaken in the service of a "naked ideological 'agenda.'"

Esther Fuchs, Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, counters such critiques in her Introduction: " . . .by ignoring gender," she states, "we stand to miss one of the most lethal weapons of Nazi propaganda and persecution. The Nazis produced an ideology of both racist and sexist supremacy. Antisemitism and misogyny were interconnected in the Nazi apparatus, and to ignore their misogyny is to remain oblivious to the profundity of their antisemitism and anti-humanism. Rather than simplifying, a feminist approach to the Holocaust complicates the scholarly agenda, refines our perceptions, our methodological tools and our ability to understand. Feminist research on the Holocaust is profoundly ethical in its attempt to give voice to the silenced and to enable the oppressed to regain a sense of self and dignity." She goes on to say that the focus of the anthology is to revise the "master narrative" of the Holocaust, "told by men about men." Fuchs, an Israeli and the child of survivors, shares with the reader the profound personal meaning that this volume has for her.

Women and the Holocaust is comprised of eight scholarly essays, two excerpts from women survivors' memoirs (one of whom is Fuchs' mother) and a review of two recent books, those by
Rachel Feldhay Brenner and Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. The essays are written by scholars in a wide range of fields: history, political science, Jewish studies, English, women's studies, sociology, religious studies and German. Such interdisciplinarity makes the book useful for students as well as scholars. The book is Volume XXII in the Studies in the Shoah series, Zev Garber, Editor-in-Chief. While all of the essays deal with some aspect of women and the Shoah, not all of them could be characterized as "feminist" in approach.

The opening essay by Zev Garber is entitled "The Problem of Edith Stein: Jewess and Catholic Saint," reprinted here in a shortened version of an earlier publication. Edith Stein, who is currently moving toward sainthood in the Catholic Church, a status highly contested by many Jews, was born into a Jewish family and became a Carmelite nun in 1933; she was gassed in Auschwitz in 1942, having been arrested at her convent. The "problem" alluded to in the essay's title is formulated by Garber thus: "can a 'baptized Jew' qualify as a Jew?" Noting that deciding who is a Jew "lies with Jewish decision and not Christian opinion," Garber presents both Torah passages and Israeli court rulings in support of his conclusion that Stein can no longer be considered Jewish.

R. Amy Elman's essay on "Lesbians and the Holocaust" revises the master narrative of the Holocaust by comparing "lesbian (in)visiblity" with that of gay men during the Third Reich. Observing that lesbians were not included in Paragraph 175, the German law which forbade male homosexuality, Elman comments upon the difficulty of uncovering lesbian lives from this period. She cites both Claudia Schoppmann's Days of Masquerade, and Erica Fischer's Aimee and Jaguar, as useful sources. She regrets that both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust conflate lesbians and gay men, thus perpetuating the invisibility.

Ronit Lentin also writes about silences and invisibility. Entitled "Re-occupying the Territories of Silence: Israeli Daughters of Shoah Survivors Between Language and Silence," her essay names three kinds of silences: the lack of serious scholarship on the Shoah in the discipline of sociology, the silence about the link between the Shoah and gender, and the silence about survivors, constructed as passive and female, in the excessively "masculine" society of Israel. Lentin, who like Fuchs is an Israeli daughter of survivors, here writes in both sociological and autobiographical modes: she uses her own experiences, and those of nine persons who shared personal narratives with her, to move beyond "split subjectivies" and break the conspiracy of silence. It is a revealing study. 

Four essays deal with texts by or about women. Analyzing the writing of survivors are Susan E. Nowak, who writes on Rena Gelissens' Rena's Promise in her essay "In a World Shorn of Color: Toward a Feminist Theology of Holocaust Testimonies," and Erliss Glass Wickersham, whose essay "Women as Agents of Suffering and Redemption in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs" provides close readings of this underappreciated poet. In his "Women as Resistance Fighters in Recent Popular Films: The Case of Hanna Senesh and Helene Moszkiewiez," Lawrence Baron questions why episodes have been fabricated in the films "Hanna's War" and "A Woman at War." He concludes that in the case of the former, the "embellishments" have carried a feminist message, while in the case of the latter the radical deviations from the facts of Moszkiewiez's life serve only to increase cinematic drama, thereby decreasing the credibility of the film as an accurate account of the subject's work in the resistance. Finally, Fuchs' own essay is a persuasive analysis of a number of recent films on the Holocaust which, though quite different from one another, share in common a depiction of Jewish heroines as "high-minded, innocent, optimistic, humane, kind, beautiful, and asexual," what Fuchs dubs the stereotype of the "Beautiful Soul." Fuchs notes that these heroines are made to "embody Western bourgeois values" and that they are "non-maternal Madonna-like prototypes," continuing "the Christian tradition of depicting Jewish women as dichotomies of good and evil." Fuchs goes on to demonstrate that, in a larger context, these heroines, who remain idealistic and altruistic despite their Holocaust experiences, symbolize the survival of Western civilization and a moral order. She cautions: " . . . we must question, resist, and challenge the tendency of the 'master scripts' to normalize their subject."

Katharina von Kellenbach, in her essay "Reproduction and Resistance During the Holocaust," introduces three women--Ruth Cronheim, Gonda Redlich, and Ruth Elias--for whom the ability to reproduce becomes a means of resistance. "The birth of a Jewish child," she claims, "was not a private affair, but a politically and religiously significant effort: it signaled the birth of 'avengers in the shape of children' [a quote of Himmler] to the Nazis, and the possibility of a future to the Jews." Tragically, only Ruth Elias survived of these three pairs of mothers and infants; nonetheless, their courageous choice to bear a child in the face of Nazi extermination must be understood as resistance, insists Kellenbach.

The two excerpts of memoirs included as Chapters nine and ten are compelling reading. Margaret Engel (Kohn) Keat's memoir is of particular interest because it recounts a period of time she and her family spent in Shanghai prior to their emigration to the USA in 1941. Zila Fuchs' brief excerpt tells a terrifying tale of life as a girl spent hiding in the barn of a Gentile Polish neighbor. The deprivations, the filth, the near discoveries by searching Gestapo, the nightly forays to nearby homes to beg for food -- all this is told in vivid domestic detail.

Esther Fuchs' anthology will add to our understanding of women's experiences during the Shoah, their memories of those experiences, and their narration and representation of those experiences. Many more such collections would be welcome to make our understanding both fuller and more nuanced.

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© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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