Book Reviews

Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust. 

Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (editors). New York: Paragon House, 1993. 435 pp. $18.95 (softcover), ISBN 155778504X.

Reviewed by Dr. Carole Ann Reed. 

This review appeared in the Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 18. No. 2. pp. 235-243. 1995 Copyright A 1995 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved

"Stay alive, my darlings . . . Despite what you see here . . . there is humanity out there, there is dignity. And when it is over you must add to it . . . You can nourish your children's souls and minds and teach them that man is capable of infinite glory".

Different Voices is an important and welcome book that not only offers new knowledge and insight into women's history but also adds a crucial dimension to Holocaust study and scholarship. Until very recently most of the Holocaust writing which shaped our understanding of that historical event has come from men. Their witness memoirs and philosophical/theological contemplations were not positioned as men's experience but as the Holocaust experience. This collection of writing from women survivors, writers, philosophers/theologians, and historians clearly illustrates that although that former scholarship tells an important part of the legacy of the Holocaust, it tells only a part and that women's stories and scholarship form another integral and informative dimension.

The book is divided into three parts. 

  • Part I is a collection of witness memoirs

  • Part II is a collection of articles by sociologists and historians, and

  • Part III is a collection of writing in a variety of forms from a variety of religious, political, and general perspectives.

Part I comprises memoirs/reflections from women survivors of Auschwitz. Stories of Auschwitz (called "anus mundi" by survivor/author Terence des Pres) are offered as central to Holocaust experiences. Auschwitz was not only the "model" death/slave labour camp where at peak efficiency thousands of people were murdered each day but also was the concretization of the end point of Nazi philosophy. In Auschwitz, both men and women were subject to extreme deprivation and torment, but, in addition to the common conditions of cold, hunger, and frequent beatings, women also had to deal with invasive gynaecological examinations and experiments, pregnancy, abortion, and infanticide.

Taken as a whole, this collection of memoirs suggests that women experienced and reacted to camp conditions in ways essentially different from male camp inmates. Unlike stories of male survivors (e.g., Tadeusz Borowski or Terence des Ples) which often recount the cruelty of camp conditions and the effects of these conditions to an individual's psyche, the women's recollections emphasize the perceived effect that the camp had on others. The memoirs are filled with vignettes of the noticed suffering of other inmates. Linked to this awareness of shared suffering, these recollections also emphasize familial responsibilities, especially the mother‑child bond. Charlotte Delbo recalls the poignant and tragically superfluous worry of mothers as they took their child to the "showers." The mothers had pitifully fret that their children would catch cold without proper 'clothing. Isabella Leitner recalls the constant refrain of her thoughts during the transport to Auschwitz. Her one obsessive thought was that she would endure "anything . . . anything. . . Just let our family stay together" (p. 67).

This emphasis on the connections and caring between women is continued in Part II. 

In this section, historians, sociologists, and theologians consider whether women had an enhanced physical and emotional ability to survive the camp experience. Included in this section is an essay by Sybil Milton which discusses the specific survival skills that women used to keep themselves and their camp "sisters" alive. She maintains that women had a much better chance to survive the camps than men because of their previously acquired, gender‑based life skills. These skills included housekeeping, nursing, and cooperation capabilities. Women knew how to stretch meager food supplies, nurse sick inmates, refashion discarded items into useable clothing, and by assiduously constantly cleaning, gain some control over disease causing bacteria and germs. One inspiring example cited by Milton illustrates the cooperative behaviour that helped women to survive. Inmates in a French concentration camp pooled their few and jealously hoarded possessions to "buy" one homely kettle. They used this kettle to boil their drinking water and thus effectively lowered their mortality rate.

These efforts, to clean, to feed, and to nurse each other. and to cooperate for the good of the group, are presented as a form of resistance. Women's resistance to the Nazi agenda of death took other more direct and aggressive forts. As an example, Milton tells of the only public demonstration against the deportation of Jews that ever took place in Germany. The demonstration was organized by women outside the camps. "Aryan" wives of Jewish husbands who had been arrested and were about to be deported, demonstrated publicly in front of police stations throughout Germany. 

Each passing day more and more women joined the protest until they secured a tare gesture of conciliation from the Gestapo and their husbands were released.

In an article by Claudia Koonz, another, dramatically different role of non-Jewish women in the Holocaust is examined. Koonz explores the moral implications and the deadly consequences of the traditional female role that Nazi wives played. Koonz maintains that far from being merely complicit in the Nazi genocide, these women played an integral and necessary role in its realization. By providing a domestic retreat and safe haven for their husbands, Nazi bureaucrats, functionaries, and commandants, these women enabled their partners to recover from the trauma of mass murder, reconnect with their former humane "normal" family selves, and return, refreshed and able to resume their murderous work. By refusing to confront their partners and force them to acknowledge the truth of their work, they in fact facilitated the political project of genocide. 

Published here with the permission of Dr. Carole Ann Reed.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2003.
All rights reserved.