Telling 'Her' Story
Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Review: Eetta Prince-Gibson
Gendered aspects of the Holocaust have been a subject of research only since the 1980s. Until then, with the notable exception of Anne Frank's diary and the work of historian Lucy Dawidowicz, men - including venerable figures such as Eli Weisel, Andre Schwatzbard, Primo Levi, and Yehuda Bauer - have been the predominant voices in Holocaust literature.
In 1983, the Conference on Women Surviving the Holocaust in New York marked the first attempt to strengthen the voices of women in the study of the Holocaust, positing that gender mattered to victims and victimizers alike.
Since then, there has been great effort on the part of a small but determined group of researchers and authors to insert women's specific voices, experiences, and analyses into the canon of Holocaust studies.
The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp is one stark, sensitive, and deeply moving example of such efforts. Ravensbrück, the only concentration and death camp established solely for women, claims the highest death rate of all the camps on German soil. Some of the Nazis' most horrific medical experiments were performed there, yet it is one of the least known camps. Thanks to Rochelle Saidel's sensitive interviews and meticulous research, together with the many previously unpublished photographs and haunting drawings by the inmates, this book will increase public recognition of Ravensbrück's victims and survivors.
Saidel's book is the culmination of more than 20 years of research. As a political scientist who specializes in women's experiences in the Holocaust at the Remember the Women Institute in New York, she interviewed more than 60 survivors in the US, Israel, and Europe, investigating private archives and unpublished testimonies.
Located about 90 kilometers from Berlin, the camp began operating in 1939. It was intended to house about 3,000 women, but over the years it held as many as 43,000 at one time.
Up to 1,100 women were forced into barracks intended for 240. According to Saidel, this deliberate overcrowding was one way of murdering the inmates. With so many women being crowded into each small shed, the inmates were crushed and suffocated. Others were killed through the vicious means we are more familiar with: slave labor, torture, starvation, shooting, lethal injection, "medical" experimentation, and gassing.
But death is not the sole focus of Saidel's book. She shows that the women, despite the terror, resisted in ways that "lifted the spirit." The women struggled to survive and even persevere in particularly feminine ways. Daily life is described vividly as women are quoted talking about their fears, hopes, and friendships.
It is almost incomprehensible to many readers today, and yet strangely uplifting. To sustain a sense of humanity and community, the women created art, wrote and performed plays, helped each other maintain hygienic conditions, gave each other small gifts, and taught each other Bible and literature.
They even shared memories of recipes.
"Exhausted, cold, and hungry, they would talk endlessly about the food they longed for, about family meals they had shared, and the dishes they planned to make if they survived the war. It seems as though these oft-repeated recipes and stories about family meals served as a talisman, sustaining their humanity and hope in a time with little hope. In an act of enormous courage, Rebecca [Buckman Teitelbaum, a Belgian Jew who was in Ravensbrück for 17 months] hid away small pieces of paper and an indigo pencil, and set about recording these recipes, so lovingly retold."
Since having any kind of paper (even toilet paper) was punishable by death, this was a particularly courageous form of resistance.
Of course, Saidel notes, these testimonies are a blend of memory and history, and individual women's experiences cannot provide a comprehensive overview of the camp. Sometimes a survivor told Saidel a story that no one else mentioned. In one particularly harrowing testimony, a woman describes seeing a building filled with young women who had their tongues cut out. Another reported that Jewish prisoners were forced out naked into the cold on Christmas Day, 1944.
"We can either dismiss any or all of these stories as improbable," Saidel observes, "or consider them precious information that only one survivor remembered. Unless and until proven otherwise, I tend to subscribe to the latter possibility.
"When the testimonies of the women in this book are put together, along with writings from non-Jewish survivors, reports on those who did not survive, historically accepted facts, war crime trial transcripts and Nazi documents, they serve to corroborate each other in a way that gives us an overview."
Saidel also reveals how she became involved in the telling of the Ravensbrück story, and her self-reflections contribute to the reader's understanding of the process involved.
SAIDEL also addresses a perplexing question: Why is the Ravensbrück camp one of the least known? She provides several possible answers. Above all, of course, is the sad reality that there were very few survivors.
The camp itself was located in East Germany and so came under communist rule; until the reunification of Germany, commemoration of the camp was designed to exalt communism, not memorialize Jews. Also, most of the women in Ravensbrück had spent time in other camps, so their shorter, although usually more horrific, stays in Ravensbrück may not have figured as highly in testimonies as their periods in such well-known places as Auschwitz. Finally, the women of Ravensbrück were among the most ethnically diverse of any camp, so that those few survivors who may have written memoirs did so in their native languages, under the radar of much scholarly Holocaust literature.
But Saidel adds: "It could also be speculated, although not proven, that the camp's definition as a women's camp added to the lack of interest among the predominantly male circles of Holocaust scholars and survivor leaders."
With this, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp takes its honorable place in the growing genre of gender study of the Holocaust.
IN THIS regard, it is important to cite two pivotal works, both published in 1998: Women and the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman; and Judith Tydor Baumel's Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust. Ofer and Weitzman compiled a comprehensive and authoritative collection of original scholarship devoted to this topic. With 21 chapters by different contributors, theirs was one of the first works to include survivors' testimony alongside scholarly analyses.
In their introductory essay, Weitzman and Ofer pose the basic question Why should a book on the Holocaust - which targeted all Jews for annihilation irrespective of their sex, age, or any other social characteristic - focus on women? The rest of the book then shows "how questions about gender lead to a richer and more finely nuanced understanding of the Holocaust. They help us envision the specificity of everyday life and the different ways in which men and women responded to the Nazi onslaught."
Baumel's work was intended to "illuminate the factors which shaped the lives of Jewish women during and after the Holocaust" and to widen the geographical, chronological, and disciplinary scope of the study."
The book is divided into seven sections, each focusing on a different aspect of the discourse between gender and identity, such as Wartime Interaction; Heroism; and Post-war Life and Representation.
According to Baumel, in June 1943 Warsaw Ghetto historian Emmanuel Ringelblum wrote: "The historian of the future will have to devote a fitting chapter to the role of the Jewish woman during the war. It is thanks to the courage and endurance of our women that thousands of families have been able to endure these bitter times."
Yet as Ofer and Weitzman, Baumel, and many others note, the study of gender has been (and remains) controversial and is often met with hostility. The Nazis, the objectors note, defined their targets as Jews - not as men, women, or children - and systematically planned to murder all of them, irrespective of gender. Furthermore, they contend, feminist studies are an imposition of today's concerns (or fads) on the past. Others worry that a gendered study will diminish the importance of the Holocaust, or even trivialize it.
Weitzman and Ofer respond: "When one is confronted by the unimaginable suffering of the victims at every stage of Nazi occupation and by their ultimate annihilation, the argument goes, discussions of the minutiae of day-to-day interaction between husband and wife, or of the struggle to find jobs, or of the exchange of recipes in the camps, seems to pale in comparison and rob the victims of the honor and dignity they deserve. But the opposite is true. It is the details of everyday life - the portrait of a woman who saved her single ration of bread for her children, or that of a man who volunteered for forced labor because his wages were promised to his family - that restore individuality and humanity to the victims."
Like Saidel, they also believe that at least some of the resistance on the part of the "Holocaust establishment" is due to the fact that male researchers have assumed that "the universal Holocaust experience was the male experience" and so have simply ignored the voices of female survivors.
IT IS true, of course, that in death all Jews seemed alike to the Nazis.
But as they lived their tortured lives, men and women had very different experiences. To these researchers, it is clear that together with age, ethnicity, and other social classifications, sex and gender always have consequences. Together, these works point to at least two areas of different experience: women's bodies and the ways in which women were socialized.
Saidel notes that "physiological considerations made the experiences of women unlike those of men: menstruation [she points out that even though most women's periods stopped in the camps, they still had to suffer through at least one last period without any sanitary means]; pregnancy; rape; and forced prostitution."
With regard to socialization, Saidel writes: "On the one hand, there were positive aspects related to gender that enabled women to better struggle against the subhuman conditions of degradation, deprivation, terror, and death at Ravensbrück. Homemaking and nurturing skills were "women's work," and women's familiarity with these roles equipped them to form surrogate families, care for each other, and perform the hygienic and housekeeping routines that helped sustain life.
But the authors do not romanticize these skills.
"Gender-associated qualities caused some of the women to suffer. For example, because of the social relations between women and men at that time, girls were brought up to be modest, and many women were traumatized when forced to parade naked before men, and even other women. Women were also taught to be submissive, and as 'the weaker sex,' they had to overcome this ingrained self-image in order to stay alive."
By examining women's unique experiences and responses, and by combining minute insights with classic scholarly research, works such as those by Ofer and Weitzman, Baumel, and Saidel contribute to a fuller and more finely nuanced understanding of what still remains entirely unfathomable.
This article is published here with the permission by the Jerusalem Post.
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