Book Reviews

Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust

Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg, Eds. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003. 321 pages. Paper. 24.95. ISBN 0-8143-3062-2.

Review: Karin Doerr, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

This anthology is dedicated to the late Sybil Milton (1941-2000). It grew out of the 1997 Annual Holocaust Scholar's Conference that featured two special panels on women and the Holocaust. The detailed title of this "superbly edited and introduced" (jacket endorsement) book suggests also its range. It is divided into four parts, I) Proposing a Theoretical Framework, II) Women's Experience: Gender, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, III) Gender and Memory: The Uses of Memoirs, IV) Women's Expressions: Postwar Reflections in Art, Fiction, and Film. The sections cover earlier research on the subject, as well as new contributions. Editors Elizabeth R. Baer and Myrna Goldenberg have skillfully connected and cross-referenced them. This provides continuity to the edition that is often missing in other collected works. Since each article also functions as a separate entity, the occasional overlapping of themes and references is understandable. The varied topics point to the interdisciplinary character of the volume and shed light on the subject from such diverse angles as art, history, literature, nursing, philosophy, and religion.

The Introduction by editors Baer and Goldenberg provides an excellent summary of the extant scholarship on women and the Holocaust. It gives ample credit to its pioneers, such as Joan Ringelheim and, most notably, Carol Rittner and John Roth, who edited the popular anthology, Different Voicesi. Its eleven-page Chronology, covering the years 1933-1946, has been reprinted in Experience and Expression and is particularly helpful to those using the book as a reader. Danielle de Lucia Brugess must be commended for her fitting cover design with a photo depicting the deportation of Jewish women and children to an unidentified Yugoslavian concentration camp in 1942.

In Part I, John K. Roth surveys how renowned (mainly male) scholars have or have not changed their minds about gendered Holocaust experiences. While Yehuda Bauer and Raul Hilberg now recognize them, Lawrence L. Langer continues to argue a more universalist position. Roth also praises websites dedicated to women and the Holocaust, such as the first site established by Judy Cohen in Toronto, Canada. Pascale Rachel Bos, in her illuminating article on "Analyzing Gender Difference," focuses on the interconnectedness of gendered experience, memory, and narrative and has built on Joan Ringelheim's seminal "A Reconsideration of Research" of 1985ii. Bos criticizes the essentialist over-emphasis of "typical" female survival strategies. Most importantly, she points to the still existing "cycle of neglect" of women's writing in Holocaust studies (38). 

Part II deals with issues that are not always highlighted in Holocaust collections, such as Sybil Milton's important piece, "Hidden Lives: Sinti and Roma Women," and three articles on female perpetrators of crimes against women prisoners. Anna Rosmus presents the largely ignored situation of female prisoners as workers who were brought into Germany during the war from German-occupied countries. She reveals that in cases of pregnancy and/or newborns, German personnel often performed abortions and/or infanticide. Rosmus mentions the infamous Infants Homes inside Germany. Also called Children's Camps (Kinderlager), they were, from 1943, special birthing and children's camps for Polish and Russian women and generally did not have the welfare of the infants in mind. 

Susan Benedict's "Caring While Killing" centers on seemingly sympathetic German women who were in fact complicit perpetrators. They were involved in the euthanasia of what the ideologically infused German experts deemed "life unworthy of life" (lebensunwertes Leben). The code name for this extensive murder program of people with disabilities was Aktion T-4 (Operation T-4), named after the Reich Chancellery's address at Tiergartenstraße 4 in Berlin. (The male doctors of T-4 subsequently provided the backbone of the trained force of killers at the death camps in occupied Poland.) The German trials took place only in the sixties. The defense stressed two points: these murders were seen as "acts of mercy," and the nurses carried them out while obeying orders. 

Still within the area of female perpetrators and mercy killings, Mary D. Lagerwey examines "The Nurses' Trial at Hadamar and the Ethical Implications of Health Care Values." In the German town of Hadamar in Hesse, the State Psychiatric Hospital and Sanitarium was an Aktion T-4 euthanasia center from 1941 to 1945. More than 11,000 Germans, including over 5,000 children, were murdered there. The central aspect of nursing practice before and during the Third Reich was a person's ability to reflect "the highest ethic" (114). Three nurses faced the United Nations War Crimes Trial in Wiesbaden in 1945 for the (additional) killing of 3,000-3,500 Russian and Polish prisoners of war. The defense emphasized the nurses' "two character traits, duty and selfless service" (115). Lagerwey explains that Nazi ideology had provided the nurses with a morality that was founded on "a shift in focus of care and moral responsibility from the individual to the nation." Thus did the German nurses justify their participation in murder and plead "not guilty" based on reasons of state (123, 118). The two male nurses were found guilty and hanged. 

Part III of the book concentrates on "Uses of Memoirs." Judith Greenberg writes on the involvement of women in "Path of Resistance: French Women Working from the Inside." She discusses "the 'inside' activities of two women, one Jewish and one Protestant, who worked actively as resisters in France-Denise Siekierski and Madeleine Barot." She highlights instances in which "gender affected their roles as resisters" when helping "'undesirable' women such as prostitutes" (132). One could reference here to Simone de Beauvoir's generally neglected socio-historical novels, especially The Mandarins (1960), that included women's active role in the Resistance.

Myrna Goldenberg states in "Food Talk: Gendered Responses to Hunger in the Concentration Camps" that, philosophically, the subject of food became public only when its functions became economic or religious (164), i.e., entering the sphere considered male. She mentions that hunger "often evokes a different kind of response in women," and notes how they remembered absent or dead family members through recipes. In that way, "recipes carry the past" and, within the Holocaust context, were often used as food fantasies that were spoken rather than written (172). The collection of recipes in In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin (1996) is a well-known exception. 

Also in Part III, Susan Nowak, in "Ruptured Lives and Shattered Beliefs: A Feminist Analysis of Tikkun Atzmi in Holocaust Literature," examines the fear, the intimidation, and the desperate search for a way to continue to live and survive the moment as well as the aftermath. Nowak addresses important ethical questions that arose during and after experiencing and witnessing victims' vulnerability, assault, and limited or denied agency in the face of Nazi atrocities. 

Catherine A. Bernard provides a feminist analysis of Anne Frank and corrects the image of the idealized child victim by locating the voice of Frank the woman concealed behind the distortions of mainstream hagiography. Bernard gives us the history of the famous Diary's publication that had reduced Frank to "a symbol of gentle forgiveness or … a touchstone for identification with the oppressed of the world" (220). Bernard mentions the omissions and suppressions of some of Frank's significant contemplations as a young woman in a sexist and unjust society and a brutal world. 

In Part IV, Stephen C. Feinstein's chapter on "Jewish Women in Time: The Challenge of Feminist Artistic Installations about the Holocaust," provides an excellent and thorough analysis of the art of two renowned female artists: Ellen Rothenberg's "Anne Frank Project" (1990) and Nancy Spero's two installations (1993) about the fate of women during the Nazi era. They represent "Hitler's best known victim" and "lesser known women victims." Both artists base their work on existing texts, The Diary of Anne Frank and, in Spero's case, poems by Bertolt Brecht and Nelly Sachs. It brings to mind a contemporary performance piece by artist Ruth Liberman from New York, who fires bullets into German words, thereby fusing text and visual art in a powerful statement about language and memory. 

Lillian Kremer's article on American Holocaust fiction finds "gendered suffering" and "coping strategies" of women in "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick (1970) and Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (1980). One wishes for an examination of works other than these well-documented ones. The title of the last contribution to the collection, "The Uses of Memory and Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Film, Fiction, and Memoir" promises more than it delivers because it covers only the frequently analyzed novel The White Hotel by D.H. Thomas (1981) and the film The Night Porter by Lilian Cavani (1975). Scherr speaks of "numerous works that treat sexual relationships and eroticism as dominant features," yet does not name them. In fact, there are not many such examples. Sherri Szeman's The Kommandant's Mistress (1993) and Sophie's Choice (1979) by William Styron come to mind as literature (the latter as film in 1982), as well as Hollywood's first exploration of female sexuality and the Holocaust, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964). There are also Ka-tzetnik's The House of Dolls (1955) and Piepel (1961). 

Finally, with a volume like this, bibliographies would have been welcome, either as suggestions after each chapter or as an overall bibliography divided by a few subcategories (such as the ones available on the website Women and the Holocaust). This said, the sources mentioned in the footnotes of each contributor are extensive and comprise the available material on the subject. There are, of course, repetitions. A comprehensive section on Holocaust documentaries and fiction films is also missing. In the contemporary world of visual images, it is essential for a volume like this to highlight this medium, here from a feminist perspective. A good example is text and filmography on Canadian Holocaust film and video in which items by or about women are indicated by an asteriskiii. Such useful compilations help researchers, teachers, and students.

A more serious omission is a chapter on the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. It contained women from diverse European countries, as well as Germans and Jews. Many of the inmates there fell victim to horrible medical experiments, such as studies of the effects of gases used in combat. Others suffered as forced laborers for the Reich war effort in abominable underground conditions. In addition, Ravensbrück had its share of female perpetrators and survivors like Gemma LaGuardia Glück and others, as mentioned in Rochelle G. Saidel's 2004 book, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Campiv

Experience and Expression does not confront women's art created during the Holocaust, an important chapter that still needs addressing. For example, the varied surviving paintings, drawings, sketches-some on scraps of unlikely material-stand also as valid, visual witnesses to the gendered Holocaust experiencev

Minor quibbles are misspelled German words. However, the contributors' linguistic sensitivity is laudable since they avoid thoughtless repetition of cold and contrived Nazi vocabulary, such as "extermination" (Vernichtung) or Final Solution (Endlösung) when referring to aspects of human annihilation.

Despite minor shortcomings, Experience and Expression takes a giant step further towards expanding the knowledge of women and the Holocaust and towards different approaches to this subject. It provides excellent studies as models for further explorations. Susan Nowak's treatment of ethical issues points to original work on women's behavior in the "Gray Zone." In her words from "In a World Shorn of Color: Towards a Feminist Theology of Holocaust Testimonies:" "The tragedy of women informing on one another, the horror of daughters abandoning their mothers, and the violence of 'privileged' female inmates against the 'lesser privileged' graphically brings home the extent of the Shoah's rupture and the odious behavioural consequences that became normative."vi Hence, further research needs to be done on women's survival chances based on nationality, education, and political or religious affiliation.

We also have to continue to unearth women's voices, like Catherine A. Bernard did in the case of Anne Frank, and to reevaluate feminist interpretations that are based on essentialism and cultural feminism. The focus on exemplary female survival strategies, or glorification of the female victim, some critics argue, is playing women's behavior against that of men's. We need to look instead at the effect of gender socialization. Frameworks grounded in feminist philosophy could be helpful, especially those that encompass an ethics of mutual care within the micro- and macrocosm of Holocaust experiences and present society. Such an inclusive feminist interpretation may one day provide equality between women's and men's Holocaust narratives. 

In conclusion, this wonderful new volume should be included in any library collection, particularly in Holocaust, Feminist, and Social Studies. It makes a fine reader for a university course on women and the Holocaust. Above all, it should find its rightful place in the curriculum because it fills significant gaps and points clearly to new directions in our comprehension of gendered Holocaust experiences.

Review article first published in The Bulletin of the Center For Holocaust Studies. The University of Vermont: Vo. 9, no. 1. Fall 2004:11-13. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

i. Carol Rittner and John K. Roth, eds., Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (New York: Paragon House, 1993).

ii. Joan Ringelheim, "Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research," (1985; repr.) in Different Voices, 374-418.

iii. See Gary Evans, "Vision and Revision" and "Annotated Filmography," in Afterimage/Rémanences: Evocations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Canadian Arts and Literature, ed. Loren Lerner (Montreal: The Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, 2002); Filmography also available on the website Women and the Holocaust.

iv. (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). See also Kristian Ottosen, trans. Margrit Rosenberg Stenge The Women's Camp: The History of the Ravensbrueck Prisoners (Oslo: H. Aschehoug, 1991); unpublished manuscript available at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem.

v. See e.g. Janet Blatter and Sybil Milton, Art of the Holocaust (York: Rutledge Press, 1981); and Joseph P. Czarnecki, Last Traces: The Lost Art of Auschwitz (New York: Atheneum, 1989).

vi. Susan E. Nowak, "In a World Shorn of Color: Towards a Feminist Theology of Holocaust Testimonies," in Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, Esther Fuchs, ed. (New York: University Press of America, 1999) 35.

Copyright © 2004 Judy Cohen, all rights reserved.