Book Reviews

Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust
Nechama Tec

(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 448 pp., cloth $35.00, pbk. $20.00.

Reviewed by Rochelle G. Saidel in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2005.  See for the original of this review.

Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust, winner of the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust Studies category, is a welcome addition to the small but growing collection of analyses of gender and women’s experiences during the Holocaust. Women’s studies and Holocaust studies both became “legitimate” but unconnected scholarly subjects in the 1960s, but the Holocaust generally continued to be studied from the point of view of men. The special gendered experiences of women during the Holocaust have  received less scholarly attention. Now Tec combines the two by comparatively investigating how women and men coped and survived.

The first public event on record that addressed women, gender, and the Holocaust did not take place until March 1983, when Esther Katz and Joan Ringelheim organized the groundbreaking “Conference on Women Surviving the Holocaust” at Stern College in New York. Ten years later, Carol Rittner and John Roth published the anthology Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust (1993).1 Then, for the first time in twenty-nine years, the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust presented in 1999 a plenary on women and the Holocaust. As co-chairs of this session, Myrna Goldenberg and I featured recent scholarly books on the subject and titled the plenary “Women’s Holocaust History: Books in Print.” The occasion was historic not only because the subject was deemed important enough for a plenary, but also because a core number of books made such a session possible. Since 1999 there have been workshops, plenaries and panels at the Scholars’ Conference, Lessons and Legacies conferences, educators’ conferences at Yad Vashem, annual meetings of the Association of Holocaust Organizations, and elsewhere.

Drawing on personal narratives as well as archival material, Resilience and Courage addresses the specific gender-related questions that made the female Holocaust experience different from that of the male. It explores how gender affected women’s and men’s ability to struggle against deprivation, terror, and even death, and how being female or male generated benefits and liabilities. Tec’s skillful interview techniques and ability to smoothly interweave narratives and historical background result in a book with both human warmth and contextual accuracy.

An important difference between men and women that the author discusses was women’s homemaking and nurturing skills, which equipped them to form surrogate families, take care of each other, and keep themselves and their living space as clean and hygienic as possible under the circumstances. Tec also discusses women’s difficulty in overcoming inbred modesty and submissiveness, as well as men’s humiliation when they lost their employment and positions as heads of household.

Tec points out that other variables, such as the socioeconomic, political, and national backgrounds of women and men also played a role in survival. In addition, she discusses the impact of biological differences between men and women, such as women’s reproductive systems and their vulnerability to rape and sexual abuse. This material includes testimony from women in the resistance movement about rape and the need for a male protector, as well as narratives about menstruation, pregnancy, and abortion.

After an introductory chapter, “Voices from the Past,” Tec organizes her book according to general circumstances during the Holocaust: “In the Beginning,” “Life in the Ghetto,” “Leaving the Ghetto,” “The Concentration Camps,” “Hiding and Passing in the Forbidden Christian World,” and “Resistance.” Tec discerned from most survivor reports that during the Holocaust, adult women and men, to a greater extent than the very old and very young, traveled on different roads toward the single destination planned for them by the Germans. Men were seen as humiliated, broken by their inability to provide for their families. The horrendous circumstances they had to face left them depressed and apathetic. Mothers or female relatives were generally viewed with admiration for their selfless aid to their families and others. When husbands and fathers were unable to fulfill their roles, adult women and their teenaged children of both sexes rose to the challenge, aiding their families, friends, and communities. (p. 345)

Differing from most American scientific researchers, Tec has two distinct advantages that helped her gather significant data and interviews for this book. First, she is not only a sociologist, but also a survivor. Born in Lublin in 1931, she survived the war by hiding and passing as a non-Jew. Second, her fluency in Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish enabled her to speak with survivors in the language with which they were most comfortable. Thus, Tec’s writing combines the analytical skills of a trained sociologist with her personal experience of living through the Holocaust.

Tec’s latest book grew out of her other works, especially her research on Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993). “I realized through Defiance that women in the forest had a special role and situation,” she has explained at lectures in connection with her book. “So I looked at women in different contexts, and realized that I also had to look at men as well as women.” The result is Resilience and Courage, a comparative analysis of men and women in ghettos, camps, forests, resistance movements, and a variety of other settings.


1. Although some women’s diaries and firsthand accounts had been available in English since the 1950s, the year 1998 produced an unprecedented richness of more analytical publications, and even more began to appear after that. Two out of the three finalists for the 1998 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust Studies category were about women and gender: Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, by Marion A. Kaplan, and Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. Other important books on women and the Holocaust published in 1998 include Brana Gurewitsch’s Mothers, Sisters, Resisters: Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust and Judith Tydor Baumel’s Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust. (return to review)

This review is published here with the permission of the author, Dr. Rochelle Saidel who is the Executive Director of the “Remember the Women Institute”. Please visit her web site.


Copyright © 2005 Judy Cohen, all rights reserved.