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Jewish Women and the Holocaust
This guide was designed to compliment the talk “Different Horrors, Same Hell: Jewish women and the Holocaust” by Dr. Myrna Goldenberg on October 11th, 2022 through NAHAP at NWACC.
As a subject, women and the Holocaust is a rich source of information about the experiences of Jews in Europe from 1933 and 1945, the span of the Nazi regime. However, in the decades following World War II, there was little information specifically about women. The particularities about their lives and deaths was nearly unknown until the early 1980s when feminist historians of German history, some of whom were children of Holocaust survivors, delved into that history. Their interest may have begun from curiosity about their personal history, but it sparked a rich subtopic that expanded into the study of literature, sociology, the arts, psychology, philosophy and, of course, the history of that period. Since then, scholars have been exploring the similarities and differences in the experiences of both men and women, some of which were based on gender-based socialization of the early twentieth century and some of which were the function of biology. Dr. Myrna Goldenberg, Professor Emeritus at Montgomery College (in Maryland), will discuss some of those findings and their significance, specifically in the context of genocide.
Goldenberg, PhD, has published seminal articles on women and the Holocaust and co-edited, with Amy Shapiro, Different Horrors, Same Hell: Gender and the Holocaust; with Elizabeth Baer, Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust; and, with Rochelle L. Millen, Testimony, Tensions, and Tikkun: Teaching the Holocaust in Colleges and Universities as well as numerous articles on American Jewish women’s literature and history. Her prize-wining book, Before All Memory is Lost, is composed of short memoirs of east European women who survived and emigrated to Canada. She is considering organizing her many articles into a Holocaust reader focused on the lives of Jewish women.
In this first Azrieli Foundation anthology, twenty-five women reflect on their experiences of survival--from the heart-stopping fears of hiding to the extreme risks of "passing" as non-Jews, and from the terrors of the Nazi camps to the treacheries of the Soviet Union. This powerful collection, woven together by the common thread of resistance, features a wide variety of narrative styles, including prose, poetry and diary excerpts.
Different Horrors, Same Hell brings together a variety of essays demonstrating the breadth of contributions that feminist theory and gender analysis make to the study of the Holocaust. The collection provides new perspectives on central works of Holocaust scholarship and representation, from the books of Hannah Arendt and Ruth Klüger to films such as Claude Lanzmann's Shoah and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Interviews with survivors and their descendants draw new attention to the significance of women's roles and family structures during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and interviews and archival research reveal the undercurrents of sexual violence within the Final Solution. As Doris Bergen shows in the book's first chapter, the focus on women's and gender issues in this collection "complicates familiar and outworn categories, and humanizes the past in powerful ways."
The Holocaust was a cataclysmic upheaval in politics, culture, society, ethics, and theology. The very fact of its occurrence has been forcing scholars for more than sixty years to assess its impact on their disciplines. Educators whose work is represented in this volume ask their students to grapple with one of the grand horrors of the twentieth century and to accept the responsibility of building a more just, peaceful world (tikkun olam). They acknowledge that their task as teachers of the Holocaust is both imperative and impossible; they must teach something that cannot be taught, as one contributor puts it, and they recognize the formidable limits of language, thought, imagination, and comprehension that thwart and obscure the story they seek to tell. Yet they are united in their keen sense of pursuing an effort that is pivotal to our understanding of the past-and to whatever prospects we may have for a more decent and humane future.
Memoirs written by women survivors of the Holocaust share certain characteristics with those written by men, such as a narrative structure that begins with belonging and then moves to humiliation, isolation, deprivation, and finally annihilation. Men and women survivors both describe gratuitous and deliberate violence by Kapos and SS. However, women's memoirs also share strikingly similar characteristics with each other that differ from men's memoirs and that stem from their experiences as women and as Jews-thus as double victims-in a misogynistic, racist totalitarian society. Women's memoirs yield anecdotes that demonstrate women's resourcefulness in the hells of the ghettos and camps. Thus women's narratives are rich sources of the characteristics of an alternative social structure based on traditional feminine values. The experience of women during the Holocaust shows that traditionally feminist values of cooperating and caring are important conditions for the perpetuation of civilization, irrespective of religious, ethnic, or nationalist identification.
The Holocaust is a gendered experience, as can be gleaned from memoirs, biography, short stories, social history and its philosophy from six books written on the genocide. Although classified as 'nonpersons and nonwomen,' Jewish women were subjected to specifically gendered abuses as potential reproducers of a hated race, such as misogyny, sexual assault, amenorrhea and the fear of sterilization. The books also speak of belief and reason in the face of evil as the gripping stories of Jewish and non-Jewish heroines, martyrs and traitors are recounted.
An interview with senior editor Eileen Lavine is presented. Lavine notes the challenges caused by women's experience to some traditional Holocaust interpretations and assumptions. She explains the prevalence of sexual torture in Eastern European cities and towns other than in camps prior to deportation. She observes that women are more cooperative and socialized than competitive.