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Mothers, Daughters and the Holocaust

When she was first teaching, Sara Horowitz dodged her students’ questions about gender and the Holocaust. “This isn’t the place to push your women’s studies agendas,” the Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto recalls responding. Eventually, her students’ questions inspired her to rethink a deeply embedded notion within Holocaust scholarship: that because every Jew regardless of gender was equally a target of the Nazis, focusing on women detracts from the gravity of the genocide against Jews. Horowitz became fascinated with questions not just about what happened to Jewish women, but about their inner lives as they were living through the war, and how they grappled with their memories after liberation.

With a background in comparative literature, she immersed herself in fiction written by survivors, oral and video testimonies and survivor diaries to glean how our cultural memory of the Holocaust has been shaped by women.

Last October, Horowitz spoke in Washington on “Mothers and Daughters in the Holocaust,” the inaugural lecture in the Holocaust Studies Forum, jointly sponsored by American University’s Department of History and Jewish Studies Program and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The talk drew on her research for the book she is completing: Gender, Genocide and Jewish Memory. Three sets of questions emerge from this work: How did women’s roles as mothers or daughters shape their experiences? How do daughters who survived (both with and without their mothers) later look back at their mothers and their experiences during the war? And how do daughters born after the war to a mother survivor understand their mothers’ experiences?

Many of the stories that Horowitz recounted in her lecture reflected tragedy of almost unbearable proportions: women accidentally suffocating their babies to muffle their cries; a new mother’s breasts being bound so she can hold but not feed her baby; a woman taking a small child out of the arms of her grandmother and into the hands of her mother at the ramp in Auschwitz, essentially ensuring a death sentence for her mother, since her grandmother and the child would have been killed as a matter of course.

But there were also tales of incredible “heroism under deprivation,” women who managed to feed and physically or psychologically protect their families, to spirit their children away to safety, to march into Gestapo stations demanding the whereabouts of their husbands, and to engage with the Resistance.

These stories didn’t end with liberation; rather, women and their families continue to wrestle with the memories and the legacy of these experiences.

So why is it important to know these women’s stories? Full disclosure: I’m not a scholar, but as the daughter of a woman concentration-camp survivor, I feel hearing women’s collective stories is important for several reasons. First, women frequently provided the physical and psychological touchstones that helped their children survive unimaginable conditions and circumstances. A mother’s last words could reverberate a message of hope and worthiness, helping her children deflect rather than internalize oppression. In this way, women’s messages added not just to the physical survival of the Jewish people, but also to the endurance of its moral compass. Mothers also often encouraged their children to survive and bear witness, a task survivors have certainly achieved.

Second, how women who survived managed to live with their wartime experiences affected the next generation in ways that we are only beginning to understand. For example, daughters of women survivors almost universally experience their mothers as carrying deep secrets, as being inaccessible, whether these mothers spoke openly about the Holocaust or whether they changed their identities to avoid having to speak about them at all.

Third, women’s stories give us an additional lens through which to view the specificity of Nazi atrocities, as well as the universality of genocide, mass murder and torture. Horowitz generously makes the case that many Holocaust books and films have left out women’s stories precisely because what happens to women touches us on such a primal level that it was perhaps almost unbearable to deal with. That might well have been the case — and telling their stories now is important in reaffirming our own humanity, as well as “re-humanizing” victims and survivors.