Why Did Gender Matter During the Holocaust?

The Holocaust was inspected through the lens of gender for three difficult days in Israel in November. A few papers at “Childhood and Youth under the Third Reich — A Gender Perspective,” the fourth international conference on women and the Holocaust, dealt specifically with girls (“Poetry created by young girls at the camps and ghettos”; “Rescue of Jewish girls during the Holocaust”). Mostly, however, an array of Israeli, American and European professors and professionals discussed both genders and their experience of stunted, tortured, dislocated, or truncated childhood and adolescence.

Whereas a diary might begin in a tone of youthful innocence, a child soon gained insights into dark reality. Analyzing children’s diaries, Prof. Christine Colin of Mercy-hurst College showed how trauma pressed children into premature adulthood. “I am too little to write what I felt while waiting to be taken to the Ghetto,” one wrote. Only a few months later when told “This is the apartment where you will sleep,” her bitter gloss became “People are given places to live — only animals get places to sleep.”

Conference organizer Dr. Batya Brutin, of the Israeli college Beit Berl, illustrated the growing art iconography enveloping the images of Anne Frank and the boy with raised hands from the Warsaw Ghetto. Some presenters differentiated gender experiences. Professor Suzanne Vromen of Bard College, who interviewed survivors hidden as children in Belgian convents during the war, pointed out that while the men spoke with warm recollection of the excellent education they received, the women regretted being uniformly academically deprived, confined to training in “feminine” subjects like knitting and sewing.

Both the pain of lost mothers and of mothers losing children figured strongly. Dr. Helga Amesberger of the Institute of Conflict Research in Vienna conducted interviews of a mother and the daughter to whom she gave birth in a cart upon arrival in Mauthausen. The newborn baby was wrapped in paper. After the war, the mother had her daughter baptized and raised as a Christian. Mother and daughter remain close, yet the daughter calls herself “a chameleon… I don’t follow the Jewish religion but I feel Jewish” and has become involved with Holocaust remembrance causes.

Israeli Esther Golan discussed how young adolescent girls whose mothers were murdered in the war managed to lead ” normal” postwar lives, only to experience their inner pain bursting out in old age. In her talk on feminist implications of mother-child relationships during the Holocaust, conference organizer Dr. Esther Herzog of Beit Berl investigated the taboo subject of those mothers who did not perform all conceivable sacrifices nor end their own lives when their children died: “Evidence of women who preferred to live and not give up their lives were either concealed or denied… [considered] socially and morally inconceivable and unforgivable.” Israeli Dr. Felicja Karay, herself survivor of a labor camp, spoke forcefully of adolescents’ experiences in such camps. Declaring that an entrenched hierarchy of rich and poor was endemic to the camps, Karay exemplified the conference’s steady focus on difficult realities.

Likewise, the sensitive topic of sexual abuse, and survival following (and perhaps because of) sexual relations, was addressed by Esther Dror of Haifa University. Israeli society insensitively confronted surviving women either overtly or as subtext — ”How did you stay alive? Capo? Whore?” — resulting in a pervasive conspiracy of silence. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented public exploration or dialogue on this and other controversial subjects.

Many presenters and attendees mentioned their personal connection with the Holocaust — either survivor or second generation. Cordula Behrens of Oldenburg University in Germany, a Christian committed to educating young Germans about the Holocaust, avowed, “The scandal is not that last year they burned Anne Frank’s diary in Germany. The scandal is that the policeman didn’t know who Anne Frank was.”