A major new anthology has brought together the work of serious scholars of the Holocaust under a “women’s” rubric. In so doing, the book inspired a shockingly anti-feminist attack. Writing in Commentary magazine, Gabriel Schoenfeld accused these scholars of spreading feminist “propaganda,” and commented—gratuitously—that “the general execrableness” of their prose “easily surpasses that of their male colleagues.” In a baffling editorial move, The Wall Street Journal adapted this analysis for its op-ed page, making sure Schoenfeld’s polemic lost none of its scornful, misogynistic fervor. In the following four pages, we offer a clear-headed appraisal of the book and some scholarly responses to the crucial new work of elucidating women’s Holocaust experiences.
Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman could not have imagined that when their edited volume, Women in the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 1998), appeared it would be drawn into a political maelstrom. Their serious academic study became, within moments of its publication, target for a salvo unleashed by political conservatives.
Despite being a foil for conservative wrath, this valuable collection of essays by 21 writers on women’s experiences before the war, in the ghettoes, in the resistance and in the concentration camps makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Holocaust history. The contributors to this volume, the majority of whom are specialists in Jewish history, including the Holocaust, believe that while both Jewish men and women caught up in the whirlwind which was the Holocaust reached the same ultimate destination, men and women often were stopped at different stations along that path. Neither the authors of the various selections nor the editors argue that a woman’s situation was necessarily worse than a man’s. They do contend that it was different.
Some critics of the whole endeavor of studying women’s Holocaust experiences believe that since the Final Solution called for the death of all Jews, to focus on gender in general and sexual vulnerability in particular might seem irrelevant or even irreverent. Some have even said “obscene.” But it is axiomatic to note that the Holocaust did not have the same impact on all its victims. No event ever does. Age, geography and economic status are among the factors that differentiated one experience from the other: Child survivors, particularly those hidden, had a markedly different experience than did adults. A number of scholars have tried to ascertain whether Jews who had a strong religious faith were able to endure the torture of ghettoes and camps better than those who did not. Many wealthy Jews were able to arrange for their family’s escape from the Reich, while Jews with no resources had fewer chances of avoiding disaster. Jews in German small towns in the 1930’s generally fared worse than Jews in larger cities where there was an organized Jewish community to assist them. Ofer, Weitzman and other scholars before them recognize that even as one explores differences of age, faith, class, geography, and nationality, “unless one understood the condition of women, one would not understand the general human condition,” as Ofer explains.
This understanding, however, is not—as some critics would have it—a contemporary agenda that feminists are trying to impose on the past. One of the first people to call attention to changes for women as a result of Nazism was the historian Emmanuel Ringelblum, who did his research from within the Warsaw ghetto itself. In Ofer’s contribution to the book, “Gender in Ghetto Diaries and Testimonies,” she quotes Ringelblum’s notes from the beginning of 1940 about women in the Warsaw ghetto.
“Women’s perseverance—the main providers. Men don’t go out. When [a man is seized for forced labor], the wife does not let go. She runs after [the kidnappers], she screams and cries ‘please, Mister’—she is not afraid of the soldiers. She stands on the long line—some are sent to work. . . . When there is need to go to the Aleja Szucha [the Gestapo] the daughter or wife goes. . . . The women are everywhere since the [men] have been taken to all sorts of work. . . .When a husband escapes and his wife has to be the sole provider. [Women] who never thought of working [out of their homes] are now performing the most difficult physical work.”
Ringelblum asked his colleague Cecilya Slepak to explore this metamorphosis inside the ghetto. Why did Ringelblum not also ask another scholar to do a similar study on how men’s lives had changed? Because even then, in the midst of the horror, he recognized, as contemporary conservative critics do not, that the vast majority of the information being gathered by the group of ghetto researchers dedicated to documenting as many aspects of ghetto life as possible focused on men’s experiences. That was the norm.
Of the unique experiences of women that have been neglected, Weitzman and Ofer suggest four general categories. First, the roles of women before the war. In Germany, for example, where few women worked, they had fewer Gentile contacts. In less affluent Jewish communities in Poland, on the other hand, women were the ones who had primary contact with the non-Jewish world and thus had Gentile contacts they could approach for help.
Second, suggest Weitzman and Ofer, because Jews anticipated that the Nazis would not harm women and children, they focused their escape efforts on the men. The emigration statistics for German Jewish men and women are, as Marion Kaplan observes, quite different. Precious visas were often used for the men on the supposition that once the situation calmed down women would be able to join their families. Parents willingly sent their sons abroad to pave the way for the rest of the family but regularly insisted that a daughter’s proper place was at home with her parents, irrespective of the dire conditions.
Third, the edicts passed by the Nazis tended also to treat men and women differently. We know—and essays in this book attempt to explore why—that in a number of ghettoes the mortality rate for men was higher than that for women. We also know that a disproportionate number of women in their 20s and 30s were deported from the ghettoes for the camps.
Even upon their arrival in the camps women fared differently. Whereas a healthy young man might well avoid being immediately sent to the gas chambers, young women, who might have been selected to work, were sent to the gas chambers because they were with their children. “It is well known,” write Weitzman and Ofer in their introduction, “that some of the Jews who worked on the arrival ramp walked among the women lining up for the selection and told the young women to ‘give their children to the grandmother.’ The workers, who knew that the grandmothers—and the children— were already destined for the gas chambers, were trying to save the lives of the young mothers. . . Naturally most women clung to their children . . . and were sent to the gas chambers with them.”
The most striking—and least discussed—difference that women encountered had to do with their sexual vulnerability, a topic that some of the contributors note has been minimized or ignored by researchers. The victimization of Jewish men during the Holocaust did not usually include their sexual exploitation. Even when women were not sexually exploited, they knew that was a danger facing them. Indeed, writes Myrna Goldenberg based on her study of women’s memoirs of Auschwitz, “Although rape by the SS in the death camps was rare, the women were terrorized by rumors or threats of rape.” One woman recalls her uncle telling her “that he had witnessed a mass raping of Jewish girls who were buried alive in mass graves that they had dug.” Other women had to face the terrible choice of using sex to try to save themselves and their families.
Finally, this book offers evidence of distinct differences in the way in which men and women responded to the Nazi policies, be it women’s refusals to abandon their mothers— thus closing off the possibility of escape—or their ability to make meager food and clothing last in the camps or their leadership in the resistance movements.
In light of these clear gender differences in experiences during the war, which this book explicates so sensitively, the question becomes: Why the political maelstrom about this book? Why has this serious work become the subject of devious attacks in leading Jewish and secular journals? A small number of political conservatives have convinced themselves that the Holocaust has been hijacked by fuzzy-minded liberals intent on de-Judaizing it and using it for all sorts of political ends. These conservatives, both within the Jewish community and outside of it, need ammunition to make their argument, and they have found it in the study of women in the Holocaust. In articles in The Wall Street Journal and Commentary, Gabriel Schoenfeld has glibly dismissed all such work on women in the Holocaust as having nothing more than a naked ideological agenda. He argues that “feminist scholarship on the Holocaust is intended explicitly to serve the purposes of consciousness-raising—i.e. propaganda.”
The best that can be said about Schoenfeld’s critique is that he did not allow himself to be confused by the facts. Had he not come to this book with his eyes already closed as to its value, he would have recognized it as an important work that will teach us a great deal about the terrible experiences of both Jewish women and men during the Holocaust.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and chair of the Graduate Program in Jewish Studies at Emory University.