Why Women are Writing Holocaust Memoirs Now

In the afterword to her book, Cabbages and Geraniums, Valerie Jakober Furth says:

For me remembering the Holocaust is only recent. About eight years ago I passed through a personal crisis. As one does during such periods, I examined my life closely. Up to then I thought that I had succeeded quite well in living in the present. As I looked more closely, however, I realized that in many ways, like roots speading thickly underground, my experiences of that time had affected my life profoundly. They had, in effect, shaped me into the woman I am today.

Women often write their memoirs from a perspective different from the more traditional male developmental model, in which separation and individuation — not relationship — are the goals. The female model realizes that far from hindering or detracting from maturity, connectedness enhances it. Janet L. Surrey of Wellesley College’s Stone Center notes that for women, it is “as important to understand as to be understood, to empower as to be empowered.”

In Holocaust literature we have many examples of these natural female capacities for relationships shining forth.

Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman is the dramatic, inspiring account of a young girl who survives the Holocaust in the woods of Poland. The entire book is permeated with a feeling for Alicia’s relationships to people — be they family or strangers — and her commitment to acting morally. Alicia quickly moves beyond concentrating exclusively on her own survival and that of her immediate family to helping others as well. Hers is obviously a life based on a foundation of relatedness, a life nourished by others and always nourishing others, and a model of unusual effectiveness at a young age.

Often women survived with a mother, a sister or sisters, and they feel that they survived because of those relationships. Valerie Jakober Furth’s recently published Cabbages and Geraniums is a memoir accompanied by a striking collection of paintings and sculptures. The art and textual imagery create a haunting resonance. In the book, Jakober Furth writes:

Twelve of our relatives had been put in the same barracks … .Not only was I with my family, but most of them were my peers … .I am convinced I would not have survived without this intimate group. We gave each other emotional and moral support. We made important decisions as a group …. Out of our group of fourteen, twelve of us managed to survive.

For those they loved, women have been able to draw on reserves of courage to attempt and sometimes accomplish the impossible. In Return to Auschwitz, Kitty Hart’s mother, when about to be separated from Kitty, approached the commandant “and politely said in her best German: ‘Herr Lagerfuhrer, I would be most grateful if you could get my daughter out of Kanada. She has worked there for eight months. I am due to go on transport, and would like her to join me.'” Her request was granted. To remember one instance of such bravery is, in effect, to pay tribute to all those who dared boldness.

In the last decade, there has been an astonishing surge of memoirs written by women about the Holocaust. What actually enables a person to go through the process of writing a memoir? And why have these women waited 40 years?

The books noted here cover a wide range of experiences: escaping to England without one’s parents who later perish; surviving in the woods; surviving a work camp; surviving a death camp; enduring in hiding. The decision to write a book catapults one back to a grotesque time and space and necessarily disrupts an equilibrium established in the intervening decades. Women writing Holocaust memoirs in the 80’s are those who were able to leave the past behind to some degree in order to live their lives, but who now, for some strong internal reason, feel forced (or able) to return to that shattering epoch. Clearly, there is a deeply felt need to reconnect either with the childhood parents who were destroyed and/or the childhood world which was destroyed.

Nechama Tec talks about how she came to write her memoir, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood, which is about the survival of her family in hiding in Poland.

At the end of the war I resumed my former identity, determined to put the past behind me. I wanted to forget… I succeeded in part, and in part only. Thirty years later my memories began to stir. They called for attention … .The need to face and deal with my past became gradually stronger. It was as if I had no choice in the matter. I hardly understood this need, or its power. I only knew that I had to let myself be guided by its compelling force.

Appleman-Jurman says in the epilogue to her book, Alicia: My Story:

There were months … When my mind was completely in the past, and I couldn’t even relate to my own children. At times I felt on the brink of insanity when I wrote about my parents, brothers, all of my family and was forced to lose them and mourn all over again … .When I finally finished writing I felt as though I had come out of intensive care after a painful and very dangerous operation. I realized that my family will always continue to live inside me and through me….

Strikingly, in these memoirs, mothers are generally described as strong and nurturing. (Fathers are much less frequently mentioned. Of course, at the camps, sexes were separated.) It would seem that these writers developed, as children and young adults, a solid sense of self which helped them survive, continue living, even write a memoir. Perhaps those with less positive maternal relationships had a more difficult time surviving. Perhaps, too, if there is no person a survivor wishes to memorialize, she may be less likely to write a memoir.

We do not read much about ambivalence, understandably. In the face of the Holocaust, it is possibly unbearable to remember and describe the range of ambivalence that existed in one’s early, pre-Holocaust relationships. Or possibly it seems simply irrelevant. Or a luxury. Maybe one can write about ambivalence only if the parent(s) survived. Maybe not even then.

As an exception to this rule, Jakober Furth describes the transmutation of her originally somewhat difficult relationship with her mother. They survived together and honed their mutual ambivalence into something different:

Because of our experience in Auschwitz, our relationship did change. Quite simply, mother became my closest friend. Later, we felt as if we were members of a secret society. The terrifying initiation rites had tested the nature of our attachment, had stripped away the surface and the layer below, and what we saw finally was love. Referring to the times before our internment, mother said to me, T gave you the least, but I got from you the most.’ In the end, I too got from her the most, the love I had always craved.

On the most personal level, many of these books were written by daughters as tributes to their mothers to whom they felt they owed their life and survival. The daughters describe their mothers as the ones who gave them strength to carry on, either literally if they were present, or figuratively if they were not. Kitty Hart and her mother survived Auschwitz together. Her dedication is to the point:

In memory of
my mother,
without whose love and devotion
I would have perished long ago

Aranka Siegal’s mother did not survive. Five members of Siegal’s family arrived at Auschwitz together. At the initial selection, her mother went with her two youngest siblings to their deaths; Aranka and a sister were spared.

The one with the baton extended his arm like a fencer’s and let it fall between Mother and the two little ones, pushing them away from her. Mother stood petrified while seconds passed. Then, leaving us, she rushed to pick up Joli and took Sandor by the hand. “They need me more;’ she told the hostile and annoyed SS man with the stick. Turning to us, her eyes murky, she said, “Be brave and look after each other” It was her last act as our mother, setting an example to last us a lifetime. — Grace in the Wilderness Siegal wrote two books, Upon the Head of the Goat and Grace in the Wilderness. They render so fully the caring and re-resourceful character of her mother that they are, in effect, an epitaph without gravestone or grave.

The process of writing serves as a partial resolution of loss and grief. When Vera Gissing was eleven, she and her older sister were sent on a children’s transport to England from Prague. Her parents stayed in Czechoslovakia and perished. Pearls of Childhood is the story of a child’s permanent separation from her parents. It is simply told and cumulatively powerful. At the end of the book there is a shift, and Gissing speaks directly to her parents:

The shrine for my parents still lies deep in my heart, where my love for them burns, undiminished by time … .I discovered that my home was deep inside me, a precious and .private refuge. Home is love, and you, my dearest ones, are still home to me….

Ellen Fishman is a freelance writer living in Boston.