Women Scholars Speak Up

Paula E. Hyman:

It is ironic that Gabriel Schoenfeld accuses feminist scholars of the Holocaust of writing with a political agenda. For Schoenfeld, who presents himself as concerned simply with saving the Holocaust from being “academicized,” is part of a right-wing political assault against feminism—in this case Jewish feminism—and the considerable and generally well-received scholarship it has produced.

Schoenfeld quotes out of context and refuses to engage the substantive claims that feminist scholarship has made for the importance of gender in historical and cultural analysis. In arguing that the Holocaust should not be studied in an academic context, he mocks courses that are described as “multicultural” or “multi-disciplinary” as “the most with-it.” He quotes an anonymous statement that is clearly unrepresentative of scholarship on the Holocaust—that, if accurate, stupidly links the Holocaust with ecological disasters—to display the tendentiousness of all academic study of the Holocaust.

Schoenfeld grants that studying “‘gender-differentiated behavior’ under conditions of Nazi persecution” is “in itself . . . an undertaking . . . hardly without merit,” but he labels all feminist scholarship as conducted “in the name of a naked ideological ‘agenda,'” whose goal, he writes, is “to sever Jewish women, in their own minds, from their families as well as from the larger Jewish community.”

He “knows” that feminist scholars of the Holocaust are only “paying lip-service to the inescapable truth that simply to be Jewish was to be marked for death” because they “proceed systematically to . . . paint the Nazis less as anti-Semites than as ‘sexists.'” That remark is simply a libel of those of us—feminist scholars—who study and teach about the Holocaust.

Paula E. Hyman is the Lucy Moses Professor of Modem Jewish History and chair of the Program in Judaic Studies, Yale University.

Lenore J. Weitzman & Dalia Ofer:

If scholars do not study the Holocaust it will be forgotten. And if scholars do not pay attention to the unique testimonies of women survivors, they will certainly be forgotten. These concerns led us to put together our collection of new scholarship devoted to the experiences of women during the Holocaust.

We did not want the lives of women victims to disappear from our collective memory. In addition, we wanted to correct the mistaken assumption that the experiences of Jewish women were always identical to those of Jewish men.

At a time when the powerful “master narratives” of male survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel infuse our consciousness, it is easy to assume that their experiences were typical and representative of all Jews whether old or young, religious or secular, male or female. They were not. As Jews throughout Europe faced Nazi persecution, Jewish women—as wives, daughters, mothers—encountered special problems and had particular vulnerabilities.

Why, then, is there resistance to the scholarly study of women in the Holocaust? Schoenfeld charges us with imposing the feminist issues of our time upon the past. This is simply incorrect. In 1941 Emmanuel Ringelblum, the historian who compiled the underground archives of the Warsaw ghetto, commissioned a special study of the experiences of Jewish women.

Others object to studying gender because any distinctions among victims may distract us from the murderous policy of the Nazis. For example, if women coped better in the ghettos, or if men coped better in the camps, we could, the argument goes, end up blaming those who did not cope as well, rather than focusing the blame on the inhuman policies of the Nazis. We believe, however, that invidious comparisons become obviously inappropriate and inadequate when we enlarge our knowledge and understanding of the impossible choices Jews faced.

A final concern of Schoenfeld’s is that we are engaging in feminist “consciousness-raising.” At first we were upset by this charge: our book is a scholarly work, not a political tract. But when we examined what he means by “consciousness-raising” we found that he was simply referring to our ability to show how gender made a difference. In other words, he is objecting to our engaging in “education,” to sharing new knowledge and increasing awareness. Our book gives the reader new ways of looking at the Holocaust and raises consciousness about the importance of being a woman or a man during those years.

What seems to be upsetting Schoenfeld is that our work leads survivors who once thought gender was irrelevant to see that it can deepen our understanding of the Holocaust. For example, survivor-author Ruth Bondy was initially offended by “dividing the Holocaust and its suffering by gender” and agreed to write a chapter for our book only because she did not want the women of Theresienstadt to be ignored. By the time she finished, however, she had written a complex and moving account of the differently nuanced lives of women on the path from Prague to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

Such detailed portraits of women deepen our understanding of the Holocaust. Each voice helps ensure that the victims will not be forgotten.

Lenore J. Weitzman  is Professor of Sociology and Law at George Mason University; Dalia Ofer is Professor of Contemporary Jewry-Holocaust Studies, Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Marion Kaplan:

Why, until recently, have we looked primarily at men in studying the Holocaust? To raise the issue of gender does not place it above racism in some hierarchy of horrors. We know, to quote Hannah Arendt, that the Nazis did not want “to share the earth with the Jewish people.” To raise the issue of gender also does not place blame on other survivors for the disproportionate deaths of Jewish women. Blame rests with the murderers. Rather, gender helps us to . . . emphasize the multiplicity of voices and experiences in the war against the Jews. Gender counted, especially, in extreme situations.

Marion Kaplan is professor of history at Queens College. This passage is adapted from Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Lore Segal:

In his book, Guns and Barbed Wire: A Child Survives the Holocaust, little Thomas Geve drew plans of the gas chambers and peopled them with stick inmates. The child also observed the tendency, in the half-starved, half-naked population, to take sides—German Jews against Polish, northerners against southerners, city against country people. In the post-Holocaust era, we are still taking sides.

The recent publication of Women in the Holocaust has roused the sleeping eloquence of two predictable antagonists.

There is Mr. Schoenfeld, who quotes Robert Alter’s prediction that bringing Holocaust studies into the universities would end by “naturalizing the horror.” This is what Schoenfeld sees the other side as doing. He accuses them not only of the sin of academic jargon, but of using the horror for their feminist agenda. (He seems not to notice that his own Jewish commitment is an agenda too.)

The other side believes that it will “deepen our understanding” of the Holocaust if we study it from the viewpoint of class and out of a raised feminist consciousness. In a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, Joan Ringelheim, feminist philosopher and director of education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, expresses her sense of having been “maliciously,” “vilely,” “grossly,” as well as “recklessly” misquoted and misunderstood.

Mind you, what the two sides are against each other about is not the Holocaust. The Holocaust is what they have in common. The quarrel is about the correct way to understand, the proper way to memorialize it.

I was playing Scrabble with an acquaintance, a woman, when something said, perhaps, put her in mind of her experiences at Auschwitz. She began to remember and to talk and the more she talked the more she remembered and her eyes began to stream, her nose ran, the hair came loose from its combs. That, it seemed to me at the time, was a way to understand the Holocaust. My acquaintance could not, very fortunately, keep it up, and she presently gave an apologetic smile, mopped herself up, and we went on with our game.

As for the rest of us, let’s not pretend that we can keep the horror fresh and raw at all times. Let’s give ourselves leave to go on with the game. We do the best we know how with our monuments and museums, by writing our memoirs, attending yet another conference, and by endowing one more chair of Holocaust studies. And by taking sides as if we could persuade one another of the correctest anger, the properest way to mourn.

Lore Segal is the author of Other People’s Houses and Her First America, in both of which the Holocaust necessarily features.