Rachel Brenner’s Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust is a challenging and ambitious exploration of the writing of four [End Page 451] women who perished in Europe during the Nazi years: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, and Etty Hillesum. Each left behind diaristic writings composed during the war, which form the basis of Brenner’s analysis.
Jewish by descent—that is, Jewish according to Nazi racial laws—each woman found the terms of her existence ruptured under the assault of Nazism, although two of the women were Christian. Each, according to Brenner, “resisted Hitlerian tyranny through the act of writing.” Challenging a critical position that sees traumatic witnessing such as the experience of Nazi atrocity as inherently “belated,” Brenner argues that the “authors’ clear view of their situation and its impact on their sense of identity and moral outlook” was ongoing, and reflected in their writing.
Brenner focuses not so much on the women’s experiences during the war as on their considerable intellectual gifts and the way they responded to the ethical and psychological crises raised by their persecution as Jews. The bringing together of these four writers, and under the rubric of resistance, speaks to Brenner’s boldness and originality, accounting for the book’s innovation in Holocaust discourse, but also, perhaps, some of its problematic stances.
Stein, a converted Jew, who became a Carmelite nun (beatified as a Christian martyr), was gassed at Auschwitz in 1942. Born in 1891, she completed a Ph.D. with Husserl. Weil, a nonbaptized Christian mystic who fled France with her parents, repudiated Jewishness and reviled Jews and Judaism, even when Nazi racial laws were under effect. Born in 1909 and educated at the Ecole Normale Superior, Weil starved herself to death in London in 1943. Hillesum, an assimilated Jew born in 1914 in Holland, studied law and Slavonic languages at University of Amsterdam, and died in Auschwitz in 1943. Born in 1929, Frank was an adolescent in a German Jewish family attempting to hide out the war years in Holland when she wrote her famous diary. She died of typhus in Bergen Belsen in 1945.
In many ways they are an unlikely group to bring together. Yet Brenner persuasively argues that they share a cultural background that defines their writing and outlook. All four were Western European, from families well integrated into Western culture and the tradition of post-Enlightenment liberalism. According to Brenner, all four “demonstrated [End Page 452] a strong attraction to Christianity, which they saw as the religion of universalism and progress.” They knew little of their Jewish heritage and—until Nazism overturned their existence—were integrated into the non-Jewish world. The final solution signaled the collapse of their ideals while confronting them with their ethnic origins. Despite this, Brenner insists, their writing reflects a hard-won faith in “the humanist and humane future of the world . . . the humanistic creed as a guideline to the moral redemption of the world.” Moreover, according to Brenner, a “consciousness of womanhood” underlay and reinforced their defiance of Nazi terror. Interestingly, Brenner brings to bear Jean Amery’s concept of “catastrophe Jews,” for whom only the threat of persecution engenders a sense of solidarity with other Jews. Sometimes Frank’s writing cannot bear the weight Brenner places upon it when measured against the considerably more educated, more mature, and more experienced women. Moreover, it is not fully correct to suggest—as Brenner does, especially in her reading of Frank—that ideas of self-sacrifice, altruism, and empathy for the other are strictly Christian values. However, Brenner’s analysis importantly reframes Frank by looking at her in a new context, taking her thought seriously as thought rather than simply as testimony.
Showing an impressive mastery of a wide range of sources, Brenner places the four women in the context of West European Jewish history. She discusses their wartime writing as it relates to their other works; in the case of Weil and Stein, this involves a considerably complex intellectual development. In addition, Brenner explicates...