restricted access Emigrée Central European Jewish Women's Holocaust Life Writing
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158 Emigrée Central European Jewish Women's Holocaust Life Writing Louise O. Vasvári This study is part of a larger research project to integrate in the study of the Holocaust the voices of women survivors, specifically their experiences of the catastrophe , as well as their ways of post-Holocaust narration (see Vasvári, "Trauma"). I pay particular attention to texts by Jewish-Hungarian women: the women whose texts I list and discuss here did not publish in Hungarian, although in some cases their texts are based on diaries or earlier drafts in that language. The texts are divided into two categories I designate as 1) texts of "translated trauma," referring to narratives of self-translation adult survivors in emigration face in writing about their self-altering, even self-shattering, experiences: they bear witness in an incompletely mastered foreign language or texts located between two languages (see, e.g., Trahan) and 2) "1.5 generation" texts by authors who were children or adolescents during the time of trauma who may no longer speak Hungarian or speak it only at a child's level (I take the notion of "1.5 generation" texts from Suleiman). The writers of the texts I discuss represent various social classes, ages, religious backgrounds, and a variety of Holocaust survival strategies, ranging from the better-known stories of camp survivors to the experiences of hidden children. I do not discuss the matter of genre designation or categorization with regard to "memoir" versus "fiction" versus "autofiction," and so on. The designation of "Central European" women's Holocaust life writing is based on the fact that owing to the frequent changing of borders of countries in the region since World War I, as well as the sociocultural and linguistic situation of the Jewry of the region, a "national" categorization of the authors does not prove appropriate (see Rosen; Tötösy de Zepetnek, "English-language Memoir"; for an annotated list of Hungarian Holocaust survivors' texts, see, e.g., Biró; Várnai; for a bibliography of Central European women's Holocaust writing, see Vasvári, "Introduction"). Emigrée Central European Women’s Holocaust Life Writing 159 Olga Lengyel's Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz, one of the first Holocaust memoirs published, has a complicated publication history and three different titles. The date given in most sources is a l947 London edition, but, actually, the first edition was a 1946 French translation. Lengyel wrote her text in Hungarian and in that first edition a translator is indicated. Although there is no indication that she herself could possibly have written in English, in subsequent English editions no translator is given, only acknowledgment in the preface to three different people for "translation" work (on the difficulty of piecing together the publication history of memoirs, see Suleiman, "Monument"). The work initially received some attention, with even Einstein supposedly having written Lengyel a letter of appreciation in 1947. Nevertheless, she died in obscurity in New York in 2001 at the age of 92 with only a brief paid obituary in the New York Times. It has been claimed that the novel by William Styron, Sophie's Choice, with its controversial choice of a Christian heroine and exploitation of eroticism in Auschwitz, may have been partially based on Lengyel's memoir (see Mathé). Lengyel—who avoided admitting her Jewish origins and misled some scholars to believe she was gentile—lived a privileged life as a Jewish physician's wife in Cluj/Kolozsvár in Transylvania (today Romania). Lengyel devotes relatively little space to her life before the concentration camp, with most of the book about the some seven months she spends in Auschwitz. Because she had attended medical school, her chances of survival were increased by being able to work for Gisele Perl, the head obstetrician at Auschwitz, whose own memoir is discussed below. Lengyel's recruitment into the underground resistance in the camp and the need to tell her story is what she claims gave her courage to keep fighting since she had lost her family, including her two young sons. She confesses her guilt that in Birkenau she had unwittingly sent her younger son of twelve, who could have passed for older, to the line for gas to accompany his grandmother, thinking she was saving him. One unusual aspect of Lengyel's book is its frank, detailed discussion of sexual activity in the camp. For example, she tells of a Polish prisoner who would have given her...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Hungary -- History.
  • Kertész, Imre, 1929- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Europe, Central -- History.
  • Hungary -- Ethnic relations.
  • Europe, Central -- Ethnic relations.
  • Jews -- Persecutions -- Hungary -- History.
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