- Gender and Holocaust Victims: A Reappraisal
Consider if this is a manWho works in the mudWho does not know peaceWho fights for a scrap of breadWho dies because of a yes or a no.Consider if this is a woman,Without hair and without nameWith no more strength to remember,Her eyes empty and her womb coldLike a frog in winter.1(Primo Levi, "If this is a Man")
Raul Hilberg argues that "The Final Solution was intended by its creators to ensure the annihilation of all Jews…. Yet the road to annihilation was marked by events that specifically affected men as men and women as women."2 Whilst considerable analysis of the "Final Solution" has been undertaken, the issue of gender has been a relative newcomer in the wider field of Holocaust studies.3 Gender studies of the Holocaust emerged as a response to existing research and available sources within the broader field of Holocaust studies, and indeed of women's studies and the history of women under National Socialism.4 Hence, asking what happened to women and using women's perspectives to comprehend the Holocaust have become important new developments in the area of Holocaust studies since the 1980s.
However, "gender" is not, of course, synonymous with "women". The term gender refers to the social and cultural construction of the roles of men and women in society. This article analyzes the differing experiences of women and men as Jewish victims of National Socialism in relation to gender and constructions of gendered identity, using selective evidence drawn from memoir accounts. Joan Scott has made a strong case for the importance of gender as a focus for historical analysis, and probing the significance of gender in an examination of the Holocaust is as salient as it is for any other area of historical enquiry.5 In particular, this article discusses the structural sources of gender [End Page 121] differences in relation to the Holocaust, addressing the pre-war roles of Jewish men and women and their differing responses to Nazi persecution. The main geographical focus of the article is upon Germany and Poland. This article reflects on the state of the academic writing in the field and begins with a brief consideration of the historiographic debate on gender and the Holocaust.
In a pioneering article, "The Unethical and the Unspeakable: Women and the Holocaust," Joan Ringelheim argues that women have been ignored in the literature on the Holocaust, which she termed "gender neutral."6 Women have been either erased or obscured in the "universal framework" of Holocaust experiences. Ringelheim advocated a reassessment of all generalizations and gender-neutral statements about survival, resistance, the maintenance or collapse of moral values, and the dysfunction of culture in the camps and ghettos, from the perspective of women.7 She suggested the need "to enlarge our understanding" of the Holocaust by "reclaiming the hidden experiences of women."8 Many scholars have responded to her challenge, and the secondary literature on women and the Holocaust has burgeoned.9 No longer are women invisible in the history of the Holocaust. Moreover, to counterbalance the previously predominantly male domain of Holocaust memoirs, epitomised by important writers such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, there has been a large output of memoirs and testimonies of female survivors.10 No longer are women's voices unheard. Furthermore, there is now a substantial literature on women's writing and the Holocaust.11
Nevertheless, despite these huge changes in the written landscape, the relevance of a gendered analysis of the Holocaust is still disputed by some writers, notably Lawrence Langer and Gabriel Schoenfeld. One of the main doubts about a gendered approach to the study of the Holocaust is that a differentiation of the victims by gender detracts from the fact that all Jews - men, women and children - were equally destined for murder by the Nazi regime. Langer argues that gendered behavior played a greatly reduced role during the Holocaust, and that both women and men were living in extreme and difficult circumstances in which they had no choice. He argues thus against creating what he terms a "mythology of comparative endurance...