- Writing the Holocaust: Identity, Testimony, Representation
Zoë Vania Waxman’s monograph, Writing the Holocaust: Identity, Testimony, Representation, is a good exploration of the “social and historical context” of Holocaust testimony (1), although she does not always successfully defend the theses she outlines in her introduction. Waxman sets out to demonstrate that there is a historical context of Holocaust testimony, to prove that testimony is mediated by its own history, and that testimonies often obscure the heterogeneity of Holocaust experiences. The crux of Waxman’s argument is that a template exists for Holocaust testimonies, and survivors and audiences often eschew experiences that do not fit this mold. The individual chapters are occasionally problematic, but her chapter on women and her critical discussion of the privileging of a particular Holocaust narrative are both quite impressive.
Waxman begins her work with a discussion of the Oneg Shabbat archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. She clearly establishes that writing was a form of resistance and a testimonial of what they believed might never be known if the Nazis succeeded in the destruction of European Jewry. She illustrates the various experiences of ghetto life: she discusses the writings of those who lived in the ghetto and those who escaped; of those revered, like Ringelblum, and those despised, like members of the Judenrat. Despite the different voices Waxman examines in this chapter, it is unclear why, in an attempt to demonstrate heterogeneity, she focuses only on the Warsaw Ghetto, and not also, for example, on the writings from Lodz.
Waxman moves from the Warsaw Ghetto to the concentration camp universe. Even though she concludes this chapter with testimonies written during incarceration in Auschwitz, she starts the chapter by arguing for the acceptability of using postwar memoirs to describe the experience of Auschwitz. However, her argument in favor of using postwar memoirs is weak. She tiptoes toward what could be a great debate about the privilege of certain memoirs, but then retreats without engaging those who would question the ‘realness’ of the events depicted in such memoirs. Given that the book’s purpose is to critique the fact that only testimonies that fit into the “collective memory” of the Holocaust are considered valid, and if part of what is theoretically more valid is contemporary writing, I find it mildly surprising that Waxman refuses to argue more strongly for the negation of this bias.
Waxman next moves into a good discussion of post-war life, of the transition from Displaced Person in the immediate aftermath of the war to the label of, and the later adoption of the identity of “Holocaust survivor.” Waxman cogently discusses shifts in the language of publication, the emotions of those [End Page 110] writing the memoirs, and the increasing number of texts published after certain defining events.
Waxman then devotes a chapter to a discussion of women’s Holocaust testimonies. She demonstrates that audiences have not only read over specifically female experiences, but they read through a normative gender lens—testimonies by women which challenge normative gender roles are ignored because “women’s testimonies are often used to show us what we already want to see” (124). Even those scholars who sought to reclaim the Holocaust experiences of women read these experiences with bias—for example, women bonded together to care for each other, all women wanted to save their children. Assumptions like these have rendered the experiences of women doubly invisible — scholars long ignored the particular persecutions women faced, and when scholars did finally acknowledge a specificity of female experience, they homogenized that experience to accord with beliefs about normative gender roles. The voices of those women whose experience did not fit the mold were ignored, or even silenced altogether.
There are, however, some issues about which even Waxman is silent. For example, she writes about rape and sexual abuse experienced by those in hiding or in the camps, but she does not write about prostitution. It is true that there are no testimonies written by women who worked as prostitutes in the concentration camp; there are, however, memoirs that...