- Feminist Approaches to the Holocaust
Sara R. Horowitz's article, "Gender, Genocide, and Jewish Memory" (Winter-Spring 2000), offers a useful typology for classifying various scholarly approaches to the subject of women in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, however, the essay also has its rather serious flaws, among them a failure to characterize accurately some of the criticisms that have been leveled at this now quite voguish endeavor.
Consider, for example, Horowitz's treatment of the views I expounded in my article "Auschwitz and the Professors" in the June 1998 Commentary. She places me in the category of those who utterly dismiss "gender as a fitting instrument of analysis" of the Holocaust. She then proceeds to complain that my essay is "ideologically driven" and that it "willfully misreads many of the studies it touches upon." Though tu quoque is not an argument, her assertions about my essay are themselves a willful misreading. I find it notable that she makes not the slightest effort to provide evidence for her various charges.
To begin with, I made a point of emphasizing in "Auschwitz and the Professors" that "studying all the various and unique ways Jewish women experienced the ghettos and the camps" is an undertaking that "is hardly without merit." And I also underlined the fact that "[e]ven in the midst of the Nazi genocide itself, Emmanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto and the compiler of an extraordinary underground archive, commissioned a study devoted to this very question." As I thought these statements made clear, I have no objections to inquiry into the way women experienced the Holocaust. Horowitz, however, elides my words entirely.
What I did object to in Commentary is the misuse of such inquiry to advance the contemporary ideological agenda of feminism, and also to promulgate sheer nonsense, and I cited specific examples to show what I meant. Thus in the book by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust, that Horowitz [End Page 277] praises, there is an essay by a scholar named Joan Ringelheim who advances the bizarre and defamatory notion that in the Holocaust "the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance." Elsewhere this same Joan Ringelheim has asserted that "women and minorities, the working class and the poor, prior to and after the Holocaust, have often lived in conditions similar in kind (although not always in degree) to those in the Holocaust."
Such statements are as repugnant as they are indefensible, yet they are by no means the most egregious examples that can be adduced. Ofer and Weitzman themselves ludicrously describe some of the Nazis most unspeakable atrocities as "sexual harassment." In Making Stories, Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust (1993) Robin Ruth Linden argues that the ecological impact of "thousands of pounds of human ash dumped into lakes and rivers" is no less urgent a subject than the study of the Holocaust itself, and that inquiry into it would serve usefully to "decenter narrowly anthropocentric views of human destruction." Linden's book went on to win the Helen Hooven Santmyer Prize in women's studies.
I hardly see why my essay should be characterized as "ideologically driven" and "extreme" for harshly criticizing such works. Emmanuel Ringelblum noted that "the future historian would have to dedicate a proper page to the Jewish woman during this war." I could not agree with him more, while also emphasizing the word "proper." In this connection, Horowitz's claim that "Ringelblum's words . . . lend [. . .] posthumous approval, as it were, to the project" of gender studies is worse than presumptuous, it is a kind of intellectual grave robbery. I strongly suspect that a man of his humane sensibilities would have been repelled by the jargon-ridden phrase "gender analysis of the Holocaust," suggestive as it is of the animal sociologist examining the sexual behavior of caged subjects rather than serious inquiry into the mass murder of sentient human beings.
I repeat: inquiry into the way women experienced the Holocaust is a wholly legitimate enterprise. Some contemporary historians—Marion Kaplan is one—have carried out this enterprise in admirable fashion. But a...