- Women and the Holocaust: New Perspectives and Challenges ed. by Andrea Peto, Louise Hecht, Karolina Krasuka
Women and the Holocaust: New Perspectives and Challenges
Warsaw: Instytut Badan Literackich Pan Wydawnictwo, 2015. 268 pp.
As a historian who has studied, taught and written about women during the Holocaust for over two and a half decades, many a volume about this topic has passed through my hands. By now I can usually determine within a few minutes whether the book I am holding has promise, whether it is well researched and written, and most of all, whether it is coherent and, hopefully, interesting. In collective volumes, which often adopt a synchronized format for their articles, the tipoff is often in the introduction, where the editors describe their fields of interest and delineate the book’s topics and scope. When I received the book Women and the Holocaust: New Perspectives and Challenges, my first impression was that I was about to read an erudite but rather abstruse and possibly tedious volume. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that quite a few of the articles far surpassed the rather cumbersome introduction. A number of them showed not only a mastery of the subject matter but unique twists of language and analysis that made them absolutely fascinating.
The volume originated in a November 2011 conference on “Women and the Holocaust,” held in Warsaw under the auspices of the Gender Center Foundation and the Institute for Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Many of the 45 scholars and researchers who presented papers were from central and east-central Europe. Holocaust study had existed in these areas already for years, but its echoes had not always managed to cross the Atlantic or even to reach beyond the borders of the region. The focus on women in and from these countries during the Holocaust was meant to elicit an innovative list of topics that had not been dealt with in depth elsewhere.
The resulting volume, which includes only a small selection of these papers, is divided into three sections. The first, “Framing Knowledge,” ought by definition to be a more theoretical or longitudinal section, and the first of its two articles, a study by Lenore J. Weitzman and Dalia Ofer of the sequential development of Jewish women’s coping strategies in ghettos during the Holocaust, is indeed somewhat theoretical. However, the second article, Bozena Karwowska’s essay on “Women’s Luxury Items in Concentration Camps,” is entirely topical, providing us with a unique glance into the world of gendered concentration camp life. Rather than “framing knowledge” of [End Page 162] a broad field, it delves into a lesser-known facet of what has been called the “camp universe.”
The four articles in the second section, “Filling in the Blanks,” deal with women from different geographical areas in central Europe: transports of women from Hungary to Austria (Eleonore Lappin-Eppel); a Slovak oral history archive (Monika Vrzgulova); the memoirs of a female doctor from Karlsbad (Monka Hankova); and erasures of a woman, Erzsebet Schaar, in the history of Hungarian art (Hedvig Turai).
The volume’s final section, “Comparing (Con)texts,” focuses on literature and media: narratives, memoirs and video testimonies, including the memoirs of Cywia Lubetkin and Icchak Cucierman (Aleksandra Ubertowska); Anca Vlasopolos’s transatlantic memoir No Return Address (Dana Mihailescu); the depiction of Vilna ghetto female prisoners and the resistance in documentary and narrative films (Gintare Malinauskaite); and the memoir and later video testimony of Olga Lengyel, a female Holocaust survivor whose well known and horrifying memoir was disseminated in English soon after the war (Edit Jeges).
Of the ten articles in the volume, I will focus on two very different ones that I found particularly interesting: Karwowska’s article about women’s luxury items in concentration camps, and Jeges’s comparison of the memoir and video testimony of Olga Lengyel.
“For the people coming to Auschwitz, it was the state of the body that conditioned their fate in camp,” writes Karwowska (p. 67). As thousands of former camp prisoners, both men and women, have attested—including those I...