- Working Memory: Women and Work in World War II eds. by Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault
This collection of essays addresses the ways in which memory is put to work in personal narratives relating to women's experiences of World War II. Genres of narrative include diaries like those of Zofia Nałkowska, a Polish witness of the Holocaust, and Molly Lamb Bobak, an artist who joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps; letters such as those exchanged by Viktoria and Martha Probst, two German sisters separated by war; and memoirs like the ones written by Marguerite Payne, who joined the British women's forces in the Caribbean. Scholarly discussions focusing on this variety of life writing texts bring out the characteristics of each genre: the diary as a "bag of memory" (18) catching and storing elements of life as it is lived; the letter as a relational, dialogic exchange; the memoir as a selective composition. At the same time, the collection as a whole underlines the ways in which life writing bursts out of narrow generic definitions. Authors explore the working of memory in numerous other creative forms, including the documentary photography of a handful of pioneering American women photojournalists; the paintings of aircrew and of bombed London by Stella Bowen, one of only three women who served as official Australian war artists; and the portraiture of Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt, who saved her own life and that of her mother in Auschwitz by [End Page 423] drawing and painting other inmates at the behest of the notorious Josef Mengele. Three interrelated themes shape the book: memory, the archive, and gender. Indeed the "work" referred to in the title has less to do with the kinds of labor that women performed in war factories, offices, and military installations than with the work of remembering, recording, reconstructing, and commemorating the often painful understandings that women acquired during wartime.
Eva Karpinski contributes a close and theoretically informed analysis of the contribution of the writer Zofia Nałkowska to the memory and transmission of "difficult knowledge" concerning the devastating persecution of Jews in wartime Poland. She combines discussion of Nałkowska's diaries, which she regards as a depository for Nałkowska's daily observations, with that of Medallions, eight short narratives recording the lives of survivors that Nałkowska wrote after the war for the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland. The diaries focus on Nałkowska's subjective responses to wartime Warsaw, in particular her feelings of shame, futility, and guilt as a gentile witnessing Jewish suffering. In contrast, Medallions is a collection of vignettes that speak to the importance of public memory of the horrors of genocide. Karpinski also finds records of what she describes as Nałkowska's "embodied witnessing" (22). Nałkowska, visiting death camps after the war, insisted on collecting the ashes of those who had died as "authentic evidence" (22) of, as she put it, the fate that people dealt to people. The diaries, Medallions, and Nałkowska's work for the commission communicate in different ways an urgency about testimony, underlining the vital contribution of witnessing and reporting to the memory of the war.
This urgency is poignantly brought out in the chapter by Marlene Kadar concerning the veiled history of Hermine Braunsteiner, an overseer at the Ravensbruck and Majdanek concentration camps. Kadar discusses the relationship of memory to Braunsteiner's life history as a whole and to some of the gruesome abuses that she committed. For example, when Braunsteiner ordered a camp guard to push away the stool from under a fourteen-year-old girl whom she had decided to hang as a lesson to other prisoners not to lie or steal food, the girl said in Polish "remember me" (118). An inmate who had witnessed the event later reported it in court as one of numerous pieces of evidence of Braunsteiner's brutality. Kadar considers what the girl's request meant: not only that she should not be forgotten...