Women in Holocaust Literature: Central Themes

Gender and sexuality are motifs for Women Holocaust writers.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

Many women who experienced and survived Nazi atrocity gave literary form to their experiences, memories and reflections. Writing in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry, drama and memoir, they utilized a range of literary strategies and presented a variety of themes. Their Woman Holocaustwriting is often at odds with literature written by men, where women frequently figure more peripherally and in limited roles. In addition, women who were not victimized by the Nazi genocide, either because they did not live in Europe, or were born later, began to write literature about the Holocaust, based on research rather than personal memory. 

Although the corpus of Holocaust literature by women is diverse and varied, several themes predominate. Some of these recurrent themes are gender specific, while others characterize Holocaust writing in general.

Childbirth and Motherhood

During the Holocaust, responsibility for children placed a special burden on mothers, who struggled to sustain the family despite the genocidal pressures that made this difficult. In ghettoes, the meager rations, demanding work details and rampant epidemics complicated the act of mothering. In camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, mothers who arrived with small children or women who arrived pregnant were immediately sent to their death. Literature by women explores the effects of these harsh circumstances on women’s lives and psyches.

For example, Ilona Karmel’s novel, An Estate of Memory, centers on four women who band together in a labor camp. One of the four is pregnant and determined to carry to term. The other three women help conceal her pregnancy and--at great sacrifice--provide her with extra nutrition and shoulder her share of the physical labor.

More than merely documenting an unusual set of circumstances, Karmel’s novel treats the secret pregnancy as a symbol of the women’s inner resistance to the forces of atrocity and the crucible by which they evaluate themselves as ethical beings. Karmel’s focus on a situation particular to women--pregnancy--provides the opportunity to elaborate ways in which women’s experiences differed from those of men.

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Sara R. Horowitz is the Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, and a professor of comparative literature in the Division of Humanities. She is the author of Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction, which received the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book, co-editor of Encounter with Appelfeld, a collection of essays on Aharon Appelfeld, and co-editor of the journal Kerem. She has published extensively on Holocaust literature, women survivors, Jewish American fiction and pedagogy. Currently, she is completing a book entitled Gender, Genocide and Jewish Memory.