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.

Reversal of Conventional Gender Roles

Traditionally, war stories depict women as relegated to domestic space, while men go off to battle. Women are depicted as passive, either victimized or rescued by men. Often, Holocaust writing by men relegates women to such passive or peripheral roles.

By contrast, in women’s Holocaust writing the war against the Jews is fought in domestic space as homes are invaded and confiscated and Jews displaced. Memoirs depict women devising ways to feed, protect or rescue their families. Attuned to social interactions and informal channels of information, women frequently become aware of danger before their husbands.

In ghettos, women who had never worked outside the home were forced to work for meager pay or rations to sustain their children and husbands. In the gender segregated labor camps, women needed to rely on themselves or on one another. Holocaust fiction explores the dimensions of such role reversals.

A central hypothesis that has emerged in scholarly interpretations of women’s Holocaust literature is the idea that women endured the hardships of concentration camps by forming surrogate families, bonding with and supporting one another, while men survived by competing with other men for scarce resources. While many works by women do give evidence of such cooperation, the differences may be less notable than first supposed.

Sexual Vulnerability

Memoirs reveal a pervasive fear of rape. In addition, in much of women’s writing, the humiliation that was suffered by Jewish men and women alike is experienced by women as a sexual humiliation. The shaving of body hair and the exposure of one’s body in front of strange men, characteristic of arrivals at concentration camps, are experienced by women as a sexual violation.

A Scrap of TimeWomen’s bodies also render them vulnerable in other ways. Women who menstruate in the camps do not have adequate hygienic devices and feel humiliated, grotesque in their own eyes. When women cease menstruating due to malnutrition, they fear that they have become sterile.

Women’s writing often notes the links between power and sexual exploitation. For example, in Ida Fink’s collection of short stories, A Scrap of Time, one story, “Aryan Papers,” depicts a young girl bartering her virginity for false identity papers that might save her own life and that of her mother. Another story in the collection, “Conversation,” depicts a Jewish married couple hiding on a farm under the protection of the woman landowner. Eventually, the farmwoman demands the man’s sexual favors as the price of the hiding space.

In a collection of interrelated short stories, Tales of the Master Race, Marcie Hershman explores the connections between eros and violence as she depicts the adulterous affair between a Gestapo interrogator and the wife of an underling. The underling has moral qualms about torture, while his supervisor profits from it.

The treatment of sexuality and power is quite different in Holocaust literature by men. There the victims of rape, forced prostitution or sexual barter are almost exclusively women. Their situation and their behavior is depicted as viewed externally rather than experienced internally.

In some novels, such as Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies, the sexual violation of women is presented in the background or on the periphery, intended to darken and underscore the danger of the male protagonist and at the same time keep him at a safe remove. Other writers, such as William Styron in Sophie’s Choice, present the female victim as inherently eroticized, rendered desirable by her victimization.

Many novels by women treat such situations in ways that deliberately thwart the potential of voyeurism and point to the inner experience of the female victim of sexual atrocity. For example, Sheri Szeman’s novel The Kommandant’s Mistress focuses on a female inmate of a concentration camp who sexually services the camp Kommandant. The novel is built on the juxtaposition of two narratives, one by the Kommandant and one by his prisoner. The Kommandant imagines that the woman shares his pleasure in the encounter. Other prisoners regard her with envy and disgust, imagining her experience as less harsh than theirs. Her narrative makes clear that the acts that the Kommandant forces her to perform are yet another component of the atrocity inflicted upon the Jews of the camp on the way to their murder.

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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.