Women in Holocaust Literature: Central Themes

Gender and sexuality are motifs for Women Holocaust writers.

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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.

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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.