Women in Holocaust Literature: Central Themes

Gender and sexuality are motifs for Women Holocaust writers.

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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.