Workshop on the Status of Women in the New Market Economies
co-sponsored by NEWW and the University of Connecticut School of Law

Read the Conference Program

April 13-15, 1996
Prepared by Sonia Jaffe Robbins

Monday afternoon, April 15, 1996
Keynote Speaker:
Joan Ringelheim
Director of Oral History, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The East European Past: Gender and the Holocaust

At first Ringelheim thought it was eccentric of Shana to invite her to speak in this setting, but after listening to the presentations and conversations, now thinks it is less so.

She first began to pursue the question of whether there was a difference between men and women survivors. Were the Nazis sexist as well as racist. She immediately faced the criticism that it was disgraceful to mention gender, that it played into the hands of those who said the Holocaust was not about killing Jews. She quoted from a three-page letter Cynthia Ozick sent her in 1979 or 1980: "You are asking not only the wrong question, but a morally wrong question ... it further eradicate Jews from history ... you are saying it is only a detail that the women were Jewish ... " In addition to the Jews, the handicapped who suffered euthanasia, the Roma, the groups who were enslaved or worked to death including 3 million Russian prisoners, the gay men were among the other victims of the Nazis. Why focus on women?

A Jewish survivor, let us call her "Pauline," reported to Ringelheim in an interview in 1984 that she had been regularly molested by the male relatives of those hiding her, at the age of 11 to 12. Older men masturbated on her, rubbed against her, exposed themselves. She was frightened of older men, but told no one, not at the time or ever, until she told Joan. She didn't want to bring attention to herself, she felt guilty, had no one to talk to. "They took me from hell so I have to be happy," she said. She wondered whether this molestation was important, compared to everything else that happened. Was this part of her story even part of the Holocaust? Her memory is split between other accounts of survivors and her own experiences.

Assaults against women are difficult to place and are undervalued. Research questions are asked about children's conversation to Christianity, for instance, but not raised about sexual molestation.
Split memories occur because

  1. gender is considered insignificant (the memories are forgotten or considered not part of the Holocaust) and
  2. they divide the personal and private (women) from public and acknowledged talk.

It's not easy to connect genocide with gender. The Final Solution was meant to be total extermination; nothing was exempt. So it would seem that every Jew was equally a victim.

On the other side, isn't there something unusual about killing every woman and child as well as all the men? This was the first time that women and children were killed equally with men. In anti-Semitic propaganda, it was clearly the Jewish man who was the enemy. In the violently anti- Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," women appear only in an appendix, as handmaidens to men. Himmler noted in his diary that it was "not easy to kill women and children of partisans," but in the racial conflict it had to be done. Jewish women were connected to Jewish men as the bearers of Jewish avengers, and that was the reason they had to be killed. The Einsatzgruppen lists were broken down according to men, women, children, commissars, etc. Jewish women could hide more easily than men because men were circumcised; perhaps more women than men saved.

In the ghetto, Jewish women were not supposed to have babies. In one city, 20 Jewish women were pregnant. The Judenrat (Jewish council), all men, met to decide on what to do. A doctor said, "What if the baby is born alive? I couldn't kill it." The decision: persuade the woman to have an abortion; if she refused, enforce sanctions against her family (such as reducing food ration); forcing an abortion as a last resort. One 8-month pregnant woman presented a serious problem. The doctor refused to abort her, but it was decided a nurse would give the injection, without telling the nurse what was in the syringe. (The woman gave birth and the son now lives in Florida.)

Hannah Arendt wrote that totalitarian regims talke of objective enemies. The Nazis' enemies were Jews, Jewish men, then Jewish women. In Claud Landsman's film "Shoah," women are hardly visible. Compare this with the situation in former Yugoslavia, where women are explicitly targeted as victims and enemies.

At a conference in 1979 or '80, Ringelheim was in conversation with several Holocaust researchers when one, a psychologist, raised the question: "why do children of survivors fear their mothers were raped?" Everyone thought it meant nothing, it was only a fantasy caused by the media's sexualization of the Holocaust. But they offered no research or evidence, because none had been done.

Why had no research been done? It is hard to absorb amid all the other brutality. It is hard to absorb that women might have sold themselves for food. Maybe sexism is so common that it doesn't seem to be a question worth asking. Maybe it was difficult to see that Jewish women were exploited because Jewish men could not protect them.
Some facts were known. Jewish women were sometimes 70% of those deported to death camps. In the ghettoes, work certificates were disproportionately given to men. What about divorce? What about German women in relation to the Holocaust? What about women in the camps? What about women in the resistance?

Andrea Dworkin's article in Ms. magazine recently was entirely problematical, except for one paragraph noting that the exhibit had "no concept of women." An e-mail fight broke out over this article, but Ringelheim's reply was that the Nazis didn't obscure women as victims, but the exhibit doesn't note this. Ringelheim had argued against a women's room in the museum; however, while the facts are integrated, a conception of women is not. Women are not considered a category, as are men, Roma, Russians, gay men, etc., yet they are half of most of these categories. So what category are women?
Children are a category, but children were usually killed with their mothers. The category of children is discussed, but not the category of mothers. The man who went to Treblinka with his orphans is a hero, but the women who went with them are not so considered.

The exhibition at the Holocaust Museum opens with a photograph of the liberation of Buchenwald by American troops; the exhibit sign does not mention that Buchenwald was a male concentration camp.

Historians have seen the lists of the dead by sex, but didn't look at their meaning. For example, the Einsatzgruppen in Lithuania and Latvia, at first killed more men than women. Then, from June through November 1941, the killed were:

47% women     28% children     27% men

In the Lodz ghetto in 1942, where half the population was women,
in the deportations:

62% women     32% men

By age:
15-49 67% women 34% men

20-29 69% women 31% men

15-19 53% women 47% men

14 and younger 50/50

(Women were the largest population left after men left or were sent to work camps.)

Gender is ignored or hidden, while genocide is neither ignored nor hidden. Jewish men cannot stand in for Jewish women in daily life; even in the death camps, they stood in different lines. Jewish women's memories don't always parallel those of Jewish men. While the end was the same, the path to the end was not the same.


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