For the first four decades after the Holocaust, most memoirs and historical studies viewed life in the camps through male eyes. But since the early 1980s, scholars in the emerging and controversial field of gender and Holocaust studies have encouraged female survivors to tell their stories. One early pioneer in the field, Myrna Goldenberg, professor emerita at Montgomery College, Maryland, has co-edited a new book entitled Different Horrors, Same Hell: Gender and the Holocaust. Moment’s senior editor Eileen Lavine speaks with Goldenberg about how including women’s stories has altered our perception of the Holocaust.
Why concentrate on female narratives?
Examining what happened to women challenges some of the traditional assumptions and interpretations about the Holocaust. For example, why were the Nazis so preoccupied with sex, why were women subject to different and more humiliating types of treatment such as public nudity, body shaving, beating during menstruation, and rape? After the Holocaust, rape was seldom discussed, and when women survivors did talk about rape, it was in the third person, about someone else, not themselves. Women were reluctant to tell of their own rapes because that would mean they were damaged goods.
How common was sexual violence?
Sexual torture was prevalent not just in the camps but also in many Eastern European towns and cities before deportation. In labor camps, women were often coerced into trading sex for food or better treatment. Mass graves have been found in Ukraine where bodies of women whose breasts had been cut off were exhumed.
How was pregnancy dealt with in the camps?
Women who were visibly pregnant were usually gassed. Women who arrived in early stages of pregnancy could often hide it, and other women helped them give birth. Mengele believed that a newborn shouldn’t die alone, so he gassed both mother and baby. To save the lives of the mothers, women in the barracks sometimes drowned or pinched the nostrils of the newborns. One of Mengele’s experiments was to watch a baby die to see how long it would take. He also sterilized Jewish women without anesthesia. It is also reasonable to assume that starvation and hard labor caused many miscarriages.
Did women cope differently from men?
Women socialized more and were more cooperative rather than competitive; they were able to care for one another and create surrogate families. In female survivors’ memories, they talk a lot about food. It was a coping mechanism, and I cannot find a male counterpart to this. Hunger created a social relationship by reminding women of the past, thus contributing to their emotional strength. They talked about their mothers and grandmothers, and they found some comfort in imagining menus and recipes as a diversion to fight hunger. This didn’t alleviate their hunger, but it gave them psychological and spiritual advantages that men didn’t have.
How do you respond to those who say that the Final Solution did not distinguish between genders, so there is no place for researching women separately?
A focus on women is disconcerting to some people. But there are biological differences between men and women, so those who were not killed faced different problems. We need a perspective focusing on gender to get a more balanced picture of the Holocaust, because while Nazi policy was not gender specific, Nazi practice was.