Literature by and about women and the Holocaust explores the impact of the Nazi genocide on women during and after the war, its impact on subsequent generations, and the reflections of women on the implications of the Holocaust. Encompassing a range of literary genres, including fiction, poetry, drama and memoir, women’s Holocaust writing explores the intersection of history, imagination, Jewishness and gender. Placing women at the center, rather than on the periphery, women’s Holocaust writing expands our understanding of the impact of Nazi atrocity on families and intimate relationships, on the particular vulnerabilities of women, and on the agency of women to contend with, resist, respond to, and interpret their experiences and memories.
“Today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.” So Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985) prefaces None of Us Will Return, her meditation on life and death during and after the Holocaust. None of Us Will Return, the first volume of her trilogy Auschwitz and After, is a memoir that combines straightforward recounting, poetry, and prose poems, with self-conscious reflection on the acts of memory and testimony.
Arrested in Paris in 1942 by the French police and turned over to the Gestapo as a member of the French Resistance, Delbo was sent with a convoy of other Frenchwomen to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Ravensbrück. Her writing uses a powerful arsenal of literary tools to testify to her own suffering, that of her compatriots, and that of the Jewish women whose experiences she witnessed. The trilogy probes the dimensions of Nazi atrocity and its aftermath and poses complex questions about the adequacy of language to carry that burden and the ability of the psyche to bear extreme trauma. The paradox conveyed by the epigraph to None of Us Will Return—at once uncertain and certain of the truthfulness of her writing—expresses the shock and disbelief she felt both upon arriving at Auschwitz and later, looking back on it once returned to normal life.
The epigraph may also be said to represent the place and the license of literature in representing the Holocaust: both not true and true, combining memory and imagination, history and invention, to reflect upon the past and its philosophical, moral, and psychological implications. Like Delbo, 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 writing 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.
Studies of women and the Holocaust or gender and the Holocaust are part of a dynamic, evolving field. As part of literary studies, these approaches draw upon many other fields and methodological approaches, such as history of the Holocaust, gender studies, psychology, trauma theory, literary theory, life writing, women’s studies, religious studies, and memory studies.
Writers and Writing
Already during the war years and under the shadow of Nazism, Jewish women gave narrative form to their experiences, writing wartime diaries and journals. The most famous of these, the diary of Anne Frank (1929-45), takes the form of letters to a confidante and traces the daily life and inner life of an adolescent girl, hiding in a secret room in Holland with her secular German Jewish family. Although Frank was eventually deported to Bergen Belsen, where she perished, her father later retrieved and edited his daughter’s diary, which was published posthumously in 1947; the 1952 English translation appeared under the tile The Diary of a Young Girl. The curated entries of the published diary stressed the universal rather than the Jewish aspects of Frank’s sensibilities, omitting most explicit references to antisemitism and Judaism. Also not included were Frank’s harshest words about her mother, with whom she often was in conflict, and her explicit writing about sexuality. Not until the 1990s was the diary published in its entirety. Evidence of a talented, thoughtful girl, Frank’s diary was the inspiration for plays and films depicting her life in hiding. More recently, a cluster of writers have incorporated Frank as a character in their own fiction, poetry, and films, giving her something of a literary afterlife. The journals of Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) similarly reflect life in Holland under Nazism. Hillesum was already a young adult by the time antisemitic acts affected her life; her journals reflect her struggle to come to terms philosophically and psychologically with the events of her life. Her writing was published almost two decades after her death in Auschwitz.
The work of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), Life? or Theater?: A Song-play, defies generic categories. A series of over 750 drawings incorporating a narrative script, the work encompasses art, literature, theater, and opera. Created during the last three years of the artist’s life after she had fled Germany for the illusory safety of Vichy, France, Life? or Theater? ends—like Anne Frank’s diary—before Salomon’s arrest and deportation to Auschwitz. With some elements of fictionalization, it captures Solomon’s complicated and troubled family life and intense relationships, as well as the growing menace of Nazism.
The process of giving written shape to memory in the form of memoirs began almost immediately after the war and continues into the twenty-first century. Capturing both individual and collective experiences, narrating events from a subjective, and, of necessity, limited standpoint, memoirs about the Holocaust occupy a space between imaginative literature and history. Women’s memoirs provide details about lived experience before, during, and after the Holocaust, the inner lives of the women who wrote them, remembered accounts of others who perished, and the workings of traumatic memory.
Although published Holocaust memoirs are far too numerous to itemize here, several are particularly noteworthy, either because they opened new subject matter, have special literary merit, or have garnered public and scholarly attention. Early memoirs, such as those by Rachel Auerbach (1903-1976), Gisella Perl (1900-1988), and Olga Lengyel (1908-2001), capture the sense of chaos both during and after the war. One of two survivors of the Oneg Shabbes, the secret project to document Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto headed by Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944), Polish-born Auerbach wrote poignantly and eloquently in Yiddish about the world whose destruction she witnessed and narrowly escaped. Both during and after the war, her writing is marked by an attention to the details of everyday life and an almost unbearable compassion for the victims of Nazism.
Perl, an obstetrician in Sighet before the German occupation of Hungary, was ordered to establish a ghetto hospital. With the deportation of the ghetto inhabitants to Auschwitz, Perl was ordered to serve as the camp gynecologist. From this unique position, she witnessed the psychological and physical toll of Nazi atrocity on the women at Auschwitz. Her 1948 memoir encompasses her efforts to attend to prisoners with minimal medical supplies and to shield them from selections.
Lengyel’s 1947 memoir offers a detailed and analytical account of her eight months in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Born into an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, Lengyel trained as a surgeon’s assistant before her deportation to Auschwitz. Although by now some of her broad assertions about historical facts have been disproven, her narrative charts her growing recognition of the deliberate duplicity of Nazis that duped the Jews into collaborating with their own destruction. Lengyel recounts that, while working in the infirmary at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she murdered newborns to protect the life of their mothers. She outlines the social system that developed in the camp, the sexual exploitation of women, and her role as messenger in the camp underground.
Like diaries and chronicles written during the war, early memoirs such as these offer a sense of the diversity of Jewish life and Jewish responses to the Nazi onslaught, as well as the ethnic, religious, and political differences among the Jews caught in the genocidal web. They frequently focus on the details of everyday life under radically abnormal circumstances. In addition to the individual personality of the writer, memoirs are shaped by the country, social class, education, age, and degree of Jewish identity and assimilation the writer experienced prior to the war.
As time progressed, the voices of child and adolescent survivors—well into in their adult years by the time they wrote autobiographically—have been added to the accumulation of memory narratives. These accounts of Jewish childhood under Nazism are part of a wave of memoirs shaped by the authors’ backgrounds and experiences but less focused on differences within and among Jewish communities during the war. Examples include memoirs by Nehama Tec (b. 1931) and Nelly Toll (b. 1935). Tec, a sociologist who researched aspects of resistance during the Holocaust, wrote Dry Tears, which recounts her experiences as a hidden child posing as Catholic under an assumed name. Toll, an art therapist, relates her experiences hiding with her mother in a bedroom of a friend’s apartment. To alleviate anxiety and boredom, Toll was given supplies to draw pictures and write stories.
Other child survivor memoirists are Isabella Leitner (1922-2009) and Livia Bitton-Jackson (b. 1931). Leitner recounts life in Budapest under Nazism and subsequent deportation to Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. As the title, Fragments of Isabella, indicates, the memoir offers short vignettes and chapters, characterized by anger at Nazi and Hungarian cruelty and antisemitism, and bitter anguish at the degradation and losses suffered by her family. Bitton-Jackson’s lean and focused memoir brings an emotional immediacy to the author’s recollection of her disrupted childhood in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia. Deported with her family first to Auschwitz and then to a series of labor camps, Bitton-Jackson depicts her strong bonds with her mother, as well as her unbroken faith in God.
Other memoirs focus on the experiences of women active in resistance or partisan groups, such as Haika Grossman (1919-1996), who later became a member of the Israeli Lit. "assembly." The 120-member parliament of the State of Israel.Knesset. Active in the Zionist youth movement in Poland, Grossman played a leadership role in the Bialystok ghetto. She used her Aryan looks to help support anti-Nazi resistance groups, acting as a courier and arms smuggler.
The final wave of women’s memoirs, beginning in the late twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, reflects changes in cultural sensibilities during the decades since the war. These memoirs, too, depict the events of the Holocaust, but they also reflect the long adulthood of the writer, the culture in which she has lived, her relationships and experiences since that time, and often a re-evaluation of how she has come to understand her past. Some of these belated memoirs convey a renewed despair that hit the writer after decades of seeming adjustment to life after the Holocaust. Sarah Kofman (1934-1994), for example, revisits her Paris childhood in a 1994 memoir, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. By then an influential philosopher who taught at the Sorbonne and wrote on Freud, Nietzsche, aesthetics, and feminism, Kofman recounts her wartime experience in an emotionally raw and powerful narrative. The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Kofman, along with her mother, survived the war under the shelter of a Catholic French woman who hid both in her apartment. In the memoir, the rescuer gradually displaces Kofman’s mother in the child’s affections and replaces Jewish practices with French ones. Kofman’s narrative presents maternal competition and alienation as touchstone to the intrusion of atrocity into intimate relations, and to the complexity of what Primo Levi (1919-1987) called “the gray zone,” areas of moral ambiguity. The absence of Kofman’s father, deported to Auschwitz and murdered there by a kapo, permeates the narrative, both as personal bereavement and as an instance of the impossibility of adequate testimony. Shortly after completing this memoir, Kofman committed suicide.
Other memoirs, such as that by Ruth Klüger (1931-2020), reflect an effort to come to terms with relationships made difficult by the pressures of the Holocaust. Born in Vienna to a secular Jewish family and deported to Theresientstadt and Auschwitz as a young adolescent, Klüger, who became a professor of German studies in the United States, recollects her mother as heroic, instrumental in their survival, but at the same time problematic and manipulative in her daughter’s life. Klüger pointedly notes that suffering and atrocity do not ennoble, but rather damage the human spirit. Klüger’s complicated and fraught portrayal of her mother in her 2001 Still Alive, a translation and adaptation of her 1992 German memoir Weiter leben, contrasts with the predominantly positive image of mothers in memoirs by Holocaust survivors.
Susan Rubin Suleiman (b. 1939) coined the term “1.5 generation” to describe women like herself whose early childhood was in Europe during the war years and who, after the war, were raised by mothers who were adult survivors of the Holocaust. Her 1999 memoir Budapest Diary emerges from a visit to Budapest with her own children almost four decades after her wartime childhood there. Miriam Katin’s (b. 1942) graphic memoir, We Are on Our Own, similarly probes the memories of a very young Jewish child in wartime Budapest, weaving in the stories her mother has told her about their experiences passing as Hungarian peasants.
An issue that emerges in belated memoirs is sexuality, encompassing assault, barter, coerced and voluntary intimacy, and other behaviors. Two of the earliest published memoirs to introduce this topic, by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller (1924-2017) and Judith Magyar Isaacson (1925-2015), focus on events the authors withheld previously, out of shame or consideration for others. A teenager in a religious family during the war years, Heller recounts an affair with an older Ukrainian militia man who sheltered her and her family from Nazi roundups. Isaacson, who became dean of an American university, recollects her adolescence in an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, marked by a persistent and pervasive fear of rape after the Nazis invade Hungary, as well as in Auschwitz.
The impulse towards memoirization carries over to generations born after the war. Helen Epstein (b. 1947) and Fern Schumer Chapman (b. 1954) were among the first women to write their mothers’ stories and to explore the way those stories shaped their own lives and relationship with the past. Second-, third-, and subsequent generation writing of family stories is an expanding genre.
Some women Holocaust survivors mediated their experiences through fiction, poetry, and other genres, utilizing literary and imaginative strategies to render their inner experience and to convey elements of atrocity that evaded more chronological or historical narratives. These literary representations grapple with the philosophical, psychological, and cultural implications of the Holocaust. While literature written by male survivors often places women at the periphery, most women’s literature focuses on women, highlighting both the commonality and differences in Jewish men’s and women’s experiences.
Among the most powerful and subtle fiction writers, Ida Fink (1921-2011) draws upon experience, observation, and testimony to depict the daily experience under Nazism, the impact of atrocity on relationships and the self, and the complexities of memory in recollecting and narrating the events of the Holocaust years later. Born into a Jewish family well-integrated into Polish society, Fink survived the war under a series of false identities, as recounted in her fictionalized autobiography The Journey. Fink is best known for her short stories, especially A Scrap of Time, which focus on intimate, domestic moments, relationships between spouses, lovers, parents and children, and Jews and their rescuers.
Writing in many languages and countries, women survivors wrote novels and short stories depicting a variety of wartime settings. Several writers focused on life in the ghettoes. For example, Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) published realistic fiction set in the Lodz Ghetto. Writing in Yiddish and in a variety of genres, Rosenfarb drew on her experiences there and in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Considered her master work, her 1972 epic novel Tree of Life charts the path of ten inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto from its inception until its destruction. Other women authors published fiction set in urban and pastoral settings, tracing the fate of Jews as Nazism constricts their freedom and compels them into hiding and false identities. The novels and stories of Henia Karmel-Wolfe (1923-1984) are set in Krakow and reflect the uncertainty and deprivation of the war years. Ilse Aichinger (1921-2016), born to assimilated Jewish parents in Vienna and raised as a Catholic, was considered Jewish by the Nuremberg laws. She was among the first Austrian authors to write literature about the effects of antisemitism on the victims of the Holocaust and, as such, came under harsh criticism in her own country. Born to an assimilated Jewish family in Lublin and active in the Polish resistance, Anna Langfus (1920-1966) drew on her experiences in creating novels and stories about the Holocaust. Writing in French, the language of her adopted country after the war, Langfus explores issues of loss, devastation, hopelessness, and tormented memories. These works probe the variety of women’s experiences during the war.
Several works of fiction offer realistic depictions of life and death in labor and concentration camps. Plasow and Skarzysko-Kamienna, where Polish-born Ilona Karmel (1925-2001) labored during the war, provide the setting for her novel An Estate of Memory. Written in English after Karmel moved to the United States, the novel explores the experiences of women in the gender-segregated camps and issues of morality in extremis. Sara Nomberg-Przytyk (1915-1996), a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, utilized her own experiences and observations to write the set of fictionalized stories that comprise Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land. Nomberg-Przytyk presents a complex sense of the range of human behavior in a context that allowed only very limited choices.
In contrast to works that focus on the Holocaust and offer realistic detail, some survivors rarely mention the Holocaust explicitly in their novels and stories. Yet the radical losses of the Nazi genocide may be seen to shape their fictional works. For example, the work of Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven (1930-2003), who was born in Warsaw and immigrated as a child to Mandatory Palestine, reflects this tendency. While neither her fiction nor her non-fiction deals directly with the Holocaust, her writing has been seen as shaped by sorrow and nightmares of the fate she narrowly escaped, featuring dreamlike returns to the city of her birth and protagonists moored in sadness and alienation. In Suite Française, a novel rediscovered and published several decades after the author’s deportation and death in Auschwitz, French fiction writer Irène Némirovsky (1903-1942) captures the chaos and desperation of Parisians fleeing the Nazi occupation in the spring of 1940 for the relative safety of the “free zone” controlled by the Vichy government. The novel was written while Némirovsky herself sought shelter under Vichy, and the author’s fate provides a coda to the work; as an immigrant from Russia, Némirovsky was among the most vulnerable of French Jews.
In addition to fiction, the Holocaust finds both direct and indirect expression in the works of such poets as Nelly Sachs (1891-1970), Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943), Rokhl Korn (1898-1982), and Irena Klepfisz (b. 1941). Raised in Berlin where she became known for her poetry, Sachs fled to Sweden with her mother in 1939. There, her poems reflected her growing knowledge of the Holocaust and the loss of personal friends and family to the Nazi genocide. Her poems pay particular attention to the plight of children.
Born in Berlin to an upper-middle-class assimilated Jewish family and deported to Auschwitz in 1943, Kolmar had a significant body of poems by the time the Nazis came to power. Her work addresses the Jewish past, violent antisemitism, and the development of Nazi persecution. She continued to write even while engaged in forced labor in a munitions factory.
Raised in a rural area of Galicia, Poland, Korn fled to the relative safety of Russia with her daughter, thereby escaping the death that overtook the rest of her family. Although only in her adult years did she learn to write in Yiddish, it is in that language that her post-war poems and stories deal with the Holocaust, conveying a sense of sorrow and loss, lamenting the murdered Jews of Europe. Klepfisz, whose father died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and who survived with her mother by passing as Catholic Poles, recaptures the perspective of childhood in poems such as “Bashert.”
Increasingly, the Holocaust has found a place in the fiction and poetry of women who were not themselves personally involved. Whether born elsewhere or born after the war, these writers probe the resonances, after-effects, and implications of the Nazi genocide. Either implicitly or explicitly, their works also explore the ways in which their own cultures—for example, Israeli, American, French, German—negotiate and shape their representations of the past. Fiction writers include Cynthia Ozick (b. 1928), Marcie Hershman (b. 1951), Sheri Szeman (b. 1956), Michal Govrin (b. 1950), Nava Semel (b. 1954), Rebecca Goldstein (b. 1950), Marge Piercy (b. 1936), Norma Rosen (b. 1925), Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (b. 1941), Anne Michaels (b. 1958), Savyon Liebrecht (b. 1948), Judith Katzir (b. 1963), Judith Hendel (1925 – 2014), Emuna Elon (b.1955), Michal Ben-Naftali (b. 1963), Ellen Feldman (b. 1941), Rachel Seiffert (b. 1971), and Francine Prose (b. 1947). Poets include Kadya Molodowsky (1894-1975), Rivka Miriam (b. 1952), Lily Brett (b. 1946), Alicia Ostriker (b. 1937), Ruth Whitman (1922-1999), Myra Sklarew (b. 1934), and Marjorie Agosín (b. 1955. Although Molodowsky was born in White Russia and educated in Warsaw and Odessa, by the mid-1930s she had already immigrated to the United States. In the poems collected in Der melekh dovid aleyn is geblibn [Only King David Remained], she laments the dead Jews of Europe and struggles with witnessing the Holocaust from afar. She also edited an anthology of Yiddish poetry about the Holocaust, including poems by Jews who perished during the Holocaust, those who survived, and those who witnessed it from afar. Miriam, an Israeli poet, and Brett, an Australian, are children of Holocaust survivors who struggle in their poems with this legacy. In her poems, American-born Ostriker struggles with the idea of God after the Holocaust and with the long history of Western antisemitism. Whitman, who translated Yiddish Holocaust literature into English, deals with the Holocaust in an imagined diary written in verse, in the voice of Hannah Szenes, who parachuted behind Nazi lines.
Theater is another important literary venue for representation of the Holocaust. In Lady of the Castle, a play by the Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg (1911-1970), a Holocaust survivor struggles with the aftermath of the European destruction. Born in France to Jewish immigrants from Greece, Liliane Atlan (1932-2011) and her sister were sent by their parents to the French countryside to elude the genocidal net that killed much of their extended family. Atlan’s plays dramatize the Holocaust and grapple with its implications for humanistic values. Monsieur Fugue ou Le Mal de Terre [Mr. Fugue or Earth Sickness] was inspired by the life and work of Janusz Korczak (1878-1942). In Kindertransport, Anglo-Jewish writer Diane Samuels (b. 1960) focuses on the experiences of a young girl rescued from the Nazi genocide to Britain and their psychological toll on her. In a one-woman performance co-written with Alison Summers, Punch Me in the Stomach, New Zealand-born Canadian Deb Filler (b. 1954) plays herself, her father (a survivor of Auschwitz and other camps), and other family members as she re-enacts a visit with her father to the sites of his internment during the war. The play is among the first second-generation works to use comedic elements.
Using both visual and textual elements, several artists have created graphic novels, or comics, about the Holocaust and its effect on subsequent generations. In I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, Canadian Bernice Eisenstein (b. 1949) explores the impact of inherited fragments of memory. In The Property, Israeli graphic artist Rutu Modan (b. 1966) traces a suppressed family story through the visit of an Israeli young women and her grandmother to the grandmother’s native Warsaw.
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 generally. Gender-specific themes include the ramifications of childbirth and motherhood during the war. 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 or impossible. 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 woman who band together in a labor camp. One of them is pregnant; the others help keep her condition secret and, at great sacrifice, give her part of their food and take on her grueling physical work. More than documenting these circumstances, Karmel’s novel treats the secret pregnancy as a symbol of the women’s inner resistance to the forces of atrocity and as the crucible by which they evaluate themselves as ethical beings. Her focus on a situation particular to women—pregnancy—elaborates ways in which women’s experiences differed from those of men. At the same time, it becomes a means to articulate ethical issues shared by men. Cynthia Ozick’s novella The Shawl focuses on a young mother who tries and fails to protect her infant from death in a labor camp and, many years later, still suffers from this traumatic bereavement.
A reversal of conventional gender roles often characterizes Holocaust literature by women. Traditionally, war stories depict women as relegated to domestic space; their roles are passive, either victimized or rescued by men. Much Holocaust writing by men places women in such passive or peripheral roles. By contrast, in women’s Holocaust writing, the war against the Jews is waged in domestic spaces; 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 ghettoes, women who had never worked outside the home must 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.
Women’s Holocaust literature also depicts women as sexually vulnerable. Belated memoirs, in particular, 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 sexual violations. Women’s bodies render them vulnerable in other ways, as well. 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 and her mother’s lives. Another story in the collection, “Conversation,” depicts a married Jewish 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 inter-related short stories, Tales of the Master Race, Marcie Hershman explores the connections between eros and violence, as well as the construction of a Nazi masculinity, 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.
In literature by men about the Holocaust, the treatment of sexuality and power differs. There, victims of rape, forced prostitution, or sexual barter are almost exclusively women. Their situation, behavior, and affect are viewed externally, rather than internally. For example, in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird and Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, the sexual violation of women occurs in the background or the periphery, intended to darken and underscore the danger that the male protagonist faces and the psychological trauma he carries. 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 lives of the female victims 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 juxtaposes two narratives, the Kommandant’s and his prisoner’s. The Kommandant imagines the woman sharing his pleasure, a view echoed by other prisoners, who envy and revile her. But her narrative portrays the acts that the Kommandant forces the woman to perform as another component of the atrocity inflicted upon the Jews of the camp on the way to their murder.
For some women writers, representation of the Holocaust becomes a vehicle to explore national ethos, identity, and memory. Norma Rosen’s novel Touching Evil (1969), among the earliest American novels to grapple with the Nazi genocide, explores the impact of the televised 1961 Eichmann trials on Jewish American identity and its challenge to Western ethics. In many of Irena Klepfisz’s poems, the Holocaust becomes a bridge through which she empathizes with the “other” in contemporary urban America, marginalized because of gender, race, poverty, and language. Michal Ben-Naftali’s novel The Teacher looks at the suppression and belated uncovering of survivor experiences in Israel, while Nava Semel’s stories probe the ways in which the memory of the Holocaust haunts the Israeli psyche.
Several novels build on the story of Anne Frank and the celebrity of her published diary. Judith Katzir’s Dearest Anne uses an Israeli adolescent girl’s fascination with Frank’s diary as a means to challenge the place of the Holocaust in Israeli national memory. A visit to the Anne Frank house and Jewish Museum in post-war Amsterdam prompts the recovery of family secrets and losses in Emuna Elon’s House on Endless Waters, which probes the haunted memories of an Israeli family. In Ellen Feldman’s The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, an imagined post-war life for Peter van Pels (Van Daan in Frank’s diary) provides a means to explore cultural amnesia and Jewish identity in America. For Marjorie Agosín, Frank’s legacy becomes a means to explore not only the impact of the Jewish past on contemporary identity, but also the atrocities committed under fascism in Agosín’s native Chile.
Many literary critics, like other researchers of the Holocaust, were initially reluctant to incorporate the lens of gender into their work or to distinguish the experiences and writing of women from those of men. Beginning in the late 1980s, women scholars began to utilize gender as a category of analysis for understanding Holocaust literature. The earliest scholarly writing about women and Holocaust literature looked to literary non-fiction, fiction, and poetry as a means to better understand the experiences of women during the Holocaust, exploring them as a form of literary witness. Moreover, because historians were reluctant to base their assertions on survivor recollections, the first academic analyses of memoirs were often by literary scholars. The presence of women scholars of Holocaust literature has had a strong impact on the development of the field.
Literary critics, such as Sara R. Horowitz, Lori Lefkovitz, and Julia Epstein, focused on the literariness of literary responses, the constructedness of memory, and the relationship of women’s literature to the different cultural milieus of the authors and of the readers—that is, on the way Holocaust remembrance shapes and is shaped by personal and collective ways of grappling with the Holocaust. Several literary scholars, such as S. Lilian Kremer, Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Mary Felstiner, Elizabeth Baer, and Myrna Goldenberg, have sought to expand awareness of women’s experiences and knowledge of women writers by analyzing works of individual women writers and studying recurrent themes in women’s writing. Others, including Naomi Sokoloff and Hamida Bosmajian, have focused on childhood narratives and the nature of the family.
With growing acceptance of gender as a meaningful category of analysis for Holocaust literature, literary criticism and literary theory came to reflect the broader insights of gender studies. Because gender does not exist as an isolated category, its intersection with nationality, ethnicity, religion, and class became a focus of literary scholarship. Literary critics, including Marianne Hirsch, Sara R. Horowitz, Pascale Bos, Phyllis Lassner, Federica Clementi, Brett A. Kaplan, Mia Spiro, Lara Curtis, and Dorota Glowacka, developed ways of incorporating gender analysis in discussions of Holocaust representations.
Beyond incorporating gender analysis into Holocaust literature, women literary critics including Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Sara R. Horowitz, Shoshana Felman, Susan Gubar, Hanna Yaoz, Shoshana Felman, Hamida Bosmajian, Ellen Fine, Jessica Lang, Vivian Patraka, Erin McGlothlin, Emily Budick, Susan Rubin Suleiman, Sue Vice, Victoria Aarons, Iris Milner, Lily Rattok, Ruth Franklin, Froma Zeitlin, and Gila Ramras-Rauch have contributed to the development of critical interpretations of Holocaust literature.
Women have created a rich and diverse body of literature about the Holocaust. Writing out of different experiences, with different temperaments and points of view, in a wide range of genres, and across cultures and languages, they expanded the ways in which readers encounter the Holocaust and its aftermath. The work of women literary scholars has contributed in important ways toward understanding how literature represents the Nazi genocide. Approaching the subject with a variety of questions and concerns, with different views and interests, they have strongly influenced the ways in which readers interpret this challenging body of literature.
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Agosín, Marjorie. Dear Anne Frank: Poems. Trans. Richard Schaff. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1998.
Atlan, Liliane. Monsieur Fugue Ou Le Mal De Terre. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967.
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