Ilona Karmel was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Poland in 1925. After surviving three labor camps during the Holocaust, she moved with her sister to the United States in 1948. Within four years of her immigration she had earned a B.A. in English and had written the manuscript for her first novel, Stephania. She went on to write another significant novel and became a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her works address the experiences of Jewish women during the Holocaust in a perceptive and meaningful way. Although she avoided labeling her work as “feminist” or even “Holocaust,” her work has gained interest in both of those fields.
Ilona Karmel transformed details of her experiences as a Polish-Jewish prisoner in Nazi work camps and as a patient undergoing a prolonged convalescence into two compelling and memorable novels.
Holocaust Survival and Migration to the United States
Born in Cracow to Hirsch and Mita (Rosenbaum) Karmel on August 14, 1925, Ilona joined her older sister, Henryka (later Henia), in a middle-class branch of a Jewish family that embraced both nonobservant and Orthodox members. Her comfortable childhood ended when the Germans occupied Poland. Along with her mother and sister, Ilona was interned in three successive labor camps; she credits their mother with ensuring the girls’ survival.
Karmel followed her sister to the United States in 1948 after spending two years recuperating in German and Swedish hospitals from leg injuries she sustained during the last days of the war. Within four years, Karmel had earned her B.A. in English from Radcliffe (and a Phi Beta Kappa key), won the 1950 Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest, and prepared the manuscript of her first novel, Stephania. Her prize-winning short story was not her first published material, however. Poems that Ilona and Henryka had secretly written in the camps were published in New York, in their original Polish, before Ilona’s arrival in the United States.
The protagonist of Stephania is a young Polish-Jewish woman seeking treatment in a Swedish hospital for her spinal curvature, worsened by Nazi abuses. By the novel’s end, she understands her blamelessness in the death of her parents and realizes that she can have a meaningful life despite her loss. Reviewers praised Karmel’s perceptiveness and skillful prose. Most also acknowledged her own recent hospitalization and emigration, but few directly addressed her Jewishness or the extent of her persecution by the Nazis.
Published in 1969, An Estate of Memory describes the struggle for survival of four unrelated Jewish women imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp in Poland. The women’s commitment to one another and to themselves undergoes its greatest test in response to the pregnancy of one of them. As with actual camp inmates, even the most valiant efforts could not guarantee their return to life “in the freedom” beyond the war, and only the precious and incomplete legacy of remembrance would remain to those who survived the war’s immeasurable damage. Early reviews of An Estate of Memory were mixed, though in her front-page appraisal in the New York Times Book Review Elizabeth Janeway compared Karmel to Hemingway and Solzhenitsyn. Perhaps the daunting subject, represented moreover in a technically challenging prose, accounts for the book’s indifferent reception. Until the Feminist Press reissued it in 1986, it had been out of print for several years.
Recognition and Reputation
Karmel played an important role in the lives of many students. From 1979 to 1995, she was a senior lecturer in creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which recognized her exceptional success as a teacher with two significant awards. In May 1994, Karmel received the rare Dean’s Award for Distinguished Service; upon her retirement in 1995, the annual Writing Prize (a competition she had organized for many years) was renamed in her honor.
Even without additional publications, Karmel’s reputation grew. Both of her novels have been translated into several languages. The development of feminist and Holocaust studies has renewed interest in An Estate of Memory, which now is considered one of the most significant novels in English to address the particular experiences of Jewish women during World War II. Yet Karmel herself avoided using labels like “feminist” or even “Holocaust” to categorize her work—or to classify people. She traveled to Germany several times, often accompanying her husband, physicist Francis Zucker, on his lectures abroad. In a 1953 interview, she said, “People are not evil, [just] weak....You can’t hate everyone if you are to go on living.”
Ilona Karmel Zucker died at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 30, 2000.
An Estate of Memory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
“Fru Holm.” Mademoiselle (August 1950): 203.
“Ivan Karamazov.” Ironwood 15 (Fall 1987): 211–226.
Spiew za Drutami [Song behind the wire], with Henryka Karmel-Wolfe (1947).
Stephania. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953.
Angress, Ruth K. Afterword to An Estate of Memory, by Ilona Karmel. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1986.
“Camp Consolations.” Times Literary Supplement, August 14, 1970, 893.
Ezrahi, Sidra Dekoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Gaither, Frances. “The Three in Hospital Room Five.” NYTimes Book Review, March 29, 1953, 4.
Heinemann, Marlene. Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1986.
[Hollowood, A.B.] Review of Stephania, by Ilona Karmel. Punch, May 5, 1954, 562.
Holzhauer, Jean. “Little People.” Commonweal, April 24, 1953, 81–82.
[Hook, Stuart.] “Poor Girls.” Listener, August 6, 1970, 187.
Horowitz, Sara R. “Ilona Karmel.” In Jewish-American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, edited by Ann R. Shapiro. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Horowitz, Sara R. “Linguistic Displacement in Fictional Responses to the Holocaust.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1985.
Horowitz, Sara R. “Memory and Testimony of Women Survivors of Nazi Genocide.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
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Peterson, Virgilia. Review of Stephania, by Ilona Karmel. New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 29 March 1953, 1.
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Pomerantz, Gayle. “An Exploration of the Literature by Women Survivors of the Holocaust.” Senior thesis, Brandeis University, 1983.
Poore, Charles. “Books of the Times: Review of Stephania, by Ilona Karmel.” NYTimes, March 28, 1953, 15.
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Rice, Martin. “Universe of a Bed.” Saturday Review, May 9, 1953, 21.
Ross, Robert E. “Read It.” Prairie Schooner 47 (Summer 1973): 171.
“Ilona Karmel Zucker, 75, novelist, MIT teacher.” MIT Tech Talk, December 13, 2000.