Author Archives: Sara R Horowitz

About Sara R Horowitz

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.

Women in Holocaust Literature: Writers & Writings

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Reprinted from

Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia

with permission of the author and the

Jewish Women’s Archive

.

Already during the war years, and under the shadow of Nazism, Jewish women gave narrative form to their experiences, writing wartime diaries and journals.

Diaries offer a unique perspective on the events of the Holocaust. Much more strongly than memoirs whose authors have survived Nazi atrocity and were able to supplement their subjective knowledge of the Holocaust with more expansive information, diarists convey the chaos and confusion of the time, the lack of reliable information and the hope–most frequently in vain–that the writer and her family would survive the war. The retrospective lens of memoirs dictates a selectivity of remembered events, while diaries often include material that might later be forgotten or discounted as irrelevant.Books

The process of giving written form 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 during the Holocaust, the inner lives of the women who wrote them, remembered accounts of others who perished and the workings of traumatic memory.

Memoirs

Early memoirs, such as those by Rachel Auerbach, Gisella Perl (1900–1988) and Olga Lengyel (1908–2001), capture the sense of chaos both during and after the war. Like diaries and chronicles written during the war, early memoirs offer a sense of the diversity of Jewish life and Jewish responses to the German 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, these memoirs are shaped by the country, social class, education, age and the degree of Jewish identity and assimilation that the writer experienced prior to the war. As time progresses, the voices of child and adolescent survivors–well into in their adult years by the time they write autobiographically–is added to the accumulation of memory narratives, in the next wave of memoirs. Examples include memoirs by Nehama Tec and Nelly Toll (b. 1935).

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Women in Holocaust Literature: Central Themes

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Reprinted from

Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia

with permission of the author and the

Jewish Women’s Archive

.

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 Woman Holocaustwriting 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. 

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 in general.

Childbirth and Motherhood

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. 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 women who band together in a labor camp. One of the four is pregnant and determined to carry to term. The other three women help conceal her pregnancy and–at great sacrifice–provide her with extra nutrition and shoulder her share of the physical labor.

More than merely documenting an unusual set of circumstances, Karmel’s novel treats the secret pregnancy as a symbol of the women’s inner resistance to the forces of atrocity and the crucible by which they evaluate themselves as ethical beings. Karmel’s focus on a situation particular to women–pregnancy–provides the opportunity to elaborate ways in which women’s experiences differed from those of men.

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