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.
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.
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).