Dr. Marion Kaplan on Women and the Holocaust

(Dr. Marion Kaplan speaking at Northwestern University in 2018.
On the screen, Joan Ringelheim, one of the founders of the field.
Photo via Facebook)

Marion Kaplan, Ph.D., Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History at New York University, is a three-time National Jewish Book Awards winner.

In a series of posts, I will be featuring highlights from my recent wide-reaching interview of Dr. Kaplan.

This post is dedicated to the topic of Women and the Holocaust.

Question:  I note that in May of 2018 at Northwestern University, you delivered the annual Theodore Zev Weiss Lecture in Holocaust Studies. Please let us know some of the most important points you made in that lecture.

Answer:  I discussed whether and how gender mattered during the Holocaust.

My interest in the topic stems from my family history — my parents were refugees from Nazi Germany — as well as from my earlier engagement with the women’s movement as a Columbia University graduate student.

I wondered “might women have experienced this era differently than men?”

The early pioneers answered that query with a resounding “yes,” but of course we still needed to do research. And don’t forget: 1980s feminists promoted this agenda, but questions about gender had arisen long before. Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum’s collection of testimonies and reports from, and surveys carried out in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1939 until 1943 – (later known as the Oneg Shabbat project) — asked questions of and about women; and, furthermore, many of the collectors were themselves women.

The first large-scale research initiative came in 1983 at a path-breaking conference coordinated by Joan Ringelheim and Esther Katz in New York City, entitled “Women Surviving the Holocaust.” For two days, four hundred survivors and female scholars (as well as 2 male scholars) tried to figure out whether and, if so, how gender mattered. I recall my surprise and confusion when many survivors both rejected the salience of gender and also highlighted it. I thought then and still think that many survivors did not want to support a feminist inquiry and yet hoped to tell their stories for posterity. That same year, Vera Laska, herself a survivor, published her Women in the Resistance and the Holocaust (1983) using women’s testimonies.

Twelve years after that first venture, Dalia Ofer and Leonore Weitzmann organized the International Workshop on Women in the Holocaust at the Hebrew University (1995). Why did it take so long for another conference to address these issues? The short answer is that scholars needed to do the research that connected women’s history, feminist theory and the Holocaust. This took time. Not surprisingly, feminists’ focus on Jewish women caused some opposition in the 1990s, part of a conservative backlash against feminism. A few critics even accused feminist historians of using the Holocaust for their own agendas. Thankfully, this debate died down rather quickly. Indeed, women’s historians had always underlined that being Jewish mattered first and foremost. But, as Mary Felstiner wrote, “along the stations toward extinction…each gender lived its own journey.” I added, rather defensively, but probably appropriately for 1998, that gender helped to tell a fuller, more intimate, more nuanced story. It gave Jewish women a voice long denied them and a perspective long denied us. I believe that to this day.

How did we write these histories?  First, we needed to discover materials in newspapers and in government and organizational archives. Many of us also turned to memoirs, diaries, letters and interviews as crucial first-person evidence. Re-applying the feminist motto, the “personal is political,” many historians insisted that the personal was also historical — that without women’s memories, we missed half the history of the Holocaust.

That 1995 conference opened many new research avenues, including the history of Jewish women and families before the war in both Western and Eastern Europe; women’s struggles in ghettos, camps and the resistance; and women’s accounts in Holocaust literature. These themes set the stage for the next twenty years of studies. Ofer and Weitzman’s Women and the Holocaust came out three years later as did Judith Tydor Baumel’s Gender and the Holocaust. This brings me to the paper I delivered at that conference, out of which grew my book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (1998). I wrote that although the calamity that hit German Jews affected them as Jews first, they also suffered based on gender. Before 1933, Nazis had conflated Jewish men with “Jews” and the vast majority of antisemitic caricatures and propaganda attacked “the Jew,” a male with hideous facial features and a distorted body, a rapacious capitalist or communist, a rapist of pure Aryan women, and a dangerous “race defiler.” Thus, at first, Jewish men were far more vulnerable to physical assault and arrest, and women remained to carry the burden of maintaining their homes and families, of keeping their households and communities together.

Not only was early Nazi racism and persecution gendered, so, too, were the victims’ survival strategies. The victims reacted not only as Jews, but as Jewish women and men. I focused on women’s lives because they provided a window into the daily decisions that Jews made trying to adjust to the abrupt changes in law and culture imposed by the Nazis and embraced by many non-Jewish Germans. A focus on women led me to recognize, for example, that most women took the early warning signals of Nazism more seriously than most men. Men and women led relatively distinct lives and often interpreted events differently.  Women participated in daily interactions with neighbors. Their finely tuned social antennae were also directed towards more unconventional–what men might have considered more trivial–sources of information, what the baker said, whether the postman gave his usual greeting. Women noticed as their surroundings turned hostile at the grassroots. They eagerly trained for jobs and crafts useful abroad, whereas men continued to hope that they would be able to maintain their careers or professions in Germany. Men tended to mediate their experiences through newspapers and radio broadcasts, whereas women’s “narrower” picture–the minutiae (and significance) of direct everyday contacts–brought politics home.

Gender made an enormous difference in deciding between fight and flight. Jewish women were more eager to leave Germany, more willing to face uncertainty and lower-class status abroad rather than discrimination and ostracism at home.  Jewish men thought they had a great deal more to lose by fleeing. Over 80% of Germany’s approximately 525,000 Jews lived solid middle-class lives. These men had to tear themselves away from their life work, whether a business or professional practice. Additionally, many had fought in World War I and believed that their service and patriotism would count for something. Most importantly, since middle-class men had previously been the primary breadwinners, as long as they made a living, they were unwilling to face poverty abroad.

Finally, women’s perspectives often highlight ignored aspects of history. For example, men write of the public spectacle of the November Pogrom, broken shop windows and burning synagogues, the lasting images of broken glass from which the Nazis cynically extracted the name “Crystal Night.” A powerful image, mentioned often and only in Jewish women’s memoirs, is that of flying feathers covering internal spaces, the home, hallway, and front yard or courtyard.  Similar to pogroms in Russia at the turn of the century, the marauders tore up goose feather blankets and pillows, shaking them into the rooms, out the windows, down the stairways. Broken glass in public and strewn feather beds in private spelled the end of Jewish family life and security in Germany.

Gender differences in perceiving danger accompanied new gender roles. In what Raul Hilberg in 1992 described as communities of “men without power and women without support,” we find, for the most part, active women who, early on, greatly expanded their traditional roles.

Two examples will have to suffice.

The first centers on the November Pogrom of 1938, highlighting women’s activities under dire circumstances. While destroying Jewish property, the marauders also beat and arrested about 30,000 men interning them in concentration camps. Later, women summoned the courage to overcome gender stereotypes of passivity in order to find any means to free their men from camps.

The second example focuses on women making family decisions. During the aftermath of the pogrom, women not only arranged the release of loved ones, but also sent their children on Kindertransports, sold property, and made all emigration decisions.  Traditionally men had publicly guarded the honor of the family and community; now suddenly women found themselves in the difficult position of defending Jewish honor.

Even though women transcended certain gender roles, gender as such caused serious consequences in emigrationGender made a difference in matters of life and death. For example, more women than men remained trapped in Nazi Germany. While there are many explanations for this–including male deaths in World War I, a higher number of widows, the intention of men to emigrate first and bring their families over when they had settled, and so on, it is also clear that more men got out before the doors were tightly shut–through business connections, capitalist visas, or because they were in physical danger earlier than women and many women sent them out first. The disproportionate number of elderly women whom the Nazis murdered, suggests that gender–and age–were a lethal combination.

During the next 20 years, a great deal of promising research appeared. I will mention just a couple of areas. There is new work on Eastern European women during the Holocaust both inside and outside the ghetto walls which includes family life and women’s strategies of survival, women hiding in bunkers; and social roles in ghettos. Additionally, autobiographies have flourished. In 2009 Louise O. Vasvári gathered 400 entries of women’s life writing from Central and Eastern Europe –  and these are only in English!  Research on sexualities, the body, and reproduction have made significant progress in the last years as well.  The sexual economy and sexual barter during the Holocaust, needs further exploration as well.  If, or when there was sexual barter, how do we understand this? As a choice? A choiceless choice? I do not have an answer. In terms of rape, sources are available, but complicated and scattered. Older testimonies do exist, for example, oral interviews at the USC Shoah Foundation. Still, we need an ensemble of data, from victims, witnesses, and perpetrators. But much of this testimony is partial and some of it is unclear. And where did most of the rapes and molestations take place? Recent research highlights the Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht as perpetrators, particularly after the beginning of the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union.

Looking ahead, I would like to raise some areas that need further attention. Aryan women, who many see as “second tier agents of terror,” to quote Doris Bergen, need further investigation despite the good work already done in that field. And, I still consider interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish women necessary. I would also like to see more actual gender research, real contrasts between women and men. In addition, by looking at race and class together with gender, and sexuality, for example, we uncover the imbalances of power relations between men and women in public and private; the different factors that helped men and women survive; and the breakdown of social and cultural norms among Jews and non-Jews (often with regard to how women were treated).

And, we could contrast, for example, single women, mothers, wives, and grandmothers with men at those same stages of life. One question that always haunts me is how did respect for the elderly—and especially elderly women– transmute into seeing them as expendable when deportations began? Was it different than looking at elderly men? Did their own gender affect younger people when looking at the elderly?

Finally, as broader genocide studies have taken other ethnic murders into account, we may learn from them, analyzing the gendered similarities and significant differences across time and national boundaries.  We have come quite a way regarding how the topic of women has entered some of the historical literature. But we still have a distance to go. Since I always take the long view, I am optimistic we will get there, slowly but surely.


  1. Linda steinman on January 7, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    Wow what a fascinating article… are you responsible for it??? If so. So well written.

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