Despite a substantial and growing literature of women survivors’ testimony, only since the early 1990s has Holocaust Studies’ customary inattention to gender begun to be rectified. 1 Feminist scholars have challenged the assumption that the normative ‘Jew’ of religious and social discourse (who is actually a male Jew unless specified otherwise) also represents all victims of the Nazis. It now seems clear that the Nazis’ killing operations were not gender-blind; women’s experience of the Holocaust cannot be subsumed into that of men, and the gender-specific differences in the ways women suffered, survived and died in the Holocaust must be acknowledged and addressed. Without in any sense dismissing or competing with male suffering, in the interests of a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the Holocaust, feminist historians - notably Joan Ringelheim and Myrna Goldenberg - have asked both how women’s spiritual, ethical and political resistance to Nazism was gendered and how Nazism placed Jewish women in ‘double jeopardy’ as objects of both its anti-Semitism and its misogyny.
As mothers of future generations and physically ill-equipped for most forms of slave labour, women and their children were the immediate targets of genocide. Gender-specific factors would also have weakened, exhausted and killed women. Not only were women already socially and spiritually disadvantaged in their own Jewish communities, in the ghettos it was wives and mothers who had to fight for the release of fathers and sons imprisoned by the Gestapo, to soothe and calm distressed, ill and hungry children. Often they combined slave labour with running ghetto households in ever-smaller living spaces and on ever-diminishing means (usually feeding children and men before or in place of themselves). They were also likely to have felt most keenly the loss of family heirlooms such as silver sabbath candlesticks and kiddush cups: the tangible symbols of inter-generational continuity and the security and sanctity of the homes they had laboured to create. In Auschwitz, if women survived ‘selection’ by looking youthful and fit on their arrival and by being unaccompanied by young children, they were usually forced, as in other camps, to undertake hard labour beyond their muscular strength. Their sexual identity was eroded by starvation, the cessation of menses, and sometimes forced abortion. The fear of rape and sexual abuse, and the anguish of separation from babies and young children for whom they had been the primary carers were emotional traumas to which women were especially vulnerable. 2