Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy

By Jonathan Frankel | Go to book overview

Beyond Heroism and Victimhood: Gender
and Holocaust Scholarship

Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Writing As Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. 216 pp.

Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. 304 pp.

Donald L. Niewyk (ed. ), Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. 432 pp.

Dalia Ofer and Leonore J. Weitzman (eds. ), Women in the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 402 pp.

The study of the Holocaust poses several problems that are central to the agenda of contemporary gender theory. How can feminist scholarship describe the experiences of women victims of the Nazi genocide yet avoid reinscribing old stereotypes about female passivity? How were the experiences of women who were targeted for being Jews different from those of other women who were killed by the Nazis, such as political prisoners and Gypsies—and how far do these differences shed light on the ways in which gender functions in combination with race? How can a study of women perpetrators in the concentration camps help us understand why women commit acts of evil and illumine the ways in which the social construction of femininity influences women in such actions?

Although the field of gender studies has been burgeoning in the United States and Europe for several decades, it is just beginning to touch the historiography of the Holocaust. In part, this may be because the Holocaust seems too grim to be subjected to anything other than traditional methods, the sober recovery of archival materials and the reconstruction of public political events. Just as women's concerns have often been regarded as frivolous, so too women's studies is sometimes accused of a similar frivolity that makes its application to the Holocaust seem inappropriate. For example, the new collection of essays, Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Leonore Weitzman, recently elicited harsh denunciations (primarily from rightwing American Jews) on the grounds that the book trivializes the Holocaust by examining it through the lens of gender. 1 Feminist scholarship can even be subtly linked to Holocaust deniers; Cynthia Ozick is cited in the collection as arguing that to concentrate on gender in this context is morally wrong because the effect is to eradicate the Jews—and with them, the Holocaust—from history.

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