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Women’s Experiences During the Holocaust

Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, are the
focus of this review. However, I have also included brief comments about
some of the other books on women and the Holocaust that appeared in 1998
and early 1999.
All the books discussed in this review address the specific gender-related
questions that make the female experience different from that of the male —
although some do so more forcefully than others. They explore whether
gender affected women’s ability to struggle against the subhuman conditions
of degradation, deprivation, terror, and even death, and how being female
offered benefits yet also produced liabilities. Among the possible benefits
were homemaking and nurturing skills that equipped women to form surrogate
families, care for one another, and keep themselves and their living space as
clean and hygienic as possible under the circumstances. Liabilities included
the difficulty of overcoming inbred modesty and submissiveness.
In addition to gender-related issues, other variables, such as the socio-
economic, political, religious, and national backgrounds of the women, as well
as their ages and family situations, played a definite role. And the obvious
biological differences between men and women, especially with regard to
women’s reproductive systems and their vulnerability to rape and sexual
abuse, were significant factors in the situation.
Writers about women during the Holocaust need to keep in mind that it is not
possible to analyze the experiences of women (or men) during the Holocaust
without understanding gender issues. There is a need for studies “to reveal
the ignored and complex relationship between antisemitism (as a form of
racism against Jews) and sexism prior to and during the Holocaust,” as Joan
Ringelheim has written.3 “While it appears that antisemitism contains a
monolithic view of Jews, in fact it looks at and treats Jews who are male and
female quite differently. Our ignorance of these differences creates blind spots
in the memories and reconstructions of the Holocaust.”
In order to clarify what I mean by the word “gender,” I offer two explanations
that I consider clear and succinct. Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Ringelheim
point out that “for humans, biology becomes important largely as it is
Joan Ringelheim, “Thoughts about Women and the Holocaust,” in Roger S. Gottlieb, ed.,
Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 145.
Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies