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BOOK REVIEW


The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp by Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel"Memory and Survival" by Rochelle G. Ruthchild

Note: This review originally appeared in The Women’s Review of Books – Special Issue on Women, War, and Peace – September 2004

After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust by Eva Hoffman. New York: Public Affairs, 2004, 301 pp., $25.00 hardcover.
The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp by Rochelle G. Saidel. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, 268 pp., $26.95 hardcover.


IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE HOLOCAUST, Jews, the People of the Book, have published countless works in an effort to make sense of the crimes perpetrated by those who began by burning books and ended by burning human beings, and of the courage of those who defied Nazi orders and rescued Jews. Both of these books add to our understanding of Hitler's war against the Jews and its aftermath.

Eva Hoffman is one of the most eloquent spokespeople of the second generation, the children of Holocaust survivors. Born in Poland immediately after World War II, Hoffman emigrated with her parents to Vancouver, Canada, in 1959. An accomplished writer and scholar, she has journeyed from the shadows of Poland's killing fields to the heights of the US and western European cultural establishment. She holds a Harvard PhD, has won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and served for most of the 1980s as editor of The New York Times Book Review. Now residing in London, she lives the life of a cosmopolitan intellectual, jetting to visiting professorships and lectures in the US and to Holocaust events in Poland and relaxing by working her way through the classical piano repertoire she learned in her youth. In previous books, she explored her childhood and the shock of emigration, the history of a Polish shtetl, and the impact of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. She has been compared to Primo Levi, whose searing descriptions of his Auschwitz experiences remain among the best of Holocaust memoirs.
In After Such Knowledge, Hoffman reflects on the Holocaust as a particular historical event and contemplates its various meanings in today's world. As she notes, despite common references to the "memory" of the Holocaust, subsequent generations have only indirect knowledge of it, although it irrevocably changed their lives.

Refuting the idea of collective guilt is a central theme of Hoffman's work. This is no doubt directly connected to the experience of her parents, who owed their survival to Christians who risked their lives to harbor them (in German-occupied Poland, where hiding Jews was punishable by death). Hoffman's belief in the courage and decency of ordinary people in the face of the venality, brutality, and racism too often displayed by Christians during the Holocaust serves as a counterpoint to Jan Gross' account of Polish savagery in the village of Jedwabne and Daniel Goldhagen's condemnation of German complicity in Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996).

As Hoffman observes, the "characteristic postwar mood" among survivors was a "mix of carpe diem energy and carpe diem cynicism," resulting in a fixed focus on the present. She devotes a section to the psychology of the survivors and to studies of their post-genocide trauma, which she distinguishes from the "tragedy" of others who experienced the horrors of war. She discusses the concept of the "memorial candle," the one child in each survivor's family chosen as "the instrument of commemoration, devotion, and mourning." And, as she has done in other writing, she emphasizes the significance of the emigration, the "uprooting [that was] an almost intrinsic part of the Holocaust's aftermath."

Hoffman covers a wide range of topics intelligently and well, including her own and others' second generation encounters with Christian Germans and Poles (she's in favor of these, but not as trite group therapy exercises); the replacement of immediate post-war amnesia about the Holocaust with the last decade's "near-obsessive interest"; morality, memory and memorials; survivors as "the Brahmins of the trauma elites"; the Holocaust as "an empty if universal symbol"; and the necessity of "separation and containment--the two great psychoanalytic goods," in coming to terms with "the most difficult of pasts." References to psychoanalysis and its concepts recur, but while her book is intensely personal, Hoffman maintains a certain psychic distance, revealing no specifics about her own encounters with psychoanalysis.

One of the most moving sections of the book recounts Hoffman's visit with her sister to Zalosce, the scene of their parent's Holocaust agony but also of their life before the war. They meet their parent's rescuers, the Hryczkos, now in their 80s, who retain vivid memories of them, and leave Hoffman puzzling about why her parents completely lost contact with their saviors.

Turning to the present, Hoffman condemns the rise of anti-Jewish racism on both the right and the left. Islamists proclaiming a new jihad against the West have adopted the worst canards of European anti-Semitism, making as their holy book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the old forgery concocted by the Tsarist secret police at the end of the 19th century. It is ironic that this new virulent and deadly strain of the age-old hatred has emerged among people who consider themselves opponents of everything western and Christian. Turning her critical eye leftward, Hoffman also deplores the use of anti-Jewish slogans by some peace activists. She decries equally the militarism and anti-Muslim racism directed against Islam and Islamists in general.

Although Hoffman would probably reject this characterization, part of what made her earlier work stand out in the vast body of Holocaust literature, most of it written by men, was her recounting of her experiences as a girl and a woman. Her sensitivity to the life of the Other, the quintessential mark of the Jew in the diaspora, was deepened by her experience of the otherness of being female, albeit an extraordinarily highly achieving one. In Lost in Translation, for example, she explored emigration from the vantage point of a teenager learning to wear a miniskirt, a girl passing into western sexual objectification from the relatively sheltered Communist East. But in her current book, feminist and gender issues are addressed obliquely, dismissed, or simply not mentioned. Hoffman specifically condemns the feminist motto "the personal is political" as "much too glib," even as she uses her personal experience as the basis of her arguments about the Holocaust. She omits any mention of homosexuality, although gay men and lesbians were sent to the concentration camps; identification with the Holocaust is a prominent theme in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender world; and the second generation includes some outspoken gays and lesbians.

This is particularly perplexing because in general Hoffman is not shy about wrestling with complex contemporary issues, such as Polish complicity in the Holocaust or the recent genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. She discusses not only the significance of Israel in the post-Holocaust world, but also Israeli invocation of the Holocaust to justify brutality against the Palestinians.

Ultimately, Hoffman advocates moving on, citing the Jewish tradition of grieving fully for the dead but placing a finite end to mourning. "Perhaps," she argues, "that moment has come, even as we must continue to ponder and confront the knowledge that the Shoah has brought us in perpetuity."

IN CONTRAST TO HOFFMAN, Rochelle G. Saidel focuses on the specifics of the Holocaust, on the forever incomplete work of preserving survivors' accounts. Although the Holocaust is the most documented genocide in history, each survivor's story is unique. Saidel's goal is to make visible a previously ignored aspect of women's Holocaust history: Jewish women's experience at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Saidel, born in the United States in 1942, represents the generation untouched physically by the Holocaust but deeply identifying with those who experienced its horrors. She is the author of two other Holocaust-related books, one on the politics of the New York City Holocaust Museum and the other on the search for Nazi war criminals in the US.

Saidel first became involved in documenting the history of Ravensbrück after a 1980 visit to East Germany, when she was appalled to learn that, as was the practice in the Soviet bloc, Jews, who had comprised 20 percent of the camp population, were not represented in the various memorials at the site. Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp exclusively for women, was located 55 miles from Berlin. After the war, the area was part of the Communist German Democratic Republic; since 1990, it has become part of the reunified Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, 132,000 women from 23 countries were held in the camp. Besides Jews, Ravensbrück's population included political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so-called "asocials," a category encompassing Gypsies, prostitutes, lesbians, and criminals. As was the practice in other camps, as the liberating armies neared, the relatively healthy, some 11,000, were driven from the camp by the Germans on a forced death march. Few survived. When the Soviet Army entered the camp on April 30, 1945, only 3,000 seriously ill women remained. One thousand were taken to Sweden as a result of an agreement between the Swedish Red Cross, Nazi SS head Heinrich Himmler, and a representative of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress.

Saidel has done a remarkable job of tracking down Ravensbrück survivors and recording their life stories. She lists 91 survivors by name as providing testimony used in her book; the total number she interviewed is even higher. Most live in the US, some in Canada and Australia; some remained in Europe and Russia.

Saidel addresses gender-related issues in a short chapter on "Gender and Women's Bodies." While not of the depth of Nehama Tec's pathbreaking Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust (2003), Saidel's attention to gender strengthens the book and touches on some issues not discussed by Tec. Saidel, like Tec, emphasizes the patriarchal control reflected in the all-male Nazi power structure and in the Jewish councils set up by the Germans in occupied Europe. Women such as Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's sister, and relatives of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, survived because of their connection to powerful men; although a few others, like Olga Benário Prestes, deported from Brazil to Germany because her husband was a Communist Party leader, became particular targets because of such connections. Women could pass more easily as Aryans because they did not have the telltale sign of circumcision. But patriarchal assumptions, such as that women were primarily responsible for children, meant that at death camps like Auschwitz, women with children were sent directly to the gas chambers, while men were "saved" to be slave laborers.

Saidel addresses in detail issues of personal hygiene, nudity, and menstruation in the camps. She also discusses subjects about which survivors are reluctant to talk, such as rape and prostitution. Despite the Nazi prohibitions against "race defilement," the situation in the camps, where men wielded absolute power over women, was a natural setting for such abuse. Saidel recounts survivors' stories about drunken SS men roaring into women's barracks on their motorcycles for a rape spree as just one example of this classic violence against women.
Other Holocaust authors have discussed bonding between women and its importance in camp survival, but Saidel is among the very few to address directly the subject of lesbianism in the Nazi camps. She notes that Nazi law declared male homosexuality illegal; the pink triangle was solely for men. Female homosexuality was not mentioned in the Nazi-adopted, Bismarck-era law code criminalizing same sex relations. Lesbians confined to Ravensbrück wore a black triangle as "asocials." Saidel's section on lesbians is brief, as her sources are limited. She acknowledges that survivors' accounts of same-sex relationships are either absent or overwhelmingly negative, reflecting both lesbian invisibility and deep-seated prejudices.

In bringing to light the experiences of the women of Ravensbrück concentration camp, Saidel adds to our knowledge of Jewish survival in the genocidal conditions created by the Nazis. Her account is valuable for its documentation of the Holocaust and serves as a reminder--as we face US brutality against Iraqi prisoners, Al Qaeda beheadings, Sudanese slavery, Israeli assassinations, and Palestinian suicide bombers--of the ease with which humans create the Other and slide so swiftly into cruelty and killing. The Shoah survivors cried "Never Again!" but the human capacity for abuse, murder, and genocide appears never ending.

Rochelle G. Ruthchild

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