Of all the debates concerning the holocaust, the most inflammatory question is whether gender mattered. Some writers like Roth have argued that the history of the holocaust is not complete without the inclusion of women as victims, perpetrators, bystanders and resisters. The holocaust was an intended total destruction of the Jewish people and the actual murder of more than six million Jews. Even though million other people were also destroyed in the holocaust web, the primary targets were the Jews.
With regard to the Jews, the Nazis were equal opportunity killers. Their intentionality, not to mention all their actions, indicated that all Jews -whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor-ought to disappear. Jews were destroyed because they were Jews during the final solution. No bottom line was more fundamental, undeniable or deadly during the holocaust as this particular aspect of Jews being destroyed for being Jews. This fact account for the gender neutrality that the majority of scholars have typically displayed.
Even though numerous holocaust memoirs authored by women have existed for a considerable time, particular questions about women or gender differences in any respect did not get much attention until the final decade of the twentieth century. Victims and witnesses were often mentioned but no special consideration was made concerning the gender. The gender neutrality was not quite what it seemed to be as most of the holocaust scholarship was being written by men which in fact led to a gendered perspective.
The antisemitism sentiment among the Nazis implied that race, particularly the purity of German blood and culture, was the most important aspect. Nothing could be contained which could soil the racial strength on which the Third Reich depended. The Jewish life posed this threat to an extent that far much surpassed any other according to Nazi theory. In other words, Germans could not contain the Jews. The logic of racism ultimately denotes genocide as the history of the Nazi Germany emphatically shows.
If one takes seriously the idea that a particular race endangers the wellbeing of another, the only way of removing this threat is by completely doing away with it and everything associated with it. The Nazi’s ideology of racism ultimately meant that the existence of Jewish families and particularly the Jewish women who brought them up, composed a deadly barrier to the racial purity and cultural superiority “deserved” by the Germans. Jewish women constituted that threat since they could bear children.
With this regard, it can rightfully be claimed that women victims were being seen as posing much threat to the Germans as they had the capacity to bring forth another generation. It was this capacity that had to be destroyed as the aim of the Nazis was to completely destroy the Jews. The Nazis had to see the victims in their male and female particularity precisely because they targeted the Jews and others in racial terms. They had to override any protection that cultural convention offered Jewish women and girls in order to destroy the Jews in general.
The potential mothers who would have borne the succeeding Jewish generation were also decimated. The head of SS understood this point, the women and children could not be allowed to grow into avengers and thus threaten the sons and grandsons of Germans. It therefore took the targeting of Jewish women as women so as to implement that particular decision. An emphasis on what women went through, beyond reducing the holocaust to an instance of sexism, reveals what would otherwise remain hidden; a complete picture of the unprecedented and unrelenting murder which was the final solution.
The creators of the final solution designed it for the purpose of annihilating the Jews. However, the road to annihilation was characterized by events that specifically affected women as women and men as men. The holocaust engendered a particular fate for Jewish women just as it did for men. However, the childbearing capacity of women had a particular effect on their effort to face their ordeal, an effect that they could not share with the male inmates.
If this particular impact existed, then one is bound to wonder how the ultimate sense of holocaust loss could blot out that singularity and replace it with an engendered unity of experience. The distinction between men and women thus made an important difference. The gendered experience of the holocaust cannot be denied. Like their male counterparts, however, women were subjected to various conditions during the holocaust which differed according to geographical location, the decrees, legislation and actions of the Nazis and the progression of the war.
Women were subjected to humiliating and restrictive legislation in various places and time, forced to take up new roles as conditions changed or as families separate and suffered genocidal conditions which included incarceration in ghettos and concentration camps. Soldiers or members of mobile killing units also massacred them during the initial period of invasion. Beyond this, women were also sent away to forced labor. The experiences of women during the holocaust also encompassed attempts to avoid German genocidal plans by going into hiding. This was either through living in a secret hiding space or posing as a non-Jew.
They also took part in resistance movements such as serving partisan fighters or smuggling munitions. Even though most of these experiences were shared by men, there were also some experiences that were unique to women. This included victimization associated with sexuality, their role as mothers and societal expectations of women. Even among the women, there was differential treatment of women with the German women being encouraged to stay at home and produce children while those were considered to be racially undesirable by the Nazis were denied the right to reproduce.
This was done through legislation, forced sterilization and forced abortion. This population of individuals seen as racially inferior, including the Jews and Roma women, were barred from reproducing through the murder of children and the potential mothers. A considerable amount of time and energy were invested by the Nazi to find the most effective ways to sterilize these women. However, the final solution to this problem was death. In situation where the woman was healthy and neither too old not too young, she could be used before being killed.
Some women were selected for slave labor while others were used as objects for the scientific experiments that were meant to further Nazi programs of racial hygiene and purity. There are different stages through which Nazi policy against Jewish women progressed throughout the war. With the rise of Nazi to power, the lives and freedoms of Jewish women became curtailed through legislations. The ability of families to stick together was not included when women victims were being sent to concentration camps during the holocaust.
Women made up the population of other victim groups during the holocaust as well. Women were also among the neighbors who watched as Jews were rounded up and deported all over Europe. They also contributed in rescuing the Jews as well. With this regard. Women were present in virtually every intersection and intricacy of the holocaust web. Some victims who were also caught up in the holocaust web were non-Jewish German women. However, German women in particular had other roles to play in the final solution as well. Men had an upper hand in the final solution, and this is true for every genocide.
In the case of Nazi Germany, some women held positions of responsibility in the concentration camps and killing centers. Others on the other hand were officials in the Nazi Party. Others still aided and abetted the destruction process as medical personnel, secretaries, civil servants and members of other sectors of the home front’s manpower depleted workforce. There were German women who were tried and convicted by post war tribunals that judged war crimes and crimes against humanity. German women were however not the only perpetrators of the holocaust. Generally, their role was different.
They supported the German economy through their work, were sympathetic mothers, sisters and daughters, reassuring wives, friends and lovers of the German men who were in most cases directly implicated in the disaster. One can hardly say that German women were defenders of Jews against the Nazis, even though there are significant exceptions. The majority of German women stood between being perpetrator and bystander depending on the degree of their knowledge about the destruction of the Jews. This awareness could have been greater or small depending on individual circumstances.
German women might be said to be partners as they were in a relationship with the German men who launched and carried out the holocaust in many ways. The experience of women in the camps was varied. However, there is one particular theme which reverberates through most testimonies. This is the dehumanization of the camps and the stripping of feminine markers from women. For the majority of women, this started upon arrival with the stripping of their clothing’s and hair, in most cases in the watch of male guards and prisoners. Not all women were interned during the war.
Some of the women spent their time in hiding. Women faced dangerous and dreadful times during the holocaust. As much as many experiences were shared by both women and men, each gender encountered unique emotions and experiences. For instance, an extraordinary caring was demonstrated among women for each other owing to “… preoccupation with hunger and obtaining food, the importance of social bonding, heightened fear of physical vulnerability and sex specific humiliation, and reliance on prewar homemaking skills as coping strategies” .
Such bonding was however not exclusive to women even though it is difficult to find consistent evidence of men caring about each other to the degree those women did. Women were victims of extreme violence. There shame and humiliation while standing naked, being shaved, enduring body searches and being terrorized by the rumors of rape were horrendous. The passion to inform the public about the role of women during the holocaust motivated many women, among them, Vera Laska. Laska was a survivor of the holocaust who recovered the unknown and unheard voices of Jewish women during the holocaust.
In one account of the experience of Jewish women during the holocaust, she writes that married women were singled out and targeted as mediators of Nazi policies so as to enforce the departure of all Jews from Germany. These women were informed that their husbands could not be allowed to leave the camps unless they produced emigration papers. The effort of these women saw the mass exodus of married couples from Germany. An examination of the victim’s experiences during the holocaust should not be based on gender as this has the capacity of creating myths of comparative endurance founded on misleading situational accidents.
Such aspects like women solidarity which have often been employed by historians to indicate distinctive female coping methods might have been a consequence of conditions imposed upon them by the Nazis. With this regard, the observation that women stayed together more often than men can be said to be the result of their work situation and not because of typical gender practices. Portraying the holocaust in gendered perspective may also allow a feminist agenda to override the brutal treatment and suffering of the Jews.
The holocaust therefore exudes universal suffering and looking at it in any other angle would be an injustice to the victims. Attempting to prove that there was a unique female experience paints a homogenized picture of their experiences and identities which is very unrepresentative. In order to capture the diversity within the female experience, more individual examination needs to be performed. The desperate conditions that the victims went through are often overlooked by the love and courage tales that some writers often emphasize on.
However, the inclusion of women in the history of holocaust is important in complete comprehension of the entirety of the event. Representing all women is however problematic as it is likely to overshadow and detract individual experience. The experience of women was thus different based on their position in the camp. Regardless of the findings, it must not be forgotten that while there may have bee gendered experience in the holocaust, all victims suffered in some way, form and shape and ignoring this fact is a serious injustice. Bibliography
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