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The future historian would have to dedicate a proper page to the Jewish women during this war. She will capture an important part in this Jewish history for her courage and ability to survive (Ringelblum 380).
The corpus of the Holocaust narratives has in general remained a male influenced and a male dominated one. The second half of the twentieth century saw a plethora of the Holocaust narratives, with writers like Primo Levi, Eliezer Wiesel (Elie Wiesel), Edward Lewis Wallant and Benjamin Jacobs (among many others), writing extensively about their experiences of the various concentration camps and their survival strategies in their memoirs.
Whether it is the recurring figure of the muselmann or the rules of the concentration camps such as the law of the larder , the discussion and description pivots around the male gender. For instance, Primo Levi in his memoir, If This is a Man; Survival In Auschwitz describes muselmann as “the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer (103).
Likewise, in Eliezer Wiesel’s narrative Night, there is hardly any reference to the sufferings of women. When he is being deported to the concentration camp in a cattle car, he mentions a fellow passenger, Mrs Sch?chter, a lady in her fifties, who was with her ten year old son.
The description of the lady is quite disparaging as Wiesel states, “Mrs. Sch?chter had lost her mind. On the first day of the journey, she had already begun to moan. She kept asking why she had been separated from her family. Later, her sobs and screams became hysterical (73).” Bronek Jakubowicz (later Benjamin Jacobs), in his memoir The Dentist of Auschwitz: A Memoir follows a similar pattern. In his memoir the only mention about women is when he talks about his own family and Zosia Zasina, whom he befriended during his stay at the concentration camp. The rest of the memoir entirely concerns his experiences, sufferings and emotions. Even during describing the deportation scene, he mentions just himself, his father and other men. He remarks, “So there we were. 167 Jewish men, sixteen to sixty years old, one, two, and in some cases even three from one family, of varied skills, lifestyles, and backgrounds (02).” Either by bringing him letters from his family or sending him food packages, Zosia plays a significant part in Benjamin’s survival but she is neither acknowledged nor explicitly given a prominent space in the narrative. The Pawnbroker, written by Edward Lewis Wallant in third person, narrates the story of Sol Nazerman, the owner of a pawnshop who continues to have flashes of nightmares (now known as Post traumatic stress disorder) of his harrowing experiences. His wife Ruth is mentioned in one of his dream flashes (always set in italics) where he is forced to witnesses her sexual assault by the SS. The author mentions two more women, Marilyn Birchfield and Mabel Wheatly, however both the characters do not develop during the course of the novel. When Marilyn expresses her desire to befriend him, he terms her frank behaviour as “aggressive confidence (97),”calls her a “crazy woman (230),” and refuses to have any kind of relationship with her. He further tells her that, “People like you have not let me have peace Miss Birchfield (315).” When Mabel wants to earn money by “selling her body (392),” he gives her money and dismisses her by saying, “You have nothing worth buying (395).”
This peripheral status given to women, either deliberate or unintentional exists not only in the first generation memoirs written by men but also in the second generation memoirs like Maus I; My Father Bleeds History and Maus II; And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman. It is a graphic Holocaust memoir where the author interviews his father, Vladek about his survival in the concentration camp. Throughout both the volumes, the women are either excluded from the main narrative or given a marginal status. Instead of having a story of their own, they exist only in the parts where the male protagonist wants them to exist. In the last few pages of Maus I when the author learns about his mother, Anja’s death, he expresses his desire to some of the notebooks of his mother. His father tells him that he destroyed all the things that reminded him of Anja. He further tells his son, “After Anja died I had to make an order with everything…. these papers had too many memories. So I burned them (159).” Even in the second volume, while narrating his story of survival Vladek never once mentions how Anja was surviving or what she was going through in the concentration camps. Not only Anja, but also Lucia, Vladek’s girlfriend before his marriage and Mala, his second wife are depicted as subservient figures, about whom Vladek does not seem to care much.
These works long with many others like depicting male viewpoint, their traumatic experiences and memories were considered as the touchstones of Holocaust narratives. Despite Ringelblum’s call for the recognition of women, the scholarship around Holocaust Literature did not undergo any significant change till the later decades of the twentieth century.
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