Jewish women arrested in a Nazi round-up in Budapest
By Olivia Gordon
Every Holocaust history is disturbing to read, but by focusing on victims’ voices which have traditionally been silenced – those of women – Dr Zoë Waxman’s new account is one of the darkest, and most shocking.
The impetus was an exchange at a lecture by a leading Holocaust historian, years ago when Waxman was a graduate student. She asked the lecturer about the female Holocaust victims who didn’t sacrifice themselves for their children, and had the response: ‘Well, most women did.’ Today, Zoë Waxman remembers, ‘I was sure that wasn’t true. Suffering doesn’t make all people behave in a heroic way. I found myself frustrated with discussions representing women in the Holocaust in a one-dimensional way – as mothers or caregivers, as unproblematic victims.’
A feminist history rocks the status quo of Second World War scholarship. ‘Even the most recent books – books that claim to deal with gender – have index entries on “women” but none on “men”,’ notes Waxman. ‘The assumption, presumably, is that the normal experience of the Holocaust was male, and women were a special category. There’s a focus on the perpetrators and also a fear that if we ask difficult questions, people might doubt the Holocaust.’ Although feminism is accepted across the discipline of history, there remains a hostile blind spot when the context is Holocaust studies, Waxman believes. ‘People think that looking at gender somehow lessens the atrocity – it’s wrongly seen as a softer topic,’ she explains. ‘And also, history is still a very male-dominated subject.’ She sighs, ‘Various colleagues have said it’s not a very sensible idea to write a feminist history because no-one’s going to be remotely interested.’
Jewish women and children wait alongside cattle trucks in Hungary
Waxman has come to the conclusion that in general, women suffered more than men in the Holocaust, largely because of their biological role as child-bearers. Pregnant Jewish women had forced abortions, and any visibly pregnant woman arriving at Auschwitz was immediately sent to death, as were women accompanying children.
There is also the little-discussed history of the rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women during the Holocaust. Although both men and women were degraded, dehumanised and desexualised by the Nazis – for example in the shaving of heads and body hair in concentration camps, and the destruction of families – Nazis acting with ‘violent, murderous sexism’ also targeted female prisoners for brutal sexual violence. And after the war, many female survivors were sexually assaulted at the hands of fellow-survivors and liberators.
Dr Waxman’s research has led to ‘furious arguments with colleagues’. After a lecture Waxman gave on the rape of Jewish women, one colleague said to her: ‘So what?’ The implication was that rape was not a particular feature of the Holocaust, so who cares? Waxman recalls: ‘I found this so enraging.’ It only spurred her on to research these hidden stories further and also, crucially, to question why they have remained hidden.
Waxman is not the first to look at the Shoah from a feminist angle. With the rise of women’s studies, from the Seventies onwards a small body of literature has developed. But Waxman’s work builds on this with a modern understanding, for example that atrocities such as the stripping of women’s clothes in the camps constituted a form of sexual violence.
In particular, she dispels the long-assumed myth of feminine martyrdom – to reveal a yet more tragic truth. Among the most terrible stories is that of Holocaust survivor Ruth Elias, a pregnant woman who fell into the hands of the sadistic Dr Mengele at Auschwitz. He allowed her to give birth but bound her breasts in an ‘experiment’ to see how long it took for her baby to die. When Dr Mengele lost interest in the experiment after six days of starving the baby and watching her turn into a barely living skeleton, he told Elias that she and her daughter were to be sent to the gas chamber. Knowing that her daughter had no chance of survival, and that all women with children were killed too, Elias saved herself. Having secretly killed her baby by injecting her with morphine, Elias told Mengele the child had died in the night; Mengele could not find the body, hidden in a pile of corpses. As she was no longer linked with a child, Elias was spared the gas chamber. Waxman writes: ‘She was only 22 years old and not yet ready to die herself.’
Archive photographs from the German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons; Zoë Waxman portrait by Fran Monks Photography; book jacket by OUP.