Preface to the Study of the Women and the Holocaust

By Joan Ringelheim
Washington, D.C.
(Contemporary Jewry v. 17, 1996)
(Dept. of Sociology, Connecticut College, New London)
Permission granted by the Author and the Editors.

Every Jew, regardless of gender, was equally a victim in the Holocaust.

Therefore, perhaps, it is not surprising that most perspectives on the Holocaust have been gender neutral. However, a careful study of National Socialism as theory and practice does not reveal any more gender neutrality than racial neutrality.

The Nazi “Final Solution” against the Jewish population was total genocide. Every women, man and child defined as “Jew” was to die or be killed. Nothing, not geography, nationality, class, profession, economic status, or gender was to allow for very long.

If any policy could be considered a “victim equalizer”, it is genocide. Every Jew was equally a victim in the genocide of the Holocaust. Consequently, it is not surprising that most perspectives on the Holocaust have been gender neutral or seemed to erase gender as a category of analysis. Likewise, it is no wonder that any emphasis on gender seems irrelevant and/or even irreverent.

Then again, one might be incredulous that gender has not been of greater interest. There is something unusual in the intention to kill every woman and child along with every male from a targeted community. The Nazi so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” was one of the first times in history the the female population wasn’t treated primarily as “spoils”. It was one of the rare historical moments when women and children were consciously and explicitly sentenced to death in at least equal measure with men. Jewish women were connected to the “race struggle” of National Socialism because they carried the next generation of Jews. Thus they became specific targets as Jewish Women. Hence, Jewish children could not be allowed to live either.

A more mundane view would not need such a litany because it would be clear the together with age, sex and and gender are universal categories or classifications in all cultures. Being in one or another category (whether age, sex, gender, ethnicity or class) always has consequences.

During the Holocaust, Jewish women were often more the fifty percent of the Jewish population the Nazis deported or murdered. We have to acknowledge that Jewish men did not stand for Jewish women when it came to the killing operations. Jewish women stood in their own lines and were killed as Jewish women. Moreover, Jewish men cannot stand in for Jewish women as we try to understand everyday life with its terror, fear, love, escape, hope, humour, work, starvation, beatings, rape, abortion, resistance, maintenance and killing operations. Jewish women and men experienced unrelieved suffering during the Holocaust.

However, Jewish women carried the extra burdens of sexual victimization, pregnancy, childbirth, rape, abortion, the killing of newborns, and often the separation from children. Jewish women’s lives were endangered as Jewish women, as mothers, and as caretakers of children.

The Holocaust produced a set of experiences, responses and memories for Jewish women that do not always parallel those of Jewish men. If in the gas chambers or before the firing squads all Jews seemed alike to the Nazis, the path to this end was not always the same. The end, annihilation or death, does not describe or explain the process.

In spite of what seems an obvious set of investigations, it has clearly been too difficult for most scholars and writers to contemplate Holocaust, let alone the extent to which gender counted in the exploitation and murder of Jews. In addition, the study of what happened to the Jews or response of Jews during the Holocaust does not cover all that is important to understand when it comes to studying gender and genocide or women and the Holocaust. There are a number of victim groups that include women: Roma Sinti (Gypsies), POWs, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, lesbians, etc. Of course, “Gypsies” unlike these other groups, were subject to a policy of genocide that parallels that against the Jews.

Further , there are women who were perpetrators or collaborators. For example, SS women guards in the camps, nurses and other functionaries in the euthanasia institutions, civil servants, clerks and secretaries working for the mobile killing units and the like.

A careful study of National Socialism as theory and practice does not reveal any more gender neutrality than racial neutrality. Theories and policies about gender are always embedded within racial theories. The Nazi’s eugenics program had particular views about men and women: men and women among the so-called “Aryans” and among the so-called “non-Aryans.

The prominent analysts of the Holocaust may have erased or ignored gender, but the Holocaust did not.

Dr. Joan Ringelheim is presently the Director, Department of Oral History, Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Dr. Joan Ringelheim was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Bridgeport and Fairfield Connecticut. She attended Oberlin Conservatory and College before tranferring to Boston University where she majored in history.

She received her Ph.D. in philosophy, in 1968, at Boston University. She taught philosophy for some 13 years. During those years she developed and taught courses on prejudice & oppression, guilt & shame, freedom & responsibility, political philosophy, philosophy of history and feminist theory. Eventually, two subjects became the major foci of her teaching and research. the Holocaust and feminist theory. Together they opened up a new area of investigation: Women and the Holocaust.

Dr. Ringelheim’s publications include: in the Simon Wiesenthal Annual, Vol. I, 1984 entitled: “The Unethical and the Unspeakable: Women and the Holocaust”. Another article was published in 1985 in the feminist journal, SIGNS, “Women and the Holocaust—A Reconsideration of Research”. Among many outstanding accomplishments she also produced the audio theatre program “Voices From Auschwitz” on the third floor of the permanent exhibit.

When the museum opened in 1993 Joan Ringelheim was hired as the Director of the Oral History Departement of the Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.