Today is Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It is a day to honor the lives of those who both survived and were murdered during this tragic genocide. Dina and I believe that it is vital to provide a space where the experiences of women in the Holocaust can be honored because, as in all cases of intersectional discrimination, women were put into a position that was different and, some might say, even more grotesque and terrifying than that of male victims.
In my Gender Studies class, we examined Harriet Jacobs’ quote, “Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women.” This seemingly innocent saying can truly bring about a heated discussion because slavery is one of the worst acts of cruelty and many believe that what is slavery is slavery; what is genocide is genocide and to break it apart will take away the unity of the victims and present a hierarchy of struggle. This is valid, but there is something to say for the varied experiences of women and how they innately, structurally, and socially differ from those of men. I remember being in middle school and utterly obsessed with reading YA Holocaust novels about young women (The Devil’s Arithmetic, Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, you name it), experiences that could just not be translated into a male lexicon. Once sexism is compounded with a genocide on the basis of anti-Semitism and general xenophobia, the oppressors are able to use women as tools of war in ways that a patriarchy does not deem possible for men.
The only attribute of Jews in the Holocaust that could keep them alive was their potential for physical labor. Seen as mules, if they could not work, they were murdered on the spot. This made women incredibly vulnerable because if they were pregnant or recently had children (keep in mind, birth control wasn’t readily available in Nazi Germany so this was a large population of the women brought to the camps), they were deemed incapable of work and sent off to be killed. Not to mention that many of the women “capable of work” were sent to a separate women’s camp at Bergen-Belsen, where they suffered extreme brutalities.
What distinguished women from men most in the Holocaust was their role of motherhood. “Women and children first” does not apply in the case of genocide in case you add “to kill.” At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I was moved most by the children’s memorial, which was also a de facto memorial of the mothers who lost those they birthed and the mothers who died simply for parenting. In my thoroughly-filled stream-of-consciousness Israel journal, I wrote of the memorial,
The most moving moment of the place (Yad Vashem is not just a museum; it is a complex series of multimedia memorials) was the children’s memorial. Hundreds of candles were lit in one room, each commemorating a child murdered as the names of these children, along with their ages (many five years old) rang out. Who were these beings, unfinished souls without bodies, a half-painted canvas a divine artist left unfinished? Did they play hand games in multicolored playgrounds until the giant jungle gym was replaced with walls that little hands clutched in a useless, innocent effort to escape the fatal gas? Did they hang on to their mother’s every word, to the nutrients in her breast until euphemisms were muted by terror and the 200 calories she consumed a day prevented the milk from giving her child any more than parched skin and small, brittle bones?
Some might say it is impossible to separate discrimination, but to reveal the lives of women in the Holocaust does not separate discrimination; it brings to light stories that would otherwise not be told. Read more about women in the Holocaust so that you remember lives that are ignored every day. Remembrance does not only lead to action. It is action.