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Archive for the ‘Holocaust’ Category

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.

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The JWA has a great idea. It’s a revolutionary idea. It’s bad-ass. It is an idea with the potential to change the way we are educated, to change Hebrew School classrooms, to change services, to change our past. So what is this idea? It is to literally create a map of all the monuments, exhibits, and features of our country that delve into the histories of Jewish women. Ya know, those histories that rabbis tend to leave out of Devar Torahs and that I have to go through numerous searches to look for when it takes me 2 seconds to find that of Jewish men.

On this blog, Dina and I try to “write women into history [and living history]” but what does that even mean?

Leah from JWA says it so eloquently,

‘Writing women into history’ implies that history is something written–something that exists on paper, in books, or on the internet. This is partially true, but history does not reside only on the page, in the intellectual abstract or literal memory. History also has a physical presence. It is connected to material places and tangible spaces. The spot on which a historical event occurred becomes meaningful, and the physical act of standing on that spot (a Civil War battlefield, the entrance to Auschwitz) can often evoke a deep, emotional experience of history. This is why we make pilgrimages, take guided walking tours, and consider field trips a valuable part of learning.

I know I felt this when I went to Yad Vashem, to the Children’s Memorial. I thought not only of the children, but of the mothers, the mothers who were told to stop breastfeeding, who had their children taken away from them, who hid their pregnancies. The memorial seeks to evoke this sympathy, this sense of identifying with Jewish history. What are these places right here in the U.S.? Even more important, where are these places in areas where there are smaller Jewish communities? Writing women into history means to make this sense of empowerment and understanding accessible to all who seek it. It is only with accessibility that women can claim their Judaism.

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Only two days after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, only two days after President Obama spoke of Auschwitz before the SOTU, the South strikes again. With what? This time, a Virginia school system has banned the latest version of The Diary of Anne Frank – a young girl’s account of Nazi Germany up to her death – from being taught. And their reasoning just really tops this all of: homosexuality and sexually explicit content.

According to WaPo:

The diary documents the daily life of a Jewish girl in Amsterdam during World War II. Frank started writing on her 13th birthday, shortly before her family went into hiding in an annex of an office building. The version of the diary in question includes passages previously excluded from the widely read original edition, first published in Dutch in 1947. That book was arranged by her father, the only survivor in her immediate family. Some of the extra passages detail her emerging sexual desires; others include unflattering descriptions of her mother and other people living together.

Anne Frank was a young girl with a tragic life, a life that she documented. I do not know if Anne Frank intended to write for a worldwide audience. I do not know if she even wanted her writing shared. I also do not know if Anne Frank thought that she, along with 11 million others, would die before their time. At least the life of Anne Frank lived on through her written words.

Emerging sexual desires are actually normal for a teenage girl to experience. This was perhaps the one normalcy Anne Frank experienced during her time in hiding. And treating them as inappropriate furthers a taboo on discussing sex, especially in the schools, where students are beginning to have sex or have unanswered questions concerning it. As for “homosexual content,” how dare a school ban a book on that premise? How dare a school make sure that the only books students read are heteronormative? How dare a school do such a thing when there are bound to be homosexual students around who are wondering why a book which only hints at sexuality would be regarded as taboo? This is blatant homophobia and license for it to continue within a legislated school system.

This young girl has changed the hearts and thoughts of millions who have read her, many of whom have been assigned her diary as school assignments. The Diary of Anne Frank is tragic and accessible and it is not meant to be cut short because her life was cut short enough.

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