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Gendering the Holocaust: Women as Victims and Perpetrators

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"Women actually saw the danger signals first and wanted to flee first," declared Dr. Marion Kaplan, referring to Jewish women in Germany in the 1930s. "[Jewish ] women took their cues from different sources than men."

Speaking at a forum entitled "Gendering the Holocaust: Women as Victims and Perpetrators", Kaplan, Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY and author of Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, explained that Jewish women may have been more sensitive to what was going on in the neighborhood: their sons getting beaten up, the gentile neighbors no longer willing to talk to them, the grocers no longer welcoming them to their stores.

"Men took their cues from news, from the radio," Kaplan continued. "And [Jewish] male World War I veterans were extraordinarily patriotic." This, she explained, made it harder for men to sense the level of danger and the need to escape. In addition, men were concerned how they would support the family if forced to leave the country.

The forum, held at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ, in honor of Women's History Month, highlighted the role of women in Nazi Germany - both Jews and Gentiles. The edicts of the Nazi regime in the 1930s impacted on the role of women and the family in dramatic ways.

As Jews were forced out of jobs and professions, Kaplan said, "women were forced to stay home and do housework. Men were forced to do manual labor."

"Jewish women retrained for new careers. They were more versatile and adaptable than the men," reported Kaplan.

The oppressive political climate during the 1930s led to role reversals. "It was assumed by the Jews that women wouldn't be hurt," explained Kaplan. "Women became intermediaries between the family and society. Women interceded regarding emigration... [they] made big decisions that they normally wouldn't have made."

"[Jewish] women were forced to behave in unwomanly ways," Kaplan continued. "Men were very surprised and very grateful that women took these roles."

Dr. Claudia Koonz, Professor of History at Duke University, and author of Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, described how the Nazis carefully orchestrated a media campaign which emphasized the differences between men and women. Nazis were experts in "the technology of the self - the way in which a powerful state can use media," explained Koonz. Their propaganda taught Germans to "fear the enemy" - the enemy in this case being the Jew.

"The world in which the Nazis began their campaign was based on the morality of World War I," reported Koonz. "Sacrifice for the common good. More masculine males, and more feminine females."

The environment was ripe for such a media campaign. "In 1933 there were 4,000 daily newspapers in Germany," Koonz said. "Germany had the highest per capita radio rate..." In addition, she explained, mass transportation and the autobahn enabled the transport of masses of Germans to Nazi-supported rallies.

And Germans rallied around the Nazi ideals of "Racial purity and gender purity". Koonz presented examples of Nazi propaganda emphasizing the ideal Nazi family, with the masculine male protecting the woman at home with a babe at her breast.

Author Edith Baer, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1940, attended the forum. Recalling a gentile teacher who was forced to leave her job, she confirmed that the Nazi regime practiced what they preached. "Teachers had to leave because they were women," recalled Baer. "There was pressure by the Nazis for women to leave their jobs - to retire and raise children instead."

"The term for a woman who worked if her husband worked is Doppelverdiener, double earner," explained Baer.

Baer's two autobiographical novels, A Frost in the Night and Walk the Dark Streets focus on a young Jewish girl growing up in Germany in the 1930s. "The perversion of culture is a big part of Walk the Dark Streets," said Baer. "I wanted to show how the Nazi regime extended into all facets of German culture."

Nazi propaganda distorted gender images to portray Jews as predators. "Germany is pictured as an innocent female, about to be attacked by a hyper masculinized male - the Jew," illustrated Koonz. She explained that gross caricatures of Jews and disabled people were used by the Nazis to establish "that men, women and children can be unwanted."

"Children were told to stare at the Jews. These ideas were mainstreamed into every aspect of life." Koonz said. "Handicapped, disabled, Jewish,... go ahead and gaze at the misbegotten. Stare, and feel contempt..."

From 1933 through 1939, Kaplan reported, "The process of separation and segregation took irregular and unpredictable steps." Nazi propaganda and edicts during those six years led to "the concept of normal becoming increasingly elastic."

Kaplan described how Jewish women experienced "disassociation of former friends." Propaganda worked so well that "some [neighborhood] organizations Nazified themselves even before the government required it." And although not all Germans participated, "former friends did preempt some of the Nazi decrees."

German gentiles treated each other differently as well. "Germans began to treat each other with reserve, [however] they began to isolate Jews definitively," revealed Kaplan.

"Because of the decline of sociability in Jewish neighborhoods," reasoned Kaplan, "[Jewish] women suffered more than men."

"About 2/3 of German Jews left [Germany]. About half of them survived," Kaplan reported. The rest perished when they were trapped in countries defeated by Nazi Germany.

By the time the doors of emigration from Germany were sealed by the Nazis, more Jewish men were able to leave than women. In many cases, "men were sent out to get a footing," explained Kaplan. "The plan was to then bring women over. But women got trapped behind." In addition, she added, some women stayed because they were reluctant to leave their elderly mothers behind. Kaplan quoted a Jewish woman who wrote in 1939: "Mostly we were women who were left unto ourselves."

Thus, the Jews who were left and later murdered in Nazi Germany were predominantly women - many of whom were elderly. "The combination of age and gender was lethal," concluded Kaplan.

The forum was supported by grants from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, William Paterson University and Hoescht Marion Roussel, Inc.

•Copyright, 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman

 

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