Despite so often being the victims, one genre of literature where women are often overlooked is in Holocaust memoirs.
One testimony countering this is the memoir Still Alive by Ruth Klüger, first published in German as Weiter Leben. A Jew born in Vienna in 1931, the book focuses first on Klüger’s life in Austria after its annexation and her experiences of anti-Semitism before going on to describe her deportation to numerous concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Groβ-Rosen. This is interjected with reflections on how her life in the 1930s and 40s affected, and at the time of writing continued to affect, her everyday life decades after the camps were liberated. One overarching theme spanning across her testimony is how her experience was influenced by the fact she is a woman, as shown from the extended title of the memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (though, interestingly, the concept of being female is omitted from the German title).
Even in her younger years, Klüger reflects on Judaism’s perception of gender roles. As a child, she was allowed to read classics, and yet only boys were allowed to read the Bible, say the Kaddish (a hymn of praises to God) and pose the four Passover questions – “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
Upon entering the camps, something that Klüger often indicates is a sense of solidarity and sisterhood between women, even including her mother, with whom Klüger had a very turbulent relationship, essentially adopted a lone and defenceless young girl. This includes Klüger herself being saved by an unknown woman in Auschwitz who lies about Klüger’s age. Even among the Nazis, Klüger presents a degree of shared womanhood between both the victims and perpetrators, with the female members of the SS being portrayed as less violent than their male counterparts, and even maternal.
This, however, didn’t prevent the mass slaughter of women within the camps. Women were seen as the cheapest workforce, and were therefore regarded are replaceable, being left to live in squalor as their welfare did not matter. Klüger describes how they were so starved, in fact, that their menstruation in any cases stopped altogether – a haunting image of one of the most vulnerable and personal aspects of womanhood being taken away from them by the Nazi regime. On arrival in Auschwitz, the most intimate areas of their bodies were searched for valuables. Their privacy was eroded almost instantaneously.
Klüger goes on to reflect the role that gender plays in not just life in the camps but also in the overall memory of the Holocaust. “Wars belong to men”, she argues, reflecting on perhaps how soldiers are predominantly male, or the stereotype of men as saviours who protect their family amid such crises. This, however, was not the case in Klüger’s own family; her father fled Austria without his family before the war, and her and her mother were left to fend for themselves. During the Holocaust desperation was so rife that social customs quickly changed, and women in camps often banded together, often without men who were in different blocks. Klüger further comments on how men only read books written by other men, and suggests that men simply aren’t interested in female Holocaust testimonies because the experiences of the two were so different.
What differentiates Klüger’s from other Holocaust memoirs is her reflects on how gender shaped her experience. It’s a challenging read, but it teaches us important lessons.
Words by Grace Dean