Blogging My Summer Classes: Literature of the Holocaust

I have just finished reading the first set of essays written by my students in ENG 261, Literature of the Holocaust. The prompt asked them to consider whether or not they think there is an obligation to remember the Holocaust, with an emphasis on the word obligation, and to connect what they think to the characters in the story “Missing Pieces,” by Stanislaw Benski, which I found in the anthology Here I Am: Contemporary Jewish Stories from Around the World. It’s a fascinating story about a Polish man, Gabriel Lewin, who survived the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews because he happened to be vacationing at his brother’s in America when the war broke out. The problem is that no one in Poland–he returned when the war was over–believes him, and this embarrasses him. Indeed, the feels so much the outsider that he goes out of his way to marry a woman who also spent the war years elsewhere, and then goes to the extreme of creating an alternative identity for himself so that he can pose as a “real” survivor. His wife, Rose, agrees to create an alternative identity for herself as well, and the story goes on to explore the profound implications of this kind of “memorializing,” contrasting Gabriel and his wife with Gabriel’s brother who, from his safe perch in the United States, tells Gabriel that it’s best not to dig up memories of the war years, and a woman named Janeczka, who was orphaned during the war and spends a great deal of time trying to reconstruct a picture of her childhood from the fragments of memories that she does have.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story to me is that Gabriel and Rose’s responses to the false memories they are creating are gendered in somewhat stereotypical ways. For Gabriel, the point of creating a false history for himself is to cement his standing in the community; he is concerned not with the emotional content or consequences of the stories he constructs, but with how he can use them to establish his bona fides, so to speak. Rose, on the other hand, actually begins to feel the “memories” she is creating for herself, so much so, in fact, that she finds it hard to sleep at night when she realizes that, given the kind of person she is, she probably would not have survived the life she is creating for herself. This dichotomy, between the emotional woman and the status-conscious man is not really explored in the story, but it made an interesting segue into the next three stories I had my students read: “The Block of Death” and “Esther’s First Born,” from the memoir Auschwitz: True Tales From a Grotesque Land by Sara Nomberg-Przytyk and “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” by Chaim Grade. (The text I am using, the includes these three stories is Truth and Lamentation: Stories and Poems on the Holocaust.)

The first two stories, the ones by Nomberg-Przytyk, deal with women’s experience in the camps, specifically, childbirth and sexual exploitation by men. In “Esther’s First Born,” a pregnant woman insists on giving birth in the hospital, despite the fact that it will mean her certain death, since Joseph Mengele will not allow any newly born Jewish children, or their mothers, to live. One of the most disturbing discussion we had in class was about the significance of his logic:

Orli had told me once how Mengele explained to her why he killed Jewish women together with their children. “When a Jewish child is born, or when a woman comes to the camp with a child already,” he explained, “I don’t know what to do with the child. I can’t set the child free because there are no longer any Jews living in freedom. I can’t let the child stay in the camp because there are no facilities in the camp that would enable the child to develop normally. It would not be humanitarian to send a child to the ovens without permitting the mother to be there to witness the child’s death. That is why I send the mother and the child to the gas ovens together. (87)

In response to this most decidedly inhuman logic, when a woman gave birth–and this had to happen in secret and, if you can imagine, in complete silence–the doctor would kill the baby as soon as it was born, telling the mother that it had been born dead. In this way, at least the mother would have a chance of surviving. The story presents Esther’s decision, to have the baby in the open, even–and, actually, especially, after she learns about what I have just described, is presented in the story as its own act of resistance, despite the fact that she ends up being sent to the ovens with her baby.

My students, most of whom are women, found this story very painful to read and talk about. At first, they thought the act of killing the babies was a kind of butchery no different from what the Nazis were doing, and they applauded Esther’s decision as the only possible one. Then, they began to see that things were not quite so easy, that there might be a sense in which making sure that at least some women might survive to bear witness to what had happened in the camps could be seen, in the context of Auschwitz, as more important than the sanctity and value of a newborn child’s life. They were much less forgiving, however, of Cyla in “The Death Block.”

Brought to Auschwitz when she was fifteen, Cyla was young and beautiful and the man who was in charge of roll call at Auschwitz immediately pulled her out of the ranks of new inmates and “turned her.” As the story describes Cyla’s transformation, it is clear that Taub treated her well, kept her fed, well-dressed, and almost certainly kept her for sex as well. He makes her a blokowa, a female prisoner in charge of a cell block, specifically block 25, where women were housed just before they were sent to the ovens. The story details how horribly Cyla treated these women and when the narrator eventually works up the courage to ask her why, Cyla explains:

You probably know that I put my own mother in the car that took her to the gas. You should understand that there remains for me nothing so terrible that I could not do it. The world is a terrible place. This is how I take my revenge on it. (85)

My students found it almost impossible, at first, to have any compassion for Cyla at all. They, almost to a person, thought she was a monster. Only slowly did they begin to see the possibility of distinguishing between holding her responsible for what she did and having compassion because of the way in which she was, at such a young age, “turned.” It was as if the horror of what she did completely overshadowed for my students the fact that she had been 15 years old when Taub, the officer, took her; they only began to see just how significant that information was when I asked them why they would not extend to the 15-year-old Cyla who had just arrived in the camp the same empathy they would extend to a 15-year-old high school girl who’d been sexually exploited by a teacher. The situations, obviously, are worlds apart in degree, but the underlying exploitation is the same.

My students and I talked about how these decidedly female experiences of Nazi oppression were located in the body in a way that could not really be abstracted. A woman is pregnant or she is not; the fetus growing inside her, the child that is born when she gives birth, is physically, materially, real. It is not, simply, an idea. In the same way, a woman who is coerced into having sex with a man–and, given her circumstances, Cyla was nothing if not coerced–takes his body into hers, not as an idea, but as a thing. In contrast, what is at issue in the fourth story we read, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” is  an idea, the question of Jewish identity, specifically how to understand that identity, how to live it with integrity, as either a Holocaust survivor or as a Jew who has to come to terms with the fact of the Holocaust, even though he or she did not actually live through it. The crisis of faith at the heart of this question–how could a righteous god allow such a thing to happen to his chosen people?–is presented in the story as primarily a male one, not because women did not have crises of faith, but because the world in which the question is asked is the world of the yeshiva, and of art and philosophy, which at the time–we’re talking about the years immediately following the war–were primarily male pursuits.

The story is too long and too complex to summarize as I have done the previous two, but one (admittedly reductive) way of understanding the struggle between Chaim Vilner, the story’s narrator, and Hersh Rasseyner, is as the struggle between the Jew who believes that Jewish identity needs to be walled off from the secular (read: Christian) world in order to maintain its integrity, in order to ward off any future holocausts, and the Jew who believes that Jews need to be able live in that world in order to do the same. What I found fascinating, and worth much more thought–though we didn’t get a chance to take this on in class discussion–is how the difference between the Jewish men and women in these stories mirrors the difference between Gabriel and Rose in “Missing Pieces.” The men are concerned with status, while the women are concerned with emotion; and yet, at the same time, this comparison is not entirely fair. Both Chaim and Hersh are also arguing about the body, about emotion, about what it means on a material level to be a Jew, because what they are arguing about is what it means to claim a Jewish physical presence in the world, what it means to live through experiences like Esther’s and Cyla’s, along with the experiences of all the Jewish men who were tortured, exploited (some, I am sure, sexually) and killed, as a Jew.

There is a great deal more to be said about this, but that’s for another time.

Cross posted on Because It’s All Connected.

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One Response to Blogging My Summer Classes: Literature of the Holocaust

  1. 1
    Eva says:

    Thanks for posting this. Thank you for offering it and for engaging in it with your students.

    I’ve been researching my family tree for the past year or so and just got introduced, via e-mail, to a cousin who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. I just found out her father had siblings. My cousin’s father was the only survivor in his immediate family. His parents, brother and sister all perished at Majdanek Concentration Camp, outside of Lublin, Poland. I knew my cousin’s father survived the war, but I am still taking in his survival versus the four closest relatives in his life who did not. The Holocaust is concrete to me in a way, now, that it wasn’t previous to this discovery. I mean, I knew I had relatives who didn’t survive the war. But now I know their names, at least some of their names. And I am aware of the ghost limb where this branch of the family should be – the spouses and children of the brother and sister who were killed. The wife of my cousin’s grandfather, her siblings, her parents, their siblings, and so on. All of my cousin’s grandfather’s siblings emigrated to the U.S. in 1921. My grandfather is the youngest of them. My cousin’s grandfather was married, had at least one child by then, and stayed in Poland, where my great grandmother’s family business, a restaurant and tavern, were well established. My great grandmother brought her four teenage children with her to the U.S., but her eldest stayed behind. He raised his family and ran the family business. Until he didn’t.

    Again, thanks for engaging your students in this subject.