“Did Gender Matter During the Holocaust?” by Marion Kaplan (Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History, New York University), 2018-2019 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence, April 11, 2019 (lecture summary)

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 12:00am

Professor Marion Kaplan, 2018-2019 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave the annual Shapiro Scholar public lecture on gender and the Holocaust. The lecture, entitled “Did Gender Matter During the Holocaust?,” traced the last three decades of scholarly research about Jewish women during the Holocaust. This lecture was the academic event marking the fifth anniversary of the Center’s founding.

Professor Kaplan began her lecture by addressing the development of scholarly interest in women in the Holocaust in the early 1990s. Her own interest in the topic stemmed from her personal history and her engagement in the Women’s Movement while studying at Columbia University, and was prompted by the important question: Might women have experienced the Holocaust differently, and, if so, how? Professor Kaplan noted that early pioneers in the field implied that gender did matter, but scholars still needed to do more research. The first large-scale project on the topic was the 1983 conference “Women Surviving the Holocaust,” organized by Esther Katz and Joan Miriam Ringelheim, which included both scholars and survivors, and provided valuable insights into survivors’ perceptions of the importance of gender during the Holocaust. That same year, Vera Laska published her book Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses. The 1995 groundbreaking international workshop at Hebrew University on women in the Holocaust followed these early works in the field, and set the stage for the next 20 years of study on the topic. However, Professor Kaplan added that the opposition rooted in conservative backlash against feminism accompanied these early developments in the field, but the opposition died down quickly. She pointed out that the emphasis on gender helps tell a more detailed and nuanced story of the Holocaust, arguing that the failure to address women’s stories of this era means missing half of the story about the Holocaust. Professor Kaplan said that testimonies and women’s memoirs are crucial sources for studying gender in the Holocaust. 

Professor Kaplan then turned to discussing her own contributions to the field in the 1990s, in particular her famous 1998 book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. She explained some of her major findings in the book that concerned women in the Holocaust. She said that both early Nazi persecution and victims’ survival strategies were gendered, as victims did not react solely as Jews, but also as Jewish women and men. For example, Professor Kaplan said that Jewish women tended to take early warning signs more seriously than their male counterparts; they interpreted their daily lives differently, and they often became breadwinners once their husbands lost their jobs. Gender was crucial when it comes to “fight or flight” decisions. For men, fleeing came with the peril of losing their occupation and economic success, measures by which they defined their lives. Whereas women could flee with what was central to them – their families. In addition, both Jewish women and men experienced reversals of gender roles, as women tended to be more active and expanded their traditional roles. Finally, gender made difference in the matters of life and death: while women were more willing to emigrate than men were, more women stayed trapped in the Nazi Germany, and the Nazis killed elderly Jewish women at disproportionate rates. Gender and age became a lethal combination.

Next, Professor Kaplan addressed the developments in the field since the 1990s, pointing to remaining gaps, new promising work, and avenues for future study. She noted that scholars have published many works on women’s history since the 1990s, as well as local histories on Eastern and Western Europe that include women. However, there is still a lack of research where gender is central. Still, she pointed to the new research on Eastern Europe that includes women, as well as the boom in autobiographical writings by women. In addition, new research on sexualities, bodies, and queer history have made a significant impact in the recent years, as has research on the topic of rape. She argued that it has taken many years for scholars to address rape, and that this topic is still under-researched. She countered the prevalent view that notions of racial shame limited sexual violence in Nazi Germany and explained that gang rape created bonds between Nazi soldiers, some of whom committed rape even near or on execution sites. She again stressed the importance of testimonies for this research, including both survivor and perpetrator testimonies. 

Professor Kaplan concluded her lecture by addressing some existing tensions in both the newer and historical research on women in the Holocaust. She pointed to topics that need more scholarly attention that could shed light on the role of gender in the Holocaust, including the histories of Aryan women, the interactions between non-Jewish and Jewish women, family history, history of mothering, bonding among women in camps, among others. Professor Kaplan argued for the integration of gender analysis into mainstream Holocaust history, and a fuller incorporation of women’s life stories into primary analysis. She emphasized the necessity for research analyzing how race, class, geography, and age intersected with gender in people’s experiences of the Holocaust. She urged scholars to avoid simply including women, but to conduct comparative analysis into differences, similarities, and relationships between genders across time and geographic boundaries, and she called for more investigation of same-sex couples in Nazi Germany. 

Professor Kaplan’s lecture was followed by an informative Q&A session, which included questions about women’s agency; the 1943 Rosenstrasse protest in Germany; differences in women’s and men’s testimonies; the role notions of beauty played in women’s survival; the role of gender in children’s experiences of the Holocaust; the way lesbian women navigated their sexuality during the Holocaust; and the possibilities of surfacing conversations about gender and gendered experiences in the USC Shoah Foundation testimonies. 

Summary by Badema Pitic

"Did Gender Matter during the Holocaust" - Public lecture by Marion Kaplan (Skirball Professor of Modern Jewish History, New York University), 2018-2019 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence

Professor Marion Kaplan, 2018-2019 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave the annual Shapiro Scholar public lecture on gender and the Holocaust.