Holocaust Survivors

In the June, 1998 issue of Commentary magazine (vol. 105, no. 6), Gabriel Schoenfeld's article, “Auschwitz and the Professors,” (pgs. 42 - 46) describes the various ways in which “Holocaust scholars” mine the history of the Holocaust for their own personal ends. Some do it merely for career advancement, others have ideological agendas. Holocaust survivors, whose eye-witness accounts inconveniently contradict the narratives constructed by “Holocaust professionals”, are often an obstacle to the various theories and interpretations propounded in seminars and conferences. Being the resourceful and clever folk that they are, the Holocaust pros have developed a method for dealing with the stubborn reports of the victims themselves: because these victims are aging (the youngest Holocaust survivors are now nearly sixty, but most of them are over seventy), they are easy to bully and intimidate, until they are willing to give “first-hand reports” according to the ideologies of the “scholars” who interview them. Schoenfeld gives us an example:

A 1983 conference at Stern College on “Women Surviving the Holocaust” illustrates the lengths to which feminist scholars will go in pursuit of their propagandistic aims. The conference consisted in part of a series of “workshops” in which “facilitators” - primarily Holocaust professionals - posed questions to “resource persons” - primarily Holocaust survivors - about life in the camps. Depending on where the questions were leading, they could be regarded as either neutral or tendentious. Had, for example, the “resource person” been raped by guards? Had she menstruated or experienced menopause? Had she engaged in lesbian relationships? Did women, in general, have a harder time than men?

But where the questions were leading soon became evident. The purpose of this exercise, as it was put frankly at the Stern College conference, was “to enable survivors to respond to their experiences with increasing feminist consciousness.” And so, when one “resource person” - a survivor of Maidanek - made the mistake of declaring that the women who perished in the camps would not have “enjoy[ed] us going over their sexual record,” and then referred to lesbianism as an “aberration,” she was roundly criticized by a “facilitator” and induced to apologize.

This is hardly the only instance of feminist re-education recorded in the literature. As Weitzman and Ofer inform us, many Holocaust survivors persist in believing “that being a woman was only rarely meaningful in their war experience.” But that is presumably before they have been counseled, nudged, prodded, and rebuked; then, it appears, these same survivors begin to be pleasantly surprised “by the new insights they [have] gained” about the importance of “gender” in the concentration camps.

What can be the object of such exercises, if not to sever Jewish women, in their own minds, from their families as well as from the larger Jewish community? So far as Myrna Goldenberg is concerned, the “values” that were miraculously to be found in the camps - “connectedness, nurturance, and caregiving” - are not human values, not Jewish values, but “feminist” ones, presumably as unknown to Jewish men in Hitler's Europe as to men throughout history. Even the fragmentary nature of the stories women survivors have told about the Holocaust can be forced into a point for the cause, suggesting (to R. Ruth Linden) an exemplary eschewal of “male” forms of history-writing in favor of “nonobjectivist, anti-positivist, feminist versions of objectivity.”

In the pages of Weitzman and Ofer's anthology, only the Israeli journalist Ruth Bondy, a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen, objects to these relentlessly divisive methods. “Zyklon B did not differentiate between men and women,” Bondy writes, in a memoir that she contributed to this volume “with grave reservations”; “the same death swept them all away.” The spare, direct language of her narrative of Theresienstadt and Birkenau stands as an implicit riposte to those who, while paying lip-service to the inescapable truth that simply to be Jewish was to be marked for death, proceed systematically to obscure that truth by painting the Nazis less as anti-Semites than as “sexists,” and who ludicrously characterize some of these anti-Semites' most unspeakable atrocities as “sexual harassment.”

And so the “Holocaust scholars” get the answers they want from elderly Holocaust survivors. One day, there will be no more living survivors left to tell us about the Holocaust. Will we rely on the accounts provided by these “Holocaust professionals”?


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