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Lillian Kremer. Women's Holocaust Writing: Memory and
Imagination.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. xvi +
278 pp. Index.  $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8032-2743-4.

Reviewed for H-Holocaust by Steve McCullough <>,
Department of English, Dalhousie University

Engendering Holocaust Literary Criticism

S. Lillian Kremer takes as her point of departure in Women's
Holocaust Writing_ that gender pervades both Holocaust experiences
and their literary expressions. Her subtitle "Memory and
Imagination" draws together writing by two groups of women with very
different relationships to the Holocaust: Europeans who experienced
its violence first-hand and whose survival has led to writing out of
insistent memory, and American-born women whose interests or
obsessions have led to vicarious or imaginative participation and
fictional recreation.  Kremer's interest is "in the commonalities
and distinctions of writing by women who experienced it directly and
by others who learned about it after the fact" (x).

The interplay of memory and imagination in writing on both sides of
the experiential line complicates such a seemingly simple division,
however.  Kremer discusses five books written by female survivors,
but none is a memoir per se; these women have all imaginatively
reinterpreted their memories in novelistic efforts whose settings
are often far removed from the ghettos and camps that inspired them.
Much as such imagination is shown to be an important part of
memorializing, the non-survivor novelists Kremer discusses rely
heavily on fact -- interviews with survivors and meticulous
historical research -- in order to craft their fictions.  In each
case memory work and the effort of the imagination are intertwined
in subtle and important ways.  Historical attention to fact, as
Kremer argues, only goes so far -- it is the imaginative use of
narrative that lends facts and figures affect and mental reality for
we readers in the present. Thus, imagination and fictionalization
are always of paradoxical importance to fact and history, and
perhaps ultimately indivisible from them.  As Kremer argues,
"Historic study and creative writing enhance the other's capacity to
inform readers. . . . The arts will help keep Holocaust memory
alive" (p. 30).

Kremer's introduction lays out the feminist framework that has
guided her selection of texts and her appoach to reading them.  She
notes that the canon of central Holocaust writing is all but
exclusively populated by male authors, and that Holocaust literary
criticism has tended to turn a blind eye to issues of gender. This
has had a falsely homogenizing impact on literary and historical
engagements with the Holocaust because, simply, "Jewish men and
women were persecuted in ways unique to their sex" (p. 3). She cites
and stands with Joan Ringelheim in insisting that failing to
recognize the gendered nature of women's suffering consigns them to
silence and a second unmourned death.  Not the least important
aspect of this gendered suffering was the fact that Nazi racial
doctrines made the destruction of Jewish mothers a specific
objective in the extermination of the Jewish race.  Mothers and
children were thus, unlike in all previous wars, made specific
targets for brutal elimination: "Jewish women discovered that
bearing children was a crime against the Reich, that their children
were to be denied life"  (p. 11).

Women's reproductive capacity was thus specifically targeted, as was
their sexuality more generally.  Sexual assault was frequent, and
took forms that are surprising when seen only in the light of
canonical male experiences.  Being stripped and shaved, for example,
is all but inevitably presented in men's writing as a general,
psychological experience of dehumanization, but is felt more
personally by women as a material, sexual assault on their selves as
women--a "dewomanization."  It should be pointed out that Kremer,
following Elaine Showalter, explicitly resists essentializing the
feminine, and pursues relational gendered readings and issues rather
than a separate and falsely coherent definition of womanhood and
women's experience.

The introduction also presents a survey of Kremer's general
conclusions about the characteristics of women's writings on the
Holocaust.  The sexual segregation of the camp system and the Nazi
collocation of women and children contributed to a more familial
sense of suffering on the part of women, and a detailed focus on
familial relations and the minutiae of daily life is one feature
Kremer identifies as characterizing women's writing. She also
foregrounds "the ways female sexuality and motherhood added burdens
to the normative Holocaust ordeal, the cooperative networks women
prisoners developed, and the manner in which female cooperation and
interdependence contributed to survival"  (p. 4).

Although my own reading of women's memoirs leads me to be suspicious
of some of Kremer's generalizations about women's experiences and
writing, she supports her conclusions well and follows them up
throughout the text with respect to the authors at hand.  One of the
most notable features of the writing of these women is the
prominence of female characters. The canon of Holocaust writing by
men tends to include women as helpless victims or as emblematic of
the lost world before the Nazi darkness fell (perhaps, as Kremer
points out, because of their literal "loss" of the women in the
segregated world of labour and concentration camps).  In women's
writing, on the other hand, "female characters are fully defined
protagonists, experiencing the Shoah in all its evil manifestations"
(p.  5). And they respond, resist, struggle, die, or survive in
"densely patterned works locating the individual woman's struggle to
survive within the larger conflagration of European Jewry's trial"
(p. 5).

Kremer addresses the writing of one woman in each of the seven
chapters following her introduction. Three of these women-- Ilona
Karmel, Elzbieta Ettinger, and Hana Demetz -- lived through the
violence of the Nazi genocide; the remaining four -- Susan Fromberg
Shaeffer, Cynthia Ozick, Marge Piercy, and Norma Rosen -- were born
and raised in the relative safety of the United States but have
turned their imaginative efforts to the sufferings of those who
experienced the Holocaust. Each chapter consists of detailed
exegetical readings of the texts rather than a detailed argument
about them.

This is both effective and frustrating; Kremer presents a
well-reasoned and insightful discussion, but it is one without a
more specific goal than presenting these writers as exemplary women
who have written about the Holocaust. For those seeking an
introduction to Holocaust literature or women's writing this
approach will be welcome.  Those interested in a more theoretically
oriented or narrowly argued effort will, I suppose, have to take on
the burden of researching and writing such books themselves. There
are very few--in fact appallingly few--book-length studies of gender
and the Holocaust; _Women's Holocaust Writing_ is exactly the sort
of intelligent and detailed overview that is needed to help found an
important area of scholarly study.  It provides excellent historical
context, presents insightful exegesis of women's texts, and
demonstrates the importance of gender and literature to the ongoing
historical project of Holocaust memorialization.

I cannot adequately summarize the detailed and interesting readings
of the many authors and books that Kremer presents.  In short, the
authors and texts addressed are Illona Karmel (_Stephania_ and _An
Estate of Memory_), Elzbietta Ettinger (_Kindergarten_ and
_Quicksand_), Hana Demetz (_The House on Prague Street_), Susan
Fromberg Shaefer (_Anya_), Cynthia Ozick (_The Shawl_), Marge Piercy
(_Gone to Soldiers_), and Norma Rosen (_Touching Evil_).  Kremer
interviewed all the authors, and makes extensive use of these
interviews as she proceeds. This fact alone makes _Women's Holocaust
Writing_ a fascinating tome; the material from the interviews
provides interesting commentary on each author's sense of intention
in writing that would be otherwise unavailable to us.  Kremer's
discussions are thus well-informed about the personal history of
each woman, grounded in relevant historical contexts, and grow
increasingly detailed and strongly interconnected as each writer is
frequently compared to the others, making the discussion
particularly cohesive and rewarding.

Its excellence as a survey of a sadly under-researched field makes
for concomitant features that are perhaps unfair to characterise as
weaknesses.  Nevertheless I will register my own sense, as an
admittedly idiosyncratic reader, of some of the book's shortcomings.
Kremer's reading strategy is a largely commonsensical thematic and
formal analysis.  When she raises more nuanced or philosophical
theoretical issues, she does so only briefly (i.e., the passing
references to Zygmunt Bauman (p.  103) and Susan Suleiman (p 139) ).
Along similar lines, Kremer often makes unsatisfying one-off
comparisons between the central author at hand and similar or
contrasting authors such as Ida Fink and Tadeusz Borowski.  In each
case the comparison tends to be ineffective or reductive, in part
because the readings Kremer offers of her central subjects are so
rich in context that the comparison-texts offer rather anaemic foils
for them.

I plan to keep _Women's Holocaust Writing_ close at hand for my own
research and teaching, both for Kremer's readings of the authors she
champions and for her economical and forceful argument in favour of
gendered approaches to studying Holocaust experience and writing.
Readers interested in Holocaust history, Holocaust literary
criticism, or women's life writing would be well advised not to miss
this excellent overview.

     Copyright 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper
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Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update06/03/2000
S D Stein

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