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European Modern History

Challenging Heterosexist Readings of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies

Charlotte Salomon

Some months ago my partner and I decided to put our flat on the market. Having seen the perfect house, I hurriedly began sending out emails to have our property valued. I was quickly inundated with calls from eager estate agents, desperate to clinch the sale. The first call came from a polite woman from a city centre office. “Are you the homeowner?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “The flat belongs to my partner.” “Okay, great. What’s his name?” I paused for a moment, unsure as to whether I was offended or mildly amused. “Her name is…”

As I hung up the phone, I felt troubled. Part of me had believed that, in 2019, such awkward conversations and the repeated need to ‘come out,’ were a thing of the past. I got to thinking about the countless presumptuous comments that I, as a queer woman, have been forced to engage with in my lifetime. “It’s just a phase.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “You just haven’t met the right guy yet.” The list is inexhaustible.

More than anything, though, and transcending my personal struggles with such presumptions, I started to think about them in a historical context. As a Holocaust historian specialising in women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, I began to wonder how, and to what extent, heteronormativity may be responsible for global historical blind spots. Have deeply entrenched heterosexist presumptions enabled historical specificities to be overlooked? Or at the very least, have they shaped the way historians and academics have interpreted written narratives of the past? Undoubtedly so, given the fact that sexual relationships between women have long been an academic taboo, focused on only in the last four decades in the wake of the women’s movement.

If the assumption, even in the twenty-first century, is that to be straight is the norm, if queer sexualities are yet to become normalised sexual identities, then what might that tell us about decades of androcentric historical research? And how might we read history from a stance far removed from heteronormative presupposition, particularly when attempts to do so are often met with hostility, or when sexual relationships between women are often dismissed by scholars as acts of desperation?

Queer theorists, literary critics and historians of women’s history have been attempting to answer this question since the early-1980s. In 1981 women’s studies scholar, Bonnie Zimmerman, proposed a new critical stance with which to approach written texts. This stance, she explained, ‘involves peering into the shadows, into the spaces between words, into what has been unspoken and barely imagined. It is a perilous critical adventure with results that may violate accepted norms of traditional criticism, but which may also transform our notions of literary possibility.’[1]

In the 1990s, author R. Amy Elman echoed Zimmerman’s call for oppositional reading in an exploration of lesbians and the Holocaust. Elman acknowledged that, due to a reluctance among scholars to deal with the matter of women’s sexualities, their subjects may have felt the need to ‘conform and conceal their most intriguing thoughts and intimate feelings.’ This, she argued, is partly responsible for the dearth of women’s first-person narratives of the Holocaust that include clear-cut queer content. She explained that, ‘with little evidence, we are forced to, “read between the lines.” This does not mean that one discovers lesbians where none exists. Rather, […] one is especially careful to avoid presumptions of heterosexuality. After all, assertions of heterosexuality […] have frequently furnished many gays and lesbians with protection from identification, arrest and, sometimes, even death.’[2]

Elman’s reading of Anne Frank’s diary is particularly convincing. She pointed out that Anne was initially repulsed by the notion of befriending Peter van Daan, and before going into hiding, had expressed feeling attracted to some of her girlfriends. Despite this, Elman argued, ‘her relationship to Peter has not been dismissed as an adolescent act exacerbated by dire circumstances and the absence of female companionship.’ Yet, despite this, and in spite of the approaches put forward by the likes of Zimmerman, among others, historians and scholars remain reluctant to approach women’s Holocaust testimonies by ‘“reading between the lines.”’[3]

As recently as 2015, and in a book explicitly dedicated to women’s experiences under Nazism, for example, Beverley Chalmers devoted a mere three paragraphs to lesbian love. She felt it important to note that ‘conditions in camps […] facilitated lesbianism. Fear and loneliness, friendships, and the absence of men, led to women seeking comfort from other women.’[4] Yet, this seems a bold, outdated, and particularly heterosexist claim to make.

It  may, of course, be true that some women in concentration camps engaged in same-sex relationships because of a lack of access to men. But to presume that all did so, or to read all women’s memoirs from a heterosexual standpoint, overlooks the complexity of their narratives. Might there be something a little queer in some women’s descriptions of same-sex relationships? Might some personal, sexual anxieties exist in the documented accidental glances, the curiosity to watch, or the ambiguous responses to sex between women? If they’re of no significance, why have some women included such details in their published testimonies at all? And above all, what might we miss if we refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a queer subtext? Perhaps 2019 is the time to make heterosexist historical readings history.

Rosie Ramsden is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. In 2017, she was awarded a three-year studentship to conduct further research into women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, following the work she carried out during my MA at the University of Leeds. The working title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Women’s Holocaust Testimony: Gender, Reception, and Canon-formation.’ She interested in women’s memoir and narration, gendered recall and gendered experience, and queer histories of the Holocaust.

Bibliography

Chalmers, Beverley. Birth, Sex and Abuse. Surrey: Grosvenor House, 2015.

Elman, Amy R. ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust.’ Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, ed. by Esther Fuchs, 9 – 17. Lanham: University of America Press.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. ‘What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.’ Feminist Studies, 7:3. (Autumn, 1981): 451 – 475.

Endnotes

[1] Zimmerman, ‘What Has Never Been’, 460.

[2]Elman, ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust,’ 9 – 10.

[3]Ibid., 14 – 15.

[4]Chalmers, Birth, Sex and Abuse, 187.

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Holocaust, Home and Memory in Literature

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The following post has been adapted from the author’s contribution to a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, held in the Winter Garden, Sheffield City Centre on 28.01.19.

 The home, both as a place of dwelling and as a more abstract yet instinctive sense of belonging, is a frequently evoked image within Holocaust literature. Home can mean many different things to different people: it can constitute a country of origin or birth, encompass friends and family and is often central to the creation of selfhood and identity. Yet to not have a home, to be home-less, is a fear (or realisation) that can be universally related to. The act of being ‘torn from home’—this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme—whether a house, nation, people or a combination of all three, affected all those who experienced the Shoah to some degree. Under Nazi persecution, European Jews were dispossessed of land and property, were forced to evacuate their homes to be deported or killed, or to go into hiding. They were also physically displaced in ghettos and/or camps. Those who survived returned to homes and formerly thriving communities destroyed by war, and faced the very difficult task of re-establishing new ones.

The home features in the work of Holocaust memoirists, in survivor testimonies, film, graphic novels, poetry and other media. In many instances, it remains an image of hope for refugees and those imprisoned and forced into slave labour in concentration camps – although, as late survivor Jean Cayrol reflects, to linger on memories and dreams of home was often detrimental to survival. In Charlotte Delbo’s short story ‘The Teddy Bear’, the uniting power of the word ‘home’ is enough to carry the author and her fellow inmates through a Christmas Eve dinner spent in a death camp, even when spoken in another language. ‘The Frenchwomen […] tried to repeat the magic words’ of their Polish inmates, Delbo writes.[1] ‘Do domou, do domou—at home.’[2]

In other accounts, the home is an irrevocably ruined construction: a traumatic reminder of a pre-war past. In her autobiography A Lesser Child, Kindertransport refugee Karen Gershon had to write about her ‘German self’ in the third person as ‘Kate’ and in her mother tongue when articulating the traumatic experience of growing up as a child in Nazi Germany, which she escaped in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

For those with families who survived, the postwar return home at least meant reuniting with loved ones. Yet repatriation was often a disillusioning process for survivors, some of whom were welcomed by racial hostility and violence as well as stolen property. Even the voyage back was itself arduous: many prisoners freed from camps were malnourished and diseased, with either no means of getting home or a lengthy journey ahead of them via rail or foot. Primo Levi’s The Truce documents the treacherous journey home across Europe from Auschwitz to Italy, which entailed further starvation, marching and work in a Russian rehabilitation camp before reaching his homeland nine months after liberation.

The alternative to these desolate realities was the adaptation of victims to new wartime lives and temporary homes – as was the case with Anne Frank and her family, who took refuge, in Amsterdam, 1933, from an increasingly hostile antisemitic climate in Germany. The hiding place of Anne Frank and her family from July 1942—an attic in the building of her father’s business—constitutes perhaps the most famous example of the home in collective Holocaust memory and literature, visited by thousands each year. Much of the global interest in the Anne Frank House owes to its authentic traces of a life that continued despite perilous political and domestic conditions. These include the displayed pages of Anne’s diary and posters of German film stars cut from magazines and plastered onto walls, which gesture toward the popular culture of the period and illustrate the interests of a ‘normal’ (albeit persecuted and later revered) teenager. The diary itself provides an intimate portrait of a home life filled with the happiness and tensions of a typical family despite limited space and the ever-present fear of their discovery.

Sites such as Auschwitz, however, represent the antithesis of home. This is exemplified by Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s ironic use of the phrase ‘Auschwitz, Our Home’ as one of his short stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The luxury of being able to choose one’s home rests on their right to move. Today, this is increasingly undermined and threatened by the strictures of hard borders and tightened immigration laws. Among those who are unable to pinpoint a specific location or physical construction they call home are refugees and asylum seekers – an especially important consideration on Holocaust Memorial Day.

On July 23, 1943, Anne Frank wrote of her wish ‘to be able to move around freely’ in her own home despite her successful assimilation into a new culture, language and way of life in the Netherlands.[3] This desire deeply resonates with the kinds of discourse surrounding EU separation and an escalating global refugee crisis exacerbated by detainment and deportations. It also exposes the fact that, contrary to erroneous depictions of migrants as job-takers and exploiters of national services, many refugees long to return home to a place of familiarity, but are prevented from doing so due to circumstances beyond their control. An event often described as historically ‘unique’, this reminds us that the persecution of minorities central to the Holocaust is not confined to the past, but manifests today in the refusal of a home or place of safety within society to those targeted on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.

Emily-Rose Baker is a second-year WRoCAH funded PhD student based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines central-eastern European Holocaust memory and dreams in the post-communist era.

[1] Charlotte Delbo, ‘The Teddy Bear’, Auschwitz and After: Second Edition, trans. by Rosette C. Lamount (London: Yale University Press, 1995) p.164.

[2] Delbo, p.164.

[3] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition, eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (London: Penguin, 2011) p.112.

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