One of my favourite subjects in school was history. Its narrative nature was for sure attractive to me and led me to historical documentaries, literature and even my first university studies in museology. I have never worked in the field but I haven’t lost interest. With all the great children’s books that are bringing into the discourse stories and contributions of females, it’s also time to expand our understanding of historical events with a female perspective. History and herstory must be united.
The late modern history of the 20th century is probably the most appealing to me. Again, it’s because of the stories. My grandmother told me stories about the 2nd World War, how the German and Russian soldiers behaved, how she and her family starved and how the rich neighbours never helped them, not even with a little piece of bread… Food was precious to her till the end of her life. I very rarely saw her throwing away food. Everything that could be processed, was used. She made litres of jam, fermented cabbage, made sour milk, sterilised vegetables… and what needed to be thrown away, she gave to poultry or pigs. She had always something to eat with her and many times I remember her saying: “My dear kids, the hunger was the worse… I only wish you would never experience war…”
I was 31 (i.e. mature enough to proceed with the experience) when I visited the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz – Birkenau in Poland. I only heard my parents talking about this place when they had visited it as upper secondary students. But honestly, nothing could prepare me for what I saw and felt there. I was frozen. I was speechless. I cried. I trembled… The monstrosity, inhumanity, and perversion of the whole idea of the Nazi’s final solution to the Jewish Question can be fully understood just when you see a place like this. I visited the place more out of the curiosity and I was aware of what Holocaust or Shoah was about. Just after the visit to Auschwitz, I started to read more about it purposefully. Mostly the stories of those who survived.
I started with Primo Levi and Viktor E. Frankl. The books are incredible. Sad, powerful, significant. Throughout their stories, the often informative but emotionless facts from school became concrete, deep and touchy. Women were also mentioned in their books, but I based my understanding of the Holocaust experience on men’s memories and descriptions. However important and accurate, never truly female. When I briefly checked on Google, it seems that the books on Holocaust written by men started to be published in the late 40s, only a few years after the end of the 2nd World War, while the female authors published in larger numbers in just 20 and more years later. E.g. Anna Frank’s diary was first published in 1947 as a selection prepared by her father Otto. The complete version was published just in the late 80s.
Naturally, our understanding of the Holocaust was mostly based on the stories we knew from men. Literally, HISstory. Please don’t misunderstand me – of course, the men are important, and of course their viewpoint and experience matter. But it’s just a part of the more complex whole… The complex story must be incorporated from the female perspective too. HER story is equally important.
Then time passed and I was a bit disconnected from my hobbies and interests. In the last few years, I unconsciously bought 3 different books on Holocaust written by female survivors. All of them have Slovak origin, so the reading was more than captivating as I could connect with places, and historical events or figures.
These books cover so many topics not only important for a more complex understanding of what happened during the Holocaust but topics more broadly present in feminist thinking till today, such as:
- Female bodies and to whom they belong? Reference to torture and inhuman experiments performed by Josef Mengele on and inside of female reproductive organs.
- Sexual violence committed against women.
- Motherhood in references the numerous situations, when children were separated from their mothers and brutally killed while mothers had to watch; or pregnancies, miscarriages and baby deliveries in the camps. The consequences of Mengele’s experiments on reproductive health.
- Single mothers experience in case of surviving in the atmosphere of ongoing antisemitism in society.
- Socioeconomic situation of female survivors & much more.
I want to assure every reader that I am aware of what violence and torture men faced in the camps too. It’s equally terrible, humiliating and with consequences. What I am pointing to is, that it is different, not less or more serious. Different.
Even if I write today specifically about Shoah, we need to include female stories in everything we know about history. Whose memories are central and interpreted as fact? Do they provide us with a complex picture of the event? Is this really everything that had happened?
Definitely, it’s not only about the experience of different genders on certain events. It’s also about race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and so on. Especially when we talk about European history which is still whitewashing, men-centred, homosexuality- and catholicism-based. As such can’t ever offer a comprehensive interpretation of events.
I will repeat myself, that white heterosexual catholic men are part of the story too, but they do not represent the entirety. Therefore when you will reach for a book on a historic event next time, maybe it can be a female author…
P.S. Information in this text is based on my interpretation and how I remember facts read in the books. There might be factual differences, as I am not a historian.