Writing and Remembering

 

The Generation of Postmemory:

Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust

By Marianne Hirsch

New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, 305 pp., $27.50, paperback

 

 

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

By Julija Šukys

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 217 pp., $24.95, hardcover

 

Reviewed by Rochelle Ruthchild

 

Marianne Hirsch is the William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. A distinguished and prolific scholar, a former editor of the journal of the Modern Language Association, and currently the association’s president, she is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. To her writing, she brings her experience as the child of Holocaust survivors, whose early years were spent in Bucharest, Romania. Like the Lithuanian Ona Šimaitė, Hirsch and her parents lived in a European city with the changing boundaries, names, and languages of the edge of a crumbled multinational empire. In Hirsch’s case, her parents strolled down their prewar main street Herrengasse in Czernowitz, which later became Iancu Flondor in Romanian Cernăuţi, and is today Kobylanska in Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

Hirsch’s book is wide-ranging, including personal observations about her childhood in the capital of postwar Communist Romania, as well as trenchant analyses of a range of books, artwork, films, and other visual representations of the Holocaust. Two of the nine chapters are written with her husband, Leo Spitzer, with whom she is also collaborating on a book entitled Ghosts of Home. It is hard to do justice to the breadth of this book in a short review. Hirsch surveys key and relevant works by Art Spiegelman, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, Nancy Spero, Muriel Hasbun, Tatana Kellner, Jeffrey Wolin, Ruth Klüger, David Levinthal, Anne Frank, Lorie Novak, Lucy Dawidowicz, Froma Zeitlin, Mitzi Goldman, Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, and Susan Meiselas, among others.

Hirsch is to be commended for her ambition. Her feminist sensibilities appalled by the absence of female narrators in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Hirsch seeks to reconceptualize the field of memory studies. She distinguishes between history and memory, arguing that

this presence of embodied and affective experience in the process of transmission…is best described by the notion of memory as opposed to history. Memory signals an affective link to the past—a sense, precisely of a material “living connection”—and it is powerfully mediated by technologies like literature, photography, and testimony.

 

Addressing the issue of postmemory she writes, “The structure of postmemory clarifies how the multiple ruptures and radical breaks introduced by trauma and catastrophe inflect intra-, inter-, and transgenerational inheritance.” Incorporating gender and queer consciousness into a male-dominated field, she is particularly strong in analyzing examples of mother/daughter transmission as reflected in photographic, artistic, and performance art. One striking example is that of Irma Morgensztern, a Warsaw ghetto escapee, her daughter, and Irma’s mother, as portrayed in Jeffrey Wolin’s 1997 exhibition and book, Written in Memory: Portraits of the Holocaust. Addressing the gender implications of a male artist making this history visible, Hirsch provides a positive interpretation: “[T]his particular image enables us to envision mother/daughter transmission not as an identity position, but as an affiliative space of remembrance, available to other subjects external to the immediate family.”

Hirsch moves beyond the Holocaust to include and reflect upon other traumatic events and oppressions, such as slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Palestinian Nakba (cataclysm: 1948, when the state of Israel was established and the Palestinians fled or were driven out). In the latter case, she discusses Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella Return to Haifa. In Kanafani’s work, a Palestinian couple go back to Haifa to revisit the house they were forced to leave in 1948, now occupied by Holocaust survivors. As the novella develops, the two traumatic experiences unfold into the next generation with devastating consequences.

Hirsch has little to say about memory and postmemory in much of the former Soviet Union, the site of at least one third of all Holocaust murders. She does discuss the work in Poland of Golda Tencer in collecting and exhibiting photos of Jews kept by Christian Poles and the ways in which Tencer is seeking to make visible the former Jewish presence to contemporary Poles. More discussion of the memories and postmemory of Holocaust survivors and their progeny who still live among the perpetrators and the European killing fields, transit points, and camps could provide a significant contrast with the experiences of those who emigrated to the West and to Israel.

While Hirsch seeks to capture major trends in postmemory, more elaboration of the criteria for inclusion and exclusion in her survey would have been helpful. Why, for example, in a book about visual culture, are so few films discussed? Why is the focus almost exclusively on the works of survivors and their children who live in the US, Israel and Australia?

If Hirsch develops a theoretical approach to memory or postmemory after the Holocaust, Julija Šukys thoroughly grounds herself in the physical evidence of the life of one woman, an unsung Holocaust heroine, seeking to make visible Ona  Šimaitė (1894-1970): her writing, her brave deeds, her world.  To Šukys, “Šimaitė is interesting both for how she is ordinary and atypical.”

A little knowledge of Lithuanian history will help readers of this book.  Lithuania has a glorious past; in the fourteenth century, it was the largest country in Europe, and included what are today Belarus, Ukraine, parts of Poland, and Russia.  But by the time of Šimaitė’s birth, a much shrunken Lithuania was a peripheral part of the Russian Empire, the largest of the multinational empires of the time. While the official state language was Russian, the languages of the people of the area included Lithuanian, one of the oldest Indo-European tongues, Polish, and Yiddish. Most of the present country of Lithuania was within the Pale of Settlement, the area in which most of Russia’s Jews were confined. Jews were largely forbidden to engage in agriculture and thus heavily concentrated in towns and cities. Vilna was a major center of Jewish thought, the “Jerusalem of the North,” and had a sizeable Jewish presence, about one third of the city’s total population. 

With the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the breakup of the tsarist empire, Lithuania proclaimed its independence on February 16, 1918, with Kaunas/Kovno as its capital. Vilna, its chief city, became part of the new state of Poland. In a prefatory note, Šukys points to the linguistic currents of the area: “Most cities and villages in Lithuania have at least two names: a Lithuanian one, a Yiddish one, and often a Russian or Polish one.” Thus, the current Lithuanian capital is called Vilna by Jews, Vilnius by the Lithuanians, and Wilno by the Poles. 

During World War II, Lithuania was occupied first by Soviet troops in 1940, then by the Nazis, and again by the victorious Soviets in 1944. During the Nazi occupation, 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred in various killing fields, the largest one Paneriai (Ponar in Yiddish), outside of Vilna, where about 100,000 people, mostly Jews but also some Polish intellectuals, were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Lithuanians were noticeable among the ethnic groups who aided the Holocaust; in some places, they began killing Jews even before the Nazis arrived.

After the war, partially as punishment for their support of the Nazis, but also to combat any nationalist sentiments, the Communist government deported tens of thousands of Lithuanian peasants to various outposts of the gulag. In 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare its independence. Memories of World War II still hang heavily over the country, where a leading Nazi collaborator was reburied with honors, and where the National Genocide Museum focuses almost exclusively on the crimes of the Soviet regime, with little mention of the Holocaust.

It is the complex legacy of Lithuania and Vilna that Šukys seeks to address. She describes the milieu in which her subect was shaped: her close friends, her family, and the tragedy of a small state whose people were caught first in a hot war and then in a cold one. Ona Šimaitė never wrote her memoirs, but she was an inveterate letter writer—hence the title of the book. “Epistolophilia” is the love of letters and letterwriting. Her most detailed account of her many brave exploits during the war is in an 88-page, October, 1945, typescript of a letter written in Russian to the left Socialist Revolutionary Isaac Nachman Steinberg. Šimaitė, then working at the Vilnius University Library, gained access to the ghetto on the pretext of retrieving overdue library books. She describes to Steinberg some of her exploits as a courier between the two main ghettoes in Kovno and Vilna, smuggling in medicine, food, clothing, counterfeit papers, and smuggling out letters, documents, and even sedated children from the Vilna ghetto.

Why did she write the document in Russian? Šukys refers to research arguing that writing in another language “may allow for a productive estrangement from past events, allowing one to say the unsayable and translate the untranslatable.” But it may have been as simple as that this was the language most familiar to both Šimaitė and Steinberg. Šimaitė stopped writing in Russian in 1947. She does not explain the change, but her abandonment of Russian may be connected to the emergence of Stalin’s overtly anti-Jewish policies in that period or to her final disillusionment about the possibility of any revolutionary dreams ever being realized in the Soviet Union.  She was very aware of crackdowns in Lithuania and elsewhere against non-Communist partisans. Fears that her writing about her wartime exploits could aid the Bolsheviks in their repression would not have been unreasonable.

Šimaitė also recounted her experiences in Vilna in a long letter to Hirsz Abramowicz, the father of Dina Abramowicz, later the much beloved librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Abramowicz père had traveled to New York in June 1939 for an international conference and was stranded there when the war broke out. Dina, then 31, met Šimaitė in 1940 at Vilna’s Jewish Children’s Library.  Dina and Ona, both librarians, connected immediately. Later, when Dina and her mother Anna were living cramped together with seven other people in the Vilna ghetto, Šimaitė helped sustain them with food, letters, and documents, until Anna was sent to Treblinka and the ghetto was liquidated. Miraculously, Dina was able to escape to the partisans. 

In April 28, 1944, Gestapo agents arrested Šimaitė, ransacked her apartment, and held her for twelve days. During interrogation they hung her upside down, beat her, burned the soles of her feet with hot irons, and condemned her to death—but the Vilnius University rector raised enough money to ransom her. Instead of being hanged, she was sent to Dachau, and then to a series of labor camps until the end of the war.

Why did Šimaitė risk her life to save Jews? To postwar charges that she did it for money, she angrily retorted in a letter to Steinberg that her accusers “can’t conceive of what it meant to feel humanity and comradery.” Her commitment to democratic socialism, to the principles of internationalism and revolution acquired in her youth, motivated her opposition to both Nazi and later Communist tyranny, and her identification with the oppressed and marginalized throughout her adult life.

After the war years, Šimaitė maintained ties with those she had helped in the ghetto, most notably Sala Waksman (later Tanya Shterntal), whom she had carried out of the Vilna ghetto in a sack. Shterntal relocated to an Israeli kibbutz after the war. Šimaitė unofficially adopted her, visited her in Israel, and tried unsuccessfully to determine the fate of Tanya’s biological mother.  

Šukys is tenacious in following every lead to clues about Šimaitė’s life, from her childhood in a traditional peasant family to her postwar migrations. Šimaitė’s troubled family relations included estrangement from her devoutly Catholic mother and a fraught relationship with her niece, diagnosed under the Soviet regime with schizophrenia and ultimately a suicide.  Perhaps her deepest connection was to the Lithuanian poet Kazys Jakubėnas. She carried on an intense correspondence with him during the war. With the Communists in control, Jakubėnas met the fate of many independent Lithuanian intellectuals.  Arrested by the Soviets, he was sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. Through the efforts of his brother, he was freed and returned to Vilnius, but soon after he was killed by the secret police on January 7, 1950.

Šukys is very much present throughout this work, which becomes a family affair as the author travels with her husband and infant son Sebastian to all the places associated with Šimaitė. Sebastian accompanies his mother when they visit Šimaitė’s last residence, a Russian émigré nursing home in a Paris suburb. Although Šimaitė died in 1970, she lives on for mother and son in Montreal. In the last chapter of her book, Šukys glimpses her subject as she walks through the autumnal city: “She is here, her presence unmistakable.”

I highly recommend both of these books as significant contributions to Holocaust literature, women’s and gender history, and memory studies. Hirsch wades into the ideological, literary, and semiotic battles about preserving and defining the memory of a traumatic event such as the Holocaust, once those with real-time remembrances have died. She is particularly strong in her analysis of the gendered components of Holocaust representations and the importance of making them visible in the shaping of postmemory.  Šukys, in a true labor of love, rescues a remarkably brave woman from history’s dustbin, and in the process complicates the narrative about Lithuania during the Holocaust and the postwar period.

 

Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild cherishes her memories of her great-aunt Anna, survivor of five concentration camps, who hailed from prewar Vilna and participated in its vibrant cultural life. Ruthchild is a research associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, an editor of Aspasia: The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History, the author of Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917 (2010), and a producer of the forthcoming documentary film Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. She is most grateful for the hospitality of Evgenii, Vera, Raya, and Misha, and the bounty of their organic garden during her trips to Lithuania.

Women’s Struggles in the Arab World

 

Mapping Arab Women’s Movements:

A Century of Transformations from Within

Edited by Pernille Arenfeldt and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley

Cairo, Egypt: American University of Cairo Press, 2012, 392 pp., $34.50, hardcover

Reviewed by Marilyn Booth

For the past two years, across Arab societies, resistance in the streets to tyranny has brought issues of gender justice to the fore, even as women have been targets of politically motivated sexual violence. As so often in political struggle, in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, women have been represented as symbols of both the with-it modernity of the oppositional movements and the retrograde status quo. Mapping Arab Women’s Movements provides country-specific narratives that focus historically and empirically on women’s varied activisms and how these have intersected with the rhetoric of competing political agendas. Like women elsewhere, Arab women in their own politically specific spaces have carried out their political work on behalf of female compatriots (and often male compatriots too) by creatively using (and dodging) these symbolic possibilities, as well as by simply getting on with the job at hand.

Nine countries in the region are mapped: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. A tenth chapter describes Islamically oriented activisms in North America, while the editors’ introductory chapter assesses shared themes and challenges. An appendix reproduces a 2006 UN report, “Women’s Movements in the Gulf Countries.” Of course it is impossible to cover the entire region in one volume—and apparently the editors tried for comprehensive coverage—but it is unfortunate that no North African country apart from Egypt appears. A chapter on Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, or Libya could have illuminated, for example, the particular trajectory that struggles over Personal Status Codes (which define family law and other gender issues) have taken in this region.  

Not only do the narratives emphasize change “from within”; they do their mapping from within. The international group of scholars gathered here includes participants in movements they analyze, while interviews with activists comprise an important part of the research archive. The result is a panoramic yet exacting and example-filled portrait of each national scene, the authors of which are attentive to, as the editors put it, their “different forms of connectedness to the countries they examine.” They are also attentive to the political and human-ecological histories in which each national story unfolds. Rita Stephan’s chapter on Lebanon, for example, delineates how the peculiarities of that country’s elaborate, confessionally structured political system shape what women can do, yet also enable them to take political space, since the fragility of the system and its history of conflict make close control impossible. Eileen Kuttab explains that the implacable presence of the Palestinian national liberation struggle has required Palestinian women activists to work on the two fronts of gender equity and national sovereignty simultaneously, continuously, and in the face of near-constant reverses. The book is a fine introduction to the political history of these Arab nations as it relates to gender-based activism.

As the editors point out, many similarities cross national boundaries, and these similarities also link Arab feminisms to those in other world regions. Most women’s collective work in the region began with elite-led philanthropy, women’s literary associations, and journalism among tiny circles of literate women from the late nineteenth (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon), early twentieth centuries (Iraq, Palestine), and later (the states of and around the Arabian peninsula). Women were visible in all Arab national liberation movements, marching, organizing, offering material support (including arms smuggling), and sometimes fighting on the battlefield—like the multidimensional activist Nazik al-‘Abid, who fought with the Syrian Arab Army against the French in 1920. Anticolonial sentiment yielded new formations, for instance in Aden (South Yemen), where Yemeni women, marginalized by the British founders of the Aden Women’s Club, forced a leadership vote in the early 1950s and took over the organization—as Amel Nejib al-Ashtal describes in her engrossing chapter on Yemeni women’s movements.

From the start, issues of modernization and gender policies have been entangled and intertwined with concerns about taking Euro-American societies as models, particularly given western imperial powers’ heavy-handed presence in the region. Polarizations resulted that still define much of the rhetoric around gender justice: to act for greater gender equity was and is to court the ire of those who oppose any dismantling of patriarchal social arrangements. While religious doctrine is no more constitutive of antifeminist outlooks in the Middle East than it is anywhere else, religiously based ideology can be a vehicle for opposing women’s aspirations in the name of “tradition”—even when the content of “tradition” has no religious basis.

In some cases, when governments have tried to promote gender-neutral laws or policies, particularly in matters of personal status, they have been defeated by religious conservatives in the legislature. However, often it was such governments’ own repression of independent activist initiatives that left a vacuum in a nascent public sphere, which was filled by the religious discourses that have expanded their purchase across the region since the 1970s. In other cases, states and religious groups colluded out of shared interests, with women often becoming the victims of uneven and contradictory laws. Some revolutionary regimes—such as General Abd al-Karim Qasim’s in late-1950s Iraq, discussed here by Nadje al-Ali—made “progressive family law” or other pro-woman measures a core element of their vision and agenda, but their achievements often fell victim to abrupt political transitions. Iraq’s 1959 family laws, for example, were superseded once the Ba’th regime emerged and solidified into dictatorship. As Leslie Lewis shows in her chapter on Egypt, women working within a religiously defined framework (whether Islamic or Coptic) benefitted from earlier feminists’ success in achieving the rights to participate in public debate, education, and waged employment. Yet, they often found themselves working for goals similar to those of their predecessors and encountering similar obstacles.  Bringing women into the work force was crucial, but women-friendly policies were geared toward producing compliant subjects not toward reducing inequality or transforming gender relations.

Another commonality throughout the region has been women’s up-front contribution to nationalist movements, only to have gender issues ignored “come the revolution”—at which point women found themselves struggling to right the gender wrongs of new national but only ambiguously inclusive constitutions (this is currently going on in both Tunisia and Egypt).  Several authors trace the impact of international agendas, especially those crystallizing around the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), on local movements. Women have been able to utilize high-profile international achievements to pressure their governments into compliance. However, although many Arab governments have ratified CEDAW, they have done so with a range of reservations—a reminder of the region’s heterogeneous experiences and discourses. “While the reservations are explained with reference to Islamic shari‘a,” the editors note, “the variations between the reservations made by individual countries bring attention to the varying interpretations of Islamic law across the Arab region.”

These and other processes have led many women activists to rethink their terms of engagement: what discourse of rights and equity will best incorporate local needs and appeal to local sensibilities? This dilemma is one impetus behind the emergence of gender-justice campaigns rooted in reinterpretations of Islamic practice. Other gender-focused, religiously based initiatives, however, seek to maintain status-quo gendered hierarchies—just as the religious right has done in the US. In other words, in the arena of gender activism, religious discourses are malleable and varied. Indeed, religious and secular vocabularies are anything but isolated one from the other; the rhetorical opposition is mostly a recent one, a “putative polarity … [that] has gained discursive power not so much because it reflects reality, but because iterations of its message serve particular political interests,” both locally and internationally. One good example is the use of role models from early Islamic history. Since the late nineteenth century, activists of every stripe have drawn on the figure of Khadija—Muhammad’s sole wife until her death, a businesswoman, and his staunch supporter—to advance notions of gender equality and women’s public presence as foundational to Islamic practice. 

Much in this book will sound familiar to readers cognizant of women’s-rights histories elsewhere. The essays contest notions of “Middle East exceptionalism,” still so unfortunately persistent, though sadly they do so by showing how Arab women have faced the same kinds of constraints and obstacles as have women the world over, even as each struggle has its own indigenous roots.

As the editors point out, on the basis of these well-researched studies, many challenges remain, from internal issues of hierarchical organization to democracy deficits in the society at large that militate against independent activism and public debate on controversial issues. Continuing legal discrimination, objections to gender equity as an allegedly “foreign” concept, and notions that personal status issues are sacrosanct (and thus that domestic violence is “off limits”) are among the deterrents that movements for gender justice face. Pressures from foreign funders to focus on certain agendas may impede the work that locals most wish to do—while local NGOs are often accused unfairly of being foreign implants. Indeed, one feature common to all these national landscapes is the accusation that women’s activism is imported in its aims, methods, and rhetoric. Not only has feminism—even unnamed—generated accusations of cultural betrayal; it has also been accused of sanctioning “immorality”—just as it has often been in the West. For example, as Pauline Homsi Vinson and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley note, of interwar Syria, “many conservatives regarded the growing tendency by Syrian women to eschew the practice of veiling as a manifestation of western intrusion.”

That the editors have adopted the most capacious possible concept of “movement,” as a loose sense of “collective engagement” that does not presuppose specific organizational forms or intentions, or particular activist goals or agendas, allows contributors to emphasize the sheer heterogeneity of Arab women’s campaigns as well as the importance of informal groups, especially in conditions where the formation of civic organizations is discouraged or prohibited. Thus, contributors include in their discussions “informal organizations that, in retrospect, can be viewed as having contributed to greater gender equality, but do not have this as a stated priority.”  Compounding the complexity of definition is that activists have struggled for nearly one hundred years to come up with an Arabic equivalent for the European neologism “feminism” that would convey the indigenous purchase of the concept without the essentialism and ambiguity inherent in terms derived from the Arabic mar’a/nisa’ (woman/women). Yet by keeping “movement” and “feminism” so undefined, as practical as that may be, the volume risks leaving readers with a rich but bewildering array of information, unmatched by a clear but flexible analytic framework that would help them to think beyond the details.

Some contributors find the problematic term “state feminism” useful, though others do not use it in describing state initiatives. This volume might have been an appropriate site for subjecting that much-debated term to pointed scrutiny, since it can cover a myriad of approaches, many of which can hardly be considered “feminist.”

Still, on their own merits, these individual country studies are invaluable for their mostly succinct and careful narratives. Written before the Arab region’s recent eruptions of political opposition, they are historically grounded snapshots of the state of women’s activisms in the pre-“revolutionary” status quo. In Arab societies today, gender equity issues remain pressing and contentious, even as the ground is shifting. The determined, ongoing, strategic activism of so many individuals in so many venues, well-highlighted here, means that democracy movements throughout the region will not be allowed to isolate gender discrimination from other kinds of inequality.

Marilyn Booth holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is writing a book about 1890s gender debates and early feminism in Egypt.

Women's Review of Books

Untitled Document

Women=Books Blog