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Femina sacra: Gendered memory and political violence
Available online 30 August 2006.
This article explores a specific form of state sanctioned violence enacted towards survivors of Transnistria, Ukraine, using testimonies of women survivors of Transnistria. The article theorises the woman survivor of genocide as femina sacra — the equivalent of Agamben's [Agamben, Giorgio (1995) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press.] homo sacer, she who can be killed without charge of homicide but who cannot be sacrificed, and who is always at the mercy of sovereign power. The article then examines the politics of memory in relation to political violence and the concept of postmemory, as developed by Marianne Hirsch [Hirsch, Marianne (1997) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.], denoting a ‘vicarious past’ or ‘received history’, and the link between feminism and ‘cultural memory’. It concludes by teasing out a series of interrelated questions about the role gender plays in the interaction of genocide, gender and memory.
Examining the roots of testimony in relation to the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis, the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1999: 157) argues, after Primo Levi, that the only ‘complete witness’ is s/he who cannot bear witness — the Muselmann. Although hardly mentioned in all the histories of the destruction of European Jewry, the Muselmann, according to Agamben, is becoming visible now, more than 50 years later, because Auschwitz, before being a death camp,
is the site of an experiment that remains unthought today, an experiment beyond life and death in which the Jew is transformed into a Muselmann and the human being into a non-human. And we will not understand what Auschwitz is if we do not first understand who or what the Muselmann is — if we do not learn to gaze with him upon the Gorgon. (Agamben, 1999:52)
Seeking to fathom the ‘unspeakability’ of Auschwitz, Agamben suggests that the survivor bears witness on the basis of the impossibility of speaking and that his/her testimony cannot be denied. Primo Levi (1989) suggests that the survivor speaks for the Muselmann who is ‘the whole witness’, articulating the possibility of speech solely through impossibility. Therefore, Agamben argues that testimony is non-language, and that our shame prevents us from being able to gaze upon those who reached bottom, whose testimony remains inaccessible (Agamben, 1999:35–7).
Many survivors say that Auschwitz – the euphemistic representation of 20th century genocide – has never ceased to take place (as was argued so poignantly by Charlotte Delbo, 1995). Elsewhere (Lentin, 2004) I argue that the discursive legacy of Auschwitz for present day politics overshadows other genocides, and that the name ‘Auschwitz’ has become a metaphor, a ‘code’ (Zuckerman, 1993), invoked in relation to all ‘unspeakable’ catastrophes. I further argue that invoking this ‘code’ does not help us remember the extermination and its victims, but rather erases that memory, as do other representations, including photographs, but also history itself (as argued, among others, by the Shoah historian Saul Friedländer, 1982).
The fact that ‘we’1 are all implicated in ‘still being here’ and in the shame of being a subject may perhaps explain the proliferation of works – artistic, academic, testimonial – dealing with this act of Western barbarity. However, I want to suggest that ‘we’ are bound to return to the genocidal repressed, while all the time evading the gaze of the Muselmann, which makes the testimony of genocide hard to tell and harder to hear, even in our era's ‘confessional culture’, and despite the plethora of testimonial representations of genocide. In the din of this testimonial abundance, not only does the ‘true’ survivor/victim remain voiceless, but, when the survivor is a woman, her gender tends to remain either absent or disproportionately exaggerated, because of the collective's investment in women as carrying the burden of its representation and its honour and shame (Yuval-Davis, 1997:45–6; Akpinar, 2003).
In this article I want to start thinking theoretically about testimony, memory and gender using my empirical study of testimonies of women from Bukovina, northern Romania, who survived Transnistria as young girls. I begin by positing the woman survivor of genocide as femina sacra — the equivalent of Agamben's (1995) homo sacer, always at the mercy of sovereign power. I follow with a brief discussion of the politics of memory of political violence, the concept of postmemory (Hirsch, 1997), and the link between feminism and ‘cultural memory’ (Hirsch & Smith, 2002). I then discuss Transnistria itself, which I theorise, again after Agamben (1995), as the ‘state of exception’ par excellence. The quotes from testimonies of women survivors cited here are intended to give a specific flavour and context, even though they do not necessarily illustrate the theoretical argument in any linear way.
The Hebrew word for memory – ‘zikaron’ – has the same root as the word for male — ‘zakhar’. It has been argued that collective memory is often masculinised in the interest of the national or ethnic collective (see Lentin, 2000). Needless to say, women too remember catastrophe in a plethora of ways, including, though not exclusively, in gendered ways. My study examines testimonies of women, not men, because I do not believe that in order to understand women we always need to also look at men (pace Yuval-Davis, 1997, whose definition of gender as relational is ever relevant, though I am increasingly interested in theorising gender as a ‘floating signifier’, intersecting with, in this case, history, catastrophe, and the political). Therefore, without attempting a comparative analysis, I conclude the article by posing a series of tentative questions about the intersection of gender and memory.
Starting from Michel Foucault's (1978) theorisation of the modern nation-state as a ‘state of population’, using a series of technologies to monitor and control the nation's biological life which becomes a problem of sovereign power, Agamben shifts the theorisation of social life from the friend-versus-enemy categorical pair of western politics, to the ‘bare life’-versus-political sovereignty binary. Beyond Foucault's life (bios) becoming the principal object of the calculations of state power (biopower), Agamben posits ‘bare life’ (zoe) as coinciding with the political realm, as signifying the state of exception:
At once excluding bare life and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested (Agamben, 1995:9)
Bare life, which Agamben borrows from Roman law to name homo sacer, is the opposite of sovereign power, standing at the point of indistinction between violence and the law (Agamben, 1995:10). For Agamben, homo sacer is the ideal-type of the excluded being, whose life is devoid of value; therefore killing a homo sacer is not a punishable offence, but neither can the life of a homo sacer be used in religious sacrifice. Zygmunt Bauman (2004a) uses this theorisation to think of modernity constructing some categories of people as human waste, and argues that throughout modernity, the nation-state ‘has claimed the right to preside over the distinction between order and chaos, law and lawlessness, citizen and homo sacer, belonging and exclusion, useful (= legitimate) product and waste’ (Bauman, 2004a:33).
Agamben's theorisation of bare life is becoming increasingly useful in thinking about statelessness in the current age of population movements (see, e.g., Back, 2005 and Bauman, 2004a). Similarly, his theorisation of the (concentration) camp as the paradigm of modernity is instructive in thinking about the hidden nomos of the political sphere in which we are all still living. As products of the state of exception and martial law, the Nazi camps were paradoxically based on protective custody, aiming to avoid ‘danger’ to the security of the state and its citizens. In the camp the temporary state of exception becomes a permanent and normal spatial arrangement. Whoever enters the camp moves in a zone of indistinction between inside and outside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, a space in which subjective right and legal protection make no sense. And if s/he was a Jew under Nazism, s/he had already been denationalised and deprived of the rights of citizenship, and wholly reduced to bare life. The camp is the very paradigm of political space at the point in which politics becomes biopolitics, and homo sacer is virtually confused with the citizen. Agamben further argues that the birth of the camp in our times signals the political space of modernity itself (Agamben, 1995:167–174).
What I want to turn to now is asking whether the category homo sacer has any gendered implications. Is there a female equivalent of bare life? Is there a femina sacra?
Based on the link Agamben makes between birth and nation (deriving from nascere — to be born), Bauman (2003: 128) reminds us that birth is the only ‘natural’, no-questions-asked entry into the nation, and that the lives of humans who fall outside the limits set by sovereignty are ‘unworthy of being lived’, the Nazi version of homo sacer. What we call camp – breaking the trinity state–nation (birth)–land – is this distinction, the hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living (Agamben, 1995:174–6).
In Hebrew and other scriptures women can be temporarily banned as impure — after childbirth, or during menstruation, for example. Due to the link between birth and nation, in genocidal acts, which combine state racism and state sexism (c.f. Bock, 1993 and Ringelheim, 1997), women are permanently banned as impure, but also as the producers of future generations of the racially ‘inferior’. Sovereign power, which, in the case of Nazi Germany, constructed Jews and Roma as homines sacres, makes a further exception in relation to women's bare life, and they are thus often abandoned because of their temporary-made-permanent ban.
The Nazis seemingly never thought to effect the Final Solution by mass impregnations of Jewish women, mostly assumed to be ‘impure’ and therefore not candidates for sexual relations (although this assumption is beginning to be deconstructed by new research on children born to Nazi soldiers in the East Occupied territories and in Scandinavia, see, e.g., Muelhaueser, 2005). However, the rape camps in the former Yugoslavia dislocated populations and human lives along entirely new, gendered, lines. Euan Hague (1997) argues that while rape is always structured by relations of power and coercion, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, ‘the reasoning of Serb military policy of genocidal rape operates at (the) intersection of power relations, gender and national identities… gender was an important part of how nationalist forces understood and fought the war’ (Hague, 1997: 59; see also Lentin, 1999).
At the mercy of sovereign power, woman, due to her function as a vehicle of ethnic cleansing, and to her sexual vulnerability, arguably becomes femina sacra at the mercy of sovereign power: she who can be killed, but also impregnated, yet who cannot be sacrificed due to her impurity. The body of woman creates and contains birth-nations and demarcates territories, and is therefore the basis of nation-states, as the following discussion of the politics of memory and its gendering illustrates.
The (gendered) politics of memory
Marianne Hirsch (1997:22) posits ‘postmemory’, mediated through photographs, films, books, testimonies, and distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. James Young calls this type of memory ‘the afterlife of memory represented in history's after-images: the impressions retained in the mind's eye of a vivid sensation long after the original, external cause has been removed’ (Young, 2000:3–4).
Postmemory can be one facet of ‘collective memory’, theorised as different from ‘history’ in being shaped by society's changing needs, or, conversely, as shaping both political life and history itself. The politics of remembrance in the current ‘era of testimonies’ includes the trauma experienced by contemporary bystanders — often reluctantly forced to listen to the voices of victims and survivors. It also entails collective forgetting, which ‘we’, who survive after the event of genocide, have to struggle with in the face of our shame.
Five years after she floated the potent concept of ‘postmemory’ (although it is fair to ask whether all memory is but ‘postmemory’), Marianne Hirsch joins Valerie Smith (Hirsch and Smith, 2002) in attempting to engender collective cultural memory, and re-define it by feminist scholarship. According to them, feminist writings on sexual abuse, violence against women, auto/biographical literature, migration and slavery assume gender to be relevant to cultural memory, although scholars working on national memory, memorialisation, testimony and the memory and ‘postmemory’ of the Holocaust, have only recently begun to engage with feminist theoretical analyses.
As Bauman argues, memory is a mixed blessing, in that it selects and interprets, ‘and what is to be selected and how it needs to be interpreted is a moot matter and an object of contention’ (Bauman, 2004b:28, emphasis in the original). Indeed, as Sara Horowitz (1998) argues, women's Holocaust experiences are often refracted through men's testimonies that depict women as peripheral, helpless, fragile, morally defective or erotic in their victimisation, and often essentialise women's experiences in terms of their sexuality, as biologically vulnerable to Nazi brutality or as predominantly ‘bonding’ or ‘nurturing’ even in the face of the worse atrocities (c.f. Ringelheim, 1997). The categories ‘women’, or ‘women survivors’ are thus homogenised, even though, as Ruth Linden reminds us, the term ‘Holocaust survivor’ is problematic in that no one survived the Holocaust per se, but rather ghettos, deportations, concentration camps, hiding places, or resistance acts. A sociology of the Holocaust must acknowledge the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe as interacting, knowing subjects, yet the term ‘Holocaust survivor’ tends to reify their experiences (Linden, 1993:86–7).
Public media and official archives often tend to memorialise only the traumatic experiences of the powerful. However, I want to suggest that the feminist enterprise of recovering the ‘hidden’ voices of women who survived camps, ghettos and hiding places by creating alternative archives of visual images, music, ritual and performance, oral history and even silence, as proposed by Hirsch and Smith (2002), is but part of the solution to such public silencing. Merely recovering women's traumatic experiences without contextualising them in the structural intersections of sexism and racism, covers up the question posed by Bauman about the what and the how of selecting what is to be remembered. And there is an extra danger, as Yizhak Laor's survivor protagonist reminds us when he says, ‘What I want to remember, I have to remember without words, otherwise, it will be someone else's memory’ (Laor, 1993:37). Once communicated, women's Shoah memories are often co-opted, nationalised, taken away, serving the purpose of the (patriarchal) collective.
The term ‘Transnistria’ – coined by Hitler – was the name given to the 40,000 square kilometres between the River Dniester to the west, the River Bug to the east and the Black Sea to the South, in the southernmost corner of Ukraine. Transnistria existed for two and a half years, between August 1941 and March 1944, and was given by Hitler to the Romanian premier Ion Antonescu as a reward for Romania's part in the war against the Soviet Union (Ancel, 2002:757) and in order to compensate the Romanians, as Nazi allies, for territories lost to Hungary, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union (Ofer, 2000:38).
Unlike Nazi Germany, Romania was concerned ‘only’ with deporting or killing the Jews in its own territory. Significantly, Romania deported its Jewish citizens only after they were defined as Jews along Nuremberg Laws lines in April 1941 (Ancel, 2002:1389–90), that is, defined as homines sacres, positioned outside the law by Romanian sovereign power. Transnistria was set up under Romanian government in August 1941.2
Described as the ‘largest killing field in the Holocaust’, Transnistria was where half of Romania's pre-war Jewish population, mostly from the northern provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina, was deported between July 1941 and January 1942. The deportees joined 300,000 local Jews, most of whom were murdered by the SS and Einstazgruppen D (Ofer, 1999:176–7).
In Transnistria, like in the Nazi lagers, the temporary state of exception became a permanent and normal spatial arrangement, illustrating Agamben's theorisation of the camp as the epitome of the ‘state of exception’, which ‘comes more and more to the foreground as the fundamental political structure and ultimately begins to become the rule’ (Agamben, 1995:20). The camp, Agamben argues, unlike the prison (which is part of the ‘ordinary’ penal system), is ruled by martial law and the state of siege. In Transnistria – which consisted of some 132 Ukrainian towns and villages, which became concentration, transit and labour camps – though not under Nazi guards, and in closer contact with the local population, deportees moved in a zone of indistinction, in which subjective right and legal protection made little sense.
Why Transnistria? Why now?
I should have forgotten it all! I should have forgotten the nightmare! But it was not possible. It is beyond my power to forget. During long sleepless nights, during warm afternoons when I just rest, the events that took place during my fourteen months of exile to Transnistria are constantly resurfacing in my mind like a movie (Palti, 1983:11).
Zygmunt Bauman (1989), who theorises the Shoah as an outcome rather than aberration of modernity, points to several silences about the Shoah in sociology and society. Despite the apparent plethora of discourses about the Shoah — historical, literary, cinematic, testimonial (see contributors to Lentin, 2004, for further discussion), there has arguably been a relative silence about Jewish victimhood during the Shoah, due, perhaps, as Agamben suggests, to the impossibility of testimony, and to our shame in the face of those who reached bottom. This relative silence has been lifting gradually since the mid-1980s. However, in relation to Transnistria the silence has lasted longer, as argued, among others, by survivor Felicia Steigman Carmelly: this ‘blatant, but unintentional neglect is an additional source of pain in the web of trauma’ (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:xix).
It is difficult to fathom this prolonged silence; my research demonstrates that it had to do with the relative lack of available archival material from the former Soviet bloc, opened only in recent years, with active Romanian Holocaust denial (Braham, 1997, Gallagher, 1995 and Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:xxiv3), but also with the survivors themselves.
The prominence of the Nazi extermination camps, and of the testimonies of survivors of these camps, resulted in Transnistria survivors' understandable reluctance to assume the survivor mantle for what were ‘only’ deaths by disease, hunger, cold and sporadic killings of a few hundred thousands, which, many felt, could not be compared with the millions exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Thus, the 100,000 Romanian Jews who immigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1949 were trying to integrate and were reluctant to speak of their ordeal, of which no one in the young state wanted to hear.4
Indeed, the women survivors I interviewed told me about silencing their Transnistria experienced in Israel. Martha Ellenbogen: ‘To this day I have not given testimony in Yad Vashem. It's difficult. I can understand that people did not believe us…’.5 Bertha Abrahami: ‘No one asked us anything… Nor was I interested in telling. Because no one can transmit the feelings…’ According to survivor Sonia Palti: ‘When I returned after 14 months exile in Transnistria, I wanted to tell my friends about the extermination, about torture, about hunger, about beatings, about exile, to tell what Transnistria was for us. I realised that no one wanted to hear. So as a child of 15 I had a strange experience: I understood I had to keep quiet’ (in Simyonovics, 1999).
The pre deportation posgrom at Iasi, despite predicting the future massacres which were to annihilate six million Jews in the following three years, remained unspoken at the time and for a long period afterwards (Carp, 1946–48).
Women survivors face an extra layer of silence. Despite women's vulnerability to sexual exploitation, researching women's sexual abuse during the Shoah is extremely difficult, since it raises the possibility that they traded their sexuality for survival, and confronts relatives, but also researchers, with our own sexual vulnerability (or perhaps also shame, as Levi and Agamben suggest) (Ringelheim, 1997:25). Although accounts of the pre-deportation Romanian pogroms speak of widespread rapes of women and girls, little has been written about this in relation to Transnistria. In the Kishinev pogrom, while male Jews were captured as slave labour, women were ‘dragged to satisfy the sexual lust of the (Romanian) “liberators”. On August 1, 1941, 450 Jews were pulled out of the ghetto, mostly intellectuals and beautiful women… Some of the surviving women and girls were transported to the Soroca military brothel’ (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:49). Yet little of this appears in recorded, written or oral testimonies.
I have chosen to research girl survivors because, unlike Nazi concentration camps, 50% of the deportees to Transnistria were children (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:119) — the ultimate ‘bare life’ due to their relative powerlessness in the world of adults. (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:119) writes of thousands of children roaming the muddy roads from camp to camp. Separated from their parents, many witnessed the death or murder of their parents, eventually joining groups of wondering children, looking or begging for shelter and food. For some orphans, begging was the only way to survive. For others, it was shameful, as Klara Ostfeld writes:
I was nine years old, one gloomy afternoon, when I left the room I shared with so many others. Without telling anybody I went out into the street. I wandered about the narrow depressing roads of the Moghilev ghetto. I saw other children my age wrapped in rags with newspapers around their feet… I found myself in the market. There were long benches piled high with enticing foods… My mouth was watering at the sight of these foods… I stared at them as my thoughts were wandering back into my life before deportation. [A] voice rudely shocked me out of my reverie, ‘Aren't you ashamed to beg?’… I was flooded with shame… When I left the market I no longer felt hunger, just shame and a deep emptiness. (Ostfeld, in Steigman-Carmelly, 1997:305–6).
Implemented by less technological means than in the Nazi-controlled territories, and unlike the systematically organised Nazi annihilation plan, where arguably death was for the most part quick and ‘sanitary’, the Romanian methods were barbaric. According to Israeli novelist and child survivor of Transnistria Aharon Apelfeld, ‘They used old fashioned methods, not as in Auschwitz. This meant long and extended deaths, hunger, cold, illness. Or they would take people out and simply shoot them. But they saved bullets. They didn't shoot the children, they simply threw them out’ (in Simyonovics, 1999).
Not trying to suggest that girls experienced greater oppression than boys in Transnistria, and without constructing a comparative empirical frame, my study focuses on the testimonies of girls, exploring whether girls have gender specific memories of their Transnistria experiences.
If modernity is about constructing order, Bauman argues that the ‘prospect of order… draws out from its lair the ogre of chaos… Chaos reveals itself as a state of chaos by allowing events that the order must already have prohibited… Chaos, disorder, lawlessness portends the infinity of possibilities and the limitlessness of inclusion; … In an orderly (ordered) space, not everything may happen’ (Bauman, 2004a:30–1, emphasis in the original).
As the quotes from the testimonies below illustrate, a recurring theme in the accounts of Transnistria survivors is chaos – ‘a condition in which something is not in its proper place and does not perform its proper function’ (Bauman, 2004a:31) – even though in effect, everyone, from the highest Romanian state authorities down to the most humble civil servant in the village offices, knew and agreed that the Jews had to be killed or deported. This campaign was carried out in Romania before the extermination camps began to function elsewhere in Europe. Despite the reported chaos, new archival materials demonstrate that the Romanians employed their own rationale for the deportations including fear of the widespread typhus epidemic of the 1941–2 winters, and the need to supply slave labour to build the Nazi Poland–Ukraine highway which explains the Trans-Bug Nazi-controlled labour camps modelled on the Nazi camps in Poland. The archives also demonstrate a clear command structure on the Romanian side, leading Steigman-Carmelly to conclude that ‘while chaos and disorganisation otherwise prevailed, the persecution and extermination of the targeted Jewish population was executed with cruel determination’… so much so that by May 1942, a few months after the deportations began, almost two third of Transnistria's Jews were dead (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997: 89).
Shoah historian Dalia Ofer (2000:39) argues that the history of Transnistria can be studied as a mini history of the Holocaust. Even though Transnistria was also characterised by successful Jewish resistance strategies,6 Transnistria, the territory, was ‘camp territory’ par excellence, where sovereign power turned young girl deportees into femina sacra, as I now explore by reading their testimonies.
The narratives: ruptured childhood
When I lay on the ground a week after I witnessed my mother's death, hungry, broken, alone, an orphan, between strangers, I thought, if I remain alive I will tell the whole world what I experienced. And no one will believe me. (Esther Gelbelman, in Simyonovics, 1999).
In all the testimonies I examine for this article, the women depict the idyllic, protected childhoods of the pampered daughters of the Jewish bourgeoisie which, in pre war Bukovina, had the economic and cultural freedom to lead a well off, yet traditional Jewish existence. This narrative device highlights the sharp rupture between idyllic childhood and what was to come.
Having been a sheltered child, the only granddaughter to my grandparents… I was very naïve, pampered and completely unprepared for the perils facing me. After surviving the forced abandonment of my home and birthplace and the atrocious deportation train, I no longer felt like a child. My childhood was denied to me, it was robbed by evil people who had complete power over our lives… (Steigman-Carmelly, 1997: 233).
Ruth Glassberg-Gold describes the shock of the first chaotic hours of the deportations which began in September 1941:
November 1941… That morning the soldiers banged on our door, cursing and swearing. They ordered us to leave the apartment. Carrying rucksacks and a few packed things we left our house forever. Terrified, I looked silently at the chaos on the streets, familiar to me since childhood and hitherto peaceful. There were hordes of people, shoving and pushing mercilessly… Before we could collect ourselves, we were swallowed in that chaotic deportation — people of all ages and classes, women holding screaming babies in their arms, sick people supported by children, old people bent under their belongings… (Glassberg-Gold, 1999: 63).
The Romanians established several points along the River Dniester, ordering the Jews to cross the river on bridges or on overcrowded barges and rafts. The crossings and the ensuing human convoys were overseen by Romanian soldiers, who shot Jews unable to keep up the pace because of weakness or illness. Deportees who died on those death convoys were left on the side of the road to die from exhaustion, cold, hunger and illness before they reached the camps. Some, having exchanged their clothes for food, walked naked in 40 degrees below zero (Ancel, 1997).
Ruth Glassberg-Gold describes the death convoys from a child's point of view:
As we were advancing (on our death march) I noticed a strange thing: on both sides of the road I saw tree stumps covered in snow, which looked like human figures. Confused, I tried to understand what they were, but from the cart I could not decipher them… I asked the adults for an explanation, but they hesitated. Only when I insisted they told me the shocking truth – these were swollen, frozen human bodies from previous deportations, people who were unable to stand the march and stayed to die by the side of the road forever… (The bodies) were everywhere – in the barns, the cellars and inside the houses… they were abandoned like animals, nobody bothered to close their glassy eyes, which seemed to be imploring for rest (Ruth Glassberg-Gold, 1999: 75–6).
Martha Ellenbogen links private memories of girlhood with accounts of the convoys:
One place shocked me. Obadovka. I will never forgive myself. People died at the side of the road. It was the end of October. For the first time in my life I saw frozen people in the ditches by the side of the road. I was very scared. I won't forgive myself for having made life difficult for my mother, because I didn't want to go to sleep. She didn't know what to do… They opened the door and we saw naked people, thin as skeletons…(Interview, Israel, 2000).
The narrators, who were nine to eleven years old at the outbreak of war, speak of the changing relations with the local population, and seeing parents being humiliated by neighbours and customers who joined the Iron Guard. Ruth Glassberg-Gold, who grew up in Milie, a picturesque village outside Czernowitz, describes her shock at hearing that the Jewish population of Milie was massacred by its neighbours after she and her family had fled to Czernowitz:
The carrier of the appalling news was my mother's cousin… He managed to shout in a choked voice towards (our) fourth-floor window: ‘Anna! Anna! They have all been murdered!’… Later, when we found out that all our friends and relatives had been murdered, not by the soldiers but by their neighbours with whom they had lived in harmony, our panic increased (Glassberg-Gold, 1999: 54).
Other themes unite the narratives: having to witness the death of loved ones; being faced with epidemics and death for the first time in their lives; having to part with prized childhood possessions; being flee-ridden and terrified of the typhus epidemic; being forcibly shaved and deprived of their budding femininity; employing complex barter systems and other resistance strategies; and finally, having to live on with the memories, suppressed for many years.
The packed trains and lack of hygiene feature prominently in the narratives, signalling another rupture with the narrators' bourgeois upbringing and warm family relations.
They sent us in cattle trains to Bessarabia; Merkulesti, the last stop. A border station between Russia and Romania… It was there that I got the shock of my life. It was there I think that we lost our humanity. We got off the train, there were soldiers, Romanians, Germans, dogs; and they all relieved themselves outside the train, without shame. We simply got off the train and… men, women, children, everyone together. This is a picture I shall never forget (Bertha Abrahami, Interview, Israel, 2000).
Deportees were housed in pigsties, stables and cowsheds — sometimes with up to 1500 strangers to a shed. Martha Ellenbogen: ‘We arrived in Potshana, and put in a cowshed. There were troughs on both sides… the cows were no longer there, we lived there instead of the cows. We lay side by side, improvising with blankets, coats and straw. We stayed there with strangers, people we had never met before’.
Having become immune to the pain, narrators tell of the death of loved ones flatly, recounting death as a ‘natural’ consequence of the horrors. This is particularly shocking when they talk of the death of mothers. Bertha Abrahami: ‘We walked on, and my mother became ill. Very ill. And died’. Martha Ellenbogen: ‘In the stable people became ill and began to die. Those who died were placed in the aisle and the bodies were stacked up until the carts arrived… Meanwhile my mother became ill with typhus. This couple we befriended came and saw she was dying and said that if anything happened to Mother, I should say nothing and they would come to see us in the morning… they were afraid that if the others saw that she had died, they would take away my few remaining things. I lay beside Mother and warmed her with my body… in the morning they came, and mother was no longer alive’.
The prevalence of death meant that narrators were often unsure as to their own continuing existence — illustrating life in the twilight zone between inside and outside, exception and the law. Bertha Abrahami: ‘We walked and walked and arrived somewhere… On the way there I had already had fever… we were no longer clean. I remember father held me in his arms and there was a table, and father asked the people to allow him to put the child on the table because she had fever. I lay on the table and I remember thinking that we were in a train, or something, I don't know. Every morning they got the dead out. I remember that I didn't know whether I was alive or dead, if they were taking me out or not’.
Strategies of survival improvised by the deportees included selling their remaining valuables, bartering with local Ukrainian peasants, knitting, collecting and selling scraps of timber. Ruth Glassberg-Gold learnt a bitter lesson about the value of things: ‘A blouse was worth an onion, a coat a loaf of bread, and so on. Naturally people who had more valuable things, jewellery for instance, could do better deals and this gave them a better chance of survival. These were hard lessons in the facts of life’ (Glassberg-Gold, 1999:76).
Ruth Glassberg-Gold was relieved when her long braids were cut off, but when told she would have to shave her hair completely in order to stop the lice infestation, ‘I looked desperately at my beautiful hair falling on the ground and felt naked and ashamed. I was hurt not only because I was no longer beautiful, but because I no longer looked like a girl. My identity was robbed and I felt humiliated. My only consolation was that older girls too had to bear this humiliation, and after our heads were shaved we all looked alike, women and men, strange, grotesque’ (Glassberg-Gold, 1999:77–8).
Conclusion: the gender of memory, the memory of gender
I want to suggest that these gendered testimonies of Transnistria raise important questions about the link between gender and memory, particularly due to the long silence which preceded them.
While it is clearly impossible to make cross-cultural gender differentiations, Zvi Dror, who collected and recorded many Shoah testimonies of Israeli survivors, says that while the male survivors he interviewed gave general, factual testimonies in the spirit of Israeli hegemonic masculinity, the women testified more emotionally concentrating on the personal rather than the public or political (personal communication, December 1992). Gergen and Gergen (1993:195–6) further suggest that male auto/biographies tend to follow the classical lines of fundamental Western ‘monomyths’ — the sagas of a hero who triumphs over many obstacles, which do not fit the lives of most women, whose lives are characterised by multiple and parallel trajectories, affected by their mothering and nurturing roles. Without homogenising or essentialising women's stories, I would tentatively suggest that in contrast to men's linear chronologies, women's tales are often multiple, ambivalent and recursive. If men's stories follow the main traits of idealised auto/biographies, women's stories are often deviant, subverting the collective's story.
The narratives of Israeli women Shoah survivors often deviate from the arguably male linear Shoah narrative, the trajectory of which begins prior to the Shoah, and continues via Shoah (and often gevurah — acts of heroic resistance) to tekumah (redemption) in the state of Israel. Although some of the narratives by women who survived Transnistria have such a linear chronicity, they can also be read, precisely because of the long silence about Transnistria, as disrupting the linearity of Israeli Shoah narratives.7
Therefore, I want to ask whether women's memory of violence is always scripted by the collective, and is always someone else's memory. Is it possible to re-member gender through the positioning of women's bodies at the intersection of birth–nation–territory? Or is gender – often conceived as pertaining to the private sphere – therefore one of the signifiers of a new type of forgetting?
Theorising the inability of Shoah survivors to proceed from past to present, Lawrence Langer juxtaposes ‘common memory’, which ‘urges us to regard the Auschwitz ordeal as part of a chronology, (freeing) us from the pain of remembering the unthinkable’, and ‘deep memory’ which ‘reminds us that the Auschwitz past is not really past and never will be’ (Langer, 1995:xi). I want to suggest that for many Jewish women from Bukovina who survived Transnistria as girls, whose idyllic girlhoods were cruelly ruptured, later memories of rescue and redemption, in the state of Israel or elsewhere, were the common memory covering up the deep memory of violence of the girls they once were, whose past Transnistria ‘selves’ are not really past and never will be.
The fact that, despite the chaos and the inhuman conditions, 40% of the deportees survived (Ofer, 1999:49) may be why Transnistria has been considered until quite recently as a ‘lesser’ Shoah experience. Memories of redemption are sanctioned by the Zionist collective, yet, because of the multi-layered silences covering the Transnistria ‘forgotten Holocaust’, the narrators' private testimonies can be read as counter narratives, subverting the accepted Transnistria story.
The accounts of women who survived as girls in Transnistria may help shed light on the impossibility of forgetting violent childhood trauma and on the price of survival. Langer argues that ultimately, Shoah testimonies are united by the ‘unintended, unexpected, but invariably unavoidable failure’ to link survivors' Shoah experiences with the rest of their lives (Langer, 1991:2–3). Shoah survival is often valorised at the expense of morality (Bauman, 2000), and recovering women's gendered experiences of violent victimisation, outside the context of state racism and sexism, assumes women as permanent victims. Joan Ringelheim (1997) criticises such uncontextualised rendering which conveys redeeming messages about women's ability to survive by constructing alternative family structures and therefore reverting to traditional gender roles and alternative morality.
Often breaking the silence about Transnistria for the first time ever, the narratives of these girl survivors tell of rupture, violence and death, confusion, precariousness, of Jews as ‘bare life’, prey to Nazi, Romanian and Ukrainian sovereign power, but also of the gendered pains of early adolescence, of budding womanhood humiliated and of femininity erased.
As Liz Stanley (1992:8) argues, the assumption of traditional biography ‘that there is a coherent, essentially unchanging and unitary self which can be referentially captured’ is no longer tenable. For some survivors of political violence, broken or ambiguous identity may be a painful problem, for others it can be an opportunity, a special creative space. Since, as Linden (1993:43) says, ‘we all must remember so as to carry on, to resist, to survive’, a woman's gendered experience under Nazi occupation is a central building block of her gendered survivor identity.
The Transnistria testimonies I am studying are recursive, hesitant, incomplete narratives that Gergen and Gergen (1993) describe as ‘deviant’, and as more commonly told by women, rather than men, whose narratives of violence tend to correspond with collective memory and its nationalised constructions. However, what has unproblematically been referred to as narratives of the private sphere, signify, for the survivor, a broken or ambiguous identity, notionally replacing the story of the collective with a gendered, individuated survivor identity. Understanding these narratives as gendered constructs memory in terms of women's different experiences and voices, yet challenges neither sovereign power, nor structural racism and sexism.
Rachel Adler suggests that in a (Jewish) patriarchy, the only memory is male memory because ‘the only members are male members. They are the rememberers and the remembered, the recipients and the transmitters of tradition, law, ritual, story and experience’ (Adler, 1991:45).
Yet women remember too. Fathoming what is gendered about memory, we probably need to go beyond women's different experiences and their greater vulnerability to sexual exploitation. We who live on have an investment in remembering the victims of genocide as valorised and pure. However, since women are strategically positioned as carriers of the collective's honour and shame (as argued by Akpinar, 2003, in relation to Turkish migrant women in diaspora situations), women survivors embody and symbolise the collective and carry greater responsibility for transgressing group boundaries, both symbolically and materially. The investment of the collective in women's bodies as demarcating its boundaries begs the question of whether the ‘true (gendered) witness’ is she who was sexually violated, but who cannot tell the story of her sexual exploitation because of her symbolic positioning.
According to Ringelheim, the split between Holocaust and gender is ‘a line (that) divides what is considered peculiar or specific to women from what has been designated as the proper collective memory of, or narratives about, the Holocaust’ (Ringelheim, 1998:344).
Woman carries the principle and practice of birth in her body, and, as femina sacra at the mercy of sovereign power, both demarcates the collective, and signifies the indistinction between violence and the law, inside and outside, at its most extreme. If gender remembers through women's different experiences, then memory is gendered through the collective's investment in women's symbolic representation. The memory of Transnistria – not quite ‘Auschwitz’ and having a high survival rate – fits uneasily the ways the Shoah has been remembered and nationalised in the memory bank of the Jewish people. The question is whether ‘we’ – this time meaning both feminist researchers, and gendered subjects implicated in ‘still being here’ – can bear to gaze upon the Gorgon. Can our shame allow us to absorb victimised womanhood so as to open up new avenues to researching gendered memory in times of political violence?
1 Of course ‘we’ is far from a universal concept. I use it here in inverted commas to indicate the problematic use of the term, which relates, at best, to those members of a western world who claim the Shoah as part of their legacy.
2 All the rules governing the region were based on Antonescu's Decree no. 1 for the Governing of Transnistria. Antonescu established in Bucharest, as part of the Prime Minister's office, the civil–military cabinet for the governing of Bessarabia, Bukovina and Transnistria, headed by the region's civil governor, Prof. G. Alexianu (Ancel, 2002:760). Lya Benjamin highlights the regime's complex and contradictory anti-Jewish policy which included the Romanisation of Jewish property, ethnic cleansing, deportation to Transnistria and the Nazi death camps, discriminatory measures (such as the wearing of the distinctive mark, the ban on conversion, supply restrictions), and the way emigration was organised (Benjamin, 1997:3–18). Antisemitism was central to Iron Guard doctrines: ‘the Jew was the mortal enemy of Romania because of his identification with the debased products of the west — anti-Christian communism as well as liberal democracy’ (Fischer-Galati, 1993: 53–4, cited by Gallagher, 1995).
3 The pressures to rehabilitate Antonescu are ongoing. In 1991 Romania's President Illiescu, opposing extreme right antisemitism, rejected growing pressure to rehabilitate Antonescu, by Romanians seeking a strong ruler who would sweep away internal tensions, put an end to foreign meddling and make Romania ‘great again’. In July 1991 he declared that he ‘did not share the opinion of those who wished to rehabilitate him, keeping silent on the negative aspects of his activity’, describing Antonescu as ‘Hitler's ally (who) pushed the country into war’ (Gallagher, 1995:115).
4 Personal communication, Yitzhak Arzi, Tel Aviv, Summer 2000.
5 Quotes from Bertha Abrahami and Martha Ellenbogen are taken from interviews I conducted with them in Israel in Spring 2000.
6 The very disorganisation and lack of systematic annihilation plan, as well as the normative use of bribery of Romanian officials enabled the Jewish leadership to formulate strategies of assistance and relief since spring 1942. Despite its lateness and inadequacy, the relief contributed to survival: ‘no other Jewish community in Nazi Europe received such massive assistance’ (Ofer, 2000:39).
7 See Lentin (2000) for a discussion of second generation Shoah narratives as gendered counter narratives.