Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust,
Nechama Tec* (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 448 pp., cloth
$35.00, pbk. $20.00.
Reviewed by Rochelle G. Saidel in Holocaust and Genocide Studies,
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2005.
See http://hgs.oxfordjournals.org/ for the original of this review.
Nechama Tec’s Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust,
winner of the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust Studies
category, is a welcome addition to the small but growing collection of
analyses of gender and women’s experiences during the Holocaust.
Women’s studies and Holocaust studies both became “legitimate”
but unconnected scholarly subjects in the 1960s, but the Holocaust generally
continued to be studied from the point of view of men. The special gendered
experiences of women during the Holocaust have received less scholarly
attention. Now Tec combines the two by comparatively investigating how
women and men coped and survived.
The first public event on record that addressed women, gender, and the
Holocaust did not take place until March 1983, when Esther Katz and Joan
Ringelheim organized the groundbreaking “Conference on Women Surviving
the Holocaust” at Stern College in New York. Ten years later, Carol
Rittner and John Roth published the anthology Different Voices: Women
and the Holocaust (1993).1 Then, for the first time in twenty-nine years,
the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust presented in 1999
a plenary on women and the Holocaust. As co-chairs of this session, Myrna
Goldenberg and I featured recent scholarly books on the subject and titled
the plenary “Women’s Holocaust History: Books in Print.”
The occasion was historic not only because the subject was deemed important
enough for a plenary, but also because a core number of books made such
a session possible. Since 1999 there have been workshops, plenaries, and
panels at the Scholars’ Conference, Lessons and Legacies conferences,
educators’ conferences at Yad Vashem, annual meetings of the Association
of Holocaust Organizations, and elsewhere.
Drawing on personal narratives as well as archival material, Resilience
and Courage addresses the specific gender-related questions that made
the female Holocaust experience different from that of the male. It explores
how gender affected women’s and men’s ability to struggle
against deprivation, terror, and even death, and how being female or male
generated benefits and liabilities. Tec’s skillful interview techniques
and ability to smoothly interweave narratives and historical background
result in a book with both human warmth and contextual accuracy.
An important difference between men and women that the author discusses
was women’s homemaking and nurturing skills, which equipped them
to form surrogate families, take care of each other, and keep themselves
and their living space as clean and hygienic as possible under the circumstances.
Tec also discusses women’s difficulty in overcoming inbred modesty
and submissiveness, as well as men’s humiliation when they lost
their employment and positions as heads of household.
Tec points out that other variables, such as the socioeconomic, political,
and national backgrounds of women and men also played a role in survival.
In addition, she discusses the impact of biological differences between
men and women, such as women’s reproductive systems and their vulnerability
to rape and sexual abuse. This material includes testimony from women
in the resistance movement about rape and the need for a male protector,
as well as narratives about menstruation, pregnancy, and abortion.
After an introductory chapter, “Voices from the Past,” Tec
organizes her book according to general circumstances during the Holocaust:
“In the Beginning,” “Life in the Ghetto,” “Leaving
the Ghetto,” “The Concentration Camps,” “Hiding
and Passing in the Forbidden Christian World,” and “Resistance.”
Tec discerned from most survivor reports
that during the Holocaust, adult women and men, to a greater extent than
the very old and very young, traveled on different roads toward the single
destination planned for them by the Germans. Men were seen as humiliated,
broken by their inability to provide for their families. The horrendous
circumstances they had to face left them depressed and apathetic. Mothers
or female relatives were generally viewed with admiration for their selfless
aid to their families and others. When husbands and fathers were unable
to fulfill their roles, adult women and their teenaged children of both
sexes rose to the challenge, aiding their families, friends, and communities.
Differing from most American scientific researchers, Tec has two distinct
advantages that helped her gather significant data and interviews for
this book. First, she is not only a sociologist, but also a survivor.
Born in Lublin in 1931, she survived the war by hiding and passing as
a non-Jew. Second, her fluency in Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish
enabled her to speak with survivors in the language with which they were
most comfortable. Thus, Tec’s writing combines the analytical skills
of a trained sociologist with her personal experience of living through
Tec’s latest book grew out of her other works, especially her
research on Defiance: The Bielski Partisans (1993). “I realized
through Defiance that women in the forest had a special role and situation,”
she has explained at lectures in connection with her book. “So I
looked at women in different contexts, and realized that I also had to
look at men as well as women.” The result is Resilience and Courage,
a comparative analysis of men and women in ghettos, camps, forests, resistance
movements, and a variety of other settings.
women's diaries and firsthand accounts had been available in English
since the 1950s, the year 1998 produced an unprecedented richness of more
analytical publications, and even more began to appear after that. Two
out of the three finalists for the 1998 National Jewish Book Award in
the Holocaust Studies category were about women and gender: Between
Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, by Marion A. Kaplan,
and Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J.
Weitzman. Other important books on women and the Holocaust published in
1998 include Brana Gurewitsch’s Mothers, Sisters, Resisters:
Oral Histories of Women Who Survived the Holocaust and Judith Tydor
Baumel’s Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust.
“This book is magnificent proof that a sensitive investigation
of gender issues does not lead to trivialization and distortion in the
service of some presumed agenda but rather to a much deeper encounter
with the lived experience of the victims--both men and women--of this
devastating and catastrophic event.”
—Christopher R. Browning, University of North Carolina at Chapel
“This book is a remarkable achievement, based on a deep knowledge
of the subject, profound sociological analysis, and convincing narrative
—Israel Gutman, professor emeritus, Hebrew University
More reviews on this book at Yale
*Nechama Tec is a Remember the Women Institute Advisory Board member
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