Gendering War Talk

Gendering War Talk

by Miriam G. Cooke

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In a century torn by violent civil uprisings, civilian bombings, and genocides, war has been an immediate experience for both soldiers and civilians, for both women and men. But has this reality changed our long-held images of the roles women and men play in war, or the emotions we attach to violence, or what we think war can accomplish? This provocative collection


In a century torn by violent civil uprisings, civilian bombings, and genocides, war has been an immediate experience for both soldiers and civilians, for both women and men. But has this reality changed our long-held images of the roles women and men play in war, or the emotions we attach to violence, or what we think war can accomplish? This provocative collection addresses such questions in exploring male and female experiences of war--from World War I, to Vietnam, to wars in Latin America and the Middle East--and how this experience has been articulated in literature, film and drama, history, psychology, and philosophy. Together these essays reveal a myth of war that has been upheld throughout history and that depends on the exclusion of "the feminine" in order to survive.The discussions reconsider various existing gender images: Do women really tend to be either pacifists or Patriotic Mothers? Are men essentially aggressive or are they threatened by their lack of aggression?Essays explore how cultural conceptions of gender as well as discursive and iconographic representation reshape the experience and meaning of war. The volume shows war as a terrain in which gender is negotiated. As to whether war produces change for women, some contributors contend that the fluidity of war allows for linguistic and social renegotiations; others find no lasting, positive changes. In an interpretive essay Klaus Theweleit suggests that the only good war is the lost war that is embraced as a lost war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
These 13 essays, which grew out of a 1990 institute on war and gender at Dartmouth College, range across cultures and disciplines to explore how 20th-century war stories articulate both men's and women's experiences. Some are quite accessible, such as Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer's analysis of Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah, which, in concentrating on testimony from men, refuses to recognize gender differences in the experiences of victims. Some essays address obscure topics, like Diana Taylor's criticism of an Argentine play that concerns the country's ``dirty war,'' or are bogged down in lit-crit language, like Lynda E. Boose's take on ``techno-muscular'' cinematic representations of war and masculinity. Perhaps most interesting is Carol Cohn's ironic report on how male defense intellectuals talk about war--urging caution in an international crisis, for instance, is called ``wimping out.'' Also notable is Irene Matthews's analysis of the stories told by daughters about their mothers in Mexico and Guatemala, which includes one by Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu. Cooke is the author of War's Other Voices ; Woollacott teaches history at Case Western Reserve University. (May)

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

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Gendering War Talk

By Miriam Cooke, Angela Woollacott


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06980-7



Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer

The film is made around my own obsessions. (Claude Lanztnann)

To live, as well as to die, a Jewish father needs to know that the future of his child is secure. (Sigmund Freud)

The cinema is the medium that reaches far into Hades. (Klaus Theweleit)

THERE ARE MOMENTS when gender does not impose itself as a category of analysis, when, displaced by other factors, it virtually disappears from view. The Holocaust is such a moment. While the experience and the representation of war generally places women and men in radically different positions—on the home- and battlefronts, for example—the Holocaust, at least for its victims, seems to be a moment that recognizes no gender differences, that erases gender as a category. Nazism would exterminate all Jews, regardless of gender, class, nationality, professional, or economic status. If Jews are vermin, as Hitler insisted, then distinctions among Jews normally applied in social interaction become irrelevant. In the elaborate "final solution" devised by the Nazis during the early 1940s, all victims were to be stripped of difference and rendered powerless. The Holocaust's victims were thus to be "degendered" by the process of persecution and extermination.

The opening scene of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah offers an ironic illustration of the representational divergences between gender and war, on the one hand, and gender and the Holocaust, on the other. His nine-and-a-half-hour cinematic oral history of the Holocaust begins as Simon Srebnik, one of the only two survivors of the massive exterminations in the Polish village of Chelmno, reenacts for the camera an event that villagers there still remember to this day: his regular trip down the Narew River on a flat-bottomed rowboat when, at the prodding of his German guards, he sang Polish folk tunes and Prussian military songs in his beautiful tenor voice. In the mouth of the chained thirteen-year-old Jewish orphan boy, condemned to death, the immense gulf between the experience of Jewish males and the rewards and disappointments of a wartime masculinity emerges with pointed irony: "A mug of red wine, a slice of roast," he was taught to sing. "That's what the girls give their soldiers. When the soldiers march through town, the girls open their windows and their doors." [Wenn die Soldaten durch die Stadt marschieren, öffnen die Mädchen die Fenster und die Türen.]

Shoah's numerous witnesses attest to the erasure of gender as one of the prime instruments of Nazi dehumanization and extermination. As victims are shaved, stripped down or clad in identical striped uniforms, starved, screamed at, beaten, tormented; as they are reduced by the thousands to bodies (referred to not as "victims" or "corpses" but as Figuren and Schmattes, "figures," "junk"); as they are piled into wagons "like sardines," laid out in mass graves "like herrings"; as their flesh starts crumbling in the ground where they are dumped; as they fall out of gas vans and gas chambers "like potatoes"; as they become a "load," converted, within the space of hours, to ashes—gender, with humanity, gets erased. "It was not a world," the Polish courier Jan Karski insists as he describes his Dantesque journey through the Warsaw ghetto at the end of Shoah: "There was not humanity.... Women with their babies, publicly feeding their babies, but they have no ... no breast, just flat."

Ironically, however, Claude Lanzmann's film itself also eradicates gender differences among the victims of the Final Solution. The almost obsessive thrust of Shoah, its primary goal, is to bring to memory and to record the workings of the Nazi machinery of destruction: to detail its operations and lethal course, from the ghettos, to the transports and trains, to the selection in the extermination camps, to mass murder in gas vans and gas chambers, to the burial and burning of the corpses. The film penetrates both the procedural and psychic dimension of this process: the secrecy that enabled it to work, the collusions of a world that stood by in silence and allowed it to happen. Lanzmann's primary witnesses for this daunting project—the persons he interviews and interrogates most fully—are those who were closest to the process and mechanics of extermination: some survivors of the special work details in the concentration camps, several German perpetrators, and a few Polish bystanders who lived and worked near the killing centers. Among the Jewish victims, those who were at once closest to the death machine and able to survive and to testify were, by selection, men. But Shoah elicits other voices as well. Lanzmann interviews some survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, a few Auschwitz survivors from the Jewish community of Corfu, two survivors of the Riga ghetto who appear in the film to sing a ghetto song, a woman who spent the war in hiding in Berlin, and one survivor of the Theresienstadt "family camp" in Auschwitz. Even among these witnesses, however, Lanzmann clearly privileges testimonies from men. Although the experience of Jewish women is described in the Jewish men's and the bystanders' and perpetrators' narratives—although they are talked about and represented by others—they themselves appear on-screen on only a few, and extremely brief, occasions. And even when they do appear, even when their voices are heard, the camera seems to shy away from sustained focus on their faces.

Some of the women who are seen and heard in the course of the film act as mediaries and interpreters from Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish, carrying the words and the information of the narrators to Lanzmann, and the questions from Lanzmann, who is the only interviewer and the central presence in the film. A number of the Polish "bystander" witnesses are women as well, as is one of the German informants. The perpetrators and bystanders, inasmuch as they figure in the film, represent a range of groups, male and female, farmers and tradespeople. But among the Jewish survivors who speak and give their accounts in the film, the erasure of differences and, particularly, the almost complete absence of women are striking.

For Lanzmann, gender is irrelevant to the death machinery on which he focuses with such relentless energy: a machinery that is designed to render subject into object, to degender, to declass, to dehumanize, to exterminate, and to destroy the traces. But in focusing so resolutely on this machinery and privileging the detailed explanation of its operation, Lanzmann backgrounds the subjective experience of its victims—the differentiated individual realm within which, according to other survivor accounts, significant gender differences do emerge.4 Indeed, women's Holocaust narratives and testimonies do bring out a gendered experience. In accounts collected by Lewin, Laska, Heinemann, Katz, and Ringelheim, women speak of the effects of their ceasing to menstruate and the fear that their fertility would never return; they speak of rape, sexual humiliation, sexual exchange, abuse, enforced abortions, and the necessity of killing their own and other women's babies. They speak of the extermination selection process in which maternity becomes a much greater liability than paternity. They describe most extensively and analyze most deeply the relationships and friendships that developed between women in concentration camps. Controversially, some even argue that women showed greater survival skills than men.

These, however, are not the accounts we hear in Shoah.

This, then, is the paradox: From the perspective of the oppressor, the victim lacks subjectivity. If the critic scrutinizes that perspective, concentrating the focus on the machine that fulfills and implements the oppressor's deepest desires, he or she also risks an erasure of the subjective. Such an unintentional and ironic replication does emerge in Shoah when we interrogate gender as an inherent element of subjectivity. And yet, despite the erasure of women that Lanzmann performs through the focus and method of his inquiry, traces of gender difference are nonetheless reinscribed in his film. Perhaps unwittingly, they sustain and motivate much of the energy driving this monumental oral history. Our endeavor to uncover these traces, to excavate the feminine buried within the layered structure of the film's testimonies—a feminine cast in the archetypal roles of a Persephone, a Eurydice, a Medusa—is what we are calling "gendered translation."

* * *

Jewish women survivors do not themselves advance the central inquiry of Shoah; they do not further Lanzmann's investigation into the machine of death with information detailing its operations. They exist in the film for different purposes. The first Jewish woman to be seen on-screen is Hannah Zaïdel, the daughter of Motke Zaïdel, survivor of Vilna. She appears as a curious listener obsessed with her father's story: "I never stopped questioning him," she states in the film, "until I got at the scraps of truth he couldn't tell me. It came out haltingly. I had to tear the details out of him, and finally, when Mr. Lanzmann came, I heard the whole story for the second time." But in the film it is Claude Lanzmann, not Hannah Zaïdel, who asks the questions. Indeed, as one of the few screened female listeners who is not also an interpreter, Hannah sits in a faded background, smoking a cigarette, when her father and his fellow survivors describe being forced to uncover mass graves and dig up bodies, including those of Zaïdel's mother and sisters, in order to burn them and eradicate their traces. Paula Biren appears next, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto who responds, briefly, in the negative, to the only question she is asked ("You never returned to Poland since?"). Unlike most of the male witnesses who speak in the film on repeated occasions, Biren and the other Jewish women disappear after only one brief interview.

While a great deal of energy is spent in the film to bring some of the men back to the scenes of extermination—to have them relive, intensely and relentlessly, the experience in the present so as to be able to remember and testify about the past—only one woman goes through this process. She is Inge Deutschkron, who returns to her native Berlin from Israel and declares, "This is no longer home." Her brief narrative recalls the day Jews were deported from the city while she herself remained behind in hiding, and relates how, throughout the rest of the war, she felt "utterly alone" and "terribly guilty" not to have departed on the transports with the rest. Her position—in hiding and removed from the central destiny of her people, a destiny Lanzmann interrogates through the Sonderkommando survivors and other men—emblematizes the position of women in the film as a whole. Unlike most of the male witnesses whose faces fill the screen for long periods of time, Inge Deutschkron is little more than a disembodied voice: her narrative is largely presented in voice-over as scenes of Berlin and departing trains occupy the space of the screen; her face and name appear only at the very end of her brief account. And unlike most of the other male witnesses, she never returns in the film.

At a very important moment in Shoah, in the midst of Rudolf Vrba's and Filip Müller's narratives of the failed uprisings in Auschwitz, another Jewish female informant appears briefly. Her role in the film is also symptomatic. Ruth Elias initiates the narrative about the Theresienstadt "family camp" brought to Auschwitz by the Nazis for propaganda purposes—about the group that became a focus of resistance activities during the months of its cynical "reprieve," before almost all of its members were sent to the gas chambers. But Elias's story in the film is limited to the Theresienstadt group's transport to Auschwitz only, and to her disbelief at the news that she had arrived at an extermination camp. Details about the group's six-month stay in Auschwitz, about relations between its members, about the possibilities of resistance, about feelings generated by warnings of imminent gassing, about the exterminations themselves: these we receive not from Theresienstadt family camp member Elias, who quickly disappears from the film entirely without ever enlightening us about the means of her own escape from death, but from Rudolf Vrba and Filip Müller, who observed the Theresienstadt group as outsiders. This female witness, whose face, like Inge Deutschkron's, appears onscreen only at the very end of her brief voice-over narration, is merely allowed to start the story, which is then taken over by the two men.

Elias's role—to set the scene, provide the atmosphere, the affect, and not the facts or the details—allows us to understand one way in which Shoah uses women. We can gain additional insight from the last two Jewish women to be seen in the film, who immediately precede its final sequence recalling the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Gertrud Schneider and her mother (who remains nameless in the film) come on-screen to sing a ghetto song, "Asoi muss seyn"—"Because that's how it must be." Their broken voices are first heard in the background as we watch an unidentified barren landscape. Several measures into the song, the two women come into view, but only one, the daughter, carries the song. The mother becomes yet another of the film's emblems of gender distinction. She cannot sing the entire song; her voice breaks and she starts crying. But in crying and covering her face in lament, fingernails painted red, she acts out its words. This song is the only untranslated text in the film: its meaning for the non-Yiddish speaking viewer must be translated by the mother's gestures: "The best years, are finished / And gone—never to be recovered. / It's difficult to repair what has been destroyed. / ... Because that's how it must be / That's how it must be, that's how it must be." Besides expressing passivity and resignation, the film's staging of the " Asoi muss seyn" also demonstrates the double speechlessness of women: Gertrud Schneider sings but does not speak, and her nameless mother, overcome with the emotional weight of memory and the event captured by the camera, gestures but neither sings nor speaks. Such iconic moments, in which meaning is conveyed not through words but through images or music, structure the emotional texture of the film. They provide the background weave to the relentless factual fabric of Lanzmann's inquisitive project. And it is women who are most often relegated to that background.


Excerpted from Gendering War Talk by Miriam Cooke, Angela Woollacott. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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