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I Never Even Lived Introduction

(Posted to this site on 09/22/2001 )


This unit examines how women are represented in Holocaust literature. It attempts to characterize how fiction which treats the horrors of World War II portrays women. Three novellas and a short story, whose main characters are women for whom this period is critical and formative, are discussed. All four works were written by writers who are survivors of the Holocaust, and who were children or teenagers during the war.

The attempt to define the gendered aspect of each work, the characteristics of women’s Holocaust narratives as distinct from men’s narratives, is part of a recent scholarly trend examining the particular relationship of women to the Holocaust. The new scholarship inquires into the role of gender in history and suggests the ways that women cope with historical events.1 Women’s Holocaust narrative is, in our context, the object of literary scholarship and not of historical research. Very little work has been done on women in Holocaust literature, despite the burgeoning number of studies of the role of women as literary protagonists or writers in contemporary thought and literary scholarship.2

Two of the works, Crossing the Red Sea and “Eugenia “, have not yet become the objects of literary study, and they are considered first from a general literary standpoint and only then as narratives of women. In contrast, the novellas Tzili and Katerina will be examined largely in terms of their representation of women. In addition to a discussion of each work, the unit contains a summary comparing the women characters in all four stories, and suggestions for the classroom teacher. The latter section contains study questions offering different approaches, for use in class or as individual projects.

All the protagonists in these stories are women, but other elements, too, call attention to the gendered nature of the stories, and differ in each case. The stories also differ in aspects which are not necessarily connected to gender issues, including the worlds depicted in them, their literary conventions, and their ethnicity.

In Crossing the Red Sea, originally written in Polish by Zofia Romanowiczowa, a woman narrates the story of her friendship with another woman in a concentration camp, and their meeting twenty years later.

Eugenia” by Ida Fink, also originally written in Polish, is a short story by an Israeli writer born in Poland. The story is told by a narrator-observer a young woman, who depicts the love life of the main character her aunt, before and during the war.

Tzili and Katerina by Aharon Appelfeld, written in Hebrew, are novellas by an Israeli writer born in Romania. In Tzili, an omniscient narrator tells the story of the survival of a Jewish girl abandoned by her family during the war. In Katerina, the narrator is also the protagonist, a Ruthenian village girl who works as a servant in Jewish homes and links her fate to that of the Jewish people in the years before, during and after the war.3

One basic assumption of this discussion has its source outside the bounds of literary study, in history and sociology in general and the study of the Holocaust in particular. It is the claim that gender distinctions must be understood in order to understand the life of the individual in a historical and social context. Victims of the Holocaust were chosen according to their race or political beliefs, and not by age or sex. However, one of the steps the Germans took to isolate and destroy their victims included separating men from women, the old from the young, and the sick from the healthy.

The gender-specific elements in the discussion of women in the Holocaust are expressed on different levels: social-political, biological and experiential. On the social-political level, questions arise about the effects of Nazi policy on women as a social group on the one hand, and women’s reactions and methods of organization on the other. The biological sphere treats issues of pregnancy, birth, motherhood and sexual harassment. The experiential level asks which characteristics may be seen as particular to the behavior and experience of women during the period of the Holocaust.4

The literature of the Holocaust expresses these distinctions in its own way. However, the discussion of literary works is not the same as a discussion of history; it is not intended to describe the life of real women but rather to understand the ways women are represented in the fictional world of the story, and to relate to literary conventions and traditions.

1See Dalia Ofer, “Investigating Women in the Holocaust: Significant Contribution or Passing Fashion?” (in Hebrew) in BeScbvil HaZichron, 16 (October 1996): 4-10.

2In Hebrew literature, for example, see Lily Rattok, ed. HaKol HaAcber: Siporet Nashim B’ivrit
[Another Voice: Women’s Fiction in Hebrew] (TelAviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1994).

3These works by Appelfeld have been subject to broad scholarly debate and criticism. A number of pertinent articles are cited in the text.

4Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman comment on the assumptions, major points and limits of gender-based research on the Holocaust in the introduction to their book, Women in the Holocaust (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998) 1-18.