Her Story, My Story?

Writing About Women and the Holocaust

by Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz (Volume editor) Dalia Ofer (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 382 Pages


The book "Her Story, My Story? Writing about Women and the Holocaust, is composed of 27 biographical-academic essays written by prominent women scholars worldwide. All have devoted a significant part of their professional lives to writing about aspects of Jewish women's experiences during the Holocaust. We believe that this choice was not random, and in many cases was rooted in the personal history and professional experiences of each scholar which later affected the fruits of her scholarship.
Each essay charts that scholar's journey towards working on the topic and her experiences while conducting her research. Scholars discuss issues relating to identity, personal choices, religious, political and cultural affiliations and their connection to the focus of their research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Part I The “Founding Mothers”
  • Hide and Seek: Becoming a Historian of Gender and the Holocaust
  • The Holocaust in My Life
  • Part II The “Middle Generation”
  • “How Will They Ever Take You Seriously if You Write about Veibers?!”
  • Once More, With Feeling: Personal Positionality and Generational Conflict within Feminist Holocaust Studies
  • From the 1970s Feminism to Gender Research at Ravensbrück: Autobiographical Considerations
  • Three Beginnings: Feminist Scholarship and Holocaust Studies
  • The Journey
  • Working the Margins
  • A Bridge to Build: Holocaust and Modern Cultural Studies
  • Never Again Is Now
  • Why Women – and What That Means for Me as a Historian
  • The Why and How of a Gynocentric Theology of the Holocaust: An Autobiographical Essay
  • Why I’m Not Painting Flowers in the Garden
  • How Reading Women’s Holocaust Testimonies Helped Me Cope and Then Changed My Life
  • Part III The “New Voices”
  • Conversations I Missed: Asking Other Survivor Grandmothers
  • Treasure Inside the Drawer – Objects That Led Me to Research about the Holocaust
  • An Academic Autobiography in Seven Uneasy Vignettes
  • To Follow and to Lead – Feminist Mentorship in Holocaust Studies
  • My Unknown Sisters
  • “I Am Polish on My Mother’s Side…”: A Journey toward Becoming a Feminist Holocaust Scholar
  • A Feminist Serendipity in the Study of the Holocaust and the Power of Suspicion
  • Remembering the Holocaust: Gender and the Study of Memorialization
  • Women and the Holocaust – Am I an Outsider?
  • An Unexpected but Fruitful Academic Journey
  • Can You Gaze upon Medusa’s Face without a Mirror?
  • Towards a Portrait of a Transcultural Academic Life
  • A Journey without End: Reflections on Holocaust Research
  • List of Contributors


In Memory of My Mother, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller

My late mother, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, was born in 1924 and raised in a small Ukrainian village in a stable, traditional Jewish home environment. She benefitted from a secure connection to her parents, especially her adoring and empowering father, who lauded her smarts and bookishness.

With the help of two Christian neighbors, her nuclear family narrowly escaped extermination by the Nazis. Initially they hid behind a farmer’s chicken coop, and afterwards, for two years they squatted underground in a small ditch dug beneath a drinking trough. With barely any food and little protection from freezing cold winters and stifling hot summers, it is miraculous, unfathomable actually, that four people survived in that dark, cramped, lice and rat-infested ditch.

After the liberation Fanya married my late father, Joseph Heller, a fellow survivor. For years, homeless and stateless, they migrated through Europe, eventually making it to the US. Even during those nomadic years, my mother read voraciously. I believe that nascent intelligence, an excellent education, and outstanding memory contributed to her resilience and drive, but most important were the secure and nurturing attachments in early life. She studied art history at Columbia University, philosophy and literature at the New School, and family therapy at the Ackerman Institute. Fanya Heller obtained a BA and an MA in psychology from the New School for Social Research, and honorary doctoral degrees from Yeshiva University and Bar-Ilan University.

Forty years after their liberation and shortly after my father’s death in 1986, Fanya’s years of hard work engaged in self-reflection, recovery and renewal, had impressive results. In 1993 she published a candid autobiography of her wartime story (KTAV) under the title of Strange and Unexpected Love: A Teenage Girl’s Holocaust Memoirs. In 2005 it was reissued under a new title, Love in a World of Sorrow (Devora Publishing) and was adapted into a PBS documentary film narrated by Richard Gere. Shortly before her death in 2017 she wrote Hidden (Scholastic 2016), a bestseller for school-age children.

In addition to writing, my mother found her own voice, literally discovering powerful speaking skills and became a sought-after lecturer. She introduced herself as a Holocaust survivor with the emphatically added suffix “who survived Hitler once and Stalin twice”. Connected to her riveted listeners, she would describe her terrifying wartime experiences while encouraging ←13 | 14→disadvantaged students and young adults not to give up. My mother taught her children and all whom she addressed that morbid hatred, unmitigated anger, or soul-killing bitterness need not be the outcome of suffering. Her genuine love of life was infectiously uplifting, and motivated many students to take action to improve their life circumstances. This renewed version of herself became a role model, a superheroine who received thousands of letters from young and old the world over. My mother knew the relevance of creating a cogent personal narrative. Storytelling about self, family, and ancestry are important for personal growth and connection to others. Her life affirming excitement was audible, visible, and palpable. Until the final day of her remarkable 93 year- life, she joyfully seized each moment of every day with love, gratitude, and generosity.

Fanya Heller bravely bore witness and championed Holocaust education and awareness with majesty. My legacy is to honor and echo her messages of love, tolerance, hope, and renewal. My personal journey is informed by my being the child of Holocaust survivors (2g), as a humanitarian, medical doctor, psychiatrist. My aim is to diminish epigenetic inherited trauma by guiding us to our hidden past injuries and traumas. Hurt people can inadvertently hurt and damage others. In order to raise well-loved, securely attached, confident, autonomous, and empathic children, we need to reeducate ourselves. By promoting introspection and self- reflection, we can become psychological sleuths, sifting our past for clues as to why we are who we are. Otherwise, self-deception conceals complex emotions like self-loathing, envy, rage, shame and humiliation, all readily cast off and projected into innocents via bullying and scapegoating. I believe these unassimilated emotions comprise the rudimentary precursors to evil itself. In the best of circumstances, my field can help prevent victims from becoming perpetrators; children from growing into hateful, murderous adults, and ordinary people from turning a blind eye to the victimization of their fellow human beings.

In 1998 my mother established The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan University, a unique academic initiative that explores female Jewish identity within the context of Judaism. Fanya was particularly gratified when the Center promoted and supported research about women during the Holocaust, while strengthening humanism with the message that each of us must take an active stand against evil. She deemed the successful implementation of these initiatives a pinnacle of the Center’s scholarly activities.

Throughout my adult life, my mother and I shared great exchanges about many books we both read. She would be delighted with this volume, a co-production of the Center she established with the Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research. Following an illuminating preface by renowned Holocaust scholar, Marion Kaplan, are 27 self-reflective stories ←14 | 15→by notable women scholars. These women - historians, sociologists, anthropologists, literary and art critics – who devoted much of their lives to writing about women during the Holocaust, are testimony to the necessity of understanding ourselves, including hidden hurts and buried traumas, before we can go further.

Thank you on behalf of the entire Heller family for dedicating this book to the blessed, beloved memory of our sorely missed matriarch, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller. The compilation is a profound contribution to scholarship today. This is indeed “Her Story, My Story”, and all of our stories.

Jacqueline Heller, MD ©. All Rights Reserved. Los Angeles 10.27.2019

Marion Kaplan


The contributors to this volume have all written extensively about the Holocaust and have thought deeply about what role gender played in it. Many of us came of age in the 1970s and ‘80s as Holocaust scholarship entered the academy. Similarly, the women’s movement in the United States created a parallel body of history, art, and politics. Inevitably, scholars of this generation – mostly women – brought gendered questions to the study of the Holocaust. Like many women’s historians who had addressed women’s history as it began to flourish, especially in the U.S. and in Europe, we wondered about Nazi genocide and asked, “might women have experienced this nightmare differently from men? And, if so, how? And, if not, why not?” Fortunately, younger scholars in this volume, educated in the U.S., Europe, and Israel, belong to the generation for whom writing about women’s experience had been grudgingly accepted by the, mostly male, historical profession.

Although we all had different trajectories, some coming from curiosity about family histories, other addressing burning issues of gender in extreme situations, and still others searching out unexplored Holocaust accounts, we all shared similar experiences of discovery, of an effort to be heard, and of gradual impact on the field. Frustratingly, many in both generations still experienced push back from advisors and from sceptics fearful that women’s historians were raising women’s suffering above that of all Jews. Still, we persisted.

This book offers memoirs, sometimes called ego documents, by contemporary women historians, sociologists, literary critics and others, in which they tell their personal stories about coming to research the Holocaust while also thinking about women and gender. Memoirs have helped scholars to investigate the lives of non-elites since at least the 1970s. Memoirs have revealed individual’s self-understandings, fears and values, and have provided an entrée into unexplored stories. Yet memoirs offer more than individual lives. The essays in this book are personal, but they also situate the authors within their societies and academia. In this collection, the historians who have shared their memoirs illustrate not only very private journeys, but additionally a sense of the cultural context and the historical moment. These memoirs may surprise us – contradicting, illuminating, and deepening the accepted stories. Just as memoirs give ordinary Jewish women and men ←17 | 18→historical agency, they also give women scholars the opportunity to weave their life stories into the broader historical and cultural moments of their careers and lives.

Critics of ego documents, especially memoirs, contend that memory “selects, condenses, and interprets experience”1 and memoirs often contradict themselves or fluctuate between “then” – when the events occurred – and “now” – when the writer sees the past with the benefit of hindsight and the influence of current ideologies. Moreover, the way memoirs and even diaries reconstruct the past “is always more coherent” than when it happened.2 Further, memory and history are distinct despite their links: the “fissure … between experiencing an event and remembering it …is unavoidable.”3 They offer, at best, only a romantic gloss on the past.

I do not agree. Scholars who use memoirs know that such texts give details useful for constructing the past. That they can and do reflect certain collective experiences, social and cultural processes. When juxtaposed with other sources, they fill in important gaps and begin to complete and complicate the puzzle. In this collection of personal essays one can appreciate the strength of memoirs as these scholars contend with their own memories, their own discoveries, and self-discoveries, and their own writings.

The research of scholars represented in this volume has resulted in a vibrant field of Holocaust studies in which they have included a broad variety of Jews – females, males, adults, children, elites and masses – from a wide spectrum of countries, while also approaching these stories from diverse methodologies. These stretch from traditional community histories to microstudies, from data culled from Nazi and postwar court sources to memoirs and fiction written by survivors. Notably, the scholars in this volume have exerted great efforts to amass women’s voices otherwise hidden from history.4 Some of these voices come from polished and published writers like Ruth Kluger, others from the memoirs, letters, or diaries of unknown or unnamed women. Most importantly, gendered research and memoirs of the Nazi era are not just practical correctives or wellsprings of detail. Anna Reading has eloquently argued that when a survivor writes a memoir, it is

←18 | 19→

not just a book, it is a life: it symbolically replaces books burnt and cultural and social memories destroyed; it provides a testament in the face of Nazi lies…creating a memorial…. It is also a book of death: within each story of a life survived there is the mute reminder of the …lives untold and abruptly ended….5

Giving voice to women’s history and to women’s historians and highlighting women’s perspectives remains a crucial and an ongoing task.

←19 | 20→←20 | 21→

1 Hamida Bosmajian, Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, Iowa City, 1979, p. 23.

2 David Lowenthal, “Nostalgia Tells it like it Wasn’t,” in The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, ed. by Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase, Manchester, 1989, p. 30.

3 Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories, London, 1995, p. 3.

4 Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History, London, 1983.

5 Reading, The Social Inheritance of the Holocaust: Gender, Culture and Memory, Hampshire and New York, 2002, p. 54.

Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz and Dalia Ofer


“Why in the world would anyone want to write about women during the Holocaust? After all, does anyone write only about what the Nazis did to men? Weren’t Jewish women during the Holocaust just Jews like everyone else? Radical feminists want to separate women from men during the Holocaust. Are you a radical feminist? What do you have to gain by writing about women during the Holocaust but not about men? Didn’t the Nazis kill Jewish women just like they killed all the Jews? This is a real career risk. Aren’t you afraid that you won’t be taken seriously if you limit yourself to writing about women during the Holocaust?”

Seven questions. One for each day of the week. Back in the 1980s when it became known that Judy was coordinating a research project focusing on Jewish women during the Holocaust, there was indeed one week in which she was asked each and every one of these questions by well-known academics, both male and female. Sometimes more than once.

Those were the early days in which research pertaining to women lives and experiences during the Holocaust was slowly becoming a recognized academic discipline. Before that time, it had not been considered a “major Holocaust topic” and was mostly ignored by both humanities scholars and social scientists. But soon things began to change. Although the major research shift towards examining the Holocaust’s social and cultural aspects would only take place in the 1980s and 1990s, somewhere between the late 1960s and early 1970s the first of these articles began to appear. Together with the rise of interest in gender studies, they propelled a number of scholars to begin examining Jewish women’s lives under the Nazis, which, in turn, would ultimately impact upon studies of the social aspects of the Holocaust.

The first academic studies on women during the Holocaust were published during the following decade, from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Those were the years when groundbreaking scholars such as Atina Grossmann, Marion Kaplan, the late Sybil Milton and Joan Ringelheim braved the new topic, courageously devoting time and effort to what many still considered a minor or unmerited theme. An important turning point was the conference entitled “Women Surviving the Holocaust”, organized in New York in 1983 by Joan Ringelheim and Esther Katz, that placed the topic of Jewish women during the Holocaust on the public agenda.1

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During the 1990s the topic appeared to blossom when a number of anthologies, academic studies, and sourcebooks were published, all of which focused on women’s lives under Nazi rule. The growing awareness of the subject encouraged scholars to begin teaching courses about women during the Holocaust, first in the United States, then in Israel, and eventually in Europe, which were the impetus for graduate students, mostly women, to choose to specialize in the field.2 In 1995 Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman convened the first international workshop on Women during the Holocaust in Jerusalem which a number of participants in this volume mentioned as a turning point in their careers. Until that time, they had seen women’s Holocaust experiences as an almost clandestine topic. Now they were given proof of its legitimacy, having met leading international scholars who were devoting their careers to researching, teaching and writing about it.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
Gender Holocaust Family studies anti-semitism immigration academia
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 382 pp., 29 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz (Volume editor) Dalia Ofer (Volume editor)

Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is the Director of the Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research and Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. She is the author of numerous books and articles and specializes in topics pertaining to Gender, Jewish religious life, the Holocaust, Memory, State of Israel, The United States, and Commemoration. Among her books are Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust (Vallentine Mitchell 1998), The Bergson Boys and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy (Syracuse UP 2005), Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the making of Collective Israeli Memory (University Press of Wisconsin, 2010), Never Look Back: The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain 1938-1945 (Purdue University Press, 2012), Identity, Heroism and Religion in the Lives of Contemporary Jewish Women, (Peter Lang, 2013), and My Name is Freida Sima: The American-Jewish Women's Immigrant Experience Through the Eyes of a Young Girl from the Bukovina (Peter Lang, 2017), A Very Special Life: The Bernice Chroncles (Peter Lang, 2018). Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is the Director of the Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research and Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. She is the author of numerous books and articles and specializes in topics pertaining to Gender, Jewish religious life, the Holocaust, Memory, State of Israel, The United States, and Commemoration. Among her books are Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust (Vallentine Mitchell 1998), The Bergson Boys and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy (Syracuse UP 2005), Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the making of Collective Israeli Memory (University Press of Wisconsin, 2010), Never Look Back: The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain 1938-1945 (Purdue University Press, 2012), Identity, Heroism and Religion in the Lives of Contemporary Jewish Women, (Peter Lang, 2013), and My Name is Freida Sima: The American-Jewish Women's Immigrant Experience Through the Eyes of a Young Girl from the Bukovina (Peter Lang, 2017), A Very Special Life: The Bernice Chroncles (Peter Lang, 2018).   Prof. Dalia Ofer is Max and Rita Haber Professor of Holocaust and East European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (emerita). She received the Distinguished Achievement Award in Holocaust Studies, from the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University (2018). Prof. Ofer directed the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry (2003–2007) and the Vidal Sassoon International Research Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism (1995–2002). She was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, Brandies, the U. of Maryland and the U. of Sidney Australia, and a Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow at the CAHS-USHMM. She has published extensively on the Holocaust, Holocaust memory, and Immigration to Israel. Among her books are Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel (Yad Ben Zvi, 1990; Eng. Oxford University Press, 1998), and co-edited (with Lenore J. Weitzman), Women in the Holocaust (Yale U.P., 1999). She is the academic editor (with Paula Hyman) of Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (available on the Jewish Women’s Archive site), co-editor with Françoise S. Ouzan and Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz of Holocaust Survivors: Resettlement, Memories, Identities (Berghahn, 2012), and editor of Israel in the Eyes of the Survivors (Heb., Yad Vashem, 2014), The History of the Jewish Police in the Viliampole (Kovno) Ghetto, (Heb., Yad Vashem, 2016) and Children in the Holocaust and its Aftermath: Historical and Psychological Studies of the Kestenberg Archive (with Sharon Kangisser Cohen and Eva Fogelman) (Berghahn, 2017).


Title: Her Story, My Story?
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384 pages