Challenging Heterosexist Readings of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies
Roseanna Ramsden | 25 June 2019
◇ Modern History | European History | Gender History | Jewish History | LGBTQ+ History
Some months ago my partner and I decided to put our flat on the market. Having seen the perfect house, I hurriedly began sending out emails to have our property valued. I was quickly inundated with calls from eager estate agents, desperate to clinch the sale. The first call came from a polite woman from a city centre office. “Are you the homeowner?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “The flat belongs to my partner.” “Okay, great. What’s his name?” I paused for a moment, unsure as to whether I was offended or mildly amused. “Her name is...”
As I hung up the phone, I felt troubled. Part of me had believed that, in 2019, such awkward conversations and the repeated need to ‘come out,’ were a thing of the past. I got to thinking about the countless presumptuous comments that I, as a queer woman, have been forced to engage with in my lifetime. “It’s just a phase.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “You just haven’t met the right guy yet.” The list is inexhaustible.
More than anything, though, and transcending my personal struggles with such presumptions, I started to think about them in a historical context. As a Holocaust historian specialising in women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, I began to wonder how, and to what extent, heteronormativity may be responsible for global historical blind spots. Have deeply entrenched heterosexist presumptions enabled historical specificities to be overlooked? Or at the very least, have they shaped the way historians and academics have interpreted written narratives of the past? Undoubtedly so, given the fact that sexual relationships between women have long been an academic taboo, focused on only in the last four decades in the wake of the women’s movement.
If the assumption, even in the twenty-first century, is that to be straight is the norm, if queer sexualities are yet to become normalised sexual identities, then what might that tell us about decades of androcentric historical research? And how might we read history from a stance far removed from heteronormative presupposition, particularly when attempts to do so are often met with hostility, or when sexual relationships between women are often dismissed by scholars as acts of desperation?
Queer theorists, literary critics and historians of women’s history have been attempting to answer this question since the early-1980s. In 1981 women’s studies scholar, Bonnie Zimmerman, proposed a new critical stance with which to approach written texts. This stance, she explained, ‘involves peering into the shadows, into the spaces between words, into what has been unspoken and barely imagined. It is a perilous critical adventure with results that may violate accepted norms of traditional criticism, but which may also transform our notions of literary possibility.’
In the 1990s, author R. Amy Elman echoed Zimmerman’s call for oppositional reading in an exploration of lesbians and the Holocaust. Elman acknowledged that, due to a reluctance among scholars to deal with the matter of women’s sexualities, their subjects may have felt the need to ‘conform and conceal their most intriguing thoughts and intimate feelings.’ This, she argued, is partly responsible for the dearth of women’s first- person narratives of the Holocaust that include clear-cut queer content. She explained that, ‘with little evidence, we are forced to, “read between the lines.” This does not mean that one discovers lesbians where none exists. Rather, [...] one is especially careful to avoid presumptions of heterosexuality. After all, assertions of heterosexuality [...] have frequently furnished many gays and lesbians with protection from identification, arrest and, sometimes, even death.’
Elman’s reading of Anne Frank’s diary is particularly convincing. She pointed out that Anne was initially repulsed by the notion of befriending Peter van Daan, and before going into hiding, had expressed feeling attracted to some of her girlfriends. Despite this, Elman argued, ‘her relationship to Peter has not been dismissed as an adolescent act exacerbated by dire circumstances and the absence of female companionship.’ Yet, despite this, and in spite of the approaches put forward by the likes of Zimmerman, among others, historians and scholars remain reluctant to approach women’s Holocaust testimonies by ‘“reading between the lines.”’
As recently as 2015, and in a book explicitly dedicated to women’s experiences under Nazism, for example, Beverley Chalmers devoted a mere three paragraphs to lesbian love. She felt it important to note that ‘conditions in camps [...] facilitated lesbianism. Fear and loneliness, friendships, and the absence of men, led to women seeking comfort from other women.’ Yet, this seems a bold, outdated, and particularly heterosexist claim to make.
It may, of course, be true that some women in concentration camps engaged in same- sex relationships because of a lack of access to men. But to presume that all did so, or to read all women’s memoirs from a heterosexual standpoint, overlooks the complexity of their narratives. Might there be something a little queer in some women’s descriptions of same-sex relationships? Might some personal, sexual anxieties exist in the documented accidental glances, the curiosity to watch, or the ambiguous responses to sex between women? If they’re of no significance, why have some women included such details in their published testimonies at all? And above all, what might we miss if we refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a queer subtext? Perhaps 2019 is the time to make heterosexist historical readings history.
Rosie Ramsden is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. In 2017, she was awarded a three-year studentship to conduct further research into women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, following the work she carried out during my MA at the University of Leeds. The working title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Women’s Holocaust Testimony: Gender, Reception, and Canon-formation.’ She interested in women’s memoir and narration, gendered recall and gendered experience, and queer histories of the Holocaust.
Chalmers, Beverley. Birth, Sex and Abuse. Surrey: Grosvenor House, 2015.
Elman, Amy R. ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust.’ Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, ed. by Esther Fuchs, 9 – 17. Lanham: University of America Press.
Zimmerman, Bonnie. ‘What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.’ Feminist Studies, 7:3. (Autumn, 1981): 451 – 475.
 Zimmerman, ‘What Has Never Been’, 460.
 Elman, ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust,’ 9 – 10.
 Ibid., 14 – 15.
 Chalmers, Birth, Sex and Abuse, 187.