Jewish History scholar Marion Kaplan was a co-editor of the landmark essay collection, “When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany.” Published in 1984, this book established gender studies – heretofore neglected – as a vital component of Holocaust research, exploring the “double jeopardy” experienced in pre-war and wartime Nazi Germany by women who were also Jews.
A central thesis which emerged was the recognition that women experienced fascism differently than their male counterparts and companions, as evidenced by their reactions to pogroms and other anti-Jewish activities undertaken by the Nazi state. Frequently it was women who first and most persistently raised the alarm in their communities about Hitler’s plans for the Jews; the men, especially those in the professional class, were reluctant to forsake their hard-earned status and possessions, trusting instead that the German populace wouldn’t allow extreme ill-treatment of Jews who, in many cases, had lived among them for generations. By contrast women were not established in those professions, and therefore were less motivated by material considerations than by their family’s safety.
In her lecture Professor Kaplan conducts an historical survey of the research leading to, and resulting from, the book’s publication, describing the early workshops that were inspired by the feminist movement and drew together survivors and scholars. These workshops raised critical questions about the lives of German Jewish women in the periods both preceding and following the Nazis’ rise to power, and suggested further avenues of inquiry. In the decades since then, the range of gender perspectives in Holocaust studies have broadened and deepened; for example, they now include the stories of women who “passed” in Nazi Berlin (i.e., hid their Jewishness in order to survive), such as Marie Jalowicz, and of same-sex couples such as Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, whose story is told in “Aimee and Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin, 1943.” In particular the experiences of Jalowicz and others who, like her, “hid in plain sight” raise complex questions about morality in the face of the harsh sexual politics of survival in wartime Berlin, especially as they pertained to women. Faced with such conditions, what is the ‘moral’ choice?
Kaplan concludes her talk with a discussion of new and promising areas of research, and the synergy between modern women’s studies and Holocaust studies as each seeks to expand its understanding of gender politics in the context of historical trends and imperatives.