Holocaust mothers and daughters

The numbers alone are mind-numbing — 6 million Jews shot, gassed and starved to death in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust in Europe.

And while scores of books, movies and documentaries have presented heartbreaking stories of that era, the voices of Jewish women — daughters and mothers of the Holocaust — have often been forgotten or misrepresented. Federica Clementi is working to change that.

“The Holocaust was horrible for everyone, but there has always been a lack of female figures in the memoirs of the big writers of the Holocaust,” said Clementi, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Holocaust literature has often painted an idealized portrait of these women as perfect victims and not as real people.”

In her new book, “Holocaust Mothers & Daughters: Family, History and Trauma” (Brandeis University Press), Clementi revisits the stories of several women who experienced the Holocaust with their mothers — either directly or indirectly — and who later recalled their relationships with their mothers in unvarnished narrative.

She presents the story of Edith Bruck, a Hungarian-born woman who ended up in Auschwitz as a child, witnessed her mother’s murder there and survived to become a writer in Italy. Austrian-born Ruth Klüger was deported with her mother to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other camps, which they survived together before immigrating to New York.

Another chapter presents German-born Helena Janeczek whose parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. Janeczek’s memoir recounts growing up with a mother half-crazed by the experience of surviving Auschwitz and losing her entire family in the death camps.

“The last chapter looks at perhaps the most famous Holocaust story: that of Anne Frank, which represents the case of daughters brought to death camps with their mothers and murdered there with them,” Clementi said.

Clementi’s book is not just another collection of Holocaust stories. It is a vigorous argument that the authentic, unfiltered voices of women must be heard as vital aspects of the big picture of the Holocaust. She also points to persistent anti-Semitism and patriarchal structures in society that foment conflict, oppression and exclusion as enduring problems in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Finally, Clementi makes the case that the trauma of the Holocaust continues in the lives of surviving offspring.

“You can’t just move on from genocide. You live with that horror for the rest of your life,” she said. “Every genocide is going to affect women — look at Rwanda or Yugoslavia as recent examples. Genocide is going to put women and children first in the line of fire.”


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