Weighing the Pen against the Gas Chamber
This powerful Holocaust testament contains no
images or statistics that have become traditional for Holocaust studies. The
fact that the four protagonists eventually did succumb to the Final Solution is
central to the book; but neither the Holocaust chronology nor the brutal deaths
with each of them suffered, is detailed. The photographs are portraits. The book
is about defiance and intellectual victory. The fact that their lives were cut
short and their work acknowledged posthumously, conveys a real sense of the
Holocaust's horror, circumventing the need for statistics or photographs.
Useful for Holocaust- as well as feminism
scholars, it would hold value for the lay reader, as a resistance document
rather than one of Holocaust history. Not an easy book to read, it contains much
detail, corroborating fact and evidence. It is however, a challenging and
rewarding piece of work, giving the reader a knowledge of these women, deeper
than what a straight-forward monograph would give. The gist of this book
overrides the negativity of most Holocaust literature.
It must, however, be considered in the
comparative paradigm in which it is written. In constantly comparing elements,
facts may be alluded to, or bypassed and taken as implicit. This does not hurt
the reading of the book, which is smoothly written and elegantly evolved, but as
a research text, it must remain within a comparative context.
Brenner positions her study before different
theoretical frameworks. This is echoed in the book's division into four
sections, each dealing with different psycho-social aspects of resistance,
namely the humanist, the theological, the autobiographical and the feminist. In
each, the women are grouped in different combinations because of how they relate
to one another and to the issues embraced by the chapter. The areas dealt with
in each section of the book intermingle cross-referentially throughout its text.
Themes and images recur in different contexts. In some respects, this kind of
repetition may serve to blur the clarity of the text, but if read carefully, it
balances the writer's opinions with standpoints taken by others; and it knits
the entire text together cohesively.
Brenner presents a reasoned evaluation of
currents which made the Holocaust so terrible, such as psychological damage;
witness reliability and the ways in which lived memory and religious practice
This is exemplified in how Weil and Frank at
fourteen, acknowledged their individuality, and how this became a dictum by
which they led the remainder of their lives, which is sobering if one considers
how little time Frank had left. Weils decision was based on a desire to discover
truth through beauty, which later influenced her "Spiritual
Autobiography". As she developed into adulthood, both physically and
spiritually, Frank sort succour in her own strengths and hid herself within
herself (25). Hillesum needed to be able to come to terms with pain, which she
articulated by living deliberately. Steins doctoral thesis conflates theoretical
issues with personal observations of human behaviour in the face of trauma. She
wrote her memoirs while awaiting acceptance into the Carmelite sisterhood.
An interesting element in Brenner's analysis of
all four women is how their selfless love for humanity was only positively
influenced by the Holocaust. Prior to their death sentence, and while serving
it, they focused on generic suffering rather than their own.
Similarly, each articulated a notion of God
conceptually close to a sympathetic understanding of Christ. In 1922, Stein
converted to Catholicism and took vows in 1933. Weil remained an unbaptised
Catholic. Hillesum aligned her beliefs with Catholic precepts. Frank considers
the presence of a deity in nature (55). This affinity with Christian/pantheistic
theology is common among European Enlightenment Jews but brings about a horrible
theological contradiction in relation to Christian-based anti-Semitism which
informed Holocaust developments.
Thus Brenner considers the choice of
Christianity and the punishment for being born Jewish. Ultimately, each woman
developed her own idiosyncratic idea of a godhead, away from any predetermined
or taught dogma. While Weil negated all Jewish association, Stein, Hillesum and
Frank willingly identified themselves as Jews. They articulated that their
acquired Christian/non-affiliated European identities and their Jewish origins
coalesced in sympathy with the Holocaust victims to form logical and theological
The fact that the Final Solution was a death
sentence for an unacknowledged "crime", distinguishes this book from
much contemporary Jewish Holocaust literature. The contradiction in which they
thus found themselves is complex, entwining their beliefs with their
unacknowledged ethnic roots.
All were of Western European origin and had had
no Jewish affiliation. Integrated into the secular milieu which endorsed
material and humanist values, they were made to confront their Nazi victimhood
because of their "ethnoreligious origins" (8), at a time too late for
them to have been able to see themselves collectively other than as persecuted.
For each, persecution was dealt with
autobiographically. Brenner considers this platform as a manifestation of
artistic expression as well as a psychological tool. In this respect,
documenting one's experiences, however terrible, is positive. Each day
transcribed is a creative testament of hope. It becomes a way of breaking the
cycle of passive acceptance in the face of horror, to make sense of the world.
Frank used her diary to flesh out
"Kitty", an imaginary confidante. This project is poignant because it
was not an idle pastime for a young girl developing her expressive abilities,
but a life-line. Kitty was as real to Frank as any of the other surreal aspects
of her life. Hillesum wrote letters to real people. Her message is sad and
hopeless, and her belief in the apocalyptic destruction of the world as she knew
it is implicit. In spite of her battles with translating desperate terror into
human language, the gesture aggressively affirms hope.
Each woman dealt with consciousness of her
gender in a characteristic manner, which ranges from self-assertion to
self-hatred, and a growth from the latter to the former. Gender-based- and
cultural-identity remain firmly interlinked. Each women is aware of the
connection between her sex, her religion and her persecution further
complicating her predicament.
The writings of these four women form a core of
thought in post-Holocaust awareness. It defines one of the ways how Nazism
failed: not one lost her humanity in succumbing to her death. Above all, even in
the face of inevitable destruction, they defied it by caring.
Brenner's analysis is stimulating and
sympathetic. Areas in an interpretation of the text which may have been
academically difficult because of their tendency to be sentimental have been
dealt with clear-sightedly and objectively. Brenner reveals each woman as
imperfect and desperately cleaving to absurd hope - and for this simple reason,
as human. Conclusively, the courage to be human within this terrible reality,
proves them to be unique and important for Holocaust-, Jewish-, feminist- and
humanist scholars alike.
Robyn Sassen (email@example.com)
is a Fine Arts graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand, currently
doing post-graduate work at the University of South Africa. While enjoying
interests in the cross-pollination of Jewish and art-inspired culture, she
practises as a fine artist, working with etching,
drypoint and drawing with pastels on wood. The central focus of much of
her work is on the predicament of being Jewish in a contemporary world and how
the baggage which one historically carries around with one, reverberates into so
much of one's life constantly.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.