The suffering of women, in particular, during the Holocaust, was for many years excluded from the general Holocaust narrative. Rochelle G. Saidel, founder of the Remember the Women Institute (RWI), has been instrumental in bringing the specific experience of women to the fore, especially insofar as the issue of sexual violation.
These efforts have been expended not as a contest of comparative suffering or to take away from the comprehensiveness of the Holocaust experience but because men and women suffered differently due to the disparities in their biology, cultural history and expectations. Pregnancy, rape, children and sterilization, not to mention the nakedness of women during the selection process, obviously have different resonances for men and women. As Saidel stated: “We are giving women their place in Holocaust history.”
With so many of these victims unable to tell their own story, RWI has made one of its goals to relay these experiences through music and the arts.Theatre has a special power to bring a story to life and RWI has created a resource handbook on “Women, Theatre, and the Holocaust,” which not only lists plays by and about women and the Holocaust but also offers teachers an outline for a study plan to use theatre as a tool to teach about women in the Holocaust.
On April 13, as part of a nationwide program of “Remembrance Readings” sponsored by the National Jewish Theater Foundation in commemoration of Yom HaShoah — and to launch the online handbook — a live theatre and musical performance was staged at the Center for Jewish History. Featured were three short dramatic presentations: “Gretel Bergmann,” a moving monologue, written and directed by Cynthia Cooper on the indignities suffered by the titular character, an Olympic high-jumps contender who was forced to return to Germany but banned from participating in the 1936 Olympics; a musical performance of an excerpt from “In the Underworld,” an operetta originally written by Germaine Tillion, in 1944 at Ravensbruck in order to entertain her fellow inmates (directed by Meghan Brodie); and "Wild Wind Blows" an excerpt from “Silence Not, A Love Story” by Cynthia Cooper.
The performance was co-sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society and RWI. The three renditions were an appropriate trilogy for the gravity of the subject matter.
On June 3, 2015 at the Center for Jewish History, RWI and AJHS together with the Slovakian Consulate in New York and the Leo Baeck Institute, will premier a new movie about Havivia Reick, who was in the same British parachutist mission as Hannah Szenes, , “Return to a Burning House.”
Gloria Kestenbaum is corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.