Conscience, Fertility, and Holocaust Education

Strange as it may sound, the Holocaust education at my school shaped my sexuality and fertility well into adulthood by teaching me that the Holocaust brought about a complete break in the continuity of mankind. In the face of such immense suffering and slaughter, no responsible woman would choose to have children.

As a young girl, from 1975 to 1982 I attended a school founded by the Quaker community. There, the inviolability of individual conscience was prized before all else. We were taught that women and men, regardless of their class background or racial heritage, were all equal in the invisible quality of conscience, which was the key to establishing justice and bringing about a better world. Feminism and social action theory on poverty issues were welcomed as additional tools in bringing about equality among men and women from all walks of life. Yet there was a palpable tension between these two values—between individual conscience and the transformation of the social order through ideas.

As young women, nowhere was the conflict between social transformation and conscience more evident than in our own bodies. This was particularly true in regard to fertility and population control. For my generation of women, influenced as we were by second-wave feminism (Our Bodies, Ourselves was being widely circulated in 1971) a woman’s fertility could only be called good when an individual woman made the decision to become a mother as part of her whole development as a person in the use of her gifts, talents, and desires. Second-wave feminism defined a woman’s fertility as carrying the ethical weight of either resistance or cooperation with the social system. Thus, fertility had become a matter of both individual conscience and social responsibility.

The effects on me and on other girls my age were dramatic. We wanted very much to practice being mothers and to nurture other younger children, or at least our dolls, but we quickly discovered we got more praise from our own moms for writing poetry than for pushing prams.

Fertility, Femininity, and Judaism

Yet fertility was still a positive value for many families whose children attended our school, particularly those who were Jewish. Although I grew up in a secular household, my ideas about myself as a woman and about my female body were deeply shaped by the Jewish teachers and students in my school. I noticed that the mothers of my more conservative Jewish friends became pregnant, and that additional brothers and sisters were added to their families. When puberty came, I noticed that my friends from orthodox families were happy about their periods and their emerging breasts. This seemed silly to me, yet I secretly wished I could be happy about my body too.

My relationships with these families constituted my only experience with a view of fertility as being intergenerational and collective. Fertility was only discussed at our house as a problem, never as a virtue. As a flat-chested and lonely fifteen-year-old girl, I felt uneasy about my body. I was almost certain that my ability to have children was not something that would be rewarded in my family.

At the time, it was not clear to me that the differences I saw between my family’s life and the families of my friends had to do with being Jewish. I simply thought that my friends’ mothers liked babies more than my mother did. I remember being so delighted with the pregnancy of my best friend’s mother that I wrote a poem for her in praise of the new baby sister. Neither was I aware of the split within Judaism over feminism that was tearing many families apart.

Remembering the Holocaust

The main experience that characterized the girlhood of my Jewish friends and my own was our instruction about the Holocaust. We often had school observances to mark historical or cultural events that entailed educational goals. I was in middle school on the day the Vietnam War ended, and I remember that when I came to school that day all of the teachers and students were sitting together on the floor in a big circle around a display of lit candles. No one said a word, but the feeling was still comforting and quiet.

Our memorial for the Holocaust, on the other hand, was marked by generational and gender separation that made its pedagogical goal clear: to demonstrate that the Holocaust had brought about an irremediable cleft between the older generation and the younger generation, as well as between men and women. Our teachers chose a day in April when all the flowering trees and bushes around the school were at their most beautiful. Instead of sitting with us, the teachers presented films and talked while we sat silently and listened. Our principal read aloud to us from Eli Wiesel’s Night about the end of all hope.

By far the greatest impact the Holocaust had on us was through film. As pre-teen girls watching these films, naturally our antennae were tuned to look for feminine characteristics in the scenes of people being moved across the black and white landscape of work and extermination camps. There were men, women the age of our mothers, and young women—girls our own age, old enough to survive the initial sorting procedure, and strong enough to be assigned to slave labor.

Through the use of news reels, films documenting the Holocaust that were produced in the forties and fifties downplayed the sex differences of victims in order to represent the dehumanization that was the goal of Nazi philosophies. Yet the more sex differences were downplayed and the less feminine the women’s bodies appeared, the more different and therefore “female” they appeared to us. Even in photographs of kerchiefed mothers with young children on the sorting ramp at Auschwitz, certain aspects of women’s femininity that one expected—covered hair or shawls draped over shoulders, for example—were absent. Yet other aspects of femininity at various life stages that in normal life remained hidden—such as the nakedness of older women—were suddenly shockingly visible, as attested in survivor narratives.

In Holocaust films, fertility was present through the signs of its disruption. Women’s emaciated bodies, shaved heads, and disease-swollen abdomens created images of alienation, deliberately breaking the necessary connection between the female body and new life. While the display of distorted bodies served the purpose of proving the depravity of National Socialism, it also served to stir the personal conscience of spectators by producing a complete disruption in the viewer’s feeling of normality. If we had learned that fertility is an essential part of being human and being female, such disturbing images would have served to underscore the attempted Nazi dehumanization of Jewish women. But we did not know this. Instead, our teachers presented us with disruption but told us, “this is normal; this is the truth.” Having been confronted with the complete disruption of human fertility and dignity first, we later registered the pattern—of our own personal fertility as something abnormal.

Scenes of suffering in the camps were accompanied by a message for girls that was aimed directly at our emerging fertility: in the face of such immense suffering and the slaughter of millions, no responsible woman would choose to have children and prolong the pain of humanity.

We were subtly but clearly taught that the only ethical response to murder on a massive scale was the inevitable conclusion that humanity was evil—and that all women share indirect responsibility for the atrocities, because our bodies participate in the cycles of sin, death, and birth. The only moral response, our teachers argued, was a feminism of withdrawal from participation in reproduction.

This existential challenge confirmed the doubt I already harbored. It was clear that my emerging sexuality and potential fertility would not be positively received in the adult world and that controlling fertility through contraceptives or eliminating it altogether through sterilization would be an indisputable good. We already knew that reducing the populations of third world peoples—George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” had just come out—was a necessary precondition to a more socially responsible, more just society. We all had to do our part.

Mourning and Remembering in the Female Body

After being exposed as a group to visual materials about the Holocaust, each one of us then needed to mourn in a different way. Part of my reaction to the images of suffering in the concentration camps was that I had a deep desire to identify with it on a bodily level. We did not know that women stopped having menstrual periods shortly after entering the concentration camps—neither did we know that fertility returned to survivors after liberation from the camps—but we could see that something had happened to make the bodies of women in the concentration camps look less like women. We knew that covered hair and shaved heads made women look less feminine, and so we began to wear scarves and to ignore our menstruating bodies as far as possible, hoping not to attach any meaning to them at all.

The decision to ignore our own fertility signs—to the point even of inducing artificial suspension of our periods through fasting and physical stress—was partly a sign of our own grief at having been betrayed. Were we doomed to live out our biological cycles in a world without hope? Why had no one told us this? We felt a growing suspicion that women had been degraded in the Holocaust in a particular way because of their—and our—sex. Writers like Anne Sexton confirmed our belief that the calling of women in our generation was to proclaim and mourn the evil of humankind.

Even taking into consideration our immaturity, women of our generation were still able to mourn and remember the Holocaust through our bodies in ways that are becoming less and less accessible today, because the connection between being feminine and being in possession of a female fertility—ignored or not—was still in place.  We wanted to symbolically carry some part of those who had suffered because of the Holocaust in our bodies, in our posture and stance. In effect, we wanted to mother this brokenness we had been given and brood over it, making it our own.

I still remember the day when my friend Linda read a poem she wrote about the death of the six million from her perspective as a granddaughter of grandparents who perished in Auschwitz. More than her words, I remember how she looked: her head tilted to one side, her upper torso cupped to contain grief by sitting cross-legged on the floor, her hand on her forehead, her hair flowing, her eyes unfocused. On that day, her voice and her words reflected what we—Jewish and non-Jewish students alike—really felt about the Holocaust, and how we really wanted to talk about it. Her posture embodied our desire to hold the memory of this event close to us—in the crook of our arm, and in the slight bending of head to shoulder. Yet, at the same time, we all nurtured the desire to live beyond it, “to establish families and live in them,” to laugh and to continue.

I doubt very much if a similar scene could take place today. This is only partly because the immediate experience of the Holocaust is receding from us in time. The more important factor is the body itself.

Collective memory is a funny thing. It attaches itself to the human body and its rhythms, expressing itself through the generations particularly through women. When women no longer think of themselves as feminine, collective memory often loses its place in a people.

Today, the way that we talk about fertility in relation to the feminine body has changed. Fertility that can be acknowledged in a supportive group setting, with its bodily rhythms of memory and anticipation, is no longer considered a necessary or even an exclusive part of being female. Instead of being part of a woman’s experience over the course of a lifetime or generation, becoming fertile is now only one in a range of sexual and reproductive choices from which both men and women can choose. As a result, women have become disconnected from historical experiences of both collective loss and hope for the future.

The way that Holocaust education at my school was presented continued to shape my sexuality and fertility, and that of my friends, well into adulthood. Concretely, I was infertile for most of my adult life, yet saw this as part of a “normal sexual life”—I could hardly have missed what I had been trained to think of as abnormal, namely, my own capacity to give life. It was only years after my husband and I adopted our first child that I began to realize the effect of silent vows I had agreed to as a young teenager.

The cultural trend today toward rejecting fertility in any form that directly connects it to sexual identity—not specifically reproducing, but more generally being fertile in the sense of possessing the psychic, emotional, and physical states particular to masculinity and femininity—is influenced much more by the idea of what is normal than by what constitutes a disruption or violation of it. Our teachers had used imagery of human suffering on a horrific scale to tell a story about what could now be considered normal in light of these events. Social change often happens when disruption becomes taken as the new social norm, and those norms are always aimed at the body first. Drawing a connecting line between a woman’s fertility decisions and personal conscience while erasing the connection between fertility and the female body was viewed as a priority for having a fruitful and productive life. The gradual disassociation of fertility from the female body and its implantation into the realm of personal conscience made it easier for women to reject fertility in the wider culture.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!