Krondorfer on Carey, 'Jewish Masculinity in the Holocaust: Between Destruction and Construction'

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The following book review from H-Judiac may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Maddy Carey


Bjorn Krondorfer

Maddy Carey. Jewish Masculinity in the Holocaust: Between Destruction and Construction. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. 224 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-00806-9.

Reviewed by Bjorn Krondorfer (Northern Arizona University) Published on H-Judaic (October, 2018) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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In Holocaust studies, there is a lack of sustained attention to Jewish masculinities; conversely, in the scholarship on Jewish masculinities, there is a striking absence regarding the Holocaust. This dearth of analysis at the intersection of Holocaust studies and critical masculinity studies has been noted before by gender scholars and historians, but until recently few studies have addressed it head-on. In the relevant literature on Jewish masculinities, for example, the years of the Holocaust are skipped (and “Holocaust” is often not indexed). Jewish masculinities are traced through the centuries all the way up to the Jewish Enlightenment, Max Nordaus’s turn-of the century Muskeljudentum, World War I, the interwar period, early Zionist ideals, and Nazi race and medical sciences targeting the Jewish body. Those studies might take up the thread of Jewish masculinity after 1945 in places like Israel, Europe, and America, but the Holocaust years remain largely uninterrogated.

Maddy Carey’s Jewish Masculinity in the Holocaust: Between Destruction and Construction addresses this lacuna directly. Previous research by gender historians of the Holocaust, which has largely focused on women, has resulted, in Carey’s words, in a “highly problematic, minimal history of Jewish masculinity during the Holocaust” (p. 5). Following an excellent theoretical survey on how masculinity theories can be applied to understanding the experiences of Jewish men in the Holocaust, Carey focuses her study on two periods, which she calls “deconstruction” and “enclosure”: the collapse of civil life for Jews in Nazi-occupied countries (deconstruction) and the subsequent ghettoization of Jews (enclosure). Her study deliberately does not include the concentration camps. Her careful research comes to the counterintuitive conclusion that Jewish men went through a devastating crisis of their masculine identity in the early years, but temporarily recovered their masculine identities in the enclosure period—in the ghettos—despite the objectively harsher and deadlier environment.

Aware of the potential controversies that her study may provoke—from her observation that gender studies have operated on too many “incorrect or undemonstrated assumptions” (p. 6) about men and masculinities in the Holocaust to her findings that Jewish men reasserted their masculine identity in the ghettos—Carey proceeds prudently and purposefully. After laying out the general framework of her inquiry in the introduction, she continues with a dense chapter on masculinity theory. Here, she alerts the reader to the conceptual difficulties of making visible the full range of male experiences in the Holocaust. This theoretical chapter is essential, since “a gendered study of men,” as Carey aptly puts it, “requires more skilful gymnastics of reason” (p. 2).

The substance of her book is contained in the subsequent three chapters. Chapter 2 addresses the collapse of Jewish male identities during the deconstruction period when Jewish life throughout Europe came under the influence of Nazism. Chapter 3 argues that the enclosure period (the ghettos) led to a temporary stabilization of gender norms and roles. Guided by the materials she examines, Carey moves away from a retrospective mode of telling a tragic narrative. Instead of “fixat[ing] on the ultimately hopeless nature” of the ghettos, she looks for materials and fragments of “the quotidian lives that many [men] lived in the ghettos.” At the same time, she cautions that her gender-critical reading of the historical documentation, which suggests a “short-lived revitalization of male gender identities,” does not deny “the extreme horror of life in the ghettos of German-controlled Poland” (p. 127).

A reader used to chronological progression might expect that chapter 4 would move the investigation of Jewish male experiences in the ghettos to the Nazi killing fields and the labor and death camps. Presumably, the masculinity that Jewish men had temporarily reasserted in the ghettos quickly disintegrated when faced with annihilation. Carey, however, does not provide an answer for the final stages of the Holocaust. Instead, her last chapter zooms in on one particular topic: Jewish fatherhood, with materials mostly drawn from experiences in the ghettos. 

Carey employs the phrase “doubly damned” (with which Marlene Heinemann, in Gender and Destiny [1986], had described Jewish women’s experiences) for the situation of Jewish men before and during the Holocaust. The reference alludes to Jewish men being targeted for reasons of race and gender. Following in the footsteps of Sander Gilman, Carey observes that it was the male Jew that fed Europe’s turn-of-the-century “gendered imagery of antisemitic rhetoric” (p. 6). Jewish men, mostly in western Europe, strove to assimilate into modes of dominant masculinity but were repeatedly denied full access. When Nazis came to power, it was particularly the inheritors of the maskilim—Jewish men of Enlightenment and assimilation—who went through a severe gender identity crisis in the deconstruction period.

To her credit, Carey does not fall into the trap of a simplified binary model of a dominant versus marginal or subordinate masculinity. Instead, she suggests to speak of an “independent Jewish masculinity” (p. 46), which “developed in parallel” (p. 43) with hegemonic masculinity and was not necessarily subordinate to it. This conceptual move allows her to analyze Jewish men not only in a hierarchical relationship to dominant forms of European Gentile masculinities, but also to look at Jewish gender relations within their own set of rules. It brings to visibility culturally specific gender expectations as they played out within the Jewish communities (wherein Jewish men could assume dominant positions even in the hostile and harsh environments of the ghettos), while not ignoring the coerciveness of male-to-male interactions within the lethal environment of Nazism and the Holocaust (wherein Jewish men were relegated to the humiliating positions of marginality and extreme subordination). Carey furthermore argues that we need to look at “the gender that [men] practised [as] a product of the interplay between normative masculinities and the individual elements of gender identity that each man sustained” (p. 48). Normative masculinity informs but does not predetermine individual men’s choices.

Carey’s differentiation between a deconstruction and enclosure period—which she is careful not to separate too strictly or to assign a “unity of experience” (p. 49) across geographic and political differences—leads to surprising observations. Take for example the case of Jewish men’s willingness to speak about their own bodies. Jewish men had little to say about their bodies during the initial phase of Nazi discrimination and social exclusion (deconstruction), so much so that “the historian must necessarily write from an absence of sources” (p. 74; emphasis added). In this phase, Jewish men’s adaptation to modern masculinity still operated within a general framework of a seeming yet increasingly shattered normality. What was at stake was not the integrity of the body, but the loss of professional occupation, social exclusion, and the tarnishing of honor and dignity—all markers of normative masculinities. Since Jewish bodies were not yet collectively assailed, there was little need for men to write about them. This silence, Carey writes, “contrast[s] sharply with the period of destruction that followed, in which Jewish men wrote more openly about their bodies” (p. 74). In this later period of enclosure, coerciveness, and brutality exposed the Jewish male body to sustained physical assault, and Jewish men began to render their bodies visible. Carey reports on Jewish men in the ghettos losing interest in their “physical appearance, hygiene and dress” (p. 115) and how they themselves addressed this issue. Although women mention men’s lack of self-care more frequently (and also disapprovingly), when men talk about it, they describe the crumbling of their masculinity with an air of self-depreciating sadness and a touch of tragic irony. “Hesitant, almost fearful, the hand feels the restless body, finds bones, ribs, finds limbs,” writes Oskar Rosenfeld from within the Lodz ghetto, “and discovers the self, suddenly becoming aware that not so long ago one was fatter, meatier” (p. 114).

Another striking example of Carey’s study concerns historiography and how scholars can fall into the trap of repeating unexamined gender assumptions. She cites the story of fathers in the ghettos who stole food from their children, while mothers purportedly gave up their portions for the children. This story, according to Carey, has been used as evidence for arguing that victimized men lost their masculine identity as traditional providers under the dire circumstances of the Holocaust. Carey identifies two problems with this case: First, on the interpretive level, hungry fathers taking food from their starving children might actually not prove the “erosion of a man’s gender identity” but reconfirm an “active display of masculinity” (p. 5)—in accordance with a tradition where it was self-evident that the head of a household would get more and better food. Second, on the level of sources, scholars using this example for assessing gender differences rely mostly on the testimony of one prominent text, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak (1996). In this diary written in the Lodz ghetto, the seventeen-year old Dawid had some harsh words to say about his father. On one occasion he accused him of stealing food from him and his sibling. Carey comments disapprovingly that “this and other similar quotations have been used by historians to support their representation of Jewish fathers and men in the Holocaust” (p. 130). Ignored are other parts of the diary where Dawid, for example, acknowledges sympathetically his father’s role as protector of and provider for the family, portraying the father-son relation in more nuanced and complex ways. Carey’s chapter on fathers rectifies previous preconceptions.

Examples like these demonstrate the value of bringing critical masculinity studies into serious conversation with the documentation and interpretation of Holocaust studies. At the intersection of these fields of inquiry, we can ask questions about the absence of men in the historiography of the Holocaust as well as examine how previous views on male identities and roles carried their own gendered blind spots.

Citation: Bjorn Krondorfer. Review of Carey, Maddy, Jewish Masculinity in the Holocaust: Between Destruction and Construction. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

Categories: Review, H-Net Reviews
Keywords: Book Review