Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Women’s Voices and the Holocaust: How Stories are Told

Presented by the Holocaust Research Study Group (HRSG)

April 28, 2022

A panel discussion with presentations by eight women scholars, artists, and writers in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Who, from the past and in the present, gets to tell narratives about Holocaust history and its significance? A gender perspective broadens our understanding and awareness of the Holocaust to include women’s lives, actions, and heroics. The focus on women’s voices and how stories are told informs this event and will initiate a dialogue about Jewish history, gender studies, the Holocaust, and our world today.

Presenters, Members of the Holocaust Research Study Group (HRSG)

Ornit Barkai, Documentary Filmmaker 

Ornit is an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Associate and a former Scholar-in-Residence. She is a documentary filmmaker whose work offers cross-generational and multicultural perspectives on narratives of memory and memorialization. Exploring themes of gender, culture, and identity and topics of modern Jewish history, she creates international cross-platform content in a variety of genres and formats. Formerly a broadcast journalist, news director and radio host, Ornit worked in TV and Radio broadcasting in the US and Israel. 

Karen Frostig, Public Memory Artist

Karen is an interdisciplinary public memory artist, writer, cultural historian, activist, and professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences, teaching courses about trauma and memory, public art, and memorialization. Karen is Founding Director of the Locker of Memory project (2019 and ongoing) and Founding Director of The Vienna Project (2013-2014). She is an affiliated scholar at Brandeis University’s Women Studies Research Center, and is a recent recipient of a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute research grant, investigating the intersection between Holocaust memory and feminist theory. 

Debra R. Kaufman, Sociologist

Debra is Professor Emerita and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Northeastern University.  She is the author of the three-award nominated book: Rachel’s Daughters and the C. Wright Mills honorable mention award for Achievement and Women.  She writes and lectures on feminist analyses of memory, history, and culture in the making of contemporary Jewish identities. She is a distinguished lecturer for the Association of Jewish Studies.   

Laurel Leff, Journalist

Laurel is Professor of Journalism and Associate Director of Jewish Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Her latest book, Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life and Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe was a finalist for a 2020 National Jewish Book Award. Her previous book is Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper. She was formerly a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald, and an editor with American Lawyer Media Inc. and The Hartford Courant

Jutta Lindert, Public Health Professor

Jutta is Professor of Public Health at the University of Emden, Germany, and Affiliated Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. Her main research is on violence and mental health, including the Holocaust and its direct, transgenerational effects on the mental health of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. Other research areas include global public mental health and mental health and resilience. She is Vice-President of the “Public Mental Health” section of the European Association of Mental Health (EUPHA) and is involved in international research projects investigating mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rachel Munn, Writer

Rachel is an Affiliated Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center with a background in architecture, memorials, and writing. Her work explores the intersection of place, memory, and history, drawing on memorial work and the Holocaust narratives of survivor family members. She has taught university courses at Brandeis University, Northeastern University, and the Graduate Consortium at Harvard University.  A former Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University and a Master of Architecture degree from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

Karin Rosenthal, Fine Art Photographer

Karin has been uncovering her family’s history in Nazi Germany for decades. Learning the fates of lost relatives has profoundly affected her imagery as a fine art photographer. Her abstract photographs of nudes in nature have received numerous grants and awards, and have been published and exhibited internationally. Her work resides in 17 museum collections, including Boston’s MFA, the Rose and Fogg Art Museums, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. Karin is an Affiliated Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

Sarah Silberstein Swartz, Writer

Sarah is a writer and editor who has produced award-winning books on Jewish topics. She has been published internationally in the US, Canada, Germany, and Poland. Her forthcoming book Heroines, Rescuers, Rabbis, Spies: Unsung Women of the Holocaust will be published in October 2022. A Research Associate at Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a past Visiting Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, she is completing a memoir about her experiences as the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors in post-war Berlin and her journeys to Poland over the past three decades.


Uncovering Hidden Stories

Debra Kaufman: In Their Own Voices: Shaping the Past from a Feminist Present

Until recently women’s visibility and voice were virtually absent in our cultural collective memories of the Holocaust. However, contemporary feminist inquiry, by focusing on women’s experiences before, during and after the Holocaust has brought into focus and thereby reshaped the ways in which we understand the ravages of war and the uniqueness of genocide, both past and present.

Rachel Munn: Between History and Memory: Two Stories and the Holocaust Narrative 

This presentation examines the historical record of the Wannsee Conference and looks at how the effects of this banal, bureaucratic language was experienced by survivor family members Ben Munn and Grete Samson Munn. The two accounts give texture to shaping a wider narrative of the Holocaust experience, and ask how memory, history, and the telling of stories evolves our understanding of the Holocaust.

Karin Rosenthal: Enlarging the Picture

The story of my parents’ emigration from Germany in 1936 is showcased in the new Permanent Exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Four displayed items give a snapshot of a successful doctor who is denied the ability to practice, marries, and leaves for the US with his bride to restart his life and career. Many facilitators, especially women, played essential roles in his success, enlarging the story and, thereby, changing it.

Sourcing Women's Stories

Sarah Silberstein Swartz: The Power of Telling: Unsung Women of the Holocaust 

In my forthcoming book for young readers, Heroines, Rescuers, Rabbis, Spies: Unsung Women of the Holocaust, I narrate, from a female perspective, the untold stories of heroic women who experienced the Holocaust. I give voice to nine brave women⎯leaders, fighters, rescuers, and survivors⎯who faced life-and-death decisions and made life-affirming choices during the years of the Holocaust and thereafter. This presentation tells about the challenge of finding the personal stories and maintaining the authentic voices of these intrepid heroines.

Laurel Leff: Learning from Letters: Author Edna Ferber’s Cross-Atlantic Correspondence with her German-Jewish Relatives, January – July 1939  

I am telling the story of novelist and playwright Edna Ferber’s interactions with her Jewish relatives trapped in Nazi Germany with a particular focus on several months in 1939. I am relying on correspondence not only to discover the story (what they wrote to one another and the public figures they interacted with) but also to relate the story as an epistolary tale, built exclusively of letters and other artifacts from the era. This uncommon narrative approach has much to teach us about the relations between Americans and their coreligionists in Europe and about women’s voices being heard in the midst of catastrophe.  

Karen Frostig: Memorialization in the Age of Revisionism

This presentation examines activities of erasure, concerning Karen Frostig’s role as a feminist artist activist, determined to resurrect the memory of an abandoned concentration camp, located on the outskirts of Latvia’s capital city.  The Jungfernhof concentration camp was Latvia’s first Nazi concentration camp, brutally imprisoning 3,984 Jews from Germany and Austria, and murdering close to 2,000 victims in the first three months of operation. Two of the victims were Frostig’s grandparents. For the past 80 years, the camp has been relegated to the annals of forgotten history and is now rendered invisible on land recently converted into a picturesque recreation park.

Hearing Women's Voices of Resilience in Ukraine

Jutta Lindert:  Women`s Voices in the Aftermath of War and Conflicts: Evidence from Quantitative Studies

This presentation brings together a systematic review of available data on resilience and mental health conditions in the aftermath of war and conflicts, identifying critical determinants of mental health conditions. The aim is to provide evidence based on the mental health conditions of women in the aftermath of conflicts and war. Different perspectives of women of various age groups will be investigated.

Ornit Barkai:   “The Snow Was Red”: Echoes & Voices of War in Ukraine

Filmed in Ukraine in 2002, merely a decade after its post-Soviet independence and about 60 years after The Great Patriotic War, the film “Past Forward” documents a Holocaust child-survivor’s war memory through onsite interviews and random encounters. With selected soundbites from the film, this presentation brings to focus women’s resilience, while providing deeper layers of cultural nuances, some of which may have gotten lost in translation.