Navigate to Community section

Writing Women Into History

Changing how we think about the past—and whose stories matter—can move narratives from the margins to the center

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 25, 2022
Original image: Wikipedia
Bluma and Rachela Wyszogrodzka, Warsaw Ghetto fightersOriginal image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Bluma and Rachela Wyszogrodzka, Warsaw Ghetto fightersOriginal image: Wikipedia

What does it mean to write women’s history? Can women simply be written into history? Or is it possible that our concept of “history” may be reshaped by the lives of the women we seek?

In Women on the Margins, her 1995 study of the lives of three unusual 17th-century women, historian Natalie Zemon Davis suggested that to write women’s history, we can’t simply look for the women who made history like men, the ones who engaged with political centers and sought reform. We must also seek the women who carved out new ways of living, “on the margins,” women like Glikl Hamel—whom I recently wrote about in this column. Glikl created her autobiography as a woman removed from the prestige of Jewish textual learning and as a Jew, a vulnerable minority in a hostile Christian world.

Even at these removes, Glikl’s marginal position was generative, writes Zemon Davis, “a borderland between cultural deposits that allowed new growth and surprising hybrids.” In writing her autobiography, Glikl drew on personal experience and outside sources in novel ways. The result of her unique literary approach, according to Zemon Davis, was “an independent religious voice, different from a rabbi’s, but different from Vayber Taytsh [Yiddish translations of religious texts for women] as well.”

It was not obvious to everyone, however, that Glikl’s work, while of some historical interest, was itself historic. In Women on the Margins, Zemon Davis describes the twists and turns of Glikl’s modern afterlife. In 1910, the feminist reformer Bertha Pappenheim published a German translation of Glikl’s book in its entirety, expressing her identification with Glikl as an accomplished woman in the world. Three years later, a historian named Alfred Feilchenfeld published his own version. For him, the book’s importance lay not in Glikl as a creator but in how the book showed how Jewish families had lived in Germany. Feilchenfeld, Zemon Davis notes, “eliminated all the folktales and moral commentary” from his edition of the book, as well as Glikl’s “formulaic modifiers” such as “may the memory of his merits be a blessing,” which she said when referring to someone who has died.

The excision of her “modifiers” strikes me as just as injurious as that of her tales. Yiddish is rich with those modifiers, and Glikl’s use of them in her writing gives us a flavor of what her speech might have sounded like. Indeed, those “formulaic modifiers” are so important to Yiddish that linguist James Matisoff created the term “psycho-ostensive expressions” to describe them. The function of psycho-ostensives, according to Matisoff, is the “direct linguistic manifestation” of the speaker’s psychic state. It goes without saying, the historian must first even be interested in the inner lives of women in order to find them. Feilchenfeld’s mutilation of Glikl’s text is symbolic of the ways that male-centered notions of “history” continue to shape its production.

Zemon Davis’s concept of “women on the margins” remains powerful in the way it reshapes questions about who and what is history. For example, we can read her next to Judy Batalion’s 2020 book The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. The Light of Days was an instant hit and a New York Times bestseller. Written in a vivid, cinematic style, the book has already been picked up for a movie adaptation by Steven Spielberg’s production company. And while the stories of the women in the book were never hidden, they have mostly lingered uneasily on the margins of Jewish memory—which seems all the more strange in retrospect, given the excitement that The Light of Days has generated among readers today.

Central to The Light of Days is the story of the kashariyot, or couriers, the young women who carried news and smuggled material between ghettos and later planned attacks, rescued Jews, and procured weapons for Jewish fighters. The stories Batalion uncovered are nothing short of jaw-dropping in their demonstrations of wartime bravery.

There’s no question that the kashariyot were “regarded by their contemporaries as central and important participants in the Jewish resistance,” according to an entry in the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women written by Lenore Weitzman, author of a forthcoming book about these couriers. And yet, they “have rarely been accorded that status in subsequent historical accounts. Why would they be considered heroic at the time, but be neglected thereafter?” Weitzman goes further, writing, “While it is possible to attribute the neglect to ignorance, or to poor scholarship, or to sexism, it is also possible that modern historians have (unconsciously) relied on their own assumptions about who should be considered a hero, and they have, on the whole, restricted the term to those who fought the Germans in the ghettos.”

The facts show plainly that the kashariyot risked their lives, faced death as often as armed male fighters, and were essential to organized, armed resistance actions against the Germans. So why has their heroism stubbornly resisted recognition as such?

Here, I return again to Zemon Davis and the women who made history on the margins. Indeed, the women now celebrated in The Light of Days embodied certain kinds of marginality to the Jewish community, a position that at times got them blamed or ignored. For example, in his definitive account of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Oyneg Shabes collective, Who Will Write Our History, historian Samuel Kassow notes that the strongest Jewish party in 1930s Warsaw, the Bund, “took little note of the pleas of their women’s organization,” and when “the Bund did discuss women’s issues, it was usually in the context of other concerns such as assimilation: what to do, for instance, about Jewish women who brought Polish language and culture into the home.” As we learn so vividly in The Light of Days, in order for the kashariyot to be successful, they had to be able to pass as Polish, which meant speaking flawless, unaccented Polish. The girls could do this because they had attended Polish schools, while their brothers, who had gone to Jewish schools, spoke Polish with Yiddish accents.

Indeed, one of the inescapable themes of The Light of Days is that the ability of Jewish women to play key roles in Jewish resistance, or to simply survive, was often directly tied to the qualities that tended to put them on the margins of traditional Jewish life, whether literally or symbolically.

The kashariyot didn’t just have to speak perfect Polish for their undercover missions, they had to look the part. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many references to glossy blonde braids in so short a time. Batalion writes, “Usually only women who did not look Semitic were selected to go on missions … These women had light hair and blue, green, or gray eyes; they looked ‘good.’” Many of the girls had worked and socialized with Poles and were familiar with the intricacies of their culture. This is sharply contrasted with the Jewish men who joined resistance movements, who were less at home in Polish culture and made more vulnerable by their Jewishness, whether linguistic or physical (they could always be betrayed by the mark of their circumcision).

Zemon Davis writes that the women she studied embraced their marginal place, “reconstituting it as a locally defined center. For Glikl, it was Jewish networks and Gemeinde [community] that counted most.” Even within the sharply defined limits placed on her as a woman, Glikl was able to live an extraordinary life. Her business gave her access to travel and the exciting variety of life that comes with it. She traded pearls and gold at fairs all over Northern Europe while negotiating the many long-distance engagements of her 13 children. Glikl’s ability to move about in the world gave rise to something new, an independent personhood reflected in her work, even as her identity remained officially tied to father, husband, or even sons.

In the same way, the kashariyot were defined by their movement across their networks, not just in and out of the ghettos, but between cities and even across national borders. As devoted members of their youth movements, they reconstituted their movement “families” over and over, as the war progressed. If heroism presumes a heroic center to the action, it’s too easy to imagine the kashariyot as a web of peripheral helpers rather than the indispensable agents they were.

The heroism of the kashariyot and other female resistance fighters took place against a backdrop of gendered turmoil. The number of able-bodied Jewish men quickly decreased with the onset of war, whether due to being drafted into the Polish army, fleeing eastward, or getting arrested or murdered by the Germans. Women had to not only care for their families but become breadwinners. As Kassow writes, “war and its massive assault on Jewish society led to a reversal of gender roles and a new emphasis on values that had traditionally been the purview of women.” Men “had become ‘women’ and the women had to become ‘men.’” Is it surprising that the heroic women in the middle of such turmoil couldn’t be recognized as such?

April 19 marks the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a day still honored by many around the world. There are many reasons to read The Light of Days, but the approaching anniversary adds all the more urgency. The book’s chapters about the uprising are especially vivid and gripping, making the women (and men) of the resistance come alive once again, easily recognizable as the heroes they are.

UPDATES: A French translation of Fradel Shtok’s short stories is now available from Editions Bibliotheque Medem. Purchase Une Danse here … If you enjoyed previous columns about Yiddish and the natural world, then you should check out “The Yiddishists: Back to Nature,” a new article in Jewish Renaissance by Stefanie Halpern, director of the YIVO Archives.

ALSO: Paris Yiddish Center Medem Library presents Ukraine in Yiddish Literature (in Yiddish). This literary Zoom event will include readings of short Yiddish texts or extracts of longer texts, representing a variety of periods, writers, themes, and genres. March 27, 2:30 p.m. New York time. More information here … My friend, vocalist Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, will be giving a Yiddish Song Workshop at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. The event will be in-person with a live-streaming option. March 30, more information here … Nick Underwood just published his book Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France. On April 21, he will talk about how Yiddish cultural figures created a distinctively French Yiddish cultural scene in Paris during the interwar years. Sponsored by the Medem Library, in English. More information here … May 12 is Tsvelf far Ukraine, a 12-hour concert of Yiddish music and spoken word held via Zoom, featuring artists from around the world. With klezmer, Yiddish song, poetry, and more, raising funds for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Hosted by the Klezmer Institute. Register here

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.