There is a modern-day misconception amongst those working to rebuild post-conflict societies, that war, mass atrocities, and heinous persecutions end when the conflict does. We who are not survivors, who were not victims of major international crises and targeted persecutions, find it difficult to understand the lasting impact of what survivors experienced. Post-traumatic stress was identified in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The lasting impacts are significant; survivors’ guilt, physical health issues, dealing with the disappeared, and the day-to-day difficulties of rebuilding and living a “normal” life. The gendered aspects of conflict are also apparent and affect many survivors. These issues are ever-present for them.
As a Fulbright scholar to Switzerland in 2011-2012, I researched the subject of Jewish children rescued to Switzerland during World War II. I began my Fulbright research intending to find and interview survivors who had this experience, and to work in archives, two tasks of which the specifics seemed unknown to me. When I arrived in Switzerland, I quickly learned that this story was waiting patiently for someone to discover it. As the changing of generations occurs, some of the testimonies I’ve recorded will be final.
In honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, 2013, I would like to reflect on one interview I conducted with a woman who was too old to cross clandestinely into Switzerland (at age 16), but who served as a member of the French resistance during World War II, risking her life to combat Nazi hatred, an even riskier choice as a woman.
In her interview, Ruth recounts the day she joined the resistance. She had traveled from her home in Germany, escaped to Belgium, and was hiding in France at the time, unable to escape to Switzerland, Spain, or the U.S.
“A short time after I joined the Zionist Youth Movement in France, Leon, one of the members, asked me: ‘Renée, how do you make your living?’ I felt embarrassed. In front of me stood a young man of my age, thin, of middling height with fair hair and reddish skin. He looked at me with a smile, perhaps shy, perhaps mocking. I understood that he had noticed my tight financial situation and it was difficult to hide the truth.
‘I work for my living and I survive’, I replied with a degree of pride that was out of place. ‘Is your work important to you?’ he went on with his query. ‘Work is like all work – one has to make a living, don’t you think so?’ ‘If so, how would you feel about joining a group dealing with Resistance work? Think it over carefully before you decide – it involves risks and an unusual way of life.’ I replied on the spot: ‘At you service’! Throughout this period in France, Leon was like an elder brother, a guide, a support, both encouraging and demanding. He was modest and undemonstrative. Only years later I learnt of the daring rescue operations he had carried out."
At the time, Ruth may not have known how dangerous her efforts in the resistance were. However, the choice to resist challenges the concept that victims are herded like “sheep to the slaughter,” a common narrative of the Holocaust for Jews, that I believe can be extended to other crises. This notion, that members of both the dominant and the victimized population can choose to resist, is often overlooked. It is especially more difficult and nuanced for women, as research shows that conflict affects women differently than men, and often more adversely. For Ruth, the fact that she was a woman helped her at times and put her in danger at others. The assumptions society makes about women, including that they are innocent, that they lie less than men, and that they are often naive, which was especially true in the 1940s in Europe, worked to Ruth’s advantage. While this might not be the most sensitive way to look at gender from today’s perspective, the reality of the time and the situation in which Ruth was living of international crisis, genocidal persecution, and uncertainty, this view was necessary for survival. I cannot imagine what it means for a woman to be constantly running, hiding, and trying to stay alive, while holding a dangerous job with the choice to be a member of the resistance.
My hope for International Women’s Day 2013 is that we can learn from those women who have chosen to challenge unjust norms and live extraordinary lives, so that we, too, can challenge the injustices in our own lives and follow those role models who have come before us.