Body. Gender. Concentration camps.
The task of analyzing camp literature presents a particular set of challenges, the greatest of which is that it requires the scholar to occupy the positions of explorer and witness simultaneously. Such positionalities may at times become mutally exclusive when the ethics of witnessing clashes with the drive to explore. Bozena Karwowska's recent book Ciato. Seksualnosc. Obozy zagtady (Body. Gender. Concentration Camps), published in the Universitas series "Modernizm w Polsce," exemplifies the tactful negotiation of ethical complexities and the analytical approach demanded by the book's grueling subject matter.
The opening chapter, "The Body in the Concentration Camp: The Experience of Stanislaw Grzesiuk," focuses on Grzesiuk's memoir Pi[section]c lat kacetu (Five Years in Concentration Camps, 1958). In her discussion of Grzesiuk's treatment of the body and the theme of homosexuality, Karwowska proposes reading Grzesiuk's memoir via hermeneutic tools offered by feminist critics focusing on slavery in the United States. She adopts a racial discourse of slavery and its notions of bodily hierarchies to discuss a collective of white males striving for survival in the concentration camp universe. Karwowska's employment of the notion of "the theft of the body" as an operative mechanism both of slavery and of the camps allows for a nuanced reading of the typology of the body and its function as an exchange value and a medium of communication in the reality Grzesiuk represents. At the same time, the author shows that reading camp literature through the language of gender and of the body differs from reading it through other transnational categories that, paradoxically, simultaneously universalize and Other the experience. The category of the victim, after all, trumps all other categories, often turning the victim into the body deprived of its idiosyncratic qualities such as ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Karwowska's book reclaims gender and sexuality as operative categories to offer new, valuable readings of a broad range of texts, some less well known than others, pertaining to the wartime, the Holocaust and, broadly speaking, camp experience. Avoiding the pitfalls of Holocaust studies that often suffer from an overcautious treatment of the topic, the author skillfully balances her provocative interpretations with respect for her topic.
Books such as this are needed in Polish scholarship. Although generations of Poles have been schooled on the canonic works of the camps and Holocaust literature (e.g., Nalkowska, Szmaglewska, Borowski), it is important to remember that the institutionalization of memory during the communist regime left a heritage of reception that discouraged readings that pluralized experience and subject positions, whether from the ethnic, national, or ethical perspective. Such reception was characterized by the tendency to preserve the totality of victimization (thus the problem with the victim entering the hierarchy of power and survival and the transgressive character of works such as Borowski's); it avoided, at all cost, the risk of being perceived as relativizing Nazi guilt, and, as Karwowska addresses in the book's introduction, it operated according to the "external" (i.e., from outside the barbed wire) morality, which simply could not accommodate the conditions of the camp life.
The book is divided into three parts (whose argumentative trajectory would benefit from titles), which progress from texts that demonstrate the potential and limitations of approaching testimonial writings (with the case studies of Stanislaw Grzesiuk, Zofia Romanowiczowa, Seweryna Szmaglewska) in the framework of feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; to texts demonstrating the importance of narratorial positionality for this framework (Maria Dabrowska, Tadeusz Borowski, Zofia Posmysz); and finally to texts that employ the category of bodily experience in the light of posttraumatic cultural traces. This last part is characterized by a broader perspective of the postmemorial generation and employs a variety of canonic and noncanonic literary and visual works (e.g., Ewa Stachniak, Edward Munk, the memoirs of women from Gdansk/Danzig) in order to show how the notions of, for example, rape and prostitution employed in the representation of the wartime situations interact with these notions' "everyday" semantics. The coherence of such grouping is blurred by the discussion of Maria Dabrowska's experience of widowhood in her Diary from the interwar period in Part Two. Although the author explains in the introduction that her discussion of Dabrowska illustrates the process of the sexualization of the narrator's position in the context of representation of death and loss, the discussion of Dabrowska's process of mourning stands out awkwardly in a book focusing on extreme wartime experiences. On the other hand, the same problematics of positionality make perfect sense in Karwowska's poignant and innovative interpretation of Borowski's "letters to Maria" as works "written from the perspective of a man in love."
The title of the book in Polish is misleading, since it suggests that the book focuses on "death camps" and thus operates in the framework of Holocaust studies, while in fact Karwowska tests her analytical apparatus against representations of several categories of traumatic experiences (e.g., death camps, concentration camps, labor camps, wartime rapes of women and men who were not necessarily Jewish). Although it is clear for the reader that the main authorial intention lies in opening up new interpretative horizons by employing the framework of body, gender, and sexuality to discuss the self-contained community of the (broadly understood) camps, it would be helpful to signal differentiation between the various traumatic communities she discusses and the influence of these differentiations on the treatment of gender and sexuality. In fact, in the English summary of the argument that concludes the book, the notion of "obozy zaglady" is translated as "concentration camps," which is more appropriate to the content of the book but misleading in relation to the historical distinction between concentration and death camps.
The entire book, however, indicates a scholar who thinks palimpsestically and whose initial interpretative intuition resurfaces in a layered and complex engagement with her subjects. The palimpsestic nature of camp writing (in the chapter "Text on the Shoah as Palimpsest") is addressed on the basis of a case study of The Woman Passenger (Pasazerka, 1963), an acclaimed film directed by Andrzej Munk. The very same film becomes intertwined in the broader analysis of the treatment of German women in postwar Polish literature ("Antagonistic 'National' Identities and Female Memories. German Women in Polish Postwar Literature") where it becomes a counterpart to the Canadian novel Necessary Lies (2000), by the Polish emigre writer Ewa Stachniak. The introduction of Stachniak's book enables Karwowska to expand her earlier analysis of the palimpsestic strategies of focalizing memory through the German and Polish main characters of Munk's classic film into the notions of postmemory and generational transference in Stachniak's contemporary novel.
Overall, Ciato. Seksualnosc. Obozy zagtady is a theory-rich book, informed by such critics as J. Kristeva, T. Moi, E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, b. hooks, G. Agamben, R. Barthes, F. Ankersmit, J. Derrida, and G. Genette, and it puts close readings and theoretical reflections in dialogue with each other. It provides a new perspective on issues pertaining to the gendering of radical experience and its representation. I can imagine this book as a useful pedagogical tool particularly in seminars that emphasize comparative approaches to literature and war writing. I can also imagine that Karwowska's findings on camp literature may be further developed in a growing Polish scholarship on the problematics of gender and sexuality in the context of ethnicity and nationality. What I value most about Bozena Karwowska's work is her ability to resist redemptive interpretations and to unsettle her reader while maintaining an empathetic relationship with the texts she discusses.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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