The Body as Memory: Breast Cancer and the Holocaust in Women’s Art
These diseases which afflict us out of season are sociological, political, psychological, and spiritual events… Understanding cancer, for example, as imperialistic has helped me see the relationship between the personal and the political. So, illness, as it afflicts us and breaks us down, also enlightens us and presents the means to heal far more than it has undermined.
I have spent my entire life thinking about disease, cancer, and totalitarianism. When I was a child, I imagined myself a warrior against injustice… Before I was ten, I wanted to fight the Nazis, and when I was a young teenager, I imagined pursuing science so I might cure cancer. In both instances, I had the deep conviction that the Holocaust and its aftermath and the extent and circumstances of cancer were not, as the insurance companies say, “acts of God”, but injustices that should and could be righted.
1.1. Cancer and the Holocaust
The Nazis declared that someone of mixed “racial” origin was like a syphilitic. European Jewry was repeatedly analogized to syphilis, and to a cancer that must be excised… As was said in speeches about “the Jewish problem” throughout the 1930s, to treat a cancer, one must cut out much of the healthy tissue around it. The imagery of cancer for the Nazis prescribes “radical” treatment, in contrast to the “soft” treatment thought appropriate for TB—the difference between sanatoria (that is, exile) and surgery (that is, crematoria).
1.2. The Body in Women’s Holocaust Art
1.3. The Body in Breast Cancer Art
2. Trauma and the Memory of Trauma Etched into the Female Body
2.1. Alina Szapocznikow—Trauma
2.2. Anat Massad and Lorna Brunstein—A Memory of a Trauma
There are these famous pictures of the Allies who arrived at the camps with shovels and are pushing the bodies into the pits…. The realization that the mass being pushed by a shovel is actually a mass of real people [is shocking]. You don’t think at all that these are real people… In the camps, the damage to the body was total. In the camps, millions were harmed. But among those millions, there is one person whose body this is… People came to the trains; they were crammed in; people had to eat; people had to go to the bathroom; people contracted diseases… and in the end, they also burned them. There was such a preoccupation with the body itself. What else can we invent to free us from this body? For me, this is quite a story. The extermination of the entire Jewish people does not speak to me in the way that this story speaks to me. How do you lead the body, isolate it, starve it, work it hard, sicken it, kill it, cut it, tattoo it, how many operations were carried out at the procedural level until we finally got rid of this body?… The destruction of the body, not the destruction of the people—this is the story here in my opinion.
The motivation is the vulnerability of the body. After I understood the vulnerability of the body, I got cancer. This is the story. This is the right order. After asking myself for years what else can be done to the body and how else it can be harmed, I too am ill. I was thinking about the vulnerability of the body, and it doesn’t matter if it comes from experiments on the body during the Holocaust or from an illness that attacks you, or if it just comes from the passing of the years and the body gradually deteriorating.
They were very damaged people obviously because of what happened to them. They loved us very much, the Holocaust was always there in the house, it was just present everywhere, and they were very protective, my father especially so... he didn’t speak much about his experience… but he painted… the house was my father’s gallery. It was covered with paintings depicting pre-war Jewish life in Warsaw and the horrors of his experiences during prison and leaving his parents, whom he never saw again. It was overwhelming… for him the room, the house was his sanctuary, but for me it was becoming like my prison.
I was looking at these faces of my grandmother, of my aunt, looking and trying to connect, find a way in, and I got diagnosed, and I was so immersed in it, reading history, all I [could] think of when heard I [had gotten] breast cancer [was] God saying (not that I am religious): “Do you really want to do this?” I felt that I was scratching something and the result of that was breast cancer.
It didn’t hurt. But you are lying on this bed, they all go out… because it is dangerous… and you are put on a bed, so you can’t touch the floor, so you have no anchor, no roots, and I am in a middle of a room with no one else, and it doesn’t hurt, but what was going on in my head, it was a panic, a sheer panic, and that is what I feel is my inherited trauma.
This moment of him hugging me when he broke down, we connected, and I felt there was some unspoken dialogue… he wore his heart on his sleeve… he was highly strung, very anxious. He was so overprotective, he would have died for me and my sister… he was wonderful, lovely, but it was suffocating. And I knew sometimes I was short with him, I could get angry, and all of this in a way of saying “I’m sorry… I forgive you, I know you didn’t mean any harm.”
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
It is important to acknowledge that research that explored psychosocial factors or stress and their influence on breast cancer development has produced mixed findings. Some studies point to a connection between psychological aspects and the incidence of breast cancer, while others indicate less pronounced associations or suggest that isolating the variables is challenging. Research that seeks to deepen the understanding of this complex relationship is ongoing. (See, e.g., Greer and Morris 1975; McKenna et al. 1999; Chiriaci et al. 2018).
In the 1980s, AIDS was another metaphor that linked the Holocaust with disease (See, for example, Kramer 1994; Goshert 2005).
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Presiado, M. The Body as Memory: Breast Cancer and the Holocaust in Women’s Art. Arts 2023, 12, 65. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12020065
Presiado M. The Body as Memory: Breast Cancer and the Holocaust in Women’s Art. Arts. 2023; 12(2):65. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12020065Chicago/Turabian Style
Presiado, Mor. 2023. "The Body as Memory: Breast Cancer and the Holocaust in Women’s Art" Arts 12, no. 2: 65. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12020065