Some people write exclusively about baseball, or the stock market, or dog care. Wendy Lower writes about the history of the Holocaust. “This is my occupation,” she says. “Teaching it, training others to research it, writing books about it.” Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct.) examines the unknown and horrific story of German women in the Holocaust, not simply as “gleeful onlookers” and “violent tormentors”—which, Lower says, they were—but as actual killers on the eastern front during WWII. The book is the product of years of painstaking digging in archives in Poland, Israel, and the U.S.
Lower, who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California and is a historical consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, sifted through the lives of hundreds of women to find the 13 who form the heart of her book—“the most interesting and representative among them,” she says. Two of the women she was able to interview in person or by phone; those who were dead or incapacitated had family members available to talk. “In one case, a memorable encounter, the family didn’t know the history. I had to drink coffee and cake with them while they listened to me explain why their mother was convicted with a life sentence by the East German government.”
Lower found the story of the female killers buried in reams of documents and court testimony. “Women were questioned after the war starting with [the] Nuremburg [trial] when the authorities were trying to pursue male killers, the SS men. But the questioning was always about the men. If you go back into the testimony, which is what I did, you see that the women felt safe because they weren’t the target of the investigation, and they reveal information. They talked more freely in their statements and incriminated themselves. The prosecutors were so focused on the men they overlooked or dismissed the importance of the female witnesses.”
When applying to graduate school in the late 1980s, Lower was told by her advisers that Holocaust studies was too narrow a field to build a career on. “Well, the field has exploded,” she says. “The collapse of the Soviet Union had a lot to do with it. That was a key event that has shaped the writing of this history in the last 20 years.”
Lower, who’s at her first BEA, appears on the Editors Adult Buzz Books Author Stage today, 10–10:30 a.m., on the Downtown Stage.