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Pasts That Cannot Pass: The Role of Gender in German and Polish Works of Memory

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This dissertation explores experiences of women in Germany and Poland during World War II and the Cold War by investigating the incorporation of memory in literature and film. In my interpretation of literary and cinematic forms of life-writing, I seek to understand how memories of the Second World War and its aftermath situate female identity retrospectively. Analyzing narratives that address political turning points in Germany and Poland between 1939 and 1989, this dissertation considers the various ways in which female identity is refracted into multiple and contradictory figures through acts of memory. I argue that working through the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, female adolescents, and female workers in Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood, 1976), Tanja Dückers’s Himmelskörper (Celestial Bodies, 2003), Anna Janko’s Mała Zagłada (Little Annihilation, 2015), and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Zimna Wojna (Cold War, 2018) help to break up and disperse the seemingly unified dynamics of female identity in memories that cross both individual and generational boundaries. Looking to the crossing of these boundaries in the multifarious ways in which women are remembered in literary and cinematic texts, I suggest that aesthetic engagements with memory help to overcome some of the limits that historical narratives face when it comes to rendering the irreducibility of female experience. It is not history, I argue, but memory which provides the adequate resources for coming to terms with the “in-finite” complexity of female identity.

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This item is under embargo until December 10, 2026.