Sunday, June 17, 2007

friedlaender on the holocaust: volume ii

I have been spending a good part of my evenings lately reading "The Years of Extermination," the second and final volume of Saul Friedlaender's opus, "Nazi Germany and the Jews:," which appears destined to be the definitive work on the Holocaust for the foreseeable future. Friedlaender has, to say the least, an interesting life story. Born in Prague and taken to France by parents who did not survive the war, he was hidden in a Catholic seminary and only some years later learned his parents' fate and began his return to Judaism. The rest--Friedlaender's move to Israel, his teaching at Tel Aviv University (he's now at UCLA), his early work regarding Pius XII and the Jews, his wife's giving piano lessons to at least one of my Israeli colleagues--is, so to speak, history: history, both in the autobiographical sense (dealt with in his book "When Memory Comes") and the broader sense of his professional contribution, which encompasses both the depth of Friedlaender's research and the originality of his interpretations.

One might ask why a new book on the Holocaust was necessary at this point. To this the author provides at least two answers. The first is the sheer comprehensiveness of the work. Either Friedlaender or one of his associates appears to have read not only every official document, but every letter or diary written by Jews, in any language, who survived (or often, did not survive) the war, and made them an integral part of the book. The diary point is especially important. From the seminal work by Raul Hilberg, Holocaust scholarship has been based primarily on German sources, not out of any lack of sympathy for the victims but out of a belief that victim testimonies, taken after the war in changed circumstances, were by and large unreliable. By using contemporaneous diaries, scholars are able to restore some of the balance between perpetrator and victim sources without compromising historical accuracy: Friedlaender is not the first to do so but I know of no one else who has done so this comprehensively. The diaries of orthodox observers, like Chaim Kaplan in Warsaw and Moshe Flinker, a young Belgian Jew who died at Auschwitz, are especially poignant.

A second point relates to Friedlaender's theoretical approach. In his previous volume, which covered the years 1933-39, he advanced the idea of what he called "redemptive antisemitism," a sort of heretical offshoot of Christianity which saw the elimination of the Jews as the necessary precondition to salvation, that is, as a positive goal in its own right independent of the various negative forces (liberalism, communism, etc.) that might be eliminated in the process. From Friedlaender's perspective, only this concept of the Jew as a lethal and active threat (his terms), as indeed the most lethal and active threat to the German volk, can explain the importance attributed to the anti-Jewish program and (by extension) the difference between Hitler's and previous antisemitic movements; those who see the assault on the Jews as merely a byproduct of other concerns miss this crucial point and cannot account for German behavior. The theoretical aspect is a major contribution of Friedlaender's work, and if I have a complaint about the second volume, it is that this theoretical perspective tends to get lost in the sheer volume of horrors that he understandably feels bound to describe. Perhaps a later book will pick up more on this point.

The book is painful to read, adopting an essentially chronological approach and sparing no detail, however unpleasant, of Jewish suffering or German cruelty. The account of the children of Bjelaja Zerkow and the role of German Lt. Col. Helmut Groscurth (pp. 215-219)--part of Friedlaender's larger interest in Christian "resistance" to the extermination program and its highly ambiguous consequences--is particularly poignant. The story, which does not have a happy ending, has been reported elsewhere but perhaps never this systematically. Particularly painful, for contemporary readers, are the accounts of American (including American Jewish) and Israeli (pre-state) indifference: a dance festival was held in Tel Aviv around the same time that the first reports of mass killings came through, while Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote that the reelection of President Roosevelt was more important "than the admission of a few [Jewish] people [to the U. S.], however imminent their peril." Whether today's Americans or Israelis would have done any better is beyond the author's scope to answer.

One of the problems with reading about the Holocaust is that it makes you extremely angry without being exactly sure who the anger should be directed against. My mother once advanced the theory that the Holocaust made everyone believe more strongly in whatever ideology--religion, pacifism, 20th century American liberalism--that they believed in before. For me, the only real answer is to study, and to try to apply one's learning in whatever ways seem appropriate. Certainly one lesson is humility: we should avoid being too sure of ourselves and refrain from asserting the right to play God with respect to other human beings' lives. Beyond that I am not exactly sure. It may be that the most enlightening response parallels that of Chou En-lai, the Chinese leader, when asked to discuss the legacy of the French Revolution. "Too early to tell," he responded.


At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently finished reading Friedlaender's book. You describe well the reaction of a reader to the meticulous way in which the author permits the victims as well as the perpetrators to speak. I understand that Goldhagen has written a negative review of the book. Do you know where? By the way, we are colleagues, I am just retired after 52 years on the faculty in NB. I was on the ship St. Louis and survived. Hans Fisher

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Mrena said...

Good words.


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