Raul Hilberg, the pioneering scholar in the academic study of the Holocaust, died of lung cancer August 4 in Burlington, Vermont. He was 81.
Hilberg is best known and most deeply revered for his monumental work “The Destruction of the European Jews,” which appeared in 1961 and was widely considered the founding text of Holocaust studies.
I worked closely with Hilberg on the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He traveled extensively for the museum, particularly to help with its efforts to open archives in the then Soviet Union, and he was always in it for the long haul. He reviewed the finding aids one by one, choosing the records to be copied. He then read each microfilm making sure that the archivists had kept their word.
Walking into an archive with Raul was like walking into a restaurant with a master chef. The archivist was always aware of his presence, always in awe of his reputation. Even an archivist trained — and trusted — to keep important material hidden from view would be tempted into bringing forth something uniquely valuable to impress the master.
For his work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hilberg never once accepted remuneration, even when others were paid for their work. He was a consistent, gracious and insisting presence demanding the highest of standards of others and measuring up to them himself.
Hilberg, who is survived by his wife Gwendolyn and his children Deborah and David, was born in Austria and fled with his family to Cuba after the Anschluss in 1938. It was there that he saw firsthand the fate of SS St. Louis. The ship, carrying more than 937 German Jewish refugees, was refused entry to Cuba, and, after cycling through American ports, was sent back to Europe. After a brief stay in Cuba, Hilberg’s family moved to New York, where his bourgeois parents became factory workers.
Hilberg studied at Brooklyn College before joining the United States Army at the age of 18. Sent to Europe in a combat unit, he returned to New York after the war to complete his college education and then studied at Columbia University with Franz Neumann, the author of “Behemoth,” a study of the Nazi state.
When Hilberg began thinking about doing his Ph.D. thesis on the Holocaust, Neumann famously said, “OK, but this will be your funeral.” Yet Neumann advanced Hilberg’s career by recommending him for his job at the Alexandria Documentation Center reviewing captured Nazi war documents, which gave the young scholar unsurpassed knowledge of Nazi documents. In 1956, Hilberg moved to the University of Vermont, his home for the next 35 years. He retired from teaching in 1991 but never abandoned his research.
His defining first work, widely regarded even by his critics as “monumental and magisterial,” almost did not see the light of day. Press after press passed on publishing it. Yad Vashem, which had agreed to publish the work, reneged after facing stiff internal opposition to Hilberg’s treatment of armed Jewish resistance, central to the Zionist narrative, as a marginal phenomena of last resort. Throughout his long career, Hilberg would not back away from his description of Jewish behavior as moving along a continuum from alleviation to evasion to paralysis and finally to compliance. Writing from the perspective of German documentation, he minimized the military though not the moral importance of armed resistance.
The book was finally published in 1961 by Quadrangle Press and only after some private subvention, underwriting the cost of its publication. Hannah Arendt made much use of Hilberg’s work in her famed New Yorker columns on the Eichmann trial but without attribution; only in her later work “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was the young scholar given his due. Hilberg’s most important disciple, Christopher Browning, said: “What Hilberg portrayed as a catastrophic and tragic failure of perception, Arendt in contrast portrayed in terms of seduction by apparent power, self-serving corruption, and ultimately betrayal — in short a searing accusation of moral failure.”
His point was too subtle for many to grasp; in all but the most sophisticated of circles Arendt’s portraits of Jewish leadership were regarded as identical to Hilberg’s.
Hilberg did grapple with the role of Jewish leadership in his moving portrait of Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat whose diary was translated into English and published with a meticulous commentary by Hilberg. Only in 1979 with the emergence of Yehuda Bauer, the distinguished Israeli scholar who was Hilberg’s contemporary and friend, was Hilberg permitted into the Yad Vashem archives where he could hold the actual diary in his hand.
Other works followed. His memoir “The Politics of Memory” was an angry work. Written at a time when his role in the academic study of the Holocaust was secure, he did not claim vindication, he did not celebrate his triumph. Instead, he settled scores with Hannah Arendt, Lucy Dawidowicz and other scholars. The wounds of his youth, the loneliness of his pursuit and the pain of the beginnings were all too apparent. In his later work “Sources of Holocaust Research,” he taught how to read documents as only he could read them.
Everyone in the field of Holocaust studies knows that if there were a Nobel Prize offered in the field, Hilberg would have been its most worthy recipient. Such was the quality of his work and also the man.
Michael Berenbaum is a professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.