A Mighty Pen and a Humble Heart

In 1997, Saul Friedländer, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, published the first half of his chef-d’oeuvre, “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review, historian Fritz Stern praised the book for being at once evocative and rigorous. “He writes history with a novelist’s sense,” Stern said — high praise from a scholar who was himself considered a master stylist. Others were comparably impressed. In 1999, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Friedländer one of its coveted “genius awards.”

A Prague-born survivor with a fascinating history of his own — he spent the war years hidden in a French Catholic school — Friedländer has now published a follow-up volume. Titled “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945,” and numbering no fewer than 896 pages, the work is certain to become one of the definitive histories of the period.

The Forward’s Gabriel Sanders recently caught up with Friedländer to discuss the book, the state of the field of Holocaust studies and the role of humility in the writing of history.

Gabriel Sanders: I wanted to ask you about the image with which you open your book. You describe a photograph taken at an Amsterdam graduation ceremony in 1942. In it, a Jewish medical student is receiving his degree while wearing his yellow star. Of all the stories at your disposal, why begin with this one?

Saul Friedländer: I was struck by the symbolic nature of the image. An immense number of elements from the whole historic landscape are concentrated in it. The aim of the book was to offer an integrated history of the Shoah, that is, one that carries the policies, the ideologies, the perpetrators, their collaborators and, of course, the voices — the human presence — of the victims, which are often reduced to statistics in general histories.

GS: Unlike a number of your colleagues in the field, you put great stock in survivor diaries. What do such sources offer, and what are their potential pitfalls?

SF: You don’t go to diaries for historical exactness. You go to them for the attitudes, the reactions, the fears, the hopes — the life of those that were targeted. If you leave that aside, you come to rely uniquely on German documents. You completely shunt aside the humanity of the Jewish communities that are the face of the story. I wouldn’t turn to the diaries to learn about German policies, but I need to read them to be informed of daily life in the ghettoes. Now, you may tell me that these sources are unreliable, but not more unreliable than Eichmann’s depositions in Jerusalem or the memoirs of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, which are used everywhere. One must, of course, consider Jewish diaries with extreme care and with a totally open critical mind, as one would any other source.

GS: In a review of “The Years of Extermination” that recently appeared in The Washington Post, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of the 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” wrote that your book “may prove to be the last major general history of the Holocaust produced by a leading scholar who lived under the Nazis.” This is, of course, interesting at the level of biography, but when it comes to the scholarship itself, is there a tangible difference between Holocaust historians who lived through the experience and those who did not?

SF: There shouldn’t be, but there is. The person who has lived through the events is familiar with nuances that cannot be gotten from administrative documents. The things that are between the lines are more vivid among those who remember. Now, it has been argued that the survivor-historian is more subjective and less scientific, but we are all subjective with regard to this period. So you say where it is you are coming from and do your best, if you are an honest person, to try to restrain your subjectivity.

GS: The field of Holocaust history has changed enormously since you began working in it, indeed since you began the research that resulted in your most recent book. How have changes in the field affected your work?

SF: In the ’60s, when I wrote my first book, about Pope Pius XII, the Holocaust was of relatively little interest to anybody. Except for those who were existentially involved with it, of course. Today, the field is immense, but it is also a field where the media are fond of looking for stories. You have the films and the plays and the novels. The historian today has an immense amount of material to work with, but he is also faced with an enormous amount of surrounding noise. It’s not so easy to be constantly confronted with approximate, irrelevant and false narratives.

GS: The academy today houses more historians of the Holocaust than ever before. What does the future hold for them? Can you identify directions into which the field can potentially move?

SF: It’s hard to imagine that the panoramic history will be the direction of the future. There is more and more specialization today, and this specialization can go in very different directions. The most promising avenues are histories of smaller locales and second-rank actors, histories that give the big picture in microcosm.

GS: You take your book’s epigraph from the diary of one Stefan Ernest, a Jew hiding in “Aryan” Warsaw in 1943. “[People] will ask,” you quote him as saying, “is this the only truth? I reply in advance: No, this is not the truth, this is only a small part, a tiny fraction of the truth…. Even the mightiest pen could not depict the whole, real, essential truth.” It seems here that you are trying to sound a note of humility. But am I wrong in sensing a hint of bravado here, too? Do you see yourself as wielding “the mightiest pen”?

SF: I don’t want to underestimate my work. It would, in a way, be grotesque to write and then say, “This is worthless.” But I meant the epigraph very simply and directly: Don’t let us have any illusions. We try, and we have to try, but this is not even a fragment of a fragment of the truth.

This story "A Mighty Pen and a Humble Heart" was written by Gabriel Sanders.

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