Saul Fried­lan­der: there’s still more to learn on the Shoah

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Q&A - ELIAS LEVY This in­ter­view was trans­lated from French by Carolan Halpern. It has been edited and con­densed for style and clar­ity.

Israeli-amer­i­can his­to­rian Saul Friedla nder, one of the world’s lead­ing schol­ars of the Holocaust and Nazism, re­cently pub­lished the sec­ond vol­ume of his mem­oirs si­mul­ta­ne­ously in French, (Où mène le sou­venir. Ma vie, Édi­tions du Seuil, Paris), and English (Where Mem­ory Leads: My Life, Other Press Pub­lisher, New York).

It’s a grip­ping ac­count of his years in Is­rael, where he was a close col­lab­o­ra­tor of states­man Shi­mon Peres, and tells of his fight to tell the story of how one-third of the Jewish Peo­ple was de­stroyed, and of the pro­found dis­putes be­tween him and the great Ger­man his­to­ri­ans of Nazism. He also of­fers his re­flec­tions on to­day’s Is­rael.

The book is the se­quel to his 1978 mem­oir When Mem­ory Comes, in which he re­counts his child­hood in Prague and France dur­ing World War II. Born in Prague in 1932, Fried­lan­der was hid­den as a child in France and has de­voted his life to un­der­stand­ing the fate of Jews dur­ing the war.

An emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Tel Aviv and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les, where he taught for 25 years, Fried­lan­der was the first his­to­rian to pub­lish, in 1964, an in-depth book on re­la­tions be­tween Pope Pius XII and the Nazis, Pius XII and the Third Re­ich: A Doc­u­men­ta­tion.

He spoke to The CJN from Los An­ge­les. How did you be­come a world-renowned spe­cial­ist on Holocaust his­tory and the pon­tif­i­cate of Pius XII in World War II? In 1964, I was pre­par­ing a doc­toral the­sis in his­tory on the topic “The Amer­i­can fac­tor in the diplo­matic and mil­i­tary pol­icy of Nazi Ger­many.” I didn’t yet re­al­ize this sub­ject was closely linked to my per­sonal his­tory.

By chance, I dis­cov­ered in the archives in Bonn a doc­u­ment from De­cem­ber 1941, in­cor­rectly filed by mis­take in the archives re­lated to the United States: a let­ter from Pope Pius XII invit­ing the or­ches­tra of the Opera of Ber­lin, which was com­ing to Rome, to play ex­tracts from Par­si­fal by Richard Wag­ner in his pri­vate

apart­ments in the Vatican. I was shocked, be­cause in De­cem­ber 1941, ev­ery­one in the Vatican – and else­where – knew the Ger­mans were killing Rus­sian civil­ians and Jews en masse in the Soviet Union.

That un­ex­pected dis­cov­ery aroused my cu­rios­ity and led to fur­ther re­search. Sev­eral months later, I pub­lished my first book, Pius XII and the Third Re­ich, which ex­am­ined the con­vo­luted re­la­tion­ships that Pius XII had with the Hitler regime and the na­ture of his si­lence in the face of Nazi anti-semitism. With this book, which be­came very con­tro­ver­sial, I be­came a his­to­rian. The Vatican has yet to open its archives on Pius XII’S pon­tif­i­cate dur­ing World War II. Why the re­luc­tance? I think that those archives will be opened sooner or later by the Vatican, even if it seems to be drag­ging its feet. Till now, the archives that have only be­come ac­ces­si­ble in the last three or four years are the ones for Pope Pius XI, and the Vatican has been se­lec­tive about pub­lish­ing archives from World War II. Eleven vol­umes con­tain­ing the archives of that pe­riod, whose doc­u­ments re­lated in­di­rectly to the Jews, are avail­able. I have looked at them. They are very se­lec­tive. They were pub­lished by a group of Je­suits. They are cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing, but many key doc­u­ments whose ex­is­tence we know of are miss­ing.

If the archives cov­er­ing the pon­tif­i­cate of Pius XII dur­ing the war are later opened, there is al­ways the risk that cer­tain doc­u­ments we could need might not be there. But once these archives are ac­ces­si­ble, they will lead us to other re­lated doc­u­ments. The dan­ger that they will be se­lec­tive still ex­ists, but it would be re­duced once the archives are opened. Are there as­pects of Holocaust his­to­ri­og­ra­phy still to be ex­plored? To­day, Holocaust his­to­ri­ans are much more in­ter­ested in “mi­cro-his­tory.” For ex­am­ple, we trace the his­tory of a small town in Gali­cia where Ukraini­ans, Poles and Jews lived to­gether in rea­son­able har­mony, while mu­tu­ally hat­ing each other. When the war broke out, the Ger­mans oc­cu­pied the town. The Jews dis­ap­peared af­ter the war. His­to­ri­ans are now in­ter­ested in what hap­pened in this lit­tle vil­lage. They’re study­ing the his­tory of this lit­tle Gali­cian town in three stages: be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the war. It’s an in­no­va­tive ap­proach to the study of Holocaust his­tory. We will soon have sev­eral stud­ies of this kind. On a his­to­ri­o­graphic level, there are still ways to be in­no­va­tive in what is called the “mi­cro-his­tory of the Holocaust,” that is, the his­tory of iso­lated places where sev­eral eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties lived and the re­la­tions that those com­mu­ni­ties had among them­selves be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the war. Does the ex­ces­sive com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Holocaust bother you? Yes, but un­for­tu­nately, in ad­di­tion to ex­ces­sive com­mem­o­ra­tion, there is also po­lit­i­cal ex­ploita­tion of it by both Is­rael and Amer­i­can Jewry. In Is­rael, this is very ob­vi­ous. In 1977, as soon as he came to power, for­mer Israeli prime min­is­ter Me­nachem Be­gin be­gan to ex­ploit the Holocaust for po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal pur­poses. He iden­ti­fied PLO leader Yasser Arafat with Adolf Hitler. The Israeli mil­i­tary cam­paign in Le­banon in 1982 was a kind of cru­sade against the “new Nazis” – the Pales­tini­ans. It was a par­ody, an ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able use of the Holocaust for im­me­di­ate po­lit­i­cal gain. I think to­day, Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and the par­ties on the ex­treme right of his gov­ern­ing coali­tion are do­ing the same thing. They in­voke the Holocaust to jus­tify set­tle­ments in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. It’s de­plorable. Some peo­ple say Holocaust de­nial is mar­ginal to­day, but you be­lieve it’s on­go­ing and will never dis­ap­pear. I re­mem­ber when I was teach­ing a course at UCLA on the Nazis’ pol­icy of eu­thana­sia. I ex­plained to my stu­dents that the Nazis jus­ti­fied eu­thana­sia of the dis­abled for eco­nomic rea­sons, but also to im­prove the “pure Aryan race.” One stu­dent then asked me, “Did it work?”

Shoah de­nial is to be an on­go­ing bat­tle. We will keep read­ing that “the Nazi gas cham­bers didn’t ex­ist.” To­day, de­nial is pros­per­ing thanks to the In­ter­net. Hasn’t the Arab-mus­lim world be­come the prin­ci­pal source for the spread­ing of these de­nial the­o­ries? Yes. In the Arab-mus­lim world, Holocaust de­nial has be­come a po­lit­i­cal ob­ses­sion. To­day, Iran and the ex­trem­ist Is­lamist Mus­lim world are the prin­ci­pal pro­mot­ers of de­nial the­o­ries. The main fal­la­cious ar­gu­ment re­peated by Arab-mus­lim Holocaust de­niers is that Zion­ists in­vented the Shoah to jus­tify the cre­ation of the State of Is­rael.

Three years ago, Egyp­tian tele­vi­sion aired a prime time TV se­ries based on the Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion. In sev­eral Arab-mus­lim coun­tries, anti-semitic or de­nial pro­pa­ganda is used by the state for po­lit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal pur­poses.

Saul Fried­lan­der

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