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