David Ce­sarani

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DAVID HER­MAN


THE PHONE stopped ring­ing af­ter 9/11,” David Ce­sarani told me last year. For over a decade Ce­sarani was the his­to­rian news­pa­pers, TV and ra­dio pro­duc­ers sought out for in­formed com­ment and anal­y­sis about the Holo­caust, Nazism and Jewish his­tory. He ad­vised prime min­is­ters and film-mak­ers. He was that rare per­son: an ac­claimed and pro­lific aca­demic his­to­rian and a com­bat­ive and elo­quent pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, pas­sion­ate about ev­ery as­pect of Jewish his­tory and cul­ture. His ca­reer was fas­ci­nat­ing but it also tells us a great deal about the chang­ing un­der­stand­ing of Jewish his­tory dur­ing his life­time.

David Ce­sarani was the only child of Henry Ce­sarani, a hair­dresser of Ital­ian-Jewish de­scent and Sylvia née Pack­man. Ed­u­cated at Latymer Up­per School, he was one of that ex­tra­or­di­nary gen­er­a­tion of bright, work­ing­class and lower-mid­dle-class chil­dren whose life prospects were trans­formed by di­rect-grant and gram­mar schools.

Ce­sarani was awarded a schol­ar­ship to study his­tory at Queen’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, where he was awarded a first, and went on to re­ceive an MA in his­tory from Columbia Univer­sity in New York. He then re­ceived a DPhil from Ox­ford, study­ing An­glo-Jewish in­ter-war his­tory at St Antony’s.

This was the first of two ma­jor phases in Ce­sarani’s aca­demic ca­reer. Dur­ing the 1980s and early 1990s he emerged as one of a group of “Young Turks”, his­to­ri­ans and crit­ics who trans­formed our un­der­stand­ing of An­glo-Jewish his­tory in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies. Along with con­tem­po­raries, in­clud­ing Bryan Cheyette, Tony Kush­ner and David Feldman, Ce­sarani chal­lenged the more con­ser­va­tive pre­vail­ing view of Jewish his­tory in Bri­tain, which had tended to smooth out the ten­sions and darker side of im­mi­gra­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion. He edited The Mak­ing of Mod­ern An­gloJewry (1990) and wrote The Jewish Chron­i­cle and An­gloJewry, 1841-1991 (1994).

A sig­nif­i­cant shift in Ce­sarani’s ca­reer took place in 1992 when he was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the Wiener Li­brary, a lead­ing cen­tre for the study of an­tisemitism and the Holo­caust. He threw him­self into the new job with his cus­tom­ary vigour and moved from An­glo-Jewish to Holo­caust his­tory. He ar­ranged nu­mer­ous sem­i­nars with key fig­ures in the field, edit­ing col­lec­tions of es­says and pro­mot­ing the lat­est re­search.

Ce­sarani was the right man in the right place at the right time. The 1980s and ’90s be­came the high point of a new in­ter­est in Holo­caust his­tory in Bri­tain and Amer­ica. He ad­vised the All-Party Par­lia­men­tary War Crimes Group into Nazi war crim­i­nals and col­lab­o­ra­tors who had come to Bri­tain af­ter the war, which led to the 1992 David Ce­sarani’s book about the

War Crimes Act. He ad­vised two Prime Min­is­ters, Tony Blair and David Cameron, on Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion, which re­sulted in him be­ing awarded the OBE in 2006. He also ad­vised the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum on their per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion on the Holo­caust.

A pro­fes­sor, first at Manch­ester, then Southamp­ton, then Royal Hol­loway, he wrote and edited im­por­tant schol­arly books on Eich­mann, The Holo­caust in Hun­gary 1944, and Belsen in His­tory and Mem­ory. But he was per­haps bet­ter known as a lively broad­caster and jour­nal­ist, speak­ing and writ­ing on the Holo­caust, Is­rael and an­tisemitism. He could be dev­as­tat­ing in de­bate, whether tak­ing on Holo­caust de­niers, left-wing crit­ics of Is­rael, or Ger­man TV pro­duc­ers who he sus­pected of white­wash­ing the Holo­caust.

I knew David Ce­sarani for al­most 40 years, at Cam­bridge, Columbia and over count­less din­ner ta­bles. He was the most stim­u­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, partly be­cause of the sheer range of his in­ter­ests and en­thu­si­asms. He was a tire­less cin­ema­goer, watch­ing every­thing from Apoca­lypse Now, which we first saw to­gether in New York in 1979, to Who Framed Roger Rab­bit?, which he saw on his first date with Dawn Water­man, whom he met in 1988 through his work with the War Crimes Com­mis­sion and mar­ried in 1991.

He loved mu­sic. As an un­der­grad­u­ate he was an early and pas­sion­ate fan of Shostakovich but also of Spring­steen and punk, and he shared his fa­ther’s love of early jazz.

But it wasn’t just the range of en­thu­si­asms that made him such a stim­u­lat­ing com­pan­ion. It was the de­gree of pas­sion he brought to bear in cham­pi­oning his favourite writ­ers and film-mak­ers. He de­voured early Martin Amis but could also be scathing and dis­mis­sive of any­thing he saw as pre­ten­tious.

One old friend de­scribed see­ing a fa­mil­iar face out­side the Screen on the Hill cin­ema. It was Ce­sarani. He wasn’t so much look­ing at a re­view of a new film, the friend said, as suck­ing the in­for­ma­tion off the pa­per. Al­most in­hal­ing it.

His daugh­ter, Hannah, once men­tioned some­thing she con­sid­ered un­in­ter­est­ing. He was in­cred­u­lous. For David every­thing was in­ter­est­ing. He was a vo­ra­cious trav­eller. When he came back from Ber­lin or Mi­lan he brought th­ese places to life like no one else I knew. Ear­lier this sum­mer he told me about a re­cent visit to the Pol­ish death camps. It was an as­ton­ish­ing and evoca­tive ac­count, both an­gry and sad. Af­ter that, he and his son, Daniel, went on to dis­cuss their lat­est favourite US TV box set.

There were a num­ber of para­doxes about Ce­sarani. He was both hedge­hog and fox. There were so many things he knew and cared about, but Jewish­ness was al­ways at the cen­tre of his life. The first piece I read of his, for a stu­dent mag­a­zine in 1978, was about the Na­tional Front and an­tisemitism. Al­most 40 years later, as he awaited a ma­jor op­er­a­tion, he was check­ing his foot­notes for two forth­com­ing books, one on Dis­raeli, the other on Nazism and the Holo­caust. Th­ese are vir­tual book­ends for Ce­sarani’s cen­tury — from Dis­raeli in the 1840s to Eich­mann and Belsen in the 1940s; a politi­cian and nov­el­ist at one end, man’s in­hu­man­ity at the other.

The great­est line of ten­sion, though, was be­tween his in­tel­lec­tual and moral se­ri­ous­ness, on the one hand, and his ap­petite for life: films, plays and TV drama, but also run­ning, cy­cling, trav­el­ling and en­joy­ing good food on the other.

David Ce­sarani lived life to the full and Jewish Bri­tain has lost one of its great­est sons. He is sur­vived by Dawn and their chil­dren Daniel and Hannah.



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