BORN LONDON, NOVEMBER 13, 1956. DIED LONDON, OCTOBER 25, 2015, AGED 58
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.