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My father, the Holocaust scholar; the man whose message Israelis wouldn’t hear

Haaretz, December 6, 2012, By Deborah Hilberg

After refusing to publish it 50 years ago, Yad Vashem has brought out a Hebrew translation of historian Raul Hilberg’s ground-breaking study, ‘The destruction of European Jewry.’

Raul Hilberg. Parents inevitably and unavoidably are − by commission, omission or total absence − teachers to their children.Photo by Archive Photo By Rex

A few days ago, while looking for images, photographs that might possibly accompany these words, I came across a first draft of an essay or book chapter that my father had written and shared with the family. The essay was about the limitations of the historian, but what stood out to me at this particular time was the sentence: “Almost inevitably the researcher will transverse three phases. During the first phase a bewildering array of sources and pieces of information are revealed. During the second phase connections are made, insights drawn, and finally, a picture emerges.”

My father noted this process as applicable to others, and indeed it is a sequence familiar to many students. As students, especially children, we have a great advantage: We are allowed to ask almost anything and we do not know yet which questions we are not supposed to ask: Daddy, why did the Shoah happen (when I was older he referred me to Christopher Browning)? Where does lightning come from? Do you consider yourself a survivor? Why was Grandpa arrested by the Nazis – what did he do wrong? Are you a historian? Well, then why is the Holocaust taught in history departments in some universities? Do you think that facts can stand alone or do you believe that individual facts cannot speak for themselves (this prompted by the war crimes trials of the 1980s)? Are you an American? Do you think in English or in Austrian German?

Parents inevitably and unavoidably are – by commission, omission or total absence – teachers to their children. While my father did not always teach me directly about the Holocaust, he did often teach through the lens of the Holocaust.

When reading this essay he had written, I debated whether to emphasize today the third phase he had written about. This would show a more sophisticated picture: how much my father was able to teach me, the extent to which father and daughter were able to continually engage in this learning process, no matter how wide the gaps in our fields of interest.

Raul Hilberg at home in Vermont.Reproductions by Emil Salman

By coming to Israel at the age of 18 and deciding, three days before the start of my freshman year, to stay here and become a dual citizen, I could not possibly have found a less convenient way of transitioning into young adulthood. He tried, but could not hide his delight with my choice of a home here in Jerusalem. The topics of study I had chosen, on the other hand … Religion? He claimed an allergy. Education? Mediocrity. Psychology? For this he reserved a special word which I cannot use in mixed company.

But the strength of the father-daughter discourse could not be suppressed. There were surprises. We found his teachings in my choices of work and study. We discovered that we were often using a different language to grapple with issues bound at their roots.

As an educator in Israel I was faced early on with the challenge of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day ); even kindergarten-aged children with special needs were aware of the day. I realized that very quickly I would need to provide a basic context, which would then help them organize and understand the frightening snippets of information they were overhearing.

With this goal, I questioned my father as to the details of his early childhood experiences in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and with his blessing turned his story into an little improvised storybook which I continue to use with the children I teach. My father was pleased with the children’s response and their questions. “Do the Germans today still want to kill Jews? Why not?” “If the Germans today know that it is wrong to kill Jews, why didn’t they know it then?”

These children are as good as my students, my father said, and better than some. At some point, I was also suddenly aware that just as the writings of survivors reflect their experience, so my father as a child watched and was acutely aware of the details of the German occupation – and later with this eye for detail wrote about and greatly expanded upon what he had witnessed. To describe this phase would provide a more complete picture, more sophisticated – and would most likely be more familiar to you.

The other choice today would be to address the beginning, the first messy phase, the confusing pieces which slowly become a foundation. This does not show as complete a picture, but I am fairly sure it will show a picture less familiar to his colleagues and more appropriate to this section of the day.

You are familiar with his published works. I am doubtful, however, that many of you are familiar with some unpublished originals, such as the story of “The Cabbage Soup Sofa.” No one has heard it? Original laundry detergent jingles and “commercials” performed for his children in the laundry room? Moisturizing properties of Dove soap? Performed in the aisles of the grocery store? No one has ever gone grocery shopping with the professor Raul Hilberg? You have missed out.

So, we will go with the first phase, the beginning of the teachings.

Beginning: Evening

I recall these lessons as a conversation, one long conversation, that evolved, took different forms – one that spanned years and continents. There is a definitive moment that stands out to me as the beginning of this conversation.

It is dusk. From the windows one only sees the muted green of grass and trees, tall, and as far as the eye can see. Silence; only an occasional rustle of leaves in a gentle breeze. A sweet smell, of lawn, forest and flowers brings this world through the windows and into the house. Here too it is quiet. Sounds muffled by thick carpets. The colors of furniture, paintings and other works of art just discernible in the glow of a night light.

We could be anywhere. The countryside? Somewhere in Western Europe? There is no peanut butter here, no ketchup in these kitchen cupboards. Any windows facing the reality of an American suburb are closed with heavy drapes. This summer evening, I am about five. As usual at bedtime, my father closes the drapes and pulls up the purple-flowered bed covers. Occasionally, I would ask to learn a new German word or to hear a story (if time would allow I would gladly share with you “The Thief and the Stained Glass Window,” or the continuation of “The Cabbage Soup Sofa on Fire.” )

This particular night as he closed the drapes, I did have a question: “Daddy, did the Nazis kill children, too?” After quickly weighing his options, he later told me, he decided on the truth and answered “Yes.”

“But that is unfair.” I exclaimed. He nodded his head affirmatively, and so father and daughter agreed. We understood each other. With that one word, “Yes,” I already knew a great deal. This was a beautiful world. It was also a world in which people did very bad things. They sometimes killed other people for no good reason at all, even little girls like me, and no, it was not fair.

The context

It took many years of observing others, and of my own search for a home, to understand where exactly we were, this beautiful place where the seasons swirled around with hues of green, white snowflakes, and falling leaves the colors of flames.

My father had always been an extension of the quintessential wandering Jew. Driving through the city he would sometimes point out the Jewish cemetery directly opposite the small airport. There are only two ways of leaving here, he would say. This is an exile within an exile.

He had been evicted from his home in Vienna at gun point. He had “wandered.” Cuba, America, Europe, America, Puerto Rico, Israel, America – and had concluded that there was no home. This eerily sad beautiful bubble was a creation of an Austria lost – not the Austria from which he had been driven out, but grief for an Austria that never was – an Austria that might have resisted the German occupation whose citizens did not betray their Jewish friends and neighbors.

This is a context not understood by children, but known and felt. A context of grief, betrayal, and the homelessness of the eternal refugee.

The crystal

This wandering Jew traveled often. Upon his return from distant places I would often find a small gift on my bedside table: a small exotic doll, a bar of soap with an unfamiliar scent, a box of intricate mosaic. On one such occasion I was drawn to the bedside table by an object sparkling in the sun. I already had a small family of turtles, each hewn from a different source. This new addition was a crystal turtle, with jeweled eyes and a faceted shell.

“It’s beautiful,” I gasped. “But look, Deborah,” my father said. “Hold it up to your eye.” I did so and saw this was the type of crystal through which one could look into the world, and suddenly prisms with rainbows of color would appear. One could turn the turtle and with each new angle, look at the same person, room, or window and see it very differently.

The baby monkey

A few years later he took me on a short trip, from the gentle hills and streams, to a Big Noisy City with trains thundering over head and underground, for goodness sake, with impossibly high buildings, and concrete and more concrete. Most important, however, was that this strange city had a zoo – the Bronx Zoo? Here we wandered together, looking at the animals until we came upon a troupe of small monkeys in a cage behind a pane of glass … Transfixed, I pleaded for a monkey to take home, one like the smallest baby who had caught my attention. My father reassured me that we could come back next year and I could visit my baby monkey again. But, no, I said, by then he will be bigger, I won’t know which one he is – and Daddy, how do they tell each other apart? “That, Deborah,” he said, “is what they are saying about us.”

Readings and connections

As children, we grow, we look for connections, like the researchers described in my father’s essay. We try to fill in the blanks.

I do not recall when I was first aware of the Holocaust. It was simply another presence in the house, an additional member of the family, that changed and grew – and magically, like anything peered at through my crystal turtle, took different forms when seen from different angles. Rather early in elementary school I asked for books from my father’s library. The first book he found for me was “I Cannot Forgive.” Rudolf Vrba and Alan Bestic. The second, “Night.” Elie Wiesel. The third, “I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz,” and the fourth, “Diary of Adam Czerniakow.”

Later I was confused when my father was perceived by others as focusing on the perpetrators, because this – the survivor’s story – was my introduction to the Holocaust. The people who wrote these stories recalled being frightened, humiliated and victimized. My father spoke of them in admiration; those who, from circumstance or from some kind of fortitude, or a combination of both – had survived. I thought of the emotion behind my father’s words of admiration, the very different feelings these authors had felt, and I remembered my crystal. I was a bigger girl now, almost 13 and knew much more, I thought. Like my father’s second phase of the researcher, I could begin to make connections.

Charades in the department store

In this complex world there is grief with beauty. Life with death. The familiar with the strange. There are killers, there are the dead that still have a presence, and there are those who emerge and describe places so dark I was sure that had I been in their place, I would not have had their courage, I would not have survived. No matter how jarring, the closeness, the relationship between all of these truths was inevitable. I knew that the world can look quite different when looked at from different perspectives – like my crystal turtle. The world also looks different depending on who is holding the turtle. There are different groups of people. Sometimes we are on opposite sides of the glass. But the transparency is an illusion.

Sometimes a group looks so different that its members look alike to me and seem to lose their individuality.

Sometimes people look different to me. Sometimes people don’t look different to me. Someone decided that they are. Sometimes different means “less than”; this isn’t fair and the results, as I read, and had long known, are catastrophic.

Going to the zoo is special. Going to more ordinary places with my father was also special – fun, to be exact. If you are American or familiar with American colloquialisms, you will understand the phrase “Can’t we take you anywhere?” Usually a phrase aimed at children, this was almost always reserved for my father.

In some department stores, if you find an item that you wish to buy – a rake, a hammer, a kitchen clock – you cannot simply take it off the shelf and purchase it. You have to fill out a long form and only then the item, if it is in stock, will be brought to you. Filling out forms; these were not things my father had much patience for.

Much more interesting would be to initiate a performance in which, to my delight, sales people would unwittingly take part. For example, on eyeing a long detailed form necessary for the purchase of a lawn mower part, my father handed the pen back, shaking his head sadly. “I’m sorry, but I am retarded and cannot write. “Oh, that is just fine,” said the kindly sales lady. “I will fill it out for you.”

I don’t think he ever filled out one of those forms. There was always a different reason, another performance. Sometimes I would start to giggle and he would turn around and say, “Now you ruined it.” Occasionally someone would fall into one of these charades and not know how to get out.

My father could drive, but preferred trains and walking, and did not carry a driver’s license. Inevitably he would be asked to produce this as a form of ID along with a credit card or check. “Oh, they don’t give driver’s licenses to ex-cons like me,” he might say. If checks without driver’s licenses were not accepted, he might ask, “Do you accept national treasury notes?” “Do you know what a national treasury note is?”

When we arrived home after one of these outings, I announced to Gwen, my stepmother: “Daddy was torturing the sales people again.” “No,” he said, pausing, “I was educating them!”

The one he was educating was his daughter. Don’t believe everything you are told. It is easy to look and not see, listen and not hear. Details are important. Mistakes can be fatal.

The janitor

Without a driver’s license he would often use his university ID. “Oh,” people would usually ask, “and what do you teach?” “Oh, I am the janitor,” he would answer. This went on for years. When I noticed he had stopped doing this I asked him why. Because, my father answered, someone finally knew and said, “You are not the janitor.” “How do you know this?” my father had asked. “I know this because I am the janitor!” This was another lesson. The truth can be found in surprising places. Janitor. Professor. In what context might I be a janitor? In another a professor? Who is to judge? Who holds the truth? Don’t assume you know where it is to be found, don’t assume you know it.

Facts, books, humor stories, performances. These were the building blocks of the foundation my father passed on. This father-daughter conversation continued over decades, across continents. With each increment of development, at each stage of life, the crystal turns just a bit and the emerging picture widens, or changes. I cannot say when or if there was an end to this conversation, but I can say it began one summer night long ago. Yes, the Nazis also killed children.

Deborah Hilberg is a teacher of children with special needs; she lives in Jerusalem. This article is based on her speech at the launch of the Hebrew translation of her father’s book.

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