Haaretz, December 6, 2012, By Saguy Green
Over the last 50 years, the interpretation of the concept of Jewish heroism in the Holocaust changed.
This is a case that involves historic injustice and historic justice. It revolves around the necessity to cling to an opinion and to an idea, and afterward to develop the ability to recant and revise – in other words, the ability, even the need, to change. But the case of Raul Hilberg (1926-2007) and his monumental work, “The Destruction of European Jewry,” which was recently published in Hebrew by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institution, 51 years after it appeared in English, also has a very human side, revolving around the feelings of people, and what drives and guides them.
In the course of an illuminating article about Hilberg and Hannah Arendt in The Nation (“A conscious pariah,” April 19, 2010), Nathaniel Popper quotes the following from Hilberg’s autobiography: “Briefly I weighed the possibility of writing a dissertation about an aspect of war crimes, and then I woke up. It was the evidence that I wanted. My subject would be the destruction of the European Jews.” For the evidence relates to him – it was his private catastrophe, from which he escaped by the skin of his teeth.
Hilberg, who was from a Jewish family in Vienna, became a refugee in one fell swoop, fleeing from Europe with his parents after the Anschluss (Austria’s annexation to Germany) and just five months before the outbreak of World War II. His unrelenting attempt to understand what happened to the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, and how it happened, was simultaneously an attempt to understand what happened to him. In this sense, throughout his magnificent academic career, Hilberg was driven by his fate.
Perhaps the height of that career was the reworking of his doctoral thesis into “The Destruction of the European Jews.” In that groundbreaking study, Hilberg, drawing on documents from German archives, was able to fathom and delineate the tangled, complex, ramified German bureaucratic machinery that abetted the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews.
Every historian who wishes to study the German “death machine” owes a tremendous debt above all to Hilberg. For it was he who took apart that machine and reassembled it in full. He was the first to expose to the general public the tools, the details – technical, administrative, numerical, quantitative – that made the vast crime possible.
Those who wish to see Hilberg’s distinctive method of research for themselves can do so in Claude Lanzmann’s film “Shoah.” Hilberg is the only historian who appears in the landmark film of more than nine hours. For example, he is seen explaining and analyzing the notion of “transports.” Everyone knows that the Jews were transported to the death camps in trains from across Europe. But how, exactly? In the film, Hilberg is seen extracting from a standard office document of the German rail authority illuminating findings of a technical, operative and even psychological character. Hilberg, who studied the bureaucratic aspects of the extermination process, was also one of the first to formulate the functionalist approach to the study of the Holocaust, one of the two prevailing approaches (the other is the intentionalist approach) which continue to stir debate among historians.
But it was not that debate which kept Yad Vashem from publishing this seminal work in a Hebrew translation: The reason the officials of the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority opposed Hilberg and rejected his book for so many years was due to his interpretation of the behavior of the Jews – especially the Jewish Councils (Judenrats) during the Holocaust. Hilberg’s approach can be succinctly summed up in the phrase “like sheep to slaughter.” That viewpoint was not accepted and could not have been countenanced by Yad Vashem, by an institution or by a state in which the concept of the heroism of Europe’s Jews was so central.
Years later, Hilberg edited the diary of Adam Czerniakow, head of the Judenrat in the Warsaw ghetto, and in Israel the interpretation of the concept of Jewish heroism in the Holocaust changed. These conceptual shifts were perhaps what made possible the publication of Hilberg’s work in Israel at such a late date.
The American commentator and critic Frank Rich wrote last month, in a piece in New York magazine about the recent U.S. elections that everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Still, no one disputes the facts, the numbers and the data that researcher Raul Hilberg provided more than half a century ago. They remain relevant and vital to everyone who seeks to understand how the destruction of Europe’s Jews was perpetrated. Of course, their interpretation will continue to be a matter of debate.