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Remembering the man who ‘made room’ for Holocaust research

Haaretz, By Ofer Aderet, October 1, 2013

Israel Gutman, in undated photograph provided by Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Photo by AP

‘As a historian, I wrote in such a way that it could not be known that I took part in the events,’ Israel Gutman, who survived three concentration camps, once said.

Prof. Israel Gutman, Warsaw Ghetto fighter and pioneering historian of Holocaust research, died Tuesday at age 90 at his home in Jerusalem.

Gutman, whose parents and sisters were killed in the Holocaust, was born in Warsaw in 1923.

Gutman was injured and lost an eye fighting German soldiers in the Warsaw Ghetto, an experience he discussed in an interview with Yad Vashem. “When the Germans entered the ghetto to deport and murder the Jews, a group came out from the underground. At that time I was in a place where medical help was being offered to those young people who had taken part in the uprising. By the way, I had a little pistol there and I shot with it. I was injured by a grenade thrown by the Germans and to this day, I can’t see out of the eye that was injured and I have shrapnel from that time.”

In 1998, when Gutman lit a torch at the Holocaust Day ceremony at Yad Vashem, he spoke of his memories from the rebellion. “When the uprising started, it was Passover eve. Homes in the ghetto, even though they knew their days were numbered, held a seder. Members of the Jewish Fighting Organization began going from house to house to let everyone know it was starting. The ghetto became a fighting city. The first German assault was pushed back and they left the ghetto. At least for a few hours the ghetto was liberated territory. We knew we had no chance of saving our lives … but there was a sense of obligation.”

Gutman later became a prisoner in Majdanek, Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps. In Auschwitz, he was also active in the underground. While he was working on one of the camp’s factories, Gutman said “a religious friend and I moved explosives into the camp through a member of the underground … the explosives were moved but the uprising didn’t happen. None of the members of the underground at Auschwitz survived.

‘I was not special’

In 1947, he came to live in Israel and settled at Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan. In 1961 he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. In 1973 he moved to Jerusalem, where he wrote his Ph.D. at Hebrew University on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was a member of the university faculty until 1993. He also headed the university’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry and was chief historian and academic adviser to Yad Vashem.

“If there is no one to tell, it will not be told. If there are individuals and they tell, it is their obligation to tell not only about themselves. As a historian, I wrote in such a way that it could not be known that I took part in the events. I also do not think that I was anything special. I tried to document in a focused way what happened as a researcher of the period,” Gutman said.

Among his best-known works are “The Jews of Warsaw – Ghetto, Underground, Revolt,” published in 1977; a 1983 high school textbook, “The Holocaust and its Significance,” and the 1990 “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust,” of which he was editor in chief, and which is considered a landmark in Holocaust research.

“Gutman was also an influential leader of a group of historians who were Holocaust survivors, and who were able to incorporate their own experiences with critical documentation of the events, employing the required scientific distance without losing empathy for the victims and the survivors,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem.

Shalev said Gutman had attained “a very significant academic-research achievement, with wide-ranging social and cultural implications, in granting legitimacy and even historiographic centrality to the experiences, positions and viewpoints of the Jews in the Holocaust.”

With this achievement, Shalev said, Gutman had managed “to make room in world research for the Jewish people and the victims of the Holocaust, so their voices would be heard.”

Gutman and his wife, the late Irit (Henrietta) Gutman, had three children and three grandchildren. In 1971, their son Nimrod was killed during his army service.

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