A human being without fault
Despite our professional difference about the Jewish and German roles in the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg was a good friend of mine. Like me, he was a total atheist, and a warm Jew in every sense.
I first met Raul Hilberg in 1975, at the first international scientific conference on the Holocaust, which I organized at the Carnegie Institute in New York. The conference was funded by Yossl (Josef) Rosensaft, a Holocaust survivor who headed the committee of the Jewish displaced persons at Bergen Belsen - a wonderful and interesting but also a difficult man. I got embroiled in an argument because he tried to dictate the conference's content. As a result, he removed his support for the event and Elie Wiesel followed his lead. I managed to get support from a different source, and in the end Hilberg decided to participate, together with Abba Kovner, as well as other researchers and philosophers.
We came into conflict at our very first meeting. For more than 30 years after that initial encounter, we argued and continued our verbal disputes at a great many joint appearances in various forums. And as the academic argument between us deepened, our personal friendship grew stronger. What did we argue about? My claim, which has not changed until this day, is that Hilberg's important book, "The Destruction of the European Jews" (which will be published in Hebrew shortly), does not deal with the Holocaust (he, too, never claimed it did) but rather with what the Germans - or to be more exact the German bureaucrats - did to the Jews; and that is just part, albeit an important part, of the historical phenomenon that we call (inappropriately) the Holocaust.
Hilberg neither dealt with the Jews nor with "those who stood on the sidelines" (many of whom actually did not stand aside at all but were part of the environment that was hostile to the Jews), except as a marginal addition to his words. I tried to convince him that he in no way understood the Jews' reactions, and that his remarks about the Jewish administrative councils, or Judenrate, distorted reality. Hilberg did not write even one word about Jewish society and the reactions of the Jews. Over the years, I brought to his attention findings about the conduct of the Judenrate, and about many Judenrate that later on received support from the survivors, but he did not change his mind.
He would reply to my claims that the Jews had tried to keep up their spirits during the Holocaust and that many had joined in the armed attempts to oppose the Nazis, asking me: And how many Germans were killed by your rebels? As if the number of Germans killed by the Polish underground or the French or Czech undergrounds had reached many thousands. In the more recent past, I forwarded to him findings that showed the many aspects of German bureaucracy, telling him that Jews had been killed not only by the bureaucrats and that matters were much more complicated than what he described in his book. Yet I was always enthralled by his extraordinary intellectual integrity, by his unprecedented ability to penetrate into the nooks and crannies of that German bureaucracy and by his amazing knowledge of everything relating to German documentation. To my claim that he dealt with the "how" of the Holocaust rather than the "why," he would respond - both to me and to others - that he did not ask the big questions for fear that the answers would be too little.
After publishing the diary of the Judenrat's chairman in the Warsaw ghetto, Adam Czerniakow, together with Polish historian Stanislaw Staron and Joseph Kermish of Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority), Hilberg said to me: Here you are, I am dealing with the Jews. But Czerniakow's character fit well into the stereotype Hilberg had created: a decent person, courageous on a personal level, who became a tool in the hands of the Germans - against his will - in carrying out their murderous policies. In fact, there was no historical analysis in the diary's translation or in the remarks that accompanied it; after all, Hilberg was no historian but rather, as he always stressed, a political scientist.
Over the years, a strange friendship developed between us: On the dais, we would engage in a virulent argument but afterward, we would drink coffee together and tell each other personal news, talk about new findings and mutual friends. We sought each other out, we went together to book stores in the places where we met, we wrote to each other from time to time, and he would send me his books with the most important dedication of all: "To he who, like me, seeks the truth."
Like me, he was a total atheist, and like me, he was a warm Jew in every sense. We grew up, as he would tell me, on "the same garbage heap," with the same mother tongue, in the same cultural milieu. We were born a few months apart and our families fled from Europe in the same month. He was the scion of a Polish-Romanian Jewish family, who was born in Vienna, the son of a Revisionist who arrived in the United States by chance. His academic interest in the Holocaust stemmed from a thorough hatred of Nazism, which led him to join the U.S. Army and fight in its ranks toward the end of the war. His claim that the Jews had not withstood the Nazis sprang from his strong desire that Jews should fight. In my presence, he once attacked a crowd of Jewish students in Boston, shouting: "Which of you has a gun at home?" And the appalled students did not know what he wanted from them, in the United States of the late 1970s. During the only conference that was held in his honor, when he retired from his teaching position at the University of Vermont, he insisted that I be the main speaker. There too, as always, I did not hide the differences between us, and he sat and listened. Later, we embraced. Raul Hilberg was a great man, a great researcher, irritable, furious and loving, but above all, a human being without fault. I lost a close and personal friend.