"The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945," by Saul Friedlaender, HarperCollins, 896 pages, $39.95
Twelve years after the publication of Saul Friedlaender's "Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939" (HarperCollins; Am Oved in Hebrew), we now have the second volume before us, in a Hebrew translation by Yossi Milo (Am Oved and Yad Vashem). It seems that all of Friedlaender's decades of research have been poured into this volume, along with the vast knowledge and experience he has accumulated, and his extraordinary gift for writing. An entire lifetime of trying to find the right tone for writing about the Holocaust has come to fruition here.
Friedlaender, who personally experienced the trauma of that period, already engaged in the search for this tone in his first volume. In a recent interview with Ofri Ilani ("I never forgot I was a Jew," Haaretz Magazine, September 11), he related that he embarked on that search in the wake of his debate with German historian Martin Broszat, who argued that a history of the Holocaust written by victims is not and cannot be credible. However, there is no reason to believe that a history written by the "implementers" would be any more reliable. The fact revealed later that Broszat himself had been a member of the Nazi Party - albeit as a very young man, who was not aware at the time of the significance of that - only reinforced this latter argument, in retrospect.
Indeed, Friedlaender dealt with various aspects of the Holocaust well before the debate with Broszat. Furthermore, one can presume that beyond his professional interest in the subject, the main motivation spurring him to continue his work in this field was his own experience as a child, whose parents hid him in a monastery in France before they themselves were sent to a death camp.
Moreover, his reaction to the debate with Broszat was not only to keep on writing Holocaust history, but also to find a special way of doing so that would fulfill all the "requirements": without losing the sense of horror, without getting swept up into a distant, cold analysis, without dulling the pain. And he fully succeeds in doing this.
He had already found the key to this when writing his first volume, about the 1933-39 period in Germany. But what was a kind of a partial attempt there has blossomed into a masterpiece in the second volume. The principle underlying the book is once more to give voice to persecuted and tortured Jews, on the one hand, and to Germans, whether they were impassioned Nazis or not, on the other. The book before us is thus once again a resounding requiem of sorts, but this time even richer and more complex, interesting and shocking.
While reading, one senses that Friedlaender's work began by gathering all possible voices, whether from diaries, letters or personal stories, from every conceivable direction. Over the years many historians have edited anthologies of testimonies from World War II, but to these the author adds here the personal accounts of a diverse group of witnesses.
It emerges from the final result that the historian's first decision was to write the book based on these testimonies. His second decision was to tell the story of the Holocaust chronologically, such that each of the 10 chapters covers a single, significant period. His third decision was to include everything - i.e., to write the history of the Holocaust in all its aspects, about every point in time and every place in which it occurred. This fulfills the requirement of presenting a "total" story, but also includes making good use of all the evidence - whether it is messages from Hitler himself or from the Nazi leadership, memoirs of German officers or rank-and-file soldiers or the recollections of Jews in Eastern and Western Europe, the Balkans, Scandinavia or even in Palestine and the United States.
Master of quotation
Friedlaender is a master of the quotation: Every citation from the testimonial material is the most suitable extract, in the right place, at the right time and of the right length. He builds the entire narrative from these quotations.
Perhaps we are accustomed to works of art dealing with the Holocaust, especially films, which shock us and bring us to tears. But here is a history book that succeeds in doing the same. The tears flow of their own volition.
The dynamic of the various incidents described here assumes new dimensions because of the author's strictness regarding chronology. Indeed, I know of no other place with such a complete and convincing description of the period prior to the stage of systematic killing in the camps - of the various methods of harassing Jews, of the hell of their everyday lives, of the differences in implementation of the humiliating Nazi orders, or of the varied reactions of young and old, or men and women, both those who clung to hope against all odds and those who lost it.
In this book, quite strikingly, we also find heroism in small things: in the courage to grasp what was happening, in the struggle against delusions and deception, in the solidarity and love that remained even at the most difficult times - and all from the testimonies. Even in the last part, about the slaughter in the camps, the variety of reactions and the greatness of spirit on the part of people in the depths of despair stand out, but so do the loathsomeness, the greed, the selfishness and above all, the wickedness and the cruelty.
Nowhere in the book is the picture simple or uniform. The victims' testimonies provide us with a sort of "map" of European Jewry: of women and men, of the wealthy and the learned, the merchants, the poor, the beggars, the ghetto buffoon and the political leader - all appear here. Nor are the murderers presented as cut from a single cloth. Hitler's generals appear here: the officers with all their interests, the partners to the murder writing to the women they love at home or raising children in heated homes on the other side of the fence in the concentration camps. The villains appear here: the confused, the cowardly and also the rare, honest and courageous Germans. Not only is the variety surprising, so is the ambivalence, such as that of the righteous gentiles, who cannot rid themselves of their subliminal anti-Semitism, and evil people who suddenly find a warm corner in their hearts.
The book has a precise architecture of its own. Each chapter is devoted to a period of a few months and to what makes that period unique, but all of them have a uniform structure: They begin with a short segment that is like a still photograph - a short, personal anecdote about a specific local event, which distills the main point, and perhaps even the underlying principle, of what follows.
The first segment in this style indeed describes a real photograph: that of David Moffie, a Jewish student at University of Amsterdam, who is awarded his doctoral degree at a ceremony at which everyone is formally dressed, while on the lapel of the new PhD gleams the telltale yellow patch.
There are also numbered sub-chapters. Each of these begins with a brief and pertinent review of the war situation and a relevant political picture. Immediately thereafter is an extensive exposition of Hitler's positions as he expressed them or as they are formulated in Goebbels' diary, Himmler's speeches or the like.
Friedlaender believes in the supreme importance of Hitler's worldview and the explicit (to a greater or lesser extent) instructions that came from his bureau. He establishes this thesis with the help of his book's architecture: Hitler's utterances always come first. In the series of sub-chapters, there is a description of the various arenas of the war - initially at the focal point of events and, subsequently, gradually spreading to the periphery. There are of course arenas that are discussed in nearly all the chapters, but there are also others that are mentioned only once.
It is the quoted testimonies that serve here as the connecting thread. When we return to the arena of events in Holland, for example, the voice of Etty Hillesum from Amsterdam accompanies us again; in Lodz the voice of Dawid Sierakowiak recurs; in Vilna, Isaac Rudashevski; in Warsaw, Chaim Kaplan and many more. The main witnesses are not only those we have always known, such as Anne Frank or Emanuel Ringelblum. Most of them are less familiar, and whenever they reappear in the book, it is a sign that the arena has changed and we move along with the flow.
If there is a need to deal with additional issues, they appear in chronological order in intermediate chapters, and there are topics that recur in various contexts: what was known on the battlefront and the home front about the extermination campaign, what the attitude of the local churches was, the incidence of theft and plunder in the wake of the deportation of the Jews, and so forth.
In addition to its architecture this book also has a unique style. The narrator's baritone voice is quiet and speaks to the point. It does not crack even when he recounts, for example, the story of how the Swiss captured Jews who stole across its border and handed them over to the Nazis - as happened with his own parents. Indeed, he maintains unsentimental gravity in face of the most devastating horrors.
Perhaps one personal element does penetrate the carapace: Friedlaender's bitterness toward the Catholic Church. He repeatedly explains how important it would have been had the pope and his representatives taken a more assertive and explicit stance vis-a-vis the Third Reich. Furthermore, it is hard not to discern here a sense of disappointment and anger on the part of someone who received a full Catholic education and at least for a while succumbed to its charms.
In general, the question of indifference on the part of those who observed the war from the side is especially important in the context of this narrative. Perhaps because it was those observers who ultimately engaged in the work of Europe's postwar rehabilitation, or perhaps because we too were and are observers.
Friedlaender refrains entirely from getting into arguments about the writing and literature of history; all such works about the Holocaust serve him. In this sense we have before us a complete synthesis that includes all the new research. He does not agree with all the writers, but he does not argue with them nor is he deterred from making use of their findings for his own ends.
In the introduction he mentions the emphasis he places on Nazi ideology and Hitler - and in this he certainly remains faithful to his earlier position. At the same time, he now agrees that Nazism did not have an orderly and solidified action plan for "dealing with" the Jews - even in the summer and fall of 1941 - and in effect claims that the final decision on extermination came only with or following the United States' entry into the war. However, he does not discuss how such findings explain the annihilation process.
There is no discussion here of the question asked by historians as to what exactly pushed the Nazis in the direction of the Final Solution. What becomes clear from the details, the style and the architecture of the book has to emerge on its own, and is not explicitly discussed.
The need that Friedlaender formulates in the introduction, that which guides him in attempting to preserve the initial feeling of disbelief aroused by the Holocaust, is reflected in the avoidance of explicit explanations. Thus there is no scope for arguing with him and no point in noting where and when it might have been possible to tell this story in a different way. In his case the storytelling takes precedence over the historiography. Before us is not only a full and detailed history of all the phases and aspects of the Holocaust, but also a literary endeavor of the highest level.
Prof. Shulamit Volkov is a historian who studies Germany. She holds the Konrad Adenauer Chair for Comparative European History at Tel Aviv University.