This Day in Jewish History |

A Holocaust Scholar Who Angered Absolutely Everybody Is Born

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Raul Hilberg at home in Vermont.Credit: Reproductions by Emil Salman

June 2, 1926 is the birthdate of the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, who spent his life and career on the margins and apparently felt comfortable there.

Hilberg was one of the first scholars to devote himself to studying the bureaucracy of the Nazis’ killing machine — the tens of thousands of clerks and petty officials who, in carrying out their individual tasks, were doing their part to annihilate Jews and others without ever having to directly confront the full implication of their actions.

Hilberg understood that Adolf Hitler genuinely intended to eliminate the Jews, but also believed the Holocaust was only made possible by a complex bureaucracy that allowed every person involved in it to deny complicity.

Barely escaped the net

Hilberg only barely avoided becoming a victim himself. He was born in Vienna to Gisela and Michael Hilberg. The family was traditional in its Jewish observance, and although Raul attended a Zionist-oriented school he became an atheist at an early age.

Shortly after the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Hilbergs were evicted from their Vienna home and Michael Hilberg was detained briefly.

Within a year, the family fled Austria, first to France and then to Cuba, reaching New York on September 1, 1939, considered the first day of World War II in Europe. Many members of the extended family died in the Holocaust.

After Raul graduated from Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School he enrolled at Brooklyn College, studying chemistry. He dropped out and took a factory job before being drafted after the United States entered the war.

Initially assigned to an infantry division, once Hilberg’s language skills were identified he was transferred to the War Documentation Department, where he was exposed to German archives that came into Allied hands as the war progressed.

‘It’s your funeral’

Hilberg resumed his studies at Brooklyn College after returning to the United States, earning a Bachelor’s in political science in 1948 before going on to Columbia University, where he was awarded an M.A. and Ph.D. in history, in 1950 and ’55 respectively.

When he told his thesis adviser, Franz Neumann, that he wanted to focus on the German bureaucracy in the Holocaust rather than either the victims or the German leadership, Neumann famously told him, “It’s your funeral.”

And indeed, Hilberg’s approach earned him few friends. His belief in German collective responsibility for the Holocaust did not endear him to scholars in West Germany, and his insistence that the Jews did little to defend themselves and that the cooperation of the Jewish councils, or Judenräte, made the Nazis’ job easier — even if the Jews hoped it would save lives — made him unwelcome in Israel and in Jewish Diaspora circles.

While Hilberg’s doctoral dissertation was completed in 1955, it was not published in book form, as “The Destruction of the European Jews,” until 1961. A German edition came out in 1982 and it was only in 2012 that Israel’s Yad Vashem brought out a Hebrew edition.

Hilberg spent nearly all his academic career at the University of Vermont, from which he retired in 1991. He was married twice, both times to non-Jews, and until late in life he steered clear of Jewish communal life. (His daughter, Deborah Hilberg, is a special-education teacher who lives in Jerusalem). After his second wife, Gwendolyn Montgomery, converted to Judaism of her own accord, Hilberg began attending a Conservative congregation in Burlington, Vermont.

In a long essay in The Nation after the historian’s death, Nathaniel Popper quoted Hilberg’s response to a question about his lack of communal feeling, at a lecture shortly before his death: “I don’t feel part of anything,” said Hilberg. “I don’t feel part of the university I’ve been a part of for decades. I don’t feel part of Burlington, where I’ve spent all my years since 1956. I think some of us are just destined to be alone.”

Raul Hilberg died of cancer on August 4, 2007, aged 81.