Filling the Gaps in Israel's Holocaust Reading List

Many pivotal works about the Holocaust remain inaccessible to Hebrew readers, particularly those that don't fit the Israeli national narrative. As a result, Israelis miss out on an important internal debate

Amos Goldberg
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Amos Goldberg

The publication of the Hebrew translation of Raul Hilberg’s work, "The Destruction of the European Jews," is good news. Widely considered a foundational text of the history of the Holocaust, and believed by many to be one of the most important works in the entire field, it appeared in English 1961 but took nearly 50 years for a Hebrew translation. In the 1960s, Yad Vashem rejected the very book it is now publishing. It was not the only publisher to do so.

As Hilberg recalled in his autobiography, quite a few respectable publishing houses, including Princeton University Press, rejected his manuscript. The reviewer who rejected it was none other than Hannah Arendt. In her letter to German psychologist, philosopher and author Karl Jaspers, she called Hilberg “quite stupid and mad.” But that did not stop her from basing most of her own book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, on Hilberg’s text (see Nathaniel Popper’s essay, “A Conscious Pariah,” in The Nation, March 31, 2012).

Arendt’s controversial and inspiring book, which has had a decisive influence on academic, artistic and popular publications about the Holocaust, as well as on political and historical thought in general, waited 37 years to be translated into Hebrew. First published in 1963, it was translated into Hebrew only in 2000 (Babel).

An optimistic message is better

These two examples illustrate an interesting paradox. Israel is the country where most Holocaust survivors live. Also, over the past few decades, the Holocaust has turned into a kind of civil religion in Israel, where it is treated with particular reverence. The Holocaust is taught in the school system, which also brings thousands of teenagers to the death camps in Poland every year. News reports that mention it appear almost every day. It is a major subject in Hebrew literature and art, and politicians never miss a chance to mention it in one political context or another.

The Holocaust has become a dominant part – perhaps the most dominant part – of Jewish identity in Israel. Yet many of the basic seminal works in the field – testimonials, memoirs and important academic studies – are translated into Hebrew only after significant delay, or not at all.

For example, Primo Levi’s monumental work about his experiences in Auschwitz, "If This Is a Man" (published in the U.S. as "Survival in Auschwitz"), was first published in Italian in 1947 and translated into English in 1961. It was published in Hebrew only in 1988 (Am Oved), long after it had been translated into many other languages. Levi’s question regarding the nature of humanity was not about the murderers only. It came first of all from his contemplation of the human and moral transformation that the victims underwent in the camps. This pessimistic message, which casts doubt on the victims’ ability to retain their humanity under such horrific conditions, had difficulty entering Hebrew literature.

In comparison, "Man’s Search for Meaning"by Viktor Frankl (1946), which claimed that human beings were capable of retaining their humanity and hope even under the most difficult conditions of Auschwitz, was translated into Hebrew in 1970 (published by Dvir) and became a much-taught text.

If this was the case with Jewish authors, canonical works of testimony by non-Jewish witnesses to the Holocaust fared worse still. "The Human Race," (1947) the exemplary and chilling work written by Robert Antelme, a French resistance fighter, tells of the author’s experiences in several concentration camps and death marches. It was translated into Hebrew only in 2011 (Am Oved). Meanwhile, the canonical work by Charlotte Delbo, a communist fighter in the French resistance and a survivor of Auschwitz, was published in several volumes from 1965 to 1971 – has still not been translated into Hebrew.

It seems Hebrew culture has difficulty dealing with the memories of non-Jews from the Holocaust era, even if they are written with the greatest sensitivity and recall, with rare precision, what went on in the camps and the experiences that the survivors carried with them after World War II.

Anti-semitism requires an explanation

The fate of Hilberg’s book proves that this phenomenon of cultural filtering is much more prevalent in the historiographic literature on the Holocaust. Contrary to what many may think, much of the historical research about the Holocaust was written outside Israel – in German, English, Polish and many other languages – and only a tiny portion of the excellent works in this field is accessible to readers of Hebrew.

To put it more bluntly, the Holocaust research available in Hebrew is limited and sparse. Although this has begun to change over the past decade, it is still too little, too late, and usually too tendentious. It is true that quite a few historical research works exist in Hebrew that deal with the Holocaust’s Jewish victims (which is, of course, a very important branch of study to which Israeli historiography has made a significant contribution). Yet of all the abundant literature about the Holocaust’s perpetrators, only a very small part has been translated into Hebrew, and still less has been written in Hebrew to begin with. This bears investigation.

The Holocaust is one of the most complex events in terms of historical understanding. The key to understanding it may be found first of all in meticulous study of Nazi policy toward Jews (within the context of the Nazi state in general and World War II in particular) on the one hand, and against the cultural-political backdrop of modern Europe on the other. But surprisingly, there is almost no Hebrew literature on these topics, which are essential to understanding the destruction of the Jews – even though no event has been as thoroughly studied as the Holocaust.

The literature on these topics available to readers of German and English is inestimably richer than what exists in Hebrew. It seems that when it comes to topics such as understanding the murderer, which is the very heart of the study of the Holocaust and the Final Solution, there is much more literature in Spanish, French, Italian or Polish than there is in Hebrew.

Although there is no official agency that supervises the publication of historical literature about the Holocaust, there seems to be a fairly obvious trend when it comes to historical publications that are translated into Hebrew. Some of these works are translated only after significant delay, while others are never translated at all.

If we consider Hilberg’s book, we can begin to grasp the concept. Two major components made the book problematic from an Israeli perspective, and they seem to be the reason that the publication of a Hebrew translation took so long. The first is that the book charges that it was Nazi bureaucracy, rather than Hitler or anti-Semitic ideology, that perpetrated the Holocaust. The second is that Hilberg, like Arendt after him, put some of the responsibility for the Holocaust upon the contemporary Jewish leadership in Europe, the Judenrat.

These two claims were in direct opposition to the Israeli historiography that developed starting in the 1970s, particularly in the Jewish history departments of the various universities and at Yad Vashem. This historiography claimed that the Holocaust had to be understood first of all within the conceptual world of Jewish history. According to this school of thought, the major motive for the destruction of European Jewry was the unique Nazi anti-Semitism that was directed against the Jews, which Hitler himself took as far as the Final Solution. The Holocaust was thereby cut off from more universal components such as the bureaucratic structure of the modern state, as Hilberg suggested – components that placed it along a continuum of other crimes against humanity and instances of genocide.

The Israeli school of thought, unlike Hilberg’s, also sought to make the image of the victim into an active, positive agent of history who did everything possible, with the limited power and meager information available to him, to cope with the disaster that had befallen him and respond to it. Blaming the victim for his own destruction, even indirectly, was seen – justifiably – as sacrilegious.

But Hilberg’s book is only one of dozens of such examples. "Modernity and the Holocaust,"the influential work by Zygmunt Bauman, one of the greatest sociologists of the second half of the 20th century, was published in English in 1989, causing much debate in the world of research. It was translated into Hebrew only recently at the initiative of the Resling publishing house. One can hope that the translation will soon be published, 23 years after the original work was published and translated into more than 20 languages (full disclosure: this author was the scientific editor of the Hebrew edition).

Bauman’s radical thesis states that the Holocaust was not a barbaric event that turned its back on modern values but was rather a direct outgrowth of modernity itself. According to this theory, Nazi anti-Semitism was not an all-explaining phenomenon, but rather one that requires explanation. In Bauman’s opinion, it is only one extreme example of what he calls the modern “gardener.”

Modern nationalism has difficulty including the "other," whom it perceives as damaging the aesthetic harmony of the group in power. So, like a gardener weeding the flowerbed, modern regimes tend to engineer society demographically, removing or neutralizing minority groups by discrimination, expulsion and sometimes even destruction. Bauman also claimed that modern bureaucracy, in the indiscriminate nature of its work and the sharp disconnect that it creates between murderer and victim, encourages moral apathy, a necessary condition for the perpetration of the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.

Bauman’s book caused much debate even though most historians finally rejected the one-dimensional nature of his theory. Yet although his ideas continue to echo in many fields of Holocaust and genocide studies, Hebrew readers have been “spared” both his book and the controversy it aroused (except for a tiny excerpt that was translated into Hebrew in the Hebrew-language journal "Theory and Criticism").

The Holocaust as a rational act

Another prominent example of a late arrival to the Israeli Holocaust conversation is "Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction" by Susanne Heim and Goetz Aly, two independent German historians. Their book, published in 1991, caused an enormous uproar. The book suggests understanding the Holocaust as a rational act initiated by the stratum of the intelligentsia, which included economists, urban planners, physicians and agronomes. By murdering the Jews, Heim and Aly claim, this stratum sought to make the demographic and economic structure of Eastern Europe more rational and modern.

Like other historians, Heim and Aly drew a connection between the persecution of the Jews and the reorganization of Europe’s demography. Heinrich Himmler was in charge of this reorganization project, during which millions of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, were to be expelled from their homes in order to make room for repatriated Germans. In addition, tens of millions of Slavs were to be murdered or starved over ten to twenty years in a deliberately induced famine. While these statements aroused a great deal of controversy, even those who rejected them had to incorporate the findings into their own understanding of history.

Except for some limited debate in professional journals, almost nothing of this exists in Hebrew.

This is also mostly true of the dramatic discoveries that were made in the 1990s when an army of mostly German historians raided the archives of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Among their findings was Himmler’s own meeting calendar. These discoveries dramatically changed the historical understanding of the Holocaust.

The studies from that time joined a magnificent and highly intensive tradition of research on the Holocaust and the Final Solution in Germany. Yet of the enormous amount of research done by such excellent historians as Christian Gerlach, Dieter Pohl, Ulrich Herbert, Peter Longreich and many others, only one collection of essays, originally published in German in 1998, was translated into Hebrew and published by Yad Vashem in 2001. Also, very little is published in professional Hebrew-language journals such as "Dapim LeHeker HaShoah"and "Yad Vashem Studies."

As a result of this body of literature, we should add the lively historiographic debate that has been going on for about fifteen years over the relationship between the Holocaust, the European colonizing project (mainly in its later form during the second half of the 19th century) and the creation of modern national consciousness and the modern nation-state. The pioneer of research in this field was Hannah Arendt, who in her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism"(published in 1951) laid new foundations for the study of the relationship between the Holocaust and imperialism. This book, too, was translated only in 2010 (Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House).

Several leading researchers of recent years such as Donald Bloxham, Eric Weitz, A. Dirk Moses, Juergen Zimmerer, Michael Mann, Shelley Baranowski, Enzo Traverso and Sven Lindqvist have been dealing intensively with various aspects of these issues. Their work has aroused debate that has changed historical understanding of the Holocaust on the one hand and the history of modern Europe on the other.

The view that the Nazis and the Holocaust cannot be understood outside these contexts is gaining strength among historians. More and more it seems that despite the extreme nature of the Holocaust, in many ways it is located on a single continuum, together with other instances of crimes committed during colonization, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The common denominator linking these crimes is the presence of mechanisms of separation and segregation and the use of violence created by modern national and ethnic consciousness – which, in turn, draw nourishment from ancient cultural and religious roots. Controversial as they are, these views have hardly reached the Hebrew bookshelf either.

The role of "ordinary men"

Just how much of this abundant research on Germany and Europe, which allows for a full historical understanding of what led to the Holocaust and the Final Solution, has been translated into Hebrew? Very little. But it still seems that we can point to a clear trend: books that emphasize the role of Hitler and his radical anti-Semitism as the main or exclusive causes of the Holocaust are the ones that are published and become commercially successful.

Among them are Eberhard Jaeckel’s "Hitler’s World View: A Blueprint for Power," which was translated in 1990 (Sifriat Poalim Publishing House); the later books of Ian Kershaw, such as his exemplary two-volume biography of Hitler (Am Oved); and Saul Friedlaender’s excellent two-volume work "Nazi Germany and the Jews" (Am Oved and Yad Vashem). All these books cite Hitler and the Nazis’ radical anti-Semitism as the major causes of the Holocaust, and also stress the unique nature of the Holocaust. While these works are excellent and important, they expose readers of Hebrew to a very limited portion of the varied historiography of the Holocaust.

Of course there are exceptions, such as Christopher Browning’s book "The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942" (Yad Vashem). Unlike the books mentioned above, Browning’s work stresses processes of development and change, together with local trends, as factors that led to the Final Solution.

Another book by Browning, "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland," is an eye-opener on this topic. This book explores the motivations that drove the members of this German police battalion to participate in the mass murder of Jews. Browning, one of the most important historians of the Holocaust, asserts that the major factor in their participation in the massacre had to do with the dynamics of social psychology within the battalion, rather than identification with anti-Semitic ideology.

When "Ordinary Men"was published in 1992, it sparked a great deal of interest and intense debate. In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published his book, "Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," which refuted Browning’s findings and claimed the exact opposite. The soldiers of that battalion, he wrote, had not been motivated by universal dynamic of social psychology but by murderous anti-Semitism, which had been a major part of Germany’s political culture since the end of the 19th century.

Goldhagen’s book also sparked much debate, and historians rejected it almost unanimously because of its one-dimensional approach. But it was translated into Hebrew in 1997 (Yedioth Books) – and a translation of Browning’s book followed in 2004 (also Yedioth Books). That was how this important historiographic debate was transmitted, in reverse order, to readers of Hebrew: Goldhagen’s problematic book was translated first, while Browning’s exemplary work (which, of course, is not entirely free of problems either) was translated only several years later.

To highlight the difference between Browning and Goldhagen, it is worth quoting from the afterword in the later edition of Browning's book, where he responds to Goldhagen’s criticism. He writes:

“Why does it matter which of our portrayals and conclusions about Reserve Police Battalion 101 are closer to the truth? It would be very comforting if Goldhagen were correct, that very few societies have the long-term, cultural-cognitive prerequisites to commit genocide, and that regimes can only do so when the population is overwhelmingly of one mind about its priority, justice, and necessity. We would live in a safer world if he were right, but I am not so optimistic. I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce ‘ordinary men’ to become their ‘willing executioners.’”

These statements by Browning can point to an obvious trend in the range of Hebrew publications about the Holocaust. As we have seen, most of the books published in Hebrew deal with the experiences and suffering of the Jewish victims (which are topics of the highest importance), while only a small number deal with Nazi policy and the motivations behind it. Also, the few books about the enormous complexity involved in understanding the “executioners” – that is, the Germans – were largely one-dimensional.

It seems that of all the abundant research that exists in this field, some sort of process of natural selection has kept many of them from Hebrew readers.

These are works that could mitigate the unique nature of the Holocaust on one hand. On the other hand, they could connect the Holocaust with the phenomena of racism based on nationalism, the desire of modern nationalism for purity, colonial violence, expulsions and acts of ethnic cleansing, territorial expansion and the bureaucratic mechanisms of occupation. All these phenomena are no strangers to our region, and works that connect them to the Holocaust could turn the study of that disastrous event into an internal debate about our own actions.

In other words, it seems that the public in Israel wants to remember the Holocaust in a way that empowers its consciousness as the ultimate victim. It is less interested in understanding it as a complicated historical phenomenon that warns of the dangers of racism and of modern nationalism, particularly in their colonial contexts. Maybe the publication of Raul Hilberg’s book in Hebrew, even fifty years delayed, will change this trend.

Dr. Amos Goldberg teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book Trauma in the First Person: Diary Writing during the Holocaust,is about to be published as part of Ben-Gurion University’s Contexts series together with Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir.

The Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.Credit: AP

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