A Holocaust Historian and 'Shoah Jew' Haunted by the Past

In 'Where Memory Leads,' eminent scholar Saul Friedlander grapples with his own issues of identity and belonging, but never finds psychological liberation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

“Where Memory Leads,” by Saul Friedlander, Other Press, 283 pp., $24.95

In 1939, when it became clear that the Nazis would occupy Czecho-Slovakia (the hyphen was added in 1938), Saul Friedlander, 6 years old, fled Prague with his assimilated German-speaking parents for France. They were, unbeknownst to them, fleeing from one disastrous situation to another. After having led only a precarious existence in Paris for about a year, the family took flight again, venturing south to the “unoccupied” Vichy zone of France.

They settled in a small resort town, emptied by the war but beginning to fill again with refugees, mostly foreign Jews. In the summer of 1942, a round-up of these aliens impelled the Friedlanders to flee a third time. With the help of Catholic friends, the parents hid Saul in a seminary in the Vichy zone, while they attempted to cross into Switzerland. Arrested at the border, the Friedlanders were turned over to the French, and in turn to the Germans, who sent them to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Though French Jews were much discriminated against, many managed to hide. “Foreign Jews,” however, were in Friedlander’s words “dead men walking.”

Meanwhile, as Friedlander wrote 40 years ago in “When Memory Comes” (now republished in a two-volume set with “Where Memory Leads”), he was baptized and became a “staunch Catholic” — a jarring phrase to those who know that his conversion was not exactly voluntary and that he ran away from the seminary at least once. But this abandoned child, taken in by a community that was, as he writes, “strong, protective, and nurturing,” ultimately submitted, with the special intensity of a 10-year-old, to his new identity.

After four years, when his uncle freed him from the seminary, his Catholic “faith” was discarded, and in short order he became a communist and then a Zionist – each of these as compelling a collectivity as the seminary in its promise of protective embrace. Later, Friedlander will describe his Catholic experience as “religious force-feeding” that led him to a “militant atheism.”

Anti-military views

The burning of the Altalena arms ship off the coast of Tel Aviv, after being shelled by the nascent Israeli army, June 22, 1948. Historian Saul Friedlander was one of the passengers.
Pinn Hans / GPO

At his uncle’s house, the 15-year-old was in the front door and out the back: He left a thank-you note, and secretly left for Israel – aboard the Irgun’s Altalena, no less. (The Altalena was a weapons supply ship of the pre-state underground militia, which was bombed by the nascent Israeli army and sunk off the Tel Aviv coast on June 22, 1948.)

Over the course of his life, Friedlander spent more time in Israel than any other country. He had personal relationships with many of its founding fathers, especially Shimon Peres, but with his leftism and his anti-military views, he got under the skin of many other members of the so-called Palmach generation, including Moshe Dayan, who told him that the “Palestinian problem” was irresolvable.

Friedlander, though distressed, tried hard to become an Israeli. But, as we find out in “Where Memory Leads,” his second memoir, his essential cultural identity is French. He likes being in France, yet he has no sense of arriving “home” when his plane lands in Roissy, or – as becomes clear to us, if not so much to him – anyplace else in the world. 

Today, and since 1988, at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is professor emeritus of history, Friedlander continues to feel in “exile.” He and his second wife, Oran, also a professor at UCLA (we find out little or nothing about his first wife, Hagith) considered a return to Israel, but he said that “the drift toward an increasingly nationalist-religious society and the political initiatives it shamelessly displays,” especially the expansion of settlements, are “repelling.”

If anyone were to ask him what he considered his “core identity,” something he would never deny or surrender, Friedlander would answer without the least hesitation: “I am a Jew, albeit one without any religiousattachments, yet indelibly marked by the Shoah. Ultimately, I am nothing else.”

Friedlander, a polyglot whose every interest it seems turns into a book (he has published 20) did not become a “Shoah Jew” without hesitations – some personal, others academic – but most, I would argue, psychological. He expresses no grief, for example, over the absence of his parents. Nor, it seems, does he talk to his own children and grandchildren about his experiences during World War II. And despite his allusions to long periods of psychoanalysis, we don’t get much in the way of deep introspection in “Where Memory Leads.”

He does recognize that he was a child raised in “catastrophic circumstances,” and that “children like him” may have built a “normal exterior.” Some flaw invariably continues to exist, however, at “the very core of their personality.” To offset the defect, one indefatigably tries to improve the exterior. But “this desperate toil leaves one insecure,” always anxious, and in terms of interpersonal relationships emotionally paralyzed. Friedlander occasionally breaks through to a psychological insight about himself, but the “flaw,” he muses plaintively, remains at the “very core” of his personality.

He could become enthusiastic about a cause – Zionism, for example. He could become emotional reading a great book, or listening to music, even to the point of tearing up. And he tells us, with some gusto, how much pleasure he derives from steak au poivre, chevre and oysters, yet he refers only cursorily to his two marriages and his three children.

Surge of anxiety

Buried “deep down,” Friedlander believes, he’s kept some residue of emotion. Why else, he asks, would he have gone five times or more to see René Clément’s film “Les jeux interdits” (“Forbidden Games”), the story of a little French girl whose parents are killed during the “debacle” – the flight of millions of people trying to stay ahead of the advancing Wehrmacht. There is undoubtedly a Shoah Jew in him, but whether he knows it or not, his connection to the Holocaust is incomplete.

Courtesy

Friedlander’s early studies and teaching stints took him to New York and Cambridge, Jarna in Sweden, and Paris, Tel Aviv and Geneva. The Middle East was his first scholarly interest. Such study, he thought, might lead to a position with the Israeli Foreign Service – or, as Friedlander writes, “I would become a staunch representative of Israel, but spend much of the time outside of Israel,” preferably in France.

He gets his wish. He works in Paris at the Israeli Embassy in the 1950s, and later in New York for half the year and in Israel for half the year with Shimon Peres. He was also connected for a short time to work on the Dimona nuclear project. To this day, Friedlander has no regret about working, however briefly, on the weapon that “ultimately may be the only guarantee of Israel’s survival.”

He was “busy,” he writes, but “was waiting, though without any clear idea for what.” When he returned to graduate studies he was attracted to the history of Europe during the two world wars. He did not link this choice to his own story, but after deciding on his course of study, he had a “sudden surge” of anxiety, which he now knows needed “no complex psychological theories” to explain. Therapy and continual application of anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants kept him afloat, but occasional bouts of anxiety persisted.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, he displayed enormous courage as he pursued the research that would culminate in his magisterial and indispensable two volumes, “Nazi Germany and the Jews: the Years of Persecution, 1933-1939” (1997) and “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews” (2007). His dissertation demanded archival work in Germany, and as he put it, “I added quite a few interviews,” including one with the former Admiral Karl Donitz, whom Hitler, before committing suicide, had appointed as his successor.

Friedlander confronted Donitz with the “Jewish Issue.” The admiral said he had only become aware of the extermination of the Jews after becoming the head of state. Not beforehand? “Never.”

Friedlander earned his doctorate in Geneva in 1963, and in 1964 was already out with a book about the Vatican with special attention to Pope Pius XII and the Third Reich. His richly documented and persuasive conclusion: In the face of the murder of the Jews, the pope chose silence over a denunciation of the German Wehrmacht, which in the eyes of the Vatican had become the last bulwark against the “communist menace.”

The work he did for the book on Pius XII and the debates that followed helped to erode some of the emotional distance between Friedlander’s personal past and his Holocaust scholarship. In 1975, he began to write a memoir. Still, he felt “detached” from the work. It was too close a contact with troubled memories and dreams, which triggered more anxiety attacks and claustrophobia. Even with the completion of “When Memory Comes,” Friedlander said, there was no “catharsis.”

Friedlander never actually achieved the kind of release he sought. But he got a little closer, oddly enough, in 1977, when NBC aired its miniseries "Holocaust." The program led immediately to debates, particularly in the academic community. The argument was mostly between “intentionalists” and “functionalists” – those who thought extermination of the Jews was willful policy, versus those who insisted the mass murder was unintended at the outset, and was the unforeseen consequence of a blind dynamism.

Friedlander intelligently and persistently suggested that accepting the construct of functionalism meant that the mass murder of the Jews was a result of the “cumulative radicalization” of German anti-Semitism and persecution – which in the end meant that “nobody carried specific responsibility” for an extermination of millions, a responsibility which “disappeared” in a fog of rivalries among the Reich’s independent agencies.

Friedlander argued for a “moderate intentionalism” that took into account the role of “circumstances,” but saw the extermination as the consequence of an extreme anti-Semitism and of Hitler’s active role. At first the goal was elimination – discrimination and persecution leading to “voluntary” Jewish emigration. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2007, Friedlander said he was certain that, at the beginning of Hitler’s reign, there was no plan for extermination of the Jews. But from the end of December 1941 onward, Hitler was obsessed with murdering Jews everywhere. And in agreement with Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, Friedlander argues that for persecution and even massacres to cross the threshold into genocide, the Fuhrer’s “go ahead” was necessary. No Hitler, no Holocaust.

In the early 1980s, Friedlander was in dialogue with Claude Lanzmann, director of the nine-hour documentary “Shoah.” The filmmaker insisted on the absolute primacy of the witness. Friedlander argued that no historian could rely on witness testimony alone, but it would take him years to learn just how to include artifacts and documents, as well as the voice of witnesses, in the work that became his comprehensive, critically well-received two-volume history on the Nazis and the Jews from 1933-1945.

In the meantime, and prior to the publication of Volume 1, Friedlander continued to develop his arguments – while writing seven other books between 1977 and 1997. He was stimulated to think more and more about the nature and power of Jew-hatred. For example, in public and in print, over several years, he debated against the German historian Martin Broszat, who contended that the Nazi period ought to be “blended” into the larger more admirable context of German history and not singled out for “disproportionate” attention.

Through it all, however, and despite his saying that “the past has to be let inaccepted as a whole,” Friedlander seems not yet to have achieved psychological liberation. He says an “embargo on the past is impossible. Moreover, who would want to miss all the wonderful time that the past carries entwined with all its sadness? Time spent with the woman you love, with your children, with your grandchildren, with all those who are close to you or whose memory you cherish?” Notice the second person voice, and more important: the absence of his parents.

The memoir, rather than the way I have laid it out here, leaps back and forth in time and can be confusing, but it works as a method, because memories do the same. One memory that stands out for Friedlander is a stopover at a milk bar that he and his mother requested: “I ordered our favorite milk shake, a strawberry one. And yet this milk shake, though it brings back memories, doesn’t summon up what I am looking for.”

So, not the famous madeleine. Perhaps that is why Friedlander’s next book, he says, will be a biographical study of Proust, and why he told The Guardian that “Where Memory Leads” is “not even work in progress, it’s work at its very beginnings.”