“What mattered most to me in my own project was the inclusion of the Jewish dimension, along all others, within an integrated historical narrative. There is more, however, to this concept of integrated history.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning professor, historian and author Saul Friedländer expanded upon his concept of an integrated historical view of the Holocaust at the annual Hallie Lecture last Thursday in the Memorial Chapel.
Started by David Rhodes ’68 to commemorate Professor of Philosophy Philip Hallie, the Hallie Lecture focuses on issues of ethics and morality. Friedländer’s lecture, entitled “The Years of Extermination: A Plea for an Integrated History of the Holocaust,” drew from material in his most recent and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939.”
Friedländer speaks from personal experience. According to an Aug. 4, 2008 article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the “Friedlander’s List” website, Friedländer was born in 1932 in Prague to Jewish parents and spent his formative years in France. In 1942—two years into the German occupation of 1940-1944—his parents enrolled him in a Catholic boarding school.
While he was at the monastery, Friedländer’s parents attempted to escape to Switzerland, but instead were gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Speaking to a full audience at the Memorial Chapel, Friedländer began his lecture with an in-depth description of a single photograph. Dated Sept. 18, 1942, the image shows David Moffie, the last Jewish student at the University of Amsterdam, receiving his doctorate in medicine. On his left sleeve, Moffie wears a Jewish star with the word “Jood”—“Jew” in German—inscribed on it. Curiously enough, a German decree had forbidden the enrollment of Jewish students at Dutch universities as of that date.
Friedländer explained that this image indicated that the University authorities had chosen to use the administrative calendar against the intention of the German decree.
“Thus, from one single snapshot the viewer gets the intimation of a vast number of interactions between German ideological hallucinations and administrative measures, Dutch institutions and individual choices, Jewish institutions and, at the center of it all, the fate of a Jewish individual,” Friedländer said. “The photo can be seen as a metonymic illustration of what could be defined as an integrated history of the Holocaust.”
Friedländer first began formulating his concept of an integrated history of the Holocaust in response to the arguments of the mid and late 1980s of Martin Broszat, a West German historian.
Broszat focused on a “plea for the historicization of National Socialism” and more contentiously contended that the Jewish survivor’s grasp of the past, though deserving respect, nevertheless illustrated a “mythical memory” that creates a problem in understanding the objective reality of German history during that era.
Friedländer instead explained that the historical view of the Holocaust merits no distinction between historians of different backgrounds as they approach the topic. All historians need to be conscious of their inevitably subjective approach, and they all have self-critical insight to curb this instinct, Friedländer said.
“The history of these events cannot be limited to German decisions and measures only; it has to include the initiative and reactions of authorities, institutions and of the most diverse social groups throughout the occupied and satellite countries of German-controlled Europe,” he said. “Jewish perceptions and reactions, collective or individual, cannot and should not be considered as a separate domain within any general historical rendition.”
Friedländer also explored the importance of narration in discussing a project in history. Conversely, he explained the potential dilemmas stemming from a reliance on narration, considering that the focus for recording history should revolve around conceptualization and interpretation. Regardless, they hold an important place in considering the Holocaust.
“We are dealing with institutions and individual voices, with ideologies, religious traditions,” Friedländer said. “No general history of the Holocaust can do justice to the interaction of this diversity of elements by presenting them, textbook-wise, as independently juxtaposed. The only approach that seems possible in the writing of an integrated history of the Holocaust has to see the Jewish issue at the very center of the regime’s worldview and policies.”
Katie Boyce-Jacino ’10 explained that her enrollment in a history course called “The Holocaust,” let her hear Friedländer’s lecture on a different level.
“His speech was drawing a lot from his new book,” Boyce-Jacino said as she waited to meet Friedländer after the lecture. “His discussion in the end about the oral history was really interesting to me.”
Taught by Professor of History Erik Grimmer-Solem, “The Holocaust” emphasizes the obstacles in the historical interpretation of the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The course works includes both volumes of “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939,” published in 1996, and the aforementioned “The Years of Extermination 1939-1945” published in 2007.
Students outside of the history department also found resonance in Friedländer’s words. Rachel Levenson ’12 focused on the potential legacy of his ideas.
“What I found most interesting was that he brought up a concept of how we’re going to pass on the story of the Holocaust to future generations,” she said. “We’re the last generation that’s going to have survivors to tell us this story. Since I grew up learning about it through first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, it hadn’t really yet occurred to me. We have to look for a different way to pass down the story in an objective way.”
Following the lecture, Friedländer conducted a faculty seminar last Friday to expand upon the ideas he introduced the day before. The seminar focused on Friedländer’s book and the general state of Holocaust studies. It also took into account the approaches to the subject matter of the faculty attending.
Ethan Kleinberg, director of the College of Letters and associate professor of history, invited Friedländer to speak for the annual Hallie Lecture and introduced him in the Memorial Chapel. A former student of Friedländer’s, Kleinberg is especially familiar with his work and ideas as a historian.
“[’The Years of Extermination’] had a particularly interesting story and structure,” he said. “It calls for people working in the extreme cases to take a large view of all the circumstances and look at all of these things [Holocaust experiences]—even if they’re unbearable.”