"It's difficult to admit the obvious"
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The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian

jan peczkis|Monday, November 26, 2012

This review is from: The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Paperback) This work is semi-autobiographical in nature. It provides insights into how the Jewish author Hilberg developed and published his seminal study on the Holocaust. He also discusses notable Holocaust personages such as Bruno Bettelheim, Hannah Arendt, Gerald Reitlinger, Leon Poliakov, Lucy Dawidowicz, Jason Browning, and Warsaw Ghetto Council Chairman Adam Czerniakow.


Interestingly, Hilberg's roots are in Eastern Galicia, and his mother comes from a small village near Buczacz, Tarnopol (Ternopil) area. However, Hilberg does not discuss life in prewar Poland. However, he mentions the fact that the 17th-century Count Potocki had granted privileges to the Jews of Buczacz. (p. 32). He also realizes that Israel's national anthem, HA-TIKVAH ("The Hope") is derived from the Polish national anthem, which he translates: Polish Is Not Yet Lost. (p. 28). However, this translation is a bit misleading, as it seems to imply that Poland will yet be lost, or that Poland is on the verge of being lost. A better translation is: Poland Is Not Lost As Long As We Shall Live.

Hilberg was a lifelong atheist, and his Judaism had been strictly cultural in nature. In this, he followed his father, who had been a devotee of Baruch Spinoza. (pp. 36-37).

For a time, the child Hilberg lived in Austria. He witnessed the ANSCHLUSS and its aftermath. His family managed to immigrate, eventually to the USA.

Discrimination against Jews at universities was hardly limited to "backwards" pre-WWII Poland. While in the presumably-pluralistic USA in the 1950's, long after WWII, Hilberg, along with other Jews and also Catholics, experienced discrimination in academia. (e. g, p. 100).

Hilberg touches on the popularization of the Holocaust in American culture. This popularization did not become widespread until the 1970's. (p. 123).

The author supports the functionalist interpretation of Holocaust origin, in which the Nazi German decision to conduct genocide on the Jews did not occur until 1941. (p. 64). Lucy Dawidowicz, on the other hand, supports the intentionalist interpretation of Holocaust origin, going as far as suggesting that the Nazis already planned to murder the Jews as early as 1918. (pp. 144-145). Hilberg suggests that Lucy Dawidowicz is not particularly well regarded by historians, and has essentially no standing as an authority on the Holocaust. (p. 147).

Regardless of the exact Nazi timeline in precipitating the Holocaust, Hilberg is unambiguous about the perpetrators of the Holocaust, "The destruction of the Jews was a German deed. It was implemented in German offices, in a German culture." (p. 61). In our day and age of preoccupation about non-Germans and the Holocaust, Hilberg's arguably belaboring of the obvious is timely.

The author informs the author about Hannah Arendt and her controversial EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM. (p. 150). This caused a furor by raising the issue that Jews played a significant role in their own destruction. (pp. 154-155). In Germany, there at first were concerns about translating her work into German because it may lead to Germans feeling partly exonerated in their murderous conduct towards the Jews. (p. 162). [Applying Hilberg's reasoning to the more recent past, the reader may wonder if the enthusiastic reception of the Germans to the German-language edition of Jan T. Gross' NEIGHBORS is a realization of these very concerns.]

"Jewish passivity" has commonly been misunderstood as only the fact of Jews generally going to their deaths without resistance. [Actually, most members of virtually all nationalities cooperate in their forced deaths without attempting to flee or fight.] The real question of "Jewish passivity" is elucidated by Hilberg, who thus paraphrases Yad Vashem chairman Benzion Dinur, "...who stated in unvarnished language that the councils could not be considered in isolation because they constituted an `expression basically of what remained of the confidence Jews had in Germany even under the Nazi regime'. The Jews, he said, `carried out regulations' even if they could have evaded them at some risk to themselves. In the Netherlands they had `hurried with the luggage' to the trains that would carry them to the east, and `even in Warsaw and Vilna, in Bialystok and Lvov, reports of death journeys were discredited for a long time'." (p. 151).

Hilberg does not mention that the facts in the last paragraph help the reader understand why Poles commonly thought of Jews as too servile towards the Germans. It also makes it easier to see why the Polish Underground at first did not take the Jewish plans to fight the Germans, in the eventual Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, too seriously.

The author devotes a chapter to the diary of Adam Czerniakow. He presents some detail on the commonly-available censored versions of this diary. (pp. 176-on).
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