Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Friedlander's Pulitzer for Holocaust studies

Saul Friedlånder seems to sit down for a lot of Q&As, but, then again, he deserves the audience. A Holocaust historian at UCLA, Friedlander won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction Monday -- I ordered the two-volume, 1,500-word series "Nazi Germany and the Jews" yesterday -- and The Forward has this interview:

GS: Unlike a number of your colleagues in the field, you put great stock in survivor diaries. What do such sources offer, and what are their potential pitfalls?

SF: You don’t go to diaries for historical exactness. You go to them for the attitudes, the reactions, the fears, the hopes — the life of those that were targeted. If you leave that aside, you come to rely uniquely on German documents. You completely shunt aside the humanity of the Jewish communities that are the face of the story. I wouldn’t turn to the diaries to learn about German policies, but I need to read them to be informed of daily life in the ghettoes. Now, you may tell me that these sources are unreliable, but not more unreliable than Eichmann’s depositions in Jerusalem or the memoirs of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, which are used everywhere. One must, of course, consider Jewish diaries with extreme care and with a totally open critical mind, as one would any other source.

GS: In a review of “The Years of Extermination” that recently appeared in The Washington Post, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of the 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” wrote that your book “may prove to be the last major general history of the Holocaust produced by a leading scholar who lived under the Nazis.” This is, of course, interesting at the level of biography, but when it comes to the scholarship itself, is there a tangible difference between Holocaust historians who lived through the experience and those who did not?

SF: There shouldn’t be, but there is. The person who has lived through the events is familiar with nuances that cannot be gotten from administrative documents. The things that are between the lines are more vivid among those who remember. Now, it has been argued that the survivor-historian is more subjective and less scientific, but we are all subjective with regard to this period. So you say where it is you are coming from and do your best, if you are an honest person, to try to restrain your subjectivity.


GS: You take your book’s epigraph from the diary of one Stefan Ernest, a Jew hiding in “Aryan” Warsaw in 1943. “[People] will ask,” you quote him as saying, “is this the only truth? I reply in advance: No, this is not the truth, this is only a small part, a tiny fraction of the truth…. Even the mightiest pen could not depict the whole, real, essential truth.” It seems here that you are trying to sound a note of humility. But am I wrong in sensing a hint of bravado here, too? Do you see yourself as wielding “the mightiest pen”?

SF: I don’t want to underestimate my work. It would, in a way, be grotesque to write and then say, “This is worthless.” But I meant the epigraph very simply and directly: Don’t let us have any illusions. We try, and we have to try, but this is not even a fragment of a fragment of the truth.

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