There comes a moment in life when the weight of memory and emotion can lead to action. For Saul Friedlander, that moment arrived when he stumbled upon a misfiled Nazi document in Bonn, during research for a book on U.S.-German relations before World War II.
During 1941, as news of Hitler's atrocities began spreading, Pope Pius XII had warmly invited the Berlin Opera to perform selections from Wagner at the Vatican, according to a formerly secret telegram that Friedlander read. The faded cable would have riveted any historian probing papal attitudes toward the Nazis, but it struck a nerve in the young scholar: His parents died at Auschwitz, and he was raised by French Catholics as the conflict raged. Fiercely proud of his Jewish roots, his disbelief over Pius XII's friendly invitation was a transforming moment.
"It shocked me; I was astonished," said Friedlander, recalling his 1962 discovery. "And I decided then and there that, for me, the right path was to study the history of this event, the Holocaust, so no one would ever forget it. It became my personal fate."
Today, Friedlander is a preeminent Holocaust historian and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who recently published the concluding volume in his sprawling chronicle of Hitler's final solution, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (HarperCollins). Recently, he received news that has forced him to revisit many of the burning personal questions that have driven his career: Later this year he will receive the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Friedlander, 74 and soon to retire, views the German honor with a jumble of emotions. What would his parents have thought? He has spent much of his life documenting Nazi crimes, and his new book may be one of the last Holocaust accounts by a major historian who actually experienced these traumatic events. As a new generation of scholars emerges, Friedlander's crusade to keep history alive is not just a professional imperative. It's highly personal.
"For me, the biggest question has always been, how was all this possible?" he said by telephone. "How could such unbelievable atrocities take place in the very heart of Europe, in one of the world's most advanced countries?"
As historians continue to ponder the Holocaust, Friedlander fears this crucial sense of disbelief may fade with time or disappear in endless academic debate. He voices his concern in the introduction to his new book, lamenting that too many scholars run the risk of "domesticating disbelief" as they try to explain unspeakable horrors. When they begin parsing every detail, Friedlander suggested, "there's a danger this sense of horror will disappear. Soon you're accustomed to business-as-usual history. You write about these events with the same detachment you'd use to write about the price of grain."
To combat this erosion of memory, Friedlander set an ambitious - some would say impossible - goal for his two-volume history (the first book, The Years of Persecution, came out in 1997). He resolved that the best way to tell the story was with a so-called integrated approach, blending the history of the Nazi perpetrators with the personal stories of victims. He also considered the role of bystanders, some of whom rescued Jews, while others did nothing or aided the Nazis.
The voice of Jewish diarists was prominent: Abraham Lewin, a Warsaw resident, recorded his dawning awareness of the terror awaiting those deported from the ghetto in 1942: "When people get out of the train, they are beaten viciously. Then they are driven into huge barracks. For five minutes heart-rending screams are heard, then silence. The bodies that are taken out are swollen horribly. Young men from among the prisoners are the gravediggers, and the next day they too are killed."
Holocaust scholarship, which took off in the 1960s, has become highly controversial and competitive. As hundreds of books appear each year, debates continue to rage over numerous issues, and they pack an emotional wallop far greater than most academic tiffs: Was Hitler directly responsible for ordering the exterminations, or were they initiated and carried out mostly at lower echelons of the Nazi dictatorship? Was there something uniquely and inevitably German about the Holocaust, or did specific political and economic circumstances conspire to unleash these policies in Germany? Even a historian as respected as Friedlander wades into a minefield every time he writes a book, and the varying reactions to The Years of Extermination were no surprise.