Raul Hilberg: What could make a dedicated Holocaust scholar, cry?





[Walter Reich is a professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.]

If you're not overwhelmed by human catastrophe, can you be truly human? But if you are overwhelmed by human catastrophe, can you truly study it? One of the triumphs of Raul Hilberg, the great Holocaust historian who died last week, was that he solved that conundrum. He taught us how, by being clinically rigorous, he could be true to his scholarship -- and true, as well, to the victims of the human catastrophe to whose story he dedicated his work and his life.

In 1993, Hilberg, whose "The Destruction of the European Jews" was the foundational history of the Holocaust, sent me the manuscript of his memoir, "The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian." He asked for comments.

Hilberg had written about his childhood; about his decision soon after the Holocaust to study it even though few academics or others were interested in it; about his efforts, at first unsuccessful, to publish his book; and about his focus on documents. More than anyone else, Hilberg was known as a meticulous examiner of the mountains of documents that the Germans had left recording their murder of Europe's Jews.

After reading his memoir, I called to offer a few comments. But I also asked him if any of those documents had made him cry. Hilberg had been widely criticized for being unfeelingly focused on documents -- on the train schedules of the transports that brought Jews to the gas chambers, for instance -- as if he didn't care about the Jews themselves. His critics thought that this man -- who, when asked what he did for a living, would answer, with grim irony, "I study dead Jews" -- was incapable of sentiment.

Hilberg was taken aback by my question. Others had asked him a similar question -- whether reading any document had made him feel nauseated -- but, apparently, no one had asked him whether any had made him cry. I guess I asked him about crying because crying was my response to documents about and accounts of the Jewish catastrophe. Sometimes, immersed in such materials, I'd break down, unable, for a while, to go on....


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