The Destruction of the European Jews
by Raul HilbergRead
You’ve picked books for us to help understand the Holocaust, and your first choice is The Destruction of the European Jews, the landmark study of the Holocaust by Raul Hilberg. This was first published half a century ago, and now runs to three volumes. Can you tell me about it?
What happened is that there had been prior books about the Holocaust, for example by a Frenchman named Léon Poliakov, and they were important first steps. But the real professionalisation of the discipline, a tremendous change in the recognition of the importance of the Holocaust, came from the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews in 1960-1.
He had great difficulty getting it published, but, once it did get published, people saw that it was a subject of enormous historic importance. Also, the way he carried it out – Hilberg, as a young man, had helped do some of the research for the trials at Nuremberg and elsewhere. So, his close knowledge of the huge collection of German documents that had been brought together for those trials just changed the whole landscape. And Raul continued to work on this book for the next 50 years – he only passed away two years ago – and it grew and grew into the present three-volume edition.
And why did he have trouble getting it published?
At that time people did not seem to feel that the Holocaust was a subject that would have a readership, that there was a lot of interest in it. Today we’re so well aware, it’s so much part of the public discourse and the public conversation, but at that time it was a subject that was little talked about in public. The survivors didn’t talk, and the victimisers didn’t talk, so there was a general agreement to push it to the side – both in scholarship and in general conversation.
Is there anything you would point to in the book as being of special significance?
Yes, his method. He was a student at Columbia University, of political science. So his method is that of a political scientist. Also, more importantly, what Raul did was emphasise the German side of the Holocaust. He didn’t study Jewish documents that closely, or look at the behaviour of the victims, at resistance, or anything like that. He went right to the documents he knew from the war trials, and he concentrated on the way the mass murder was organised by the German state, by the Nazis.
He had an eye especially for the issues of bureaucracy and technology, which he thought were the decisive factors that made this a new kind of major crime. What was special here was the use of modern organisational techniques, of which he was a student, to carry out this mass murder.
And no one had focused on that before?
Not the way he did. He traced how an order would start in one central location, and how it would be passed to another location, and the order would then be activated by a third group somewhere else, and how the bureaucrats were crucial to organising logistics, supplies, the whole logic of the enterprise. That was really his focus and he did it with great genius.
by Elie WieselRead
The second book on your list of Holocaust books is Night, a short but extremely powerful book by Elie Wiesel.
This was published by Elie Wiesel and now is probably the best known memoir that has been written about the experience of the death camps. Elie Wiesel was a young boy of 14 when his tiny city, a place called Sighet, mostly Jewish, in what was then the Romania-Hungary borderland, was overrun. You have to remember that until 1944, Hungarian Jewry had been spared the most extreme forms of Nazi violence. But in 44 the situation changed and the Nazis essentially took over much of the organisation of the Jewish population in Hungary. They came into his little town, the shtetl, and they took him and his family. He went to Auschwitz, where his father died. But he survived the war, miraculously.
Then, in the 1950s, he wrote a memoir in Yiddish. It was a very long memoir, too long, and at that time he was living in Paris. He was with some French intellectuals who told him to shorten the volume and to publish a very watered down or limited version in French. Which he did – and the rest is history. It started to be read widely, and it continues to have an enormous impact all over the world. For example, a few years ago in Chicago they chose it as the book of the year that everybody in all the schools read. Also, Oprah Winfrey picked his book, the new translation, for her book club recently. So I would say of all the books that people read about the Holocaust, besides The Diary of Anne Frank, the most famous memoir is by Elie Wiesel.
What do you think makes it so good?
I think the way the personal scenes are described, the telling scene of his father’s death, the characters he is able to draw and portray and this strange twilight life that people lived. All that has enormous emotional power. And he has the craft; he is a novelist and, unlike many memoirs (which are all important and all have information and all shed light), this has a literary kind of quality. He is able to bring to the focus of the reader a deep emotional power, and something also of the mysteriousness of what happened in the camps. There was something here that really reached the limits of human experience.
“There was something here that really reached the limits of human experience”
I should add there are other important memoirs. The other person who deserves to be mentioned is the great Italian novelist and memoirist Primo Levi. Primo Levi’s books are also extraordinarily important. They are, along with Elie Wiesel’s, the most important record we have of first-person survivor memoirs of the camps. Like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi has great power. It is very sparse, very minimalist, very, very straight, but very powerful material.
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