The International Campaign for Real History

Check out the new David Irving bookstore at

Posted Monday, August 13, 2007

[] Index to the Traditional Enemies of Free Speech
[] Alphabetical index (text)

Quick navigation

[images and captions added by this website]

Los Angeles Times      A remembrance

What could make a dedicated Holocaust scholar, cry?

Raul Hilberg, witness to catastrophe.

By Walter Reich

August 11, 2007

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.

Hilberg thought awhile. And then he said yes, he had cried once when he read a document. He had come across the record of a court proceeding in Berlin in 1941 or 1942. A Jew had been issued a voucher to buy a ration of coffee, a rare commodity in Germany at the time. Vouchers for coffee were among the increasing number of privileges that Jews in Germany didn't have until, finally, they didn't have the privilege to live.

The Berlin Jew understood that he had received the voucher in error. But he took it to a grocer anyway -- who, knowing that his customer was a Jew, refused to sell him the coffee. Indignant, the Jew went to court. The German judge acknowledged that the voucher was genuine and that, according to the letter of the law, the Jew should be sold a ration of coffee. But he added that selling the coffee to the Jew would violate the spirit of the law, which aimed to restrict Jews from enjoying such privileges. The case was, in retrospect, an absurd one; very soon that Jew was almost surely sent for gassing.

Reading that document, Hilberg told me, he cried. I asked him why, of the many documents he'd read, it was that one, about one Jew's absurd quest for coffee, that made him cry. What about all those documents about the ghettos, the starvation, the cattle cars filled with human cargo sent for extermination, the execution pits, the gassing centers?

Hilberg told me that the document stirred up an ancient olfactory memory. It reminded him of the cafes of his youth in prewar Vienna. He remembered the smell of the coffee. And Hilberg, the insistent documentarian, may have identified with the Jew insisting on the validity of his voucher. The clinical wall he had set up to enable him to work on the Jewish catastrophe had developed a temporary crack through which wafted not only the smell of the coffee but also the memory of the Jewish people and of himself as one of them. And he cried.

Three years later, I received from Hilberg a published copy of "The Politics of Memory." On a notecard he wrote, "The paragraph you suggested is on page 76." He had inserted the story of the court record he had seen about the Jew and the coffee. In his paragraph he didn't mention that the story had made him cry. He said it had made him feel "nauseous." He apologized to me, a physician, for using the word "nauseous" -- he knew it should have been "nauseated." He wrote that he had queried his editor, because, "medically speaking, a nauseous person is someone who causes nausea, but as you can see, people are not nauseated anymore." He was right, his editor wrong. For the record, Hilberg was not only nauseated; he also cried.

When it comes to human catastrophe, too many people aren't nauseated anymore, nor do they cry. Nor do scholars always read documents about that catastrophe with either the empathy or the clinical detachment the documents demand. Hilberg did both. He found his own way to be both human and a student of human catastrophe. In doing so he didn't bring the dead back to life. But he brought their story to documented life. And he taught us all how to be closer to our sense of our humanity even as we face the possibilities and realities of the human catastrophes that threaten and surround us.

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

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

Related items on this website:

Death of world's leading Holocaust scholar, conformist, Raul Hilberg
Our Hilberg dossier
criticised David Irving's imprisonment

for further items search our website archive for "Hilberg"

The above item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

 Register your name and address to go on the Mailing List to receive

David Irving's ACTION REPORT

or to hear when and where he will next speak near you

© Focal Point 2007 F Irving write to David Irving