Saul Friedländer’s Many Lives

After the Inferno

Saul Friedländer has spent a lifetime mapping the uncertain terrain between the Holocaust’s history and memory.


In Canto 16 of the Inferno, Dante’s pilgrim encounters three shades. Wounded and burned, they were once esteemed members of the Florentine nobility. The narrator pauses to engage them in conversation, and they are moved by his eloquence. “Happy are you,” they exclaim, “if you speak so readily!” They beg him to remember them to the land of the living: “If you escape these dark places and go back to see the beautiful stars, when it will be pleasant to say, ‘I was,’ see that you speak of us to people.”

The survivor who writes about the horrors he has seen carries a double burden: He must commemorate those who did not survive, but he must also write about their fate in a way that avoids arrogance or false piety. The past tense alone, though merely a convention, can turn cruel if it does not pause to acknowledge that survival is a privilege. A soul who is fortunate enough to escape the Inferno should forgo the triumphalism of “I was.”

This double burden may explain why memoirs of the Holocaust and of Nazi persecution more generally continue to play such an important role in the historiography of the era. They are harrowing to read, and the experience can be so painful that at times one feels tempted to lay them aside. But the most compelling of these books stay in one’s mind long after reading. This is not only because of the horrors they convey, but also because they make these horrors intimate, binding hell to the everyday. Yes, a distance remains: Reading about pain, after all, is not the same as the pain itself. But memoirs perform the unsettling magic of closing the gap between the “it is” of present experience and the “it was” of narration. They build a bridge of empathy between the witness and the reader—and across that bridge the traumas of the past can come alive.

It is perhaps for this reason that the historian Saul Friedländer, after publishing several scholarly studies on Nazism and the Second World War, chose to write a memoir of his early childhood years in Prague and his experiences during the war. Originally written in French, it appeared in 1978 under the title Quand vient le souvenir, later translated as When Memory Comes.

Friedländer himself was spared the trauma of the camps. In the spring of 1939, just as the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, he fled with his parents to the apparent safety of Paris. The family remained intact until the summer of 1942, when foreign Jews in France were subject to arrest in both the occupied and unoccupied zones. His parents then made a crucial choice: They entrusted their son to a Catholic boarding school in Montluçon, a town some 300 kilometers south of Paris, where he lived in safety under an assumed name, Paul-Henri-Marie Ferland, and converted to Catholicism. Later in his life, he would never again feel the kind of religious fervor that used to come over him in Montluçon’s big chapel when he smelled the incense and heard the music of the High Mass. His piety was sincere, but it was born of a child’s loneliness, and it drew him to a figure of the Virgin Mary, a “plaster statue with the sweet face,” in which he found “the presence of a mother.” Meanwhile, his parents sought escape via the Swiss border, but the police turned them back, and they were arrested by the French authorities. Only after the war did the son, now 14, learn that his parents had been murdered in Ausch­witz. The story of young Saul comes to a close with the liberation of France, when he awakened simultaneously both to communism and to the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

When Memory Comes is a quiet and deeply affecting masterpiece. Spare in its language, it charts the same melancholy terrain as W, or the Memory of Childhood, the 1975 novel by the French experimental writer Georges Perec, which also told the wartime tale of a child’s separation from his parents. But where Perec interwove autobiography with imagination, shifting between his own life and the dystopian fiction of an island country called “W,” Friedländer obeyed the historian’s code, sticking resolutely to the realm of fact. He nonetheless played with temporality: As if prolonged attention would be too much to bear, every few pages he snatched the reader back from the past to the present, from the Europe of the 1940s to his own current life in 1970s Israel.

This time-travel effect dramatizes the problem of memory—the cultural work of shaping the past—that has preoccupied Friedländer throughout his career as a historian. But it is also a literary technique. Friedländer received much of his formal education in France, and his own manner of writing is steeped in the style of the French classics. When Memory Comes has a truly Proustian ambition: to save from oblivion the moments from childhood that might otherwise have been lost. The strawberry milkshake that he once shared with his mother is perhaps the most poignant example, but it is also among the most painful. Though its memory remains charged with longing, Friedländer later tries to capture the happy experience, only to realize that the original taste can never be wholly recovered.

Four decades later, Friedländer has now published a companion piece. Where Memory Leads is a very different sort of book, more conventional in structure—­it unfolds chronologically—­and more prosaic in its themes. Picking up the narrative where the first volume left off, with an idealistic young Saul bound for Palestine, it relates the trials of education and employment in France, Israel, and the United States that transformed the young war survivor in the mid-1940s into the distinguished historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in the 1970s and ’80s.

If the new book isn’t as moving as the earlier volume—but how could it be?—it’s nonetheless an absorbing tale of personal and professional transformation. Over the course of his life, Friedländer has traveled such a vast distance that one marvels at the historical changes. Even his name has been prone to revision: “I was Pavel, called Pavlícek, in Prague, Paul on arrival in France, Paul-Henri-Marie Ferland in the seminary, Shaul after my arrival in Israel (where I also Hebraized my family name for a short while), then Saül in France again, and finally Saul, a compromise between Paul and Shaul.”

These are not merely names. They are identities that recall different ways of being and different worlds of culture and ideological conviction. Friedländer read Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy and, with other Jewish students, debated the socialist-Zionist theses of Ber Borochov. In Western Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, communism and Zionism were often intertwined. The Red Army had liberated much of the continent, and communists had played a leading role in the anti-Nazi resistance. For Jewish students, many of whom had lost their entire family or had been newly liberated from the displaced-persons camps, the ideal of an independent state where Jews could at last control their own fate beckoned like a star. Friedländer was not yet aware of the impending irony, of victims becoming oppressors.

Where Memory Leads begins with his arrival in Israel just weeks after it declared statehood. Graduating from high school as the valedictorian, Friedländer worked as a messenger for the foreign service and as an employee of the Israeli military, then joined an intelligence unit. In those early years, enthusiasm for the new state ran high, and Friedländer was (and remains) convinced of the necessity of a Jewish state.

But the new memoir is a product of our own time, and it takes a more jaundiced view of Israel’s past. Friedländer doesn’t shirk from mentioning the “brutal military expulsion” of tens of thousands of Palestinians and the forcible evacuation of Arab villages that were then annexed to the Jewish state. Though he served for several years as a secretary to Nahum Goldmann, the diplomat and long-standing president of the World Jewish Congress, Friedländer admits that members of the dominant Ashkenazi in Israeli society were “unconscious or semiconscious racists.”

Although he still cherishes Zionism’s significance for many Jews (especially those who fled persecution), Friedländer doesn’t hesitate to call the new trend in ultranationalism “repelling,” and he warns of a lethal mix of “Israeli McCarthyism” and “Jewish terrorism” that now “threatens to devour Israeli society.” Such words cannot have come easily to a man who has devoted his career to the history of the Jews when they were victims of persecution at its most extreme.

In the fall of 1953, Friedländer returned to France. He secured a job with the Israeli embassy’s press department and enrolled in Sciences Po as a second-year student. He spent his nights at dance halls and the cinema, where he watched films like René Clément’s Forbidden Games, a wartime drama that tells the story of Paulette, a little girl whose parents have been killed during the retreat from the invading Germans and who finds temporary safety with a peasant family, until the Red Cross takes her away. The story clearly struck a personal note: Friedländer saw it five times or more, and he cried every time.

Throughout these years, Friedländer felt restless and rarely remained in one place. He moved to Sweden, where he stayed with his maternal uncle Hans, and then applied to the graduate program in government at Harvard University, where he studied the Middle East. In 1958, he moved again, this time shuttling between New York and Jerusalem before finding a home at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, where he completed his dissertation on the diplomatic history of the Second World War. Among his examiners was Maurice Baumont, a distinguished French historian who focused on Germany and the French Third Republic. Shortly before his defense, Friedländer introduced himself. When he told Baumont that he was 31, the latter remarked: “At your age, Jesus had almost finished his career.” “Yes,” Friedländer replied, “but without a doctorate.”

During his years of teaching in Geneva, Friedländer’s penchant for European diplomatic history yielded to an emphasis on the treatment of Jews during the Second World War. His early book Pius XII and the Third Reich was first published in French in 1964, and it examined the ambiguities in Vatican policy toward National Socialism.

Given his own wartime experience hiding at Montluçon, the topic must have struck a personal chord. After all, during this period, the young Pavel Friedländer didn’t just masquerade as Paul-Henri; he found an authentic inspiration in Catholicism, even taking the middle name “Marie” as a sign of his baptism while he began to prepare for the Jesuit priesthood. In Where Memory Leads, Friedländer entertains the question of whether his study of Pope Pius XII somehow served as a vehicle for his resentment. But he avoids the more unsettling question of whether the book may have also served as a gesture of penitence for having temporarily strayed from the faith of his parents. This is no idle question: For other Jewish children—such as Jean-Marie Lustiger, later an esteemed cardinal—the act of wartime conversion marked the beginning of a new and permanent religious identity. For Friedländer, however, such enthusiasm came only during the war, and with the war’s end the parenthesis was closed.

During the course of an academic itinerary that took him from Geneva and Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and on to Los Angeles, Friedländer emerged as one of the most consequential historians of the Holocaust, much admired especially for his equipoise in the midst of controversy.

In Germany, the conservative Kohl era reawakened a strain of dormant nationalism among German historians, some of whom sought to diminish or, at the very least, relativize the crimes of the Third Reich. In his 1986 book Zweierlei Untergang (Two Types of Ruin), Andreas Hillgruber suggested that the Nazi genocide against European Jewry was no different from the crimes committed by the Soviet Union. And Ernst Nolte, a respected historian of fascism, provoked a major scandal with an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung insinuating that Auschwitz wasn’t “original,” but rather a response to the “Asiatic” crimes of the Gulag.

It was Nolte’s essay in particular that ignited what came to be known in Germany as the Historikerstreit, or the “historians’ controversy.” But Friedländer’s encounter with Nolte was also of a more personal nature: In what is surely one of the more unsettling chapters in the entire memoir, he tells of a dinner-party discussion with Nolte in Berlin, where the latter alluded darkly to a Jewish world conspiracy and implied that Hitler was right to see the Jews as enemies who should be interned in concentration camps “as the Americans did with the Japanese.” Not a person quick to anger, Friedländer simply excused himself and left the party.

Friedländer also had a troubled exchange with the esteemed German historian Martin Broszat. In May 1985, Broszat published an essay in Merkur, a highly regarded journal of German politics and letters, with the provocative title “A Plea for the Historicization of National Socialism.” As a social historian who had studied Nazi anti-Semitism and served as a witness for the prosecution at the Auschwitz trials of the early 1960s, Broszat could hardly be considered a political conservative. As a pioneer of Alltagsgeschichte, or “the history of everyday life,” he introduced a model of detailed historical reconstruction that explored the enduring patterns in daily experience that remained relatively immune to Nazi power. But in his “plea” for the historicization of National Socialism, Broszat implied that it was high time to lift the taboos on historical comparison and annul what he called the “moral quarantine” of the Hitler era by integrating it into longer-term patterns of modernization.

Such arguments seemed to leave open the possibility of studying Nazism without attending to its criminal nature, and even while Broszat was careful to note that historicization didn’t imply exculpation, the urgency of his plea left Friedländer uneasy. In a lecture at the University of Essen, he responded by stressing the possible “limits” to such an approach. The historicization of National Socialism would at the very least risk a kind of normalization, diminishing the specificity and horror of the Holocaust. That specificity had a criminal dimension—the attempt to annihilate an entire people—that gave it a certain distinction (though not necessarily a uniqueness) in relation to other annihilationist policies, and the fetish for historical objectivity could too easily serve as a license for apologetics. “Writing about Nazism,” Friedländer pointedly observed, “is not like writing about sixteenth-century France.”

This opening salvo led to a public exchange of letters with Broszat that was published in a German-language journal. In his opening letter, Broszat distinguished between the “scientific” character of genuinely historical research and the “memory” of the victims, which could only “coarsen” historical understanding.

In response, Friedländer asked if historical understanding could proceed as usual when it came up against the extremes of human depravity—for example, when Jewish children ages 5 to 12 were subjected to medical experiments and then hanged in a school basement near Hamburg. When confronted with such horrors in all their specificity, Friedländer wrote, it was no longer possible to work one’s way back toward the “normality” of the historical continuum. “At some stage,” he concluded, “a new style has to be introduced for the purpose of historical description.”

The search for a “new style” of historical description came to shape much of Friedländer’s later work. The exchange with Broszat touched on an old and frequently abused question: Was the Holocaust unique? Too often the notion of uniqueness turns ideological, as if the Jews’ persecution were the paradigm of evil and a badge of distinction that somehow diminished other crimes. But the idea of evil doesn’t enhance responsibility; it evades it, lifting the crimes away from the human plane where they belong. For Friedländer, what made the Holocaust so horrifying was not that it transcended human history, but rather that it was humanity alone that made it happen. The question of the Holocaust’s uniqueness obscured a more critical point: that all suffering is unique, since all experience is lived in the first person.

This emphasis on the first-person experiences of the victims was a crucial factor in Friedländer’s decision to craft his own comprehensive history of the Third Reich. He wanted to explore a new style of narration that would resist normalizing the abnormal, the irreducible horror, at the core of the regime’s history.

Having just moved from the University of Tel Aviv to the University of California, Los Angeles, Friedländer began to write what would become his major synthesis, published in two volumes as Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution: 1933–1939 (in 1997) and The Years of Extermination: 1939–1945 (in 2007). The second volume received several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Friedländer’s synthesis was rare in its attempt to include the “raw voices” of the victims, especially quotations from letters and memoirs that convey their bewilderment as the events unfold. Woven from so many strands, his complex narrative posed unusual challenges, especially in discussing events once the Nazi war machine began to spread out across Western Europe, the Balkans, and the vast territories to the East, bringing along with it the determination to kill Jews, Roma, and others designated as enemies or as subhuman.

To integrate so many voices and events into his history, Friedländer slowed the pace of narration. In The Years of Extermination, a single chapter covers only about seven months, and even these are broken into shorter sections that constantly shift the focus of attention from one part of Europe to another, from the Nazi high command to its victims, and from an analysis of Nazi ideology to accounts of the procedures and experiences in the killing fields and the death camps.

The effect was to fracture the continuum of history into a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives and geographies while remaining faithful to each individual voice: Etty Hillesum, for example, who succeeded in writing a letter on September 7, 1943, from an eastbound train: “I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away…. [T]he departure came without warning. On special orders from the Hague.” To end the chapter, Friedländer resumes the grim voice of official history: “According to a Red Cross report, Etty was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943; her parents and her brother Mischa shared the same fate.”

Historians who have devoted their academic lives to researching the details of the Nazi genocide often write of the events with emotional restraint, as if they wished to reflect in the sobriety of their prose the grim bureaucratic rationality of the murder process itself. Raul Hilberg’s early study The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, remains the paradigm of this genre, and even today its authority remains irresistible. More than many of the historians who came after him, Hilberg grasped the power of the factual: that an author could best convey moral outrage by leaving it unstated, by leaving the reader to contend with her own feelings of shock and disorientation.

Friedländer’s later work has noticeably dissented from this trend. By interweaving the personal voices of the victims, he has helped, if not to dismantle, then at least to qualify the older paradigm of the Nazi genocide as a top-down exercise in cold-minded efficiency. In doing so, he has helped restore to historical understanding the victims’ own manifold experiences of uncertainty and terror. He has done so, however, not out of a desire to sensationalize the past, but because, following Walter Benjamin’s dictum, he grasps that the historian’s highest duty is remembrance of past suffering.

What is the relationship between history and memory? Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews suggests an answer to this question. Theorists of trauma have noted that first-person experience is often fractured, resistant to summary. Allowing such memories to punctuate a historical synthesis undoes the illusion of completeness; it reminds the reader that historical understanding is not just an obligation but a privilege. Historical scholarship occurs later, at a safe remove from the horrors it describes. In this crucial respect, the “it was” of history often differs from the “I was” of memory: The first integrates and promises comprehension; the second disintegrates and conveys incomprehension. The work of the historian—and this is Friedländer’s singular achievement—is to unite these tasks so that the reader can understand, however imperfectly, experiences of trauma that would otherwise seem to surpass understanding.

The shades who spoke with Dante’s pilgrim predicted that it would be beautiful to say, “I was.” But the voice of the historian should resist this consolation and hold fast to the melancholy that is memory’s prevailing affect. As a person who lost his parents in the camps while still a child, Friedländer feels this burden with special urgency. He notes a further affliction: that with advancing age, his memory has begun to fail, and he also recognizes that his synthesis may figure among the last to be written at a time when survivors can still share their experiences firsthand. What the historian Annette Wieviorka has called the “era of the witness” is now coming to an end. How this shift might reshape historical understanding remains unknown, but Friedländer has done far more than his share to keep the flame of memory alive.

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