This past week, Saul Friedlander, a professor of history at UCLA, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction work. Here is the transcript of an interview he gave to ynet (translated from the Hebrew).
By: Merav Yudelovich
The announcement that he had won the Pulitzer Prize found Professor Saul Friedlander unprepared. While HarperCollins, his publisher, was busy celebrating the good news, Friedlander was making his way home entirely unaware of the goings-on.
“It came out of nowhere,” he said in an interview with ynet. “I didn’t even know they gave out the Prize in April. When I got home, I saw a message from my publisher in New York. The excitement was almost as great as the surprise.”
It appears, the Pulitzer Prize Committee for nonfiction can surprise him, even at age 75. “I didn’t believe nor did I expect to get the Prize. The Pulitzer is a prize with a very American orientation, especially when it comes to nonfiction. It’s geared to topics that deal, directly or indirectly, with the United States and I always thought my work dealt primarily with Europe,” he said.
Friedlander, a senior lecturer in history at UCLA, is considered a leading historian of the Holocaust. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded for his book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945.
The book is actually the second volume of his work that summarizes Jewish history under the Third Reich and is the fruit of more than ten years of hard work. In addition, the book gained Friedlander the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, presented during Frankfurt’s annual book fair. Readers who want the book in Hebrew will need to wait until the translation is completed and the book is published at some point in early 2009.
“I wondered whether I got the prize because of the subject matter,” Friedlander admits. “I don’t know who was on the selection committee, but I figured there had to be Jews among them. I’m not being humble—this was a huge undertaking and took many years—but my gut feeling is that the subject matter certainly played a role and I’m comfortable with that fact so long as it promotes discussion.”
The first volume, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1: The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, published about 10 years ago, gained the author the MacArthur Grant, which enabled him to complete his work.
Friedlander chose to make Holocaust research and Jewish history his life’s work for a reason. “It’s not just work, it’s a part of my personal biography,” he explained.
Friedlander came of age during the 1940s in an abbey in France without knowing that his Jewish parents perished in the Holocaust. When he was 13, a Jesuit priest told him of the fate of European Jewry—Auschwitz, cattle cars, gas chambers, crematoria, and millions dead.
“It changed my whole life and, in a manner of speaking, restored my Jewish identity,” he said. The subject of the Holocaust and of Jewish history in Occupied Europe engaged him from the outset. “The first book I published in 1964 dealt with Pope Pius XII, head of the Catholic Church, and the Third Reich.
“Since then, I’ve also written on the Israeli Palestinian conflict and on history and psychoanalysis. But it’s certainly possible to say that this issue is the center of my work and life. Historians often touch on subjects for personal reasons, even if they don’t realize it. I was a hidden child in Europe during the Second World War, so it’s not really that surprising that years later I decided to come back and deal with the subject.”
So, what led you to this unceasing research that has already spanned four decades?
“I think the specific reason that led to beginning research, gathering data and information, and writing is an argument I had with a German historian named Martin Broszat in the 1980s. Broszat had headed the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. We exchanged a number of letters that were subsequently published. At one point, he wrote that the victims, i.e. the Jews, and their descendents were incapable of writing an objective history of the period since their recollection was a mythical memory that colored everything in black-and-white which did not allow for nuances.
“This obviously angered me greatly and I answered him in a letter that was published and made waves. I asked if being part of the Hitler Youth did not influence the subjectivity of those who were writing German history—in other words, Broszat’s generation. This created enormous tension and, by the way, it was posthumously discovered that Broszat was a Nazi Party member. Anyway, I was so shaken that I needed to write history from our perspective and to show that the victims’ voices are an integral and crucial part of understanding the history of the period.”
Friedlander’s work is aided by the echoing voices of the dead. He used journals and letters from Jews across Europe as source material, but did not use memoirs. “I relied mostly on journals from people who perished before the end of the war so no one could claim I was using subjective sources,” he explained. “Oftentimes, the journal end s in the middle, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence. You can’t claim that these journals were edited.”
How can someone with your life story cope with the voices and memory during the lengthy writing process?
“Since I’ve worked with these topics for years and the job is finished, you can say it’s been a part of me since my childhood. It’s weird, but the large-scale horrors were not what shocked me; instead the small details hit me and took away my sense of balance. For example, a letter sent by a young Parisian girl to her father on the eve of her deportation from Drancy to Auschwitz. ‘I’ll probably be back before you get out of prison, don’t worry,’ she wrote. It’s not only that she wanted to reassure her father; she writes out of such sincerity. The sense of the victims’ profound naïveté and their unwillingness to see what was already happening around them—that this was the end—blew my mind. I really needed more psychological strength to deal with the details of the life and death of the individuals I followed than to describe Babi Yar or Auschwitz.”
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion of the “banalization” or “trivialization” of commemoration. What do you think of this subject?
“It’s a very important question. There’s something in the ritualization of memory that freezes it. But ritualism is part of keeping memory alive. What’s interesting is that as time passes, the memory of the Holocaust continues to strengthen in Europe and also here [in the United States]. Today, there is certainly a greater awareness of the topic. When I got the prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a reporter for Der Spiegel asked me if I thought that the death of Holocaust survivors would cause the memory to disappear.
“In answering him, I gave him the example of Jonathan Little, author of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) that raised a storm in France and garnered the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt. Here’s someone unrecognized who puts out his first novel that gets France out of its chair and inspires huge polemics in Germany. I said, ‘You kick memory out through the door and it comes back through the window.’ As an aside, I’m not crazy about the book, but it still managed to revive the unending arguments on the subjects by breaking the ritualization of memory and raise the question why these events still bother the Western World and occupies the European consciousness.”
Did you finish this journey with new understanding or feelings that were not present before you began?
“If you’re asking me whether I understand human nature better today, the answer is no. We are looking at a very extreme phenomenon. Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil or what she had earlier called radical evil. You just stand there utterly uncomprehending. That’s what I said forty years ago and that’s what I think today. I don’t understand anything more than I understood then.”