Jeremy D Popkin. History and Memory. Volume 15, Issue 1. Spring 2003.
Historians and Holocaust Memoirs
It has become more common for professional historians to write about their own lives during the last few decades, but no other group of contemporary historians has shown such a propensity to write personal memoirs as those from Jewish origins whose lives were directly affected by the Holocaust, whether or not it has been their principal subject of study. The fact that historians from this particular group have been so prone to writing about their own lives indicates that the general issues raised by the confrontation of history and autobiography are especially intense with respect to the Holocaust. These historians’ published recollections have become a significant part of the literature of first-person recollections from the Holocaust era. In some respects, however, the stories they tell are at odds both with the dominant tendencies in the larger body of survivor literature and with major assumptions about modern Jewish history. These memoirs thus raise important questions about the representations of the Holocaust and about the construction of twentieth-century Jewish identity.
Fundamentally, the problem that autobiography poses for historians is that it challenges history’s claim to be the science of the human past, the only set of procedures by which a valid representation of events can be generated. Among the bases for history’s claims are the fact that it is a collective enterprise and thus overcomes the subjectivity of individual memory, and that it operates on the basis of traces or evidence that are available to public scrutiny. History takes as its subject, not individual human beings with their arbitrary life spans, but larger collectivities, and it inserts their narratives in a larger temporal framework that, in principle, incorporates all human experience.
As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has shown in Time and Narrative, his monumental analysis of the relations between different forms of narrative, history can usually coexist peacefully enough with fiction, even historical fiction, because fictional narratives do not claim to be “true” in the same way that history does. Autobiography, however, which Ricoeur discusses only in passing, claims, like history, to be a true account of things that actually happened in the past, even though the bases of its claim to truth are very different. Autobiographies are individual stories, not collective enterprises, and they are based at least in part on evidence that is not available to examination by anyone except their author—namely, personal memory. Historians traditionally asserted their discipline’s superiority over autobiography by classifying these texts as sources, and not very respectable sources at that. Manuals for history students tell them to regard memoirs and autobiographies as the “least convincing of all personal records” and teach them how to deconstruct the distortions and biases they are likely to find in them. Nevertheless, history has not completely separated itself from autobiography. Even if they are doubtful historical sources, autobiographies are still sources, in a way that works of fiction are not, although historians have reserved for themselves the prerogative of deciding to what extent each first-person narrative can be trusted.
Because historians do, however grudgingly, acknowledge that autobiographies contain some truth about the past, the changed evaluation of autobiography in contemporary literary theory has important implications for the historical discipline. Whereas historians had traditionally rejected autobiographies because they had too much fiction in them, literary critics long considered them uninteresting because they were too bound to literal truth and did not offer enough scope for the imagination. The new interest in the genre of autobiography since 1970, associated with the work of critics such as James Olney, Philippe Lejeune and Paul John Eakin, has reversed this situation. By stressing the connections between autobiography and fiction, and de-emphasizing the issue of autobiography’s truthfulness, these critics have firmly incorporated first-person narrative into the domain of literature. Walter Laqueur, one of the historians whose memoir is discussed here, sampled some of this critical literature before writing his book and was unhappy to learn that, in these theorists’ eyes, “the value [of autobiographies] as a source of historical insight is very limited because they shed more light on the state of mind of the author when he wrote his recollections than on the events when they actually occurred.” By blurring the frontier between autobiography and fiction, literary criticism has sometimes also laid claim to the territory of history itself. A number of literary critics have seized upon historian Hayden White’s application of the categories of literary analysis to historical writing, in Metahistory, as evidence that practitioners of the historical discipline themselves now recognize the essentially fictional character of our work. White is distinctly a minority voice among working historians—some would say that he has been read out of the discipline altogether—but a situation in which one genre of ostensibly factual narrative about the past—autobiography—comes to be classified as a category of fiction while another—history—tries to maintain its status as truth is clearly an uneasy one. Historians who write about their own lives, even if they have no conscious intention of challenging the accepted rules of their discipline, are therefore treading on contested terrain.
The existence of a “negationist” movement that denies the occurrence of the Holocaust gives the defense of historical truth in this context a special urgency. It is no accident that one of the sharpest challenges to Hayden White occurred in an exchange with Holocaust historian Christopher Browning. Even as they have had to defend the facticity of their accounts against these challengers, however, historians have also had to deal with the fact that first-person testimony has come to play an unusually large role in constructing Holocaust memory. In the field of the Holocaust, second-hand scholarship is often seen as necessarily lacking the power of conviction found in direct testimonies. Survivors’ memoirs have sometimes been accorded an almost sacred status: Elie Wiesel, the archetypal survivor-witness, has recently been quoted as saying that “I want eventually to establish a principle that every manuscript [survivor’s memoir] should be published.” David Patterson, author of a recent study of Holocaust memoir literature, argues that even the reading of such works has a sacred function: the reader “must become not an interpreter of texts but a mender of the world, a part of the recovery that this memory demands.”
Although historians are understandably reluctant to get drawn into arguments about what happened at Auschwitz with survivors who have numbers tattooed on their arms, their usual concerns about the reliability of autobiographal testimony exist here, too. In her essay, L’Ère du témoin, the French Holocaust historian Annette Wievorka has provided perhaps the most outspoken reaction to this literature. The danger she sees is that emotional first-hand accounts can obscure the importance of the historian’s effort to “establish the facts and try to give them a meaning” through analysis. The attraction of the reliance on memoir is that it seems to “give history back to its real authors, those to whom it belongs: the actors and the witnesses who tell it `live,’ for today and tomorrow.” But, she writes, there is a “tension between the witness and the historian, a tension, perhaps a rivalry, and, indeed, even a struggle for power which one finds at the heart of current debates about contemporary history, but that one finds in other fields as well, when individual expression comes into conflict with scholarly discourse.” When historians examine Holocaust memoirs, she claims, they learn not to rely on them for “information on specific events, places, dates, figures, which turn out to be, with metronomic regularity, false.” The vision of the Holocaust communicated in memoirs
addresses itself to the heart, not to the mind…. This vision makes the historian uneasy. Not that he is indifferent to the suffering, that he has not himself also been overwhelmed by tales of suffering, and fascinated by some of them. But because he realizes that this juxtaposition of stories is not a historical account, and that, in a sense, it cancels out the historical account. How can one put together a coherent historical account if it has to be constantly opposed to another truth, that of individual memory? How can one incite people to reflect, to think, to be rigorous, when feelings and emotions invade the public arena?
Wievorka is unusually candid about the critical attitude Holocaust historians often take toward memoir sources, but she is by no means unique. Raul Hilberg, the dean of American Holocaust scholars, has also distanced himself from reliance on such retrospective accounts. Hilberg has pointed out that, by definition, all survivors of the Holocaust were exceptional cases, and historians relying on their testimony get a biased picture because they “did not interview the dead.” In Hilberg’s view, which is also the standard wisdom of history manuals, the historian should seek as much as possible to work from sources generated at the time of the event, and written without any eye toward telling a story. Hilberg has described the excitement of constructing history from such documents, each one “an artifact…the original paper that once upon a time was handled by a bureaucrat….” In their seeming objectivity, such artifacts appear far removed from memoir sources, and since they do not tell their own stories, documents leave the creative work of interpretation to the historian, the importance of whose role is thus underlined. When historians write up their research as comprehensible narratives, Hilberg comments, “the words that are thus written take the place of the past; these words, rather than the events themselves, will be remembered. Were this transformation not a necessity, one could call it presumptuous, but it is unavoidable.” Like Wievorka, then, Hilberg posits that the historian’s methods produce a representation of past events that is in some sense truer and more accurate than that of those who were actually there.
Is there a paradox in the fact that Raul Hilberg makes these criticisms of autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust in the pages of his own autobiography? And that he makes his impassioned defense of the procedures of scientific scholarship in history in the context of explaining the intense personal meaning that this research had for an Austrian-born Jew who had had to flee to the United States and who found little interest in the Holocaust there, even among historians? Aren’t historians who turn to the necessarily subjective genre of autobiography in fact acknowledging, as Walter Laqueur does, “that those who were not witnesses, however thorough their research and innovative their explanations, are missing one whole dimension….”? It may be objected that these historian-autobiographers have doubtless been careful in their reconstructions of their personal past: one of them, the French scholar Annie Kriegel, has even provided her autobiography with footnotes to the numbered cartons of her personal archives. None of them seems likely to endorse the literature scholar Frank Kermode’s cheerful assertions, in his memoir, that “the action of memory depends on the cooperation of fantasy” and that “writing truthfully of one’s life therefore requires what may seem to be a scandalous breach of the promise to be truthful.” Nevertheless, the fact that so many historians whose lives were affected by the Nazi era have chosen to venture onto the subjective ground of autobiography demonstrates the genre’s powerful pull.
The autobiographical narratives texts examined here have two features in common. First, all of these authors’ lives were directly and personally affected by the Nazi persecution of the Jews in that they were forced to flee their prewar homes and, in most cases, that they lost close family members during the Holocaust. Second, all also subsequently published significant works of historical scholarship, although a few (Reinhard Bendix, Raul Hilberg, Jürgen Kuczynski, Dan Segre, Nechama Tec) held academic appointments in other disciplines or had careers largely outside of academia (Reuben Ainsztein). About a quarter of these memoirists can be categorized as scholars whose main publications have dealt with the Holocaust and directly related issues. Half or more never addressed this subject outside of their memoirs, and the others wrote one or more historical works on themes related to the rise of Hitler or the Holocaust while being primarily concerned with other topics. With the exceptions of Friedländer and Tec, these authors followed the classic pattern of autobiographers and published their memoirs late in their careers, often after their retirement, and indeed a good number of these authors have now (as of fall 2002) died.
Aside from Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes, none of these autobiographical texts has yet generated much critical discussion in its own right. Most have been reviewed with respect, in view of the painful experiences they recount, but Mitchell Hart’s comments, in a critique of three of the books discussed here, that the authors “are far better historians than they are autobiographers” and that they are “uncomfortable with revealing too much of their inner lives, whether emotional or mental,” probably reflect a wider reaction to many of them. Although the intersection of their personal lives with the rise of Nazism is what usually justifies the writing of these memoirs, the gravity of the events looming in the background of their stories seems to inhibit many of these authors, making the details of their experiences seem insignificant but at the same time preventing them from flavoring their stories with the humor or irony that are the redeeming features of many autobiographies. I will argue, however, that when they are read as a group—admittedly a procedure that their authors may not have foreseen—they in fact tell us some significant and interesting things, both about their authors and about larger issues. What they communicate is, first of all, a keen sense of how baffling the upsurge of Nazi anti-Semitism was to Jews from acculturated backgrounds in Western and Central Europe. Second, these texts illuminate the role that a commitment to the professional study of history played in the lives of people who had experienced how uncertain other forms of identity could be. In particular, as we will see, the commitment to historical scholarship often took precedence over identification with Jewishness, even after the Holocaust. Finally, these texts demonstrate the transformative nature of the autobiographical act itself. For many of these authors, writing a memoir has been, not an opportunity to reflect on the process by which they developed their mature selves, but a moment of redefinition, putting earlier senses of self into question.
Historians and Other Survivors
The authors of these memoirs are in no sense a representative sample of Jews whose lives were affected by Hitler. Nine-tenths of them are male. In contrast to the camp-survivor memoirists, among whom German Jews are relatively rare, these texts are heavily skewed toward authors of German, Austrian and French origin; East European Jews, who made up the overwhelming majority of Holocaust victims, are severely underrepresented. This tilt obviously reflects the well-known facts that German Jews had better chances to escape from Hitler, since Nazi policy until 1940 was to encourage Jewish emigration, and that Jews in France had relatively good chances of survival. The predominance of Jews from Western and Central Europe among these authors has a number of consequences. One is that these memoirists turn out to come from economically successful and highly assimilated families; unlike the Jews from Eastern Europe, neither they nor their parents had any reason to question the notion that history was working in their favor prior to 1933. Second, most of these historian-memoirists experienced the Nazi persecution of the Jews as a process that developed over several years, allowing the possibility for various reactions, rather than as a sudden thunderclap leaving only the most desperate of choices, as was often the case for Jews in Eastern Europe. Finally, as children, these authors shared the language and culture of their neighbors; to some extent, they were in a position to understand their persecutors, but at the same time, this meant that their exclusion from their communities threatened their own sense of their identities. In contrast, survivors from places like Poland had always experienced alienation from their surroundings. All of these characteristics help explain why these historian-authors would be more inclined than most Holocaust survivors to understand their experiences from a historical perspective.
The fact that historians with these origins make up by far the largest group of contemporary historical scholars to have written their memoirs demonstrates the degree to which they have been, in spite of themselves, affected by the larger cultural currents working to define Holocaust memory. At a time when efforts are being made to record the testimony of every living Holocaust survivor, it would be surprising if professional historians who lived through these events should remain silent. It is important to stress, however, that these historians do not consider themselves Holocaust survivors in the sense of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi or Gerda Weissman Klein. I have not yet found a historian’s memoir whose author had the misfortune to pass through the German camps, and the majority had either emigrated from Europe before the war or else managed to evade capture by hiding. Reinhard Bendix remembers his relatives’ sense of abandonment when he obtained an emigration visa from Germany in 1938, and asks himself, “how can the person who can still escape, relate to one who is fatally trapped? To me the question was unanswerable in 1938, and it still is.” Even Saul Friedländer, who lost both his parents and who survived the war hidden under a false identity, writes that “I had lived on the edges of the catastrophe; a distance—impassable, perhaps—separated me from those who had been directly caught up in the tide of events, and despite all my efforts, I remained, in my own eyes, not so much a victim as—a spectator.” What they endured was often terrifying enough—Walter Grab describes being yanked off the street in Vienna by Nazi toughs, forced into a cellar room smeared with stinking feces, and ordered to lick the walls clean, and Gerda Lerner was held in a Nazi prison for several weeks as a hostage for her missing father—but they still experienced only the outer circles of hell. As David Weiss Halivni, a survivor of Auschwitz and several other camps who later became an academic, has written in his own memoir, “those who survived the camps themselves…survived on totally different terms from those who went to a foreign consulate in ’38 to struggle for a visa.”
The texts I have identified here may thus seem marginal to the larger body of Holocaust memoirs. Nevertheless, it is clear that the majority of these historian-memoirists would not have undertaken their projects if their lives had not been disrupted by the Holocaust, and they are certainly aware that readers who pick up their books are also likely to have read Night or Survival in Auschwitz and to put these less traumatic memoirs in that context. Some of them express unease about being identified with this literature. Peter Kenez asks himself “why people are so proud of having been persecuted…. Why do I, like others, cling to my own story of misery?” But when Peter Gay asserts that “even the most fortunate Jew who lived under Hitler has never completely shaken off the experience,” he establishes a continuum between his own testimony and that of survivors who had more extreme experiences. The idiosyncracy of their stories, compared to the standard narrative found in historical accounts, does make some of these authors nervous. Saul Friedländer professes to wonder whether his autobiographical effort has any meaning in this context. “Can experience as personal, as contradictory as mine rouse an echo…? Isn’t the way out for me to attach myself to the necessary order, the inescapable simplification forced upon one by the passage of time and one’s vision of history, to adopt the gaze of the historian?” But others see this as the special contribution of their memoirs. Paradoxically, however, the historian-memoirists also insist on their individuality vis-à-vis the collective portrait that has emerged from the survivor literature. By structuring their memoirs in ways that are distinctively different from those of most camp survivors, and above all by historicizing their own experiences, these historian-memoirists raise questions, not about the veracity of survivors’ accounts, but about the interpretation of the Holocaust experience that is implicitly proposed in much survivor literature and, above all, about the nature of collective Jewish memory.
We can see how the perspective that comes from historical training affects the way in which these authors reconstruct their experience by comparing the way in which they present their memoirs with the narrative structures common to the best-known Holocaust survivor memoirs. Three contrasts stand out: the extended historical time-frame of the historians’ memoirs, as opposed to the dramatically foreshortened timespan in the most widely read survivor memoirs; the emphasis put on the distance between narrator and protagonist in the historians’ memoirs, as opposed to the tendency toward identification of the two in survivor memoirs; and the treatment of Jewish identity in the two groups of writings. The Holocaust survivor memoirs that have become the most widely read usually make little effort at putting their authors’ pre-Holocaust lives in any kind of historical perspective. For the purposes of an Elie Wiesel, a Ka-Tzetnik 135633 or a Primo Levi, this background is on the one hand essentially irrelevant—all that matters in their story is that they were defined as Jews by the Germans—and, on the other hand, not something they claim any special ability to explain. The dramatic impact of their testimony comes from the terrifying suddenness with which they found themselves thrust into the death-world of the camps, and from the complete disjuncture between what Ka-Tzetnik calls “Planet Auschwitz” and the rest of human experience. Any narrative energy expended to depict themselves as persons who had a history and an identity prior to the Holocaust experience would necessarily detract from this impact. For the same reasons, survivor memoirs rarely say anything about their authors’ lives after the Holocaust. The fact that these texts exist at all implicitly testifies to their authors’ survival and their determination to bear witness, but their texts express the conviction that the details of their postwar lives belong to a completely different order of reality from what they experienced during the war.
Survivors’ memoirs thus reflect a sense that the Holocaust cannot really be understood as a historical event, or even an autobiographical one. Auschwitz comes out of nowhere and leads nowhere, and the months or years spent there do not connect up with the before and after of the survivor’s life. The survivor’s memoir thus challenges one of the fundamental presuppositions of the historical enterprise—the conviction that all past human experience can, at least in principle, be fitted together in a unifying temporal framework. Some of these memoirs inadvertently reflect the fact that Auschwitz itself had a history—that conditions in the camp varied over the course of its existence, and that the particularly hellish circumstances recorded in Wiesel’s Night correspond, for example, to the Germans’ frantic efforts to exterminate the large Hungarian Jewish community in a very short time—but recording the history of their lethal environment is not the purpose of these texts. The survivors’ memoirs implicitly assert that history, as a form of understanding, will never succeed in integrating what happened in Auschwitz into any kind of comprehensible narrative. At the same time, by cutting their authors’ experiences before and after Auschwitz out of the picture, the classical Holocaust survivor’s narrative denies the possibility of a real autobiography. The camp survivor’s personal experience in Auschwitz is completely unrelated to who the memoirist was before the war, and, in a metaphorical but very powerful sense, the survivor-memoirist died in Auschwitz, so that his or her life afterward is equally disconnected from the occurrences related in the memoir. The contrast between Elie Wiesel’s unforgettable self-portrait in Night and the diffuse and often tedious record of his career in his more recently published Memoirs testifies to the difficulty that even a writer of real genius has encountered in trying to reframe his life story as a continuous narrative.
Related to the survivors’ memoir’s deliberate rejection of historical continuity and historical context is its minimization of the distance between narrator and protagonist. The Holocaust memoir aims to produce an effect of immediacy, to make us experience the events it describes as though we ourselves are seeing them directly through the author’s eyes as he or she experiences them. Thus the Israeli survivor-author Ka-Tzetnik puts his recollections of “Prayer in Auschwitz” in the present tense, describing how “the skeletons hurtle forward, leaping from the planks upon which they had lain inert but a moment ago. Hungry flames spurt from their eyes, faster. Faster—Soon the noon soup will be dished out!” His narrative technique pulls readers into the camp experience, but it hides from them the process of memory by which he has reconstructed the story and its retrospective character. Passages in which the author exercises the autobiographer’s privilege of reflecting on the difference between the experience of events at the time and how they appear in retrospect are rare. The effect is a powerful concentration of the reader’s attention; the possibility of achieving any critical distance from the narrator is minimized.
The final aspect of these two bodies of memoirs that I want to emphasize has to do with their differing treatments of their protagonists’ Jewish identity. In survivor memoirs, Jewish identity appears as a matter of fate, and the protagonist’s own attitude toward it, although it may vary widely, is ultimately irrelevant. Elie Wiesel was a deeply religious adolescent, Primo Levi a complete agnostic, but both were Jews as far as the Germans were concerned, and that became the overriding determinant of their fates. It is this that makes it possible for critics such as David Patterson, in his recent commentary on survivor literature, Sun Turned to Darkness, to interpret all survivor memoirs as acts of Jewish religious renewal, even when their authors explicitly disavow any religious convictions. Furthermore, because survivor memoirs—Ruth Klüger’s weiter leben is a notable exception—are frequently silent about their authors’ post-Holocaust lives, readers are usually left with little or no clue as to their authors’ relationship to their Jewish identity after the Holocaust, and it is clear that most readers have filled in this blank by assuming that the authors strongly identified themselves as Jewish. As we will see, historians’ memoirs suggest that this is a more difficult issue than the reading of survivor testimonies as building blocks of Jewish memory allows.
In contrast to the familiar survivors’ memoirs, these historians’ personal narratives normally have a long historical prologue, and, even if they do not follow their authors’ lives down to the time when the memoirs were written, they do make it clear that that story went on beyond 1945. They also do not show the tendency to minimize the distance between narrator and protagonist that we have seen is common in other Holocaust memoirs; instead, they emphasize it, and in particular they remind us that all these authors became professional historians after the war. When they look back on their earlier experiences, they do so through the prism of this professional training, which they did not have at the time, and they thus necessarily see things differently than they did then. Finally, the question of identity is a much-discussed issue in these texts, and the authors’ comments on it are evidence of a strong desire not to let their lives be entirely defined by what happened to them during the Holocaust years. In this respect, their decision to write autobiographies functions as one more way of complicating the issue of how they see themselves, and how readers are likely to define them.
As we have seen, most of these memoirists came from a specific kind of background: they were the children of parents, and often of grandparents, who had acculturated themselves strongly to the society around them, adopting its language and mores. These accounts typically begin with a more or less extended family narrative, usually a story of worldly success: tales of Jewish peddlers or ghetto dwellers of the mid-nineteenth century whose children and grandchildren prospered and, in many cases, moved into the ranks of the educated professions. The point to these stories is, of course, to answer the historical question of why the European Jews of the 1930s did not recognize the peril threatening them; the answer suggested in these books is that their experiences gave them confidence that outbreaks of anti-Semitism would be at most temporary setbacks in a longer story of progress. Furthermore, these authors’ parents had usually identified themselves so strongly with their homelands that the thought of leaving was difficult to contemplate. Almost all of the German- and Austrian-born memoirists recall families steeped in German culture, as comfortable in their environment as the Kriegels and Vidal-Naquets were in their French milieu or the Segres in their Italian one. Of all these authors, only the Lithuanian Reuben Ainzstein grew up speaking Yiddish. Even the Pole Nechama Tec and the Hungarian Peter Kenez both underline the fact that their families lived in primarily non-Jewish neighborhoods. Only Kenez recalls his father’s life as having been significantly affected by anti-Semitism, which had prevented him from achieving his ambition of studying medicine in prewar Hungary. Although a few of these memoirists’ families, particularly those like George Mosse’s and Felix Gilbert’s, who were socially prominent and who felt particularly exposed, saw the handwriting on the wall and left Germany immediately in 1933, most remained until a good deal later, often until after the Kristallnacht pogrom finally made it clear that Jews had no future in the country.
These memoirists thus see themselves and their families as products of the social changes that had transformed European society over the previous century. They also historicize the question of their families’ Jewish identity. Very few of these authors grew up in a strongly religious household. Three of the thirteen contributors to a volume of essays by historians who settled in Britain were actually raised as Christians from birth, as were Felix Gilbert, a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn, Gerhard Masur, and Susan Groag Bell, whose Czech Jewish parents had both converted and never discussed the matter with her. Hans Schmitt’s father, himself of mixed Protestant and Catholic heritage, had broken completely with religion, and his mother did not tell him of her own Jewish roots until he started coming home from school repeating the anti-Semitic phrases he learned from other boys. Friedländer writes that “in our family, if memory serves me correctly, Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared,” and Gerda Lerner’s family regularly put up a Christmas tree.
The high degree of assimilation in these families did not always imply a complete absence of Jewish identity, but it was certainly an attenuated and sometimes conflicted one that left the future authors uncertain of how to define themselves and unprepared for the discrimination imposed by the Nazis. Gerhard Masur, the only one of these authors old enough to have held a university position in Germany in 1933, kept his job until 1935 because he could prove that he had served in a nationalist Freikorps in 1919-20. Though his parents were both of Jewish ancestry, Pierre Vidal-Naquet was not even circumcised. Bendix went through a secular “Bar Mitzvah” ceremony, without learning any Hebrew, but his parents taught him and his sister to avoid what they considered “Jewish mannerisms.” Kriegel writes that her parents taught her “that we were different, but without the substance of this difference being made explicit….” Friedländer claims that he did not realize that his family was Jewish until he started elementary school at age six and found himself being taken out of his regular classroom for Jewish religious instruction, and Tec remarks on the contradictory nature of her father’s instructions that she assimilate to the surrounding Polish society but that she not deny her Jewish heritage. Only a handful of these authors came from families that consciously resisted assimilation. Georg Iggers, who was just entering school when Hitler came to power, took refuge in Zionism and Orthodoxy. Helmut Eschwege came from a family of Orthodox Jewish schoolteachers, and Herbert Strauss’s Catholic mother, who had converted to Judaism to marry his father, took her new faith more seriously than her husband did. Jacob Katz was educated in a yeshivah, although he pursued secular readings on his own. Protected by his Hungarian passport and a clear sense of purpose, he actually remained in Germany for several years after 1933 to finish his studies. With these exceptions, however, these future historians’ families did not embrace any version of Jewish identity, whether religious, ethnic or Zionist, that would have made sense of the anti-Semitism they were to encounter.
This historicization of their families’ situations is brought out especially strongly in the contrasts these authors recall between how they reacted to the discovery that their Jewish origins now entirely defined their fate and how their parents responded. The differences that they recall demonstrate how strongly these responses were colored by different positions in the stream of Jewish history. The parents, who usually had some childhood experience of religious practice to draw on, often began to reaffirm their identity as Jews. Hans Schmitt’s mother made a brief attempt to learn Hebrew. Reinhard Bendix’s father, who had officially withdrawn from the Berlin Jewish community in 1918, discovered a sense of solidarity among the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp where he spent two years in the mid-1930s. He began attending religious services after reaching Palestine in 1938, although he remained fundamentally skeptical about religious faith. Vidal-Naquet’s father opposed the formation of the Union générale des Israélites français because it meant accepting an identity separate from that of other French citizens, but he spent time reconstructing the family tree and told his son the story of the Dreyfus Affair. In France in December 1941, the Friedländer family celebrated Hanukkah for the first time in the future historian’s life. Meditating on the experience, Friedländer concludes, “When crises occur, one searches the depths of one’s memory to discover some vestige of the past, not the past of the individual, faltering and ephemeral, but rather that of the community, which, though left behind, nonetheless represents that which is permanent and lasting.”
The future historian-autobiographers had no such memory of Jewish identity to fall back on. Not all speak of enduring an identity crisis—Walter Laqueur writes that “I was what I was and it did not seem a life-or-death matter to belong to a group”—but all realized that their sense of self was now under assault from outside. Hans Schmitt found the experience baffling: “I was still a German, albeit a troubled one.” “For the first time in my life, I had to give serious thought to my Jewish origin, because what had been lurid sensationalism a short while ago had suddenly become government policy,” Reinhard Bendix recalled. He tried out various alternatives to his parents’ liberal Jewish identity, including Marxism and Zionism, before emigrating and trying to separate himself from all ethnic and ideological ties. Dan Segre was devastated when his Gentile Italian girlfriend, who had shared his opposition to Fascism, cut off relations with him to avoid violating the racial laws Mussolini imposed in 1938. Saul Friedländer’s parents tried to ensure his safety by placing him in a French Catholic boarding school. Hastily baptized and renamed “Paul-Henri Ferland,” he was entirely cut off from his former life. Nechama Tec was eventually housed with a Gentile family, although she remained in contact with her parents and sister. She was taught to pass herself off as Polish and recalls “an odd confusion of emotions—fear because I was losing touch with my real self, but a kind of pleasure, too, because it was so easy to give up and become my newer, safe self.”
In France, Annie Kriegel actively chose a new identity by becoming involved with a communist resistance group. Excluded by Vichy’s anti-Semitic legislation from the French national community to which she had always assumed she belonged, she wrote that she could hardly resist the attraction of a movement where “after having lost one’s name, one’s home, one’s neighborhood, one’s school, one’s profession, ones family,” one could “recover a sense of belonging.” The communist movement offered an active way of resisting the Nazis, and it held out the attraction of a future society in which the consciousness of ethnic difference that had imposed itself so catastrophically under Hider would be abolished. While Kriegel traded her parents’ Jewish and middle-class identity for a communist commitment, Léon Poliakov, also from an assimilated background, found himself working for a good part of the war with the Orthodox Jewish followers of Rabbi Zalman Chneerson. He was not converted himself, but he was deeply impressed by these Jews’ “vitality” and “astonishing faith.” Whereas history seemed determined to impose one particular identity—Jew—on these young people, their recollections are thus of multiple possibilities and experiments. Furthermore, whereas their parents reacted to the crisis by accepting the notion that their efforts at assimilation had been unrealistic, many of these children responded by even more determined efforts to show that their identity was not entirely subsumed in their Jewish origins.
In contrast to most authors of survivor memoirs, then, these historian-memoirists identify themselves as products of history, and indeed of a highly specific history—one that set them apart from the majority of Holocaust victims. They also connect their stories up with the history of the post-Holocaust world. Because their authors are identified, at least in the prefaces to their books, as professional historians, it is always clear that they had a career after the war period, and indeed a career that involved a critical effort to understand the past. Most of these books follow their authors’ lives at least through their settlement in a new country and the completion of their education, and often much further than that. In many cases, their youthful experiences in Nazi Europe serve only as a short prologue to the longer story of their adult lives. Annie Kriegel’s sprawling autobiography, at 800 pages one of the longest of these texts, devotes far more energy and passion to her involvement with the French Communist Party after 1945 than to her wartime experiences. Evyatar Friesel reduces his account of his childhood to a “German overture” in a story that is mostly about his subsequent life in Brazil and Israel. In contrast to the best-known survivor memoirs, where the author’s post-Holocaust life is left as a blank, these are usually narratives in which we see the protagonist overcome, with greater or lesser difficulty, the hurdles placed in his or her path by Nazism and go on to achieve considerable success in life.
Like the anchoring of these stories in the pre-Hitler era, their prolongation past the crises of the Holocaust years serves to emphasize the interaction between the authors and the history of their time. This form of narrative also serves to emphasize the distance between the autobiographical author and the protagonist of his or her story. If the survivor memoir derives its impact from its ability to make us feel that we are directly immersed in events, the historian’s memoir takes a more round-about route, in which the author seeks to win our trust by showing his or her ability to use historical perspective to explain a personal past. Professional involvement with historical study is not incidental to these stories: it is often presented as the way in which their authors succeeded in restoring purpose and meaning to their disrupted lives, and “historian” or “scholar” is often the identity these authors embrace most whole-heartedly. After five tense years of coping with adult responsibilities in the hostile environment of Nazi Germany, Reinhard Bendix “came to the University of Chicago with a pent-up desire for academic work as a liberating experience.” He eagerly embraced the notion of scientific objectivity: “I had seen enough extreme partisanship to last me for a while.” Often, the commitment to history followed a period of engagement in such partisanship and served as a path out of it. George Mosse campaigned actively for antifascist causes during the 1930s, but allowed himself to become increasingly absorbed by academic life after the war; he went from rallying support for the Spanish Republicans to urging the abolition of the football team at the University of Iowa. Saul Friedländer’s postwar ideological commitment was to Zionism, but for him, too, academia served as a refuge from an excessively encompassing historical reality: that of Israel in the 1950s, a society so consumed by its own practical needs that it had no time for the intellectual life he sought. It is clear that for many of these authors the study of history came to represent a way of countering the lies that had shaped their lives in such traumatic ways. This is demonstrated most convincingly in the case of Annie Kriegel, for whom historical scholarship on the origins of the French Communist Party became a way of demystifying the ideology that she had embraced in reaction to Nazism. For George Mosse, “History…took the place of religion, with the advantage that history is open-ended and not exclusive….” History’s liberalism and willingness to submit its own conclusions to critical examination made it an attractive alternative to the all-encompassing political ideologies of the mid-twentieth century, but also to the embrace of an all-consuming Jewish or Zionist identity.
The choice of history also opened possibilities for direct engagement with issues related to the events that had shaped these authors’ lives, but not all of them chose this course. During the war, Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s father had specifically impressed upon him the role that historians could play in opposing tyranny and oppression. The elder Vidal-Naquet recounted to his son the struggle to prove Dreyfus’s innocence, and Vidal-Naquet writes, “I remain marked by this story which proved that truth could be discovered—and that historians have a role to play here.” The father also read the boy Chateaubriand’s famous encomium of Tacitus, in which the great romantic author celebrated the Roman historian’s exposure of the crimes of the emperors. But Vidal-Naquet learned that history could equally well serve as a form of escape from twentieth-century concerns. To complete his graduate studies, he wrote two long papers, one on Plato, the other on the French Socialist and supporter of Dreyfus, Jean Jaurès. “This tension between a philosopher who went back into the cave after contemplating the idea of the Good and the orator…who tried to rescue men from the cave makes a good allegory of the contradictions that have defined and always will define my historian’s life.”
Vidal-Naquet’s sense of the two possibilities opened up by historical scholarship—engagement with the events of one’s own time or escape into unrelated epochs—characterized the reactions of this group of memoirists as a whole. Only a minority of them have devoted the bulk of their scholarly work to the Holocaust. Many are quite conscious of having used their academic careers as a way of distancing themselves from that event. Evyatar Friesel notes that the Holocaust was “a theme I had been avoiding for years” and Peter Gay avers that “I have deliberately refused to dwell on the mass murder of Europe’s Jews,” adding that “[w]e all have our defenses to help us get through life, and these happen to be mine.” The cases of those memoirists who did become specialists in Holocaust studies show the importance that commitment to historical perspective had in allowing them to achieve what they thought was a necessary distance from the subject. In the early 1950s, Raul Hilberg was considering studying the treatment of war crimes in international law when “I woke up. It was the evidence that I wanted. My subject would be the destruction of the European Jews.” He would approach the subject, however, not by expanding on his personal experience but by tracing how it appeared from the perpetrators’ side. “The perpetrator had the overview. He alone was the key. It was through his eyes that I had to view the happening, from its genesis to its culmination.” Above all, he would look for objective evidence, for documents. He would cling to that choice and, indeed, define his entire academic career around it. Léon Poliakov wanted to discover “the secret of the executioners…the circumstances in which the leaders of the Third Reich had decided to kill me, along with millions of other human beings whose special characteristic was to have been born in one bed rather than another.” Like Hilberg, he nevertheless understood that he had to adopt the persona of the impersonal historian to make his work effective: “My sensibility had become professional, so that I treated Auschwitz and the SS killers without any apparent emotion; think of a doctor’s or a priest’s impassive reaction to suffering and death.” George Mosse was one of those who originally pursued topics far removed from the Holocaust—his first books were on Reformation England—but who later shifted to research on the roots of Nazism; he saw this “attempt to make sense out of the history of my own century” as “also a means of understanding my own past.” Only Saul Friedländer suggests that the connection between his own experiences and the way he worked as a historian altered his notion of how history should be done. As he worked on his early projects—a study of US-German relations in 1939-41 and a collection of documents on the Vatican’s role during the war—he came to realize and to accept that his own experiences necessarily influenced his way of understanding his findings. “It was only at this time in my life, when I was around thirty, that I realized how much the essential appeared to me through a particular prism that could never be eliminated. But did it have to be eliminated?”
Whether or not they chose to do historical research on the Holocaust era, historical training gave these authors a sense of perspective on their personal experiences that is reflected in the tone and structure of their memoirs. The concern with background and context that characterizes most of these books, and which often weakens them as autobiographies, reflects the tendencies of the historical discipline. It is probably no accident that the two of these memoirs that deliberately depart the most from conventional linear historical narrative—Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes and Dan Segre’s Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew—are among the most effective of these works. By adopting a more “literary” approach, these authors have freed themselves to speak in a more individual voice. Even these texts, however, are quite different from the classic Holocaust survivor narratives. Their authors’ professional historical training—explicitly referred to in Friedländer’s case, implicitly demonstrated by the structure of the narrative in Segre’s, with its lengthy discussion of the history of modern Italian Jewry as reflected in the story of his family—creates a distance between narrator and protagonist that is absent in the writings of someone like Elie Wiesel. The recognition that history provides at least the possibility of an alternative narrative of the Holocaust era means that the historian-memoirist’s first-person narrative is relativized; what it gains in perspective it loses in dramatic force.
The identification with the historical discipline that defines these texts also has a bearing on another of their characteristics: their dramatization of their authors’ often difficult relationship with their Jewish origins in the postwar era. With varying degrees of explicitness, almost all of them express deeply conflicted attitudes toward the Jewish identity the Holocaust period forced on them. In the way they discuss their relationship to Jewishness, their feelings about Israel and their connections to their European homelands, all make clear that the process of self-definition has been a continuing one, not something fixed once and for all by the events of 1933-1945. Few of these memoirists were prepared to accept the apparent lesson that their Jewish origins were the determining fact of their lives, even though their stories are framed by the arbitrary way in which Nazi anti-Semitism affected them. Hans Schmitt, although he would be considered Jewish under Jewish religious law, is the most emphatic: “I was not a Jew and had no intention of becoming one.” Of the authors who mention their marriages, a good number took non-Jewish spouses. Reinhard Bendix, one of them, comments that “Hitler’s Nürnberg laws provoked a certain defiance in me,” thus casting his break with the Jewish tradition as at the same time a protest against the Nazi attempt to force Jewish identity on him. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, both of whose parents died in Auschwitz, agreed to a Catholic marriage because “the religious question didn’t matter to me.” Georg Iggers, devotedly Orthodox as a child, found himself estranged from the Jewish communities he encountered in the United States. He and his wife, also a European Jewish immigrant, belonged to a Unitarian church in the 1950s; in their joint autobiography, his wife comments that her husband “always hoped to find a Jewish community where he would feel comfortable and for which he could engage himself. He has never succeeded….” So long as he remained in Hungary, Peter Kenez recognized that he could not shed his Jewish identity. But his intention was to stop identifying himself as Jewish as soon as he reached the West, and he made no objection to helping the uncle who welcomed him when he reached the United States perpetuate the masquerade he had adopted in passing himself off—even to his wife—as a Presbyterian.
Conflicted attitudes about Jewish identity or a sense of not belonging wholly to any group are a common theme in these memoirs. Reinhard Bendix indeed makes this issue the center of his self-analysis. Bendix found himself torn between many identities, unable to affirm any of them wholeheartedly and particularly conscious of his inability to find personal meaning in the Jewish tradition. In his teenage years in Germany, “Nazi coercion seemed to me the worst possible reason for turning religious.” Because he was able to emigrate before the war, he was excluded from “the mass extermination that followed and the spiritual crisis that went with it.” He was therefore able to retain his faith in liberal individualism and universalism, which he saw his mixed marriage as affirming. Forced to live in an adopted language, he felt that he had “lost one country without gaining another.” He found a welcoming home in the American university system while “keeping my distance from its full impact and attempting to develop an intellectual perspective of my own….” Indeed, Bendix came to believe that isolation and marginality were in some senses inherent to modern academic life, a result of the degree of “specialized competence” that the modern world requires. The concept of “partial group membership” that Bendix develops in his memoir expresses the sense that he never had an organic, all-embracing identity. Despite what he considered as his successful integration into American society, George Mosse “continued to consider myself a European and a permanent outsider.” Jewish religious beliefs played no part in his postwar life; his only departure from religious agnosticism was a brief flirtation with Christian socialism.
Of all these memoirs, Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes reflects most powerfully the uncertainties of self-definition that beset many of these historians. It is not just a memoir of Friedländer’s Holocaust experience but, above all, a recollection of the intense difficulty he had coming to terms with what had happened to him afterward. Left in a boarding school run by traditionalist French Catholics during the war, the orphaned Friedländer came to identify with his new milieu, to the point of dreaming of becoming a priest. “Though conscious of my origins, I nevertheless felt at ease within a community of those who had nothing but scorn for Jews….” Even when he was made the ward of a Russian-Jewish family in Paris in 1946, he was slow to embrace a Jewish identity. He recalls participating in the family’s Passover Seder in 1946, but refusing to eat meat because the holiday fell on Good Friday. Two years later, Friedländer did abruptly quit school to join the fight for Israel’s independence. His very arrival in the country dramatized the difficulty of taking on a new “Israeli” identity, however: the ship he sailed on was the Altalena, the vessel chartered by the militant right-wing military organization Etzel, which was sunk off the beach of Tel Aviv in June 1948 on orders of David Ben-Gurion, who feared that its cargo of weapons would be used to challenge the authority of his newly installed government. Settled in Israel, Friedländer felt alienated and longed for the more sophisticated intellectual culture of France. In his memoir, he writes, “I was destined, therefore, to wander among several worlds, knowing them, understanding them…but nonetheless incapable of feeling an identification without any reticence, incapable of seeing, understanding, and belonging in a single, immediate, total movement.”
Friedländer’s articulation of his sense of fractured identity is more extreme than that of the other memoirists in this group, and his effectiveness in conveying a “dispersed sense of self” has made his work a touchstone for literary critics of contemporary autobiography. Almost all of these texts, however, give some indication of a divided attitude about Jewish identity. Authors who mention their relationship with Israel—about half the group, including four (Friesel, Grab, Katz and Segre) who settled there permanently—express divided feelings about the Jewish state. George Mosse, who divorced himself almost entirely from Jewish concerns in his American life, was powerfully drawn to the self-confident Israeli “New Jews” he discovered when he began to visit regularly in the 1960s. He admits that they “represented a normalization, an assimilation to general middle-class ideals and stereotypes which otherwise I professed to dislike. But I could not help myself; faced with this Zionist ideal my reason and historical knowledge were overcome.” Georg Iggers was unable to make such an adjustment. “The land struck us as very foreign and much more Oriental than we had imagined,” he writes, and he was put off by the “chauvinism of many people.” Annie Kriegel’s profession of support for Israel in her memoirs was offset by a condemnation of other aspects of the Jewish mentality, especially the utopian longings that, in her view, had led all too many Jews to communism. She called for the Jewish world to undertake a “cleanup project…on itself in order to contribute to the healing of the world as a whole” by eliminating this tendency. The Israeli achievement she hailed most positively in her autobiography was not the creation of a Jewish society but the rupture with socialist economic policies following the right-wing Likud Party’s election victory of 1977. Helmut Eschwege, on the other hand, was so aggrieved by the mistreatment he received as a member of the Communist Party in wartime Palestine that he returned to Germany in 1946. Only as he became disillusioned with the East German regime did he become more sympathetic to Israel.
Surprisingly, the element of their identity that these authors often seem least conflicted about is their link with their native countries. Leftwing convictions led Jürgen Kuczynski and Helmut Eschwege to resettle in East Germany immediately after the war. Their cases were exceptional, but experiences in postwar Germany played a large role in motivating the authors born there to write their memoirs: Evyatar Friesel and Walter Laqueur both indicate that they began their autobiographical projects as a result of visits to their native country, and Peter Gay’s title highlights the issue. All assert—some with a certain sense of surprise—that they found themselves feeling in some sense at home there. Friesel opens his book with the line, “Heidelberg was an easy city to live in,” and E. P. Hennock, whose father was murdered in Riga in 1941, comments that he “greatly enjoyed” his first visit to postwar Germany. As he became a recognized commentator on European affairs in the 1950s, Laqueur decided that he understood Germany better than England or France: “The fact that I was born in that country and spent some of my formative years there apparently counts as much as learning and observation in later life.” Peter Gay is also explicit about the clear movement in his life toward “reconciliation” after the war and the extent to which he eventually “integrated Germany into my self-perception.” George Mosse ends his memoir by explaining how his family regained its extensive real-estate holdings in Germany after the fall of the Wall. What made him most uncomfortable there by the end of his life was the fact that he could too easily be identified with his German origins: “I wanted to be measured solely by my own accomplishments…. I am still not comfortable when in Berlin I am presented to audiences as the grandson of Rudolf Mosse.”
The fact that these authors all made their private peace with Germany—and most even more than that, since a number of them took major parts in efforts to promote reconciliation between Germans and the rest of the world (for example, Alfred Grosser became France’s best-known expert on German affairs; Walter Grab headed an Institute of German history in Israel founded by German donors; Edgar Feuchtwanger helped create an exchange program between British and German campuses; and Georg Iggers was extensively involved in academic exchanges with scholars in both West and East Germany)—does not, of course, mean that they want to minimize or efface the crimes of the Nazi era. With the exception of Raul Hilberg, they are unanimous, however, in asserting that Hitler’s policies did not represent the whole truth about German attitudes toward Jews. All are at pains to avoid simplistic portrayals of the Germans, even in the Nazi period. Laqueur writes: “I knew from my own experience that if it had been up to most individual Germans, there would not have been a Gestapo, or military attacks in every direction, or the mass killings of Jews and others.” Werner Mosse says he has “tried to counteract the widespread tendency to view all earlier German-Jewish history under the aspect of the Holocaust—the Jewish variant of the `Whig interpretation’ of history.” All question Gershom Scholem’s famous assertion that there had never been a real synthesis of German and Jewish culture; George Mosse underlines the contradiction between Scholem’s argument and “the German lifestyle and German culture of the Scholems,” whom he knew in Jerusalem. Hilberg represents a special case. His memoir offers little sense of any identification with his Austrian background, but he claims that the reception of his book in Germany compensated him for the misunderstanding and rejection he has faced in the United States and Israel. For most of his fellow autobiographers, however, the reconnection with Germany reflected above all a recognition that, whatever Hitler had done to them, their early lives had left an indelible imprint that any honest account of their experience could not deny. Paradoxically, most find it easier to keep a distance from their Jewish identity than from the land of their birth, no matter how badly the latter treated them.
The generally positive assessment of pre-Nazi German culture in these memoirs means that they are of limited use in answering one question that one might have expected them to shed light on: the conditions that made what they see as a basically tolerant community susceptible to violent anti-Semitism. George Mosse recalls witnessing the “enthusiasm and élan of the crowd” at a Nazi rally, and experiencing anti-Semitism personally at the boarding school he attended, but he does not probe very deeply into the sources of the phenomenon, which did not keep him from developing a strong sense of German nationalism. None of these memoirs offers insights into the rise of Nazism comparable to those in the recently published first-person account by the non-Jewish German Sebastien Haffner, Defying Hitler, a brilliant demonstration of the way personal experience can be used as a starting-point for wider historical generalization. Nor do any of these memoirs reflect the tortured process of individual self-questioning recounted in Jurgen Herbst’s Requiem for a German Past, the first-person account of an “Aryan” German of the same generation as most of these Jewish historian-authors, who eventually left his country to pursue a career as a historian in the United States. Herbst, who had been a Nazi youth leader as a teenager, had initially tried to convince himself that the traditions of German Idealism in literature and Prussian military honor, both incorporated in the personality of his father, a schoolmaster and army officer, had remained unstained despite Hitler. By the late 1940s, however, he had concluded that the existence of positive elements in German culture “will never and can never excuse or make me forget or even overcome the vileness and unspeakable evil that surrounded that past.” His judgment in considerably harsher than that of any of the Jewish historian-memoirists.
This process of reconciliation and reclaiming of youthful identities that characterizes the memoirs of German-Jewish historians can also be noted in the case of the memoirists who were not of German origin. Although French collaboration with the German campaign against the Jews has been a major subject in the country’s public life for the past several decades, the French historian-memoirists make little mention of the subject. Only the Russian-born Léon Poliakov makes explicit reference to the impact of anti-Jewish attitudes on his career in France after the war. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who has been a leading spokesman against French negationists, emphatically identifies himself as “a Jewish Frenchman, rather than a French Jew or a Jew in France,’ and Alfred Grosser titles his book Une vie de français (A French Life). Susan Groag Bell tried to return to Czechoslovakia after the war, and was surprised to find that she was not accepted there—more, however, because she had been part of the country’s German-speaking minority than because of her family’s Jewish origins. In the case of those from Eastern Europe, one has to look outside the text of their memoirs to find clues to their attitudes about their birthplaces. In the years after the publication of her memoir, Nechama Tec wrote a carefully balanced book about Polish Gentiles’ behavior toward Jews during the war; its tone certainly suggests a desire to bridge gaps with her country of origin. Peter Kenez has directed an American university study-abroad program in Budapest since the fall of communism.
The treatment of postwar identity in these accounts thus reveals something that Holocaust survivor memoirs, with their silence about their authors’ postwar lives, usually obscure: namely, that those who suffered under Nazism were often determined not to let the experience define their identity permanently. A conventional “master narrative” about post-Holocaust Jewish history would have us believe that that experience, coupled with the creation of Israel, strengthened Jewish identity; these memoirs, unrepresentative though they are of the larger Jewish world, at least raise questions about these assumptions, and draw our attention to the fact that most survivor narratives in fact tell us little or nothing about how their authors subsequently thought about themselves. Hans Schmitt is admittedly a special case among these memoirists, one of the few who did not have two Jewish parents, but his repeated protests that he was never a Jew are simply an extreme version of a point made by many of these authors. All, in one way or another, want to assert that even the extreme historical events they lived through in such personal ways did not rob them of their personal autonomy, an autonomy they exercised by refusing to accept the notion that Jewish origins essentially determined their identity. To the extent that they recognize an unchangeable, externally shaped aspect of their personal identities, it is more often that furnished by their mother tongue and their early childhood experiences than one rooted in their ancestors’ religion. Paradoxically, these memoirs, so strongly linked to Jewish fate, often portray their authors as more German or French than Jewish.
Becoming historical scholars enabled these men and women to free themselves from the weight of their personal histories. Through their choice of subject matter, they could either engage themselves with or separate themselves from their own personal pasts. But the decision to publish personal memoirs meant a significant change for many of these authors. Trained in history, they could hardly ignore the impact of an event as large as the Holocaust in their own lives. The effect of these publications, however, has been to reconnect their authors to the larger story of Jewish fate from which many of them had worked so hard to distance themselves. All, even Hans Schmitt and Gerhard Masur, explicitly acknowledge their Jewish ancestry, and all accept the challenge of explaining what that fact had meant in their lives. All have had to realize that their memoirs would be shelved with books on Jewish or Holocaust history and read, as they have been in this analysis, in the context of the broader literature of Jewish Holocaust memory. In many cases, writing an autobiography clearly meant not just recalling their lives but reevaluating what those lives had meant, and putting into question some of the fundamental decisions they had made.
The Consequences of Memoir-Writing
How should one evaluate these historians’ decisions to expose their lives to this kind of rereading? The fact that so many of these authors emphasize their ambivalent attitudes toward their Jewishness certainly militates against any reading of these texts as confessions of an unauthentic relationship to their origins. Annie Kriegel indignantly rejects the notion that her reconnection with Judaism as an adult was in any sense an act of “t’shuva” or repentance. Nevertheless, the act of autobiography is at some level a reenactment of the return to Jewish origins that so many of these authors describe their parents as having attempted in the Nazi era. It is a way of giving the Jewish element in their lives some personal meaning after all, and of recognizing that the lives being described would have been completely different in its absence. In many cases, this autobiographical act appears to be the author’s first public reconnection with this aspect of his or her past for a long time. The publication of an autobiography thus proves to be a transformational act in its own right, and one that concedes that the author may not have had as much freedom to define a relationship to the Jewish past as he or she had long wanted to believe.
In evoking their personal Jewish pasts, however, most of these authors are returning in memory, not to a vibrant self-consciously Jewish milieu, but to a situation in which Jews were voluntarily exchanging their sense of separateness for a sense of belonging to the larger communities within which they lived. The Garden of Eden from which these survivor-memoirists were expelled was not the shtetl or the secular Yiddish culture of Theodore Hamerow’s Polish actor parents, but the bourgeois liberal world that seemed momentarily to have triumphed in Europe after World War I. The strong sense of attachment many of these authors express to the countries where they settled after their escape from Nazi Europe—usually the United States, Great Britain or France—is generally associated with gratitude for having found a place where the promise of assimilation was actually kept, and where they could decide for themselves whether they wished to be identified as Jews. Even Gerda Lerner, who suffered considerably from American intolerance during the McCarthy period, asserts that obtaining US citizenship in 1943 was “like being reborn” and insists that her adopted country’s constitution remains “the best model for democratic governance yet devised by human beings.” In short, this body of autobiographical literature questions the notion that the experience of Nazism led those who experienced it to question the premises of Jewish assimilation.
Even as their autobiographical acts acknowledge that their lives were framed by historical events, however, these authors also affirm the importance of the individual perspective in understanding the past. Their stories frequently run counter to standard generalizations about Jewish experience under the Nazis. At a time when it is fashionable to write off assimilation and acculturation as fundamentally misguided developments in Jewish life, these memoirs recall the lived experience that made such behavior seem reasonable to their parents, and even to many of these authors. Peter Gay complains about critics who disparage German Jews for their efforts at assimilation. “What makes these hostile questions all the more infuriating is that they barely conceal a knowing and derisive undertone: Whatever happened to you served you right.” These memoirs also demonstrate the fault lines that ran through every Jewish group, even individual families. Gerda Lerner, who had been able to obtain a visa and enter the United States in 1939, was baffled by her mother’s refusal to leave southern France, even as danger mounted in 1941. Only decades afterward was she able to understand why her mother, who had found there a love and an opportunity to develop her artistic talents that she had never enjoyed in her native Vienna, “chose to pay for her art with her life,” despite the toll her behavior took on her daughter and her husband. In contrast to the main body of Holocaust survivor literature, these less dramatic personal narratives also demonstrate the importance of linking pre- and postwar events to those of wartime in understanding how survivors experienced what happened to them. They thus offer a model of Holocaust-era memory quite different from that found in the more widely read survivor memoirs.
What, finally, are the implications of these historians’ memoirs for their authors’ status as historians? These texts, which are usually sober and understated, hardly seem to justify the kinds of fears about the undermining of reasoned analysis of the past that Annette Wievorka expresses about the survivor memoirs. None of these historians shows any conscious intent of destabilizing the authority of the historical discipline; indeed, by stressing their commitment to historical scholarship, these authors, like historian-memoirists in general, tend rather to reinforce that authority. Nevertheless, they know that autobiography is not simply history. When Peter Gay writes that his life is “the kind of story that is usually lost amid the clamor of historical events,” he reminds us how much of past experience exists as a kind of penumbra to history, a zone of the past where historical narrative does not shine its beams. The writing of history is necessarily selective; it cannot englobe the entire record of the past. Autobiography has the potential to illuminate parts of that penumbra, and even to persuade historians that the spotlights of their discipline need to be redirected. These historians’ memoirs, for example, suggest that historians need to reexamine the question of whether the Holocaust experience necessarily strengthened survivors’ sense of Jewish identity and convinced those who lived through it that assimilation was an impossible life strategy. Autobiography is thus not merely source material for history; it is an alternative way of narrating the past, capable of teaching historians some important lessons.
These memoirs constitute, then, if not a conscious critique of history, at least an implicit questioning of its limits. Gay’s comment reminds us that he, like every historian, has a private story to tell that has special meaning for its author. Like all these historians, he imports his historical training into his memoir, carefully putting his own memories into their historical context, but, at the same time, he embraces the individualism of autobiography and the opportunity it provides to write about matters—his stamp collection, the soccer team he cheered for—that tell us much about him but little about history. The authors of these memoirs want to be read and recognized as more than scholars, on the one hand, and exemplifications of the patterns of Holocaust-era history, on the other. Careful as they are to respect the authority of history, in its double sense as an academic discipline and as a record of collective experience, these historian-memoirists nevertheless want to go beyond its limits. When Hans Schmitt writes that “for a scholar it is a marvelous release to be able to write sentence after sentence, and page after page, without stopping for footnotes,” he is celebrating the freedom that comes with writing about one’s own life and addressing a general audience rather than a professional readership. In addition to constituting a return to the authors’ Jewish origins, these memoirs also constitute a setting aside of the authors’ scholarly identities and an insistence on what they share with the rest of humanity. Like all historians’ autobiographies, they are graphic reminders of how powerfully even professional scholars can find themselves drawn to this alternative form of narrative about the past. Even if the texts discussed here are not fated to enter the canon of great autobiographies, they are important evidence of history’s need to recognize the legitimacy of autobiography’s alternative vision of the past.