Professor, Hebrew University
Interviewer: Michael Dunn
June 2, 1993
I: Well just to begin with, I know you’ve written a number of books, what do you look at in the educational end in teaching about the Holocaust.B: Well I’m mainly a researcher so there is only an indirect connection between that and the educational effort. I think one ought to go to the multiplicators, the people who then spread the knowledge, rather than go to children because there’s no end to that. So you talk to teachers and to teachers of teacher s in order to get some of the information across. And then of course increasingly we use film material which again is basically today various types of collections of testimonies plus some documentation plus some historical summaries, especially of the German side where testimonies are really difficult to get. You have to create a proper picture, perpetrator victim bystander, it’s easier to get the side of the story from the victims, much more difficult to get it from the perpetrator and the bystander, so there you rely basically on documentation.
I: When, what is when you have bystanders, would you consider everything outside within its context everyone was a bystander during the war outside of Germany or what …B: I mean the populations of the countries where the Jews were living, the organizations, the churches, the neutral countries and the major powers, those are basically the bystanders. That’s a huge word and very differentiated, you can’t really generalize about their behavior, you have to go to individual cases.
I: It’s interesting that alot of times, and this is obviously from a United States perspective, limited to Germans and Jews as a historical context as the immediate victim perpetrator. Do you find any way of being able to raise the consciousness of people that it just wasn’t like for instance, as people are looking at Bosnia today and the frustration of wanting to do something even though that’s a smaller level of what we are talking about…What is the possibilities of making the bystanders aware or is there?B: Well there are two questions there. It’s very easy to show people who want to study the subject how important the bystanders are. And we have a great deal of information about them and we have a pretty exact knowledge of what they did and didn’t do and why they did and why they didn’t, so that is something that one can show and prove and so on and it’s comes across quite clearly. The other thing of course is to do the actual research and there you have to differentiate between the different countries and the different types of populations.
The behavior was by no means uniform, on the contrary, it is very different. Two thirds of the Jews of France survived, so obviously it had something to do with the attitudes of a large number of French people. Sixty percent of the Jews of Belgium survived, eighty percent of the Jews of Italy survived. In the inner let’s say region of Bulgaria, not the areas that were conquered by the Bulgarian army outside of Bulgaria, but within Bulgaria, all the Jews survived. Why? Why did it not happen elsewhere? Now that is not very difficult to explain. And it is very important if you are looking for the human element, then how do you explain that people behaved differently in the Ukraine than in Poland, then France? And how high do you value those few who did help in the Ukraine versus a general mood in France that made it much much easier for an ordinary Frenchman to say well my neighbor is doing this so that’s okay, I’ll do it too. And how come there are these differences and Bulgaria isn’t in Western Europe, so it’s not a question of region maybe it’s not a question of democracy, Bulgaria was never democratic and so on, it was for a very short time, France was, yet the behavior seems to be similar in some ways. And the churches, again a tremendous variety of attitudes and behavior, so it’s not very difficult to point it out, it’s much more difficult to explain on the level of the individual the behavior because you have either from all ranks of life and from all kinds of different backgrounds who helped, and you have people from the same background who didn’t. And it is very difficult to find some sort of unifying explanation.
I: I don’t think we’ll every be able to explain it, the relevance to current events.B: There is no relevance to current events. There is no relevance. The relevance is to itself. Because in each historical event that you take, you don’t actually use what actually happened, you use it in order to show something that is happening now. So there is no relevance and there is every relevance. You mentioned Bosnia, the differences between the Holocaust and the Bosnian situation are too obvious to dwell upon, they are huge. But of course you can use the Holocaust example if you want to show how the Bosnian situation could develop _ it won’t _ but how it could develop into something like the Holocaust and then draw your conclusions that human nature is shown to be capable of horrible things in both the Holocaust and Bosnia, if you arrive at that you arrive at no conclusion at all just purely rubbish. Because it’s too obvious.
I: You’re using history as your explanation.B: You can do it but it won’t mean much. On the other hand if you take each situation separately and then you say, look there are certain things that are parallel, certain things that are not, now why are things parallel and why are things not parallel, then you go into something much deeper, then you make some sensible comments. How situations of genocide develop, the Bosnian situation is genocide too of a different type, how people arrive at such, how they land in such situations and to that we still lack answers, we don’t really know so far, there are efforts to explain this but so far not terribly convincing.
I: Was that area during the Holocaust was particularly violent in comparison. What can you do?B: The Bosnian situation is an excellent example. Croatia was a Fascist state in alliance with Germany after the breakup of Yugoslavia by the German invasion in 1941. Croatia became independent as a Fascist state collaborating with the Nazis. The Fascists in Croatia murdered, there’s a big argument whether it’s 400,000 500,000 600,000 or 700,000 Serbs, in the most brutal way possible, probably some 30,000 Jews and some 90,000 Gypsies. They were really not pushed into this by the Germans, the Germans were very happy they were doing it, it was in line with the German intentions but they did it on their own.
The ideology was violently nationalistic, one of the fathers of Croat nationalism was a Jew, didn’t matter to them very much, and the Jews who after the first massacres by the Croats were taken by the Germans and murdered in Poland, shipped off. The others were murdered locally, the Germans had no interest in Gypsies or anything like that, Serbs, let the Croats do that. But the people that opposed the Germans were also Croats by very large numbers led by Tito, who was a Croat. The Moslems were split; there were some that supported the Nazis. There was an SS division, a Moslem SS division that fought alongside the Nazis. Fought: they were not too good at the fighting but they tried. They were recruited by the Mufti of Jerusalem, the leader of the Palestinian Arabs in those days. To be members of the SS. And the Mufti was an active partner in devising the Final Solution. On the other hand there were Moslems in Bosnia who protected Jews. And there were many of them who joined the Tito partisans together with Jews. And the Serbs who were murdered by the Croats had an underground that supposedly was fighting the Germans, they didn’t really do terribly much, it was an alliance with the Italians who were the partners of the Germans and they were not terribly friendly towards the Jews. On the other hand the ordinary Serb population in Serbia appeared to have been very friendly to those few Jews who managed to escape the German net.
What do you make of that? It’s a lesson, a historical background. Do you support the Serbs or do you support the Croats or do you support the Moslems and who is better than the other?
There is a certain historical situation that develops of violent enmities that are the result of hundreds of years of development that are papered over during periods of time. Under the Yugoslav monarchy between the wars, it was papered over part by agreements and part by force of the Serbs who really ruled Yugoslavia. And after the Communist takeoever, Tito managed to keep peace between the nations of Yugoslavia. And people are nostalgic about Tito and very rightly because under him this would not have happened. He was a Communist, he subjected Democrats and liberals to persecution. So what is that? A communist dictatorship or a nationalist mutual mass murder?
Now how does that compare to the Holocaust? The Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis for very specific reasons. They saw in the Jews the ultimate enemy, who was behind all the other enemies they had. And the Jews were in their eyes Satan; coming from a Christian background, although anti-Christian, if somebody was Satan you knew what to do with him. Murder him. Kill him. Annihilate him. Ultimately. Perhaps drive him out first. And then finally when this didn’t work kill him. And it wasn’t really directed against the Jews of country X but against the concept of the Jew. The Jew. Anywhere. Everywhere. At all times. Forever. And that is unique. That has never happened before but it can happen again. The idea of some powerful force that unless it is totally annihilated there’s no chance for your survival. That was the Nazi ideology. Now that is different from nationalism, from mutual mass murder, because that concerns people and real estate, but the Jews had nothing to do with it. So there, if you want to find parallels okay there parallels.
I: That’s almost, as a historian, looking for the parallels rather than …B: Now there are parallels.
I: It’s not, you can’t use the Holocaust to explain it, there are parallels, there’s one thing that I’ve come across very obviously that it is isolated because of its nature, that there hasn’t been anything to that extent.B: To that extent, but there have been approaches to it in other civilizations. Not really well known things, I mean if you take for instance the destruction of the Native Americans, the Indians, in the nineteenth century, there is something there. A good Indian is a dead Indian. Annihilate them, they are in the way. But there again it is a matter of land basically. Clash of cultures and not an ideology that made the if they survive we can’t. Although there was a demonization of the Indians by the original settlers in Massachusetts. There was a demonization of them, they were Satan’s children, there is a certain amount of parallel there. It didn’t work, there was never any plan to annihilate all the Indians. Never existed. There was a tendency to generalize is one example. Another example would be in Bangladesh during the war of independence against Pakistan. Where the minorities, the Baharis numbering a few million, were targeted for total annihilation. and they were saved by the Indian intervention but nobody knows how many, between one and two million Baharis were murdered just because they were Baharis. There we have another parallel. So we are capable of that except that the only example that turned to into a major issue was the Jewish example. So the Holocaust is a unique phenomenon but it is not an isolated one, it is connected with the others.
I: This is my first time visiting Israel, the notion of being surrounded as you are know, of the military preparedness, obviously someone from my country where we don’t need to be prepared against our neighbors, but when you are saying that this whole issue of can this happen again. How can or can knowledge and understanding about the Holocaust prevent that from happening?B: It can contribute to it, in fact it has. I mean when George Bush called Saddam Hussein Hitler sitting in Baghdad and there was a danger of the Iraqis using gas and all the images came back, not only among Jews but among Americans, and Germans, and others. Now what they did about it is another matter but there is an image there which has become embedded in Northern, Western whatever you like to call it culture. I think it’s quite clear; the Holocaust has become a code concept for human behavior. So in that sense it is a constant warning. And now when Clinton discusses Bosnia, there is absolutely no doubt that he has the Holocaust on his mind, what he does is another matter, good, bad, or indifferent, but the image is there, the warning is there. And the same applies to the Armenian-Azari conflict in the former Soviet Union and the same applies to other places. For instance, in black Africa, the conflict between the Tutu and the Tutsi and the Rwanda and the Burundi of which very little is being written, the violent terrible conflict between two ethnic entities threatening each other with total physical annihilation and there the Belgiums were the nearest to them, they used to rule it, it used to be Belgian colonial territories, Belgium and French, they certainly employ in their own reaction the imagery of the Holocaust. And try to see what can be done to prevent it. So there is some outside chance that this could serve as a kind of warning.
I: Do you think that is the success so far of teaching it to people? Or is to more just that the event is so ingrained in people?B: No it is not ingrained, it is ingrained by people who create literature, theatre, film and TV series, but they answer certain needs all these creators, they answer certain needs and I think that is very important. Most of what is produced is kitsch, it’s useless falsification of what actually happened, but even when it is useless and false it still arouses a consciousness about what they think happened there. An excellent example there is the NBC series Holocaust in 1978. Which created one can say that consciousness about the Holocaust in the United States. Pure kitsch but it made a tremendous impact. Not only in America but in other countries. And it obviously answered some need, there were some questions asked, otherwise it wouldn’t have gone over like that and it came up. What did we do in World War II? Just like it was followed by Roots; there again, that answered not only a need in the black community, it answered a need in the white community _ what did we do to the blacks? For a defense we didn’t do anything to the blacks, it wasn’t our fault.
I: Maybe kitsch is the only way to impart history.B: That is a danger. Now there are media productions that are not kitsch at all and that have had quite an impact, not of the same magnitude, but of a qualitative magnitude that turned to the people who could multiply the information and spread it. And with some depth, like Lanzmann’s Shoah for instance, or Abba Eban’s Heritage, or the Partisans of Vilna. Or some other things I have already forgotten but they are in their time they were important. In Europe, for instance, Jacob the Liar shown in New York for a few weeks and taken off. East German production. The Shop on the Main Street, which was shown in America but it had a tremendous impact in Europe. Other films like that, excellent films, very good material. So you can produce good stuff and it does have an influence, it doesn’t have to be kitsch, and if Mr. Green had taken out some episodes and put others in, it may have looked quite different. And there was no need to do what he did.
I: Do you think that this concept of history, especially with the survivors passing and their children…I’ve talked to several who were telling me that their parents wouldn’t obviously talk to them about something like this and the real missing link between the family, not even within the history but within your own family of not, how can you, how can any family explain this, and on top of that you have the concept of some of these people in revisionist history. I mean where can you, it’s almost seeing history form itself right now, I know no one has the answer to this but the outcome is so important to understand this event; just to know that there are professors in my country who can stand up and be applauded for saying “It never happened prove it to me.”B: Well that is a fairly obvious reaction; the denial of the Holocaust stems from the incapability of a society to accept what it did. In a broader sense, not in an American sense, also all these professors who stand up and say what you said they say, are really aiming at American democracy, let’s become Hitlerites you know, turn America into a well ordered, law and order society and for that we don’t need the Jews. And how wonderful the Nazi society was, they never did anything to the Jews. So the aim is not the Jews actually, the aim is American society.
But I think that when you talk about the idea of transmitting history, we can’t live without our past. There’s no society that’s capable of existing without imagining it’s past. So these exercises in memory are very important to every society. The American society would like to create a pluralistic world because it is only in a pluralistic world that the American society is not going to fall apart. If it becomes a kind of dictatorship then all these ethnic, religious, and other groups will turn against each other because America has a wealth of all these groups and sub-groups. They would be at each other’s throat at any moment if there was no pluralism, no liberal democracy , whatever the interpretation of that may be, so the Holocaust from that point of view becomes important in America because look what happened when this wasn’t there, it happened to somebody who are represented in America too, rather importantly, although they are a very small minority, and that is a very clear connection and we fought against the Nazis. What did we achieve? Why did we fight? What was the purpose? What did we do there?
But the same could be asked in Britain or in other country, it isn’t asked to the same extent because they don’t have the problems that America has, the British identity also is problematic but at least it is clearer than America. The British identity goes back to the Battle of Hastings, where the American history goes back about one third of the time and it is very shallow, not very much there. How much history do we really have? So we settled the continent and drove off the Indians and built homesteads and cities and there were robber barons who built railways and made alot of money and there were a lot of scandals. It’s a problem, who are we? The British don’t ask who we are, they know, so the question of identity comes in there, but on the other hand, America did win the war. Not Britain, Russia did but so did the Americans. And America saved the world, saved Russia, without Lend Lease there would have been no Russian resistance, America did save the world from Hitler. The people who fought were the Russians, not the Americans, but it was America who saved the world.
Okay, that creates a responsibility, all of this is hardly conscious in America what I’m saying, but I think it’s there. And so you have a museum built in Washington about something that happened somewhere else. Surprise, why should the Americans do that? I mean there are obvious explanations, because the Democrats wanted support of Jews so simplify the Jews so let them build a museum, but that’s not an explanation, that’s just the technicalities of politics, why should they do that rather than something else? And this identification of American presidents and this is the third: Carter, Reagan, and now, fourth, Bush and now Clinton with this whole thing of which they don’t really understand. Can’t expect them to, but they have an image and a code word is there, Holocaust, that’s the most terrible thing that has happened.
That’s not quite true, the other things were equally as terrible, it’s just that they were different , and unique, and in its own category was, endangers civilization as we know it and that is what is so important. Unconsciously I suppose, largely. Now you want to translate it to on the level of the individual, it can be done I suppose, because most of our materials on the victims consists of testimonies, there are some documents of course, there are of course, there are many thousands of survivors testimonies which is an answer to the denial of the Holocaust. 2,5000 in Yale alone, there are thousands here not on video, but on audio. Almost 30,000 testimonies. and that of course is a tremendous treasure of information on individuals. It could have happened, you know the famous Shakespearean saying, “Thus for the grace of God there go I.” And that indeed is true for every Jew certainly for many non-Jews too.
I: Joel’s daughter was telling me about the film “Because of This War” . She really wanted me to see it for the first time it spoke to her, because she’d never been able to, not just her but she said all of us, it’s this silence that we can’t ever talk about.B: You see that’s not quite so. That’s not quite so. The film is so tremendously impressive, one of the best films that was ever made on this subject, I don’t know you know it was his relatives, but it is really a brilliant film, and it is by two pop singers who were not there, they were children of survivors. But the survivors did tell them the stories, it is not true that the survivors are silent, some of them are, most of them are not and never have been. They did tell their children. And these are two survivor families where the children, the sons, knew quite alot before they ever started the film but received additional information while they were making the film. And of course the reaction you see of a pop singer to this and that I suppose is the purpose of any kind of education, in America it is very easy to recruit classes to study the Holocaust. And the vast majority of people who take the subject are not Jewish. Vast majority, I spent half a year in Hawaii at the University of Hawaii, I had together with two other colleagues that were teaching 14 MA and Ph.D., mostly Ph.D. students, there was one Jew amongst them, all the others were blacks, Japanese, Hawaiians, WASPs, whatever, and that’s typical. You go anywhere in the United States today and you look at people who take this whether just briefly or whether they want to devote more time to it, very few make a specialization subject of it. They take it and the overwhelming majority are not Jews.
I: Obviously I’m not racially linked to this history but it’s one of my own questions, why are so many people outside of the context interested?B: It’s become a code in Western civilization, because of the position of the Jews in Western civilization, not only because of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, also because the Jews are Jews. Western civilization is based on Greeks and Jews; now the Greeks have gone, the Greeks are there but not the Greeks you know, and the Jews are the same. So it is very important for Western civilization what happens to the Jews, positively or negatively. And when, 1900 years after the coming of the Messiah, his people are murdered by baptized Gentiles that’s a problem for Christianity. Just think of it, Jesus came to save the world, he was a Jew and 1900 years later people who were raised in his religion, or what people interpret his religion to be, baptized Gentiles murder his people. So there is a tremendous credibility crisis for Christianity, there is another credibility crisis for Judaism too, because where was God at Auschwitz? The usual question, but for both these monotheistic religions there are tremendous crises, out of this event, so the importance of the Jew in Western civilization is another reason why this has become a code, a code concept. I have to go I’m afraid, I have to teach.
I: Thank you very much for your time.
Return to Historians | Historical Perspectives