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Dr. Deborah Lipstadt Interviews Dr. Saul Friedlander

 
Dr. Saul Friedlander, Professor of History at UCLA, is an internationally renowned scholar of the Holocaust. He just completed second volume of his examination of Nazi Germany and the Jews. The book, The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945, which won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for Non-fiction as well as the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. His other seminal historical texts include Reflections of Nazism and Pius XII and the Third Reich.
He is here in conversation with Emory University's Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt.
We join the conversation with Friedlander reflecting on the process of writing his Holocaust memoir, When Memory Comes, published in 1979.
Dr. Saul Friedlander
The writing of testimony is a need. It's not that I thought; it's not what would I write next. I tried, you know, for years and years to write it. Never managed. I wrote always the first page, which didn't start with Prague. It started the moment when I fled from this institution. And after that page I sensed this doesn't work but I sensed I have to tell something. We speak of the late, well of the early seventies (throughout the seventies I wrote from seventy-seven to seventy-eight), and I then wrote something and sent it to the publisher whom I mentioned before and he said, "You know, there is a story there but it's dead." He said, "Your text is dead." And I said, "What do I do now," and I called Claude Lanzmann and asked him maybe a dialogue would help me to say things, you know we would record it, and that would be a dialogue, and he agreed.
And then I went to visit somebody I knew who was with me in that seminary and who had become a Trappist monk. This Trappist was given the permission to talk to me and I even stayed there overnight and we discussed things. It was a very moving experience. When I came back to Geneva where I was, I realized that we talked about everything of our common experience in this place but not how really I got there. So I started writing him a long letter to try to explain this and suddenly I understood I was addressing somebody and writing my... starting from the beginning.
And so you have to find the, I would say, the addressee. And so that is a need, I guess any survivor who wrote a memoir will tell you, maybe not now but during the 70s/80s/90s I think, they would tell you it was a personal need. And some say, "Well, it's for the grandchildren," so it had to come out.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Many survivors have said to me that they couldn't write until they had grandchildren, because children...it's too close but with grandchildren, "mir seinen da": We've survived.
A. [Friedlander]
It is the children you want to protect from this.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Yes, that's right.
A. [Friedlander]
The grandchildren are already distanced enough, but they have to know, you see. So the use of these memoirs demands caution. I understand the more time goes that people may totally unintentionally shift, I mean in their mind stories shift. This doesn't happen of course in a diary interrupted in the middle, you know, some of the diaries stop in the middle of a sentence where you see that the diarist has been taken away in the middle of a sentence, so diaries ‐ there are so many when not only you see the contradictions within the diaries are a proof of their authenticity in a way. [Victor] Klemperer ‐ if you look, let's say, at his opinion about how the Germans feel about the Jews, he changes opinion many times. There is no better proof. He doesn't try to keep his impressions coherent because he goes day after day and probably never looked back. And you sense reading Klemperer that the very fact that he changes his opinion and explodes sometimes after saying how this and that came to say, "We hope it will not last very long," and so on, then he says, "Oh, the Germans are not," I mean you see that he...
Q. [Lipstadt]
He's a human being.
A. [Friedlander]
Exactly.
Q. [Lipstadt]
You know where you see that also, excuse me for interrupting, but in Anne Frank. The deniers go after Anne Frank's diary because they say at one point Mrs. Van Damme, Peter's mother, runs the vacuum cleaner. So Faurisson says, "A vacuum cleaner in a hiding place?" And then at one point Miep brings them a sack of beans and the sack of beans breaks open and Anne writes, "The noise was enough to wake the dead." Now Faurisson jumps on that and says, "A vacuum cleaner, a sack of beans breaking open? This couldn't be a hiding place." Now first of all she runs the vacuum cleaner on a Sunday night and they're above a warehouse, so Sunday night a warehouse would've been empty. Number two, when the sack of beans breaks open Anne writes, "Thank God the warehouse was empty." But he only quotes half of it. But someone said to me, very interestingly a Dutch survivor, she said the very fact that that's there makes it authentic because if I was making up a diary -- it's so simple, it's so obvious -- if I was making up a phony diary I wouldn't put in a vacuum cleaner.
  A. [Friedlander]
Yeah, exactly. Of course.
Now moving for a second from diary to the attempt by deniers to say this never could have been written ‐ the case of [Kurt] Gerstein. Now Gerstein wrote four times his report, one for the Americans, one for the French, of course in German. There was a denier whose name escapes me now who is a professor at Nantes in France who tried to compare things about Gerstein observing the deaths of Jews in these early gas chambers in Belzec. He says this couldn't have been, but this man of course did not mention anywhere, I mean the denier, that there were two people looking. Otto [Wilhelm] Pfannenstiel, an SS physician from the University of Marburg accompanied Gerstein. And Pfannenstiel in a very early post-war deposition at trial said, "Yes I was there but I never said 'wail like in a synagogue.'" Because Gerstein wrote in his report "Pfannenstiel looked and said, 'they are wailing like in a synagogue.'" And Pfannenstiel, outraged by this remark, says, "I never said this," but otherwise he confirms it.
But you see, deniers, you have to read them, as you did yourself, very carefully, because sometimes they'll just forget that there are corroborating elements.
Q. [Lipstadt]
We had a very interesting piece in the trial where we brought the testimony of Ada Bimko, who became Hadassah Rosensaft (Ada was Hadassah and then she married Rosensaft) and she was a doctor in Birkenau.
A. [Friedlander]
She was Yosele Rosensaft's wife.
Q. [Lipstadt]
That's right. Exactly.
She was a doctor in Birkenau and at one point she was sent to the gas chambers, she was sent to either four or five, you know, the ones that are on one floor, to pick up the blankets because when women went from the death barracks or from the hospital they went naked and sometimes they were allowed to wrap themselves in blankets as you well know. So she was sent to pick up the blankets. And this is testimony she gave at the Bergen-Belsen trial right after the war. As you know so many of the people at Bergen-Belsen were staff from Auschwitz who had been transferred, so a lot of the testimony was about Auschwitz.
So she writes about the fact that when she came to the gas chamber she asked one of the SS men who was there to show here the gas chamber. So he takes her up into a crawl space like a little attic -- so that's how we know it was four or five -- and he shows here a big metal container on the side and he says, "That's where the gas comes in." And he points to two pipes that go into the room downstairs and he says, "And that's how it's piped into the room." Now "Lo Dubim Ve'lo Yaar" it's not true because we know the gas was thrown in, in those gas chambers, through the windows. They had the windows, the shutters... in fact we found one of those shutters in Auschwitz.
So David Irving and other deniers pounce on this. And what Robert Jan van Pelt, who was one of the expert witnesses, in his expert report shows, he said, "What she was being shown was the ventilation unit." Because we know there was a ventilation unit there to draw the gas out, and the pipes drew the gas out. What she described that she saw was absolutely accurate. The mistaken information when he says, "That's how the gas," that was second-hand information. That's what the SS man was telling her maybe to make fun of her or something, you know? But what she saw with her eyes was absolutely perfect.
So she saw, she described something. She gave the wrong explanation for it but the explanation she gave came from the SS man who took her up there and said, "That's what the gas is." Maybe he was just making fun of her or something. So you have to read very defensively.
A. [Friedlander]
The question you see, Deborah, is, well you did an essential thing by going after Irving who is really the central intellectual personality in this immense kind of nebula.
This started in France actually, I think; I may be mistaken, but Faurisson, and before him [Paul] Rassinier started this, and I remember very well being in Strasbourg in the probably late seventies or some time like that and being asked at a meeting whether one should not systematically go after this as you did. And I at that time was naïve and said, "No, because that creates a dialogue, as if, you know, two points of view." This is said now all the time. I still sometimes wonder whether it's worth the time and the effort to go after each statement like that (Bishop Williamson now, as we are speaking), because it gives a kind of legitimization to those who come with the most absurd statements. They come with statements which we of course cannot answer numbers and things like that because it's so difficult to say five million six hundred thousand. But you know by the way that since the trial, as I am not sure it existed at the time of the trial, these numbers that the British decoded which were sent from [Odilo] Globocnik's headquarters to the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei in Krakow and then forwarded to Eichmann about the exact number of victims they counted in the main extermination camps. This I think didn't exist. We have it now. I think [Richard] Breitman is the first to have published it, no two German historians in Holocaust and Genocide Studies three years ago I think and the Germans themselves reported the numbers about Belzec, Sobibor and then Treblinka where there was even a mistake in the transcription, and the total of course gave the exact number.
  Q. [Lipstadt]
I think you're right in the sense, I think your initial instinct was right and actually I agree with you in the sense that if you sit down and you debate them or you answer them it's as if to say they're another side and then someone could say, "It's like asking a scientist to go debate someone or go answer someone who says the earth is flat." I didn't go after Irving. Irving came after me. What I was doing in writing Denying The Holocaust was I wanted to show the modus operandi. To show how they operate, how they lie. So at some point you almost enter into a dialogue with them, but I'm very careful not to get into a debating match because it's not another side.
A. [Friedlander]
It's not another side, and that's always troubling. We are giving importance to crackpots.
Q. [Lipstadt]
To crackpots. Crackpots. That's exactly right, that's exactly right. That's why you get to do work that is advancing what we know and that is so important.
A. [Friedlander]
One of the things I hope I did in this second volume, but many others not because of me but on their own were doing just the same ‐ Dieter Paul and Peter Longerich ‐ we all of us together at more or less the same time discovered that the Germans knew much more, and much earlier, than we thought they had. At least I could go on for a long to say how now I am convinced that they didn't know the technicalities, but they knew that the Jews were being exterminated one way or the other. They knew it in the letters of soldiers coming back; the fact that in Auschwitz you could bring your wife, your girlfriend, or whoever, and often children, and stay there in the town with those guards.
As Hoess himself writes, you cannot keep people from talking, "even if we have tried to impose sanctions, the men are talking." Of course they are talking. That's what makes the deniers so unbearable in so many ways, because nowhere has an event been as pertinently documented.
Q. [Lipstadt]
I always say the Holocaust has the dubious distinction of being the best-documented genocide in the world.
A. [Friedlander]
Yes, and yet it seems almost to attract, it demands some kind of hatred, or just, you know, "let us show them."
Q. [Lipstadt]
Can you tell us what you're working on now, what your next project is?
A. [Friedlander]
The part which deals with the Shoah, of course I felt or read it in volume 2. But now there is specifically that I had to get back to the Pius XII book, which my first book of the Showa; 1964 in France. And I have quite a chunk of chapter 9 in the second volume, The Years of Extermination, dealing with the Pope's reactions. And some people told me who commented on the book that it was in a way stricter (let's put it that way), that my criticism of the Catholic Church was stricter than in the early book. And I agreed because I think I understood, and I didn't write it there, some of the motivations behind Pius XII's decision. And then of course the document which was published after the War about children, which should not be given back. That explained to me...
  Q. [Lipstadt]
Especially French children.
A. [Friedlander]
...explained to me why the police had to come and fetch me, which I didn't know when I wrote my memoir.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Why don't you just, so we have it for the record, talk a little bit about that document?
A. [Friedlander]
Oh, very simple ‐ I will start with the personal and then go to the document. I didn't know, which was told to me later by the person who came in to fetch me, he came into this Catholic seminary for youngsters who then would to a grand séminaire that is for the priestly education, but we were already on the track. I was under another name of course, Paul-Henri Marie Ferlon so that when this Mr. Rosenblatt passed away in the meantime, of course, came in the name of the O.S.E. which was the Oeuvre de secours aux enfants [Children's Relief Organization], to ask for me because somehow my uncles knew that I was there: my parents had left an address. He was told there is no kid with that name. So he said, "But we know he is there." They said, "No."
So he came back a second time, same, and so the third time he came with a letter from the Prefect, you know, the district head in France of the Department of the Allier where Vichy was also. But of course that was after the liberation, who said that if they didn't respond a third time the police would search the place. So they admitted. But that I didn't know when I wrote, When Memory Comes.
So I got this news, I was pretty upset, but that is that. That's what he told me. I didn't know these were instructions given by the Pope and the holy office.
Now I come to the document found in France actually. But very much splashed all over by the career of Corriere della Sera I think. The Pope allowed the holy office to give to the nuncios, and mainly in Western Europe but all over, he gave guidelines how to deal with the children which Jewish organizations were now trying to get out of Catholic institutions. If a child had been baptized, and if there were no parents, direct parents, that is father and mother coming to fetch that child, not to be returned. If there were children who had not been baptized, were hidden there, and there were no direct parents coming to fetch the child, not to return the child. If though there was a child, even baptized, whose parents were coming, return the child. So that of course I was baptized and no parents came.
Now I understood suddenly what was the Bishops, the nuncios gave the orders to the Bishops, the Bishop for the institutions, and therefore the institution simply followed Vatican instructions. So it's endless, but we have more now than we had when I wrote, of course, the publications, the monographs written, the hundreds and maybe thousands of them written since then, but never with the Vatican archives. But now we have at least one research completed and published by a German historian called Wolff, from Muenster, which uses the Pius XI's archives, which were open to him. And they promised to show the documents on Pius XII but I'm convinced they never will in the foreseeable future. (Surely not now with the new Pope.)
But at least we have Pius XI's and Secretary of State Pacelli interacting. It confirms many of the ideas; at least it confirms it not through German documents or other, but also through Vatican documents. So I will simply write a very long introduction and then have the book published.
Q. [Lipstadt]
How is it for you to traverse the intersection between the personal and the professional? When you find a document like that and suddenly you put it together with "that's why they had to practically bring the police to get me out of there..."
A. [Friedlander]
No, not practically; the threat, yes, practically. All right.
I am always a little bit taken aback but I got used to it. Also it was often used against me, this subjective position. And [by] no lesser a personality than Mr. [Arthur] Butz came to, eh... oh that was when the lessons and legacies started.
  Q. [Lipstadt]
Butz ‐ the electrical engineer professor from Northwestern.
A. [Friedlander]
I didn't know it was him and I had given the keynote there and then somebody there says, "I know this voice," and says more or less, "How can you speak objectively if you claim..." and well, I don't know how he phrased it. And that's where you see the problem which we discussed a moment ago came back. I refused to enter into a dialogue with him because I thought, "Mr. Butz, we are not here having equal opinions."
Q. [Lipstadt]
That's right, that's right. I remember that. You wrote that up. Either it was written... somebody wrote it up.
A. [Friedlander]
Yes. So, the answer to this is very simple. And I said it also to German colleagues, they also had Hans Mommsen and people like that that were Hitler youths. Martin Broszat of course was also in the Nazi party.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Pope Benedict?
A. [Friedlander]
Pope Benedict was HitlerJunge [Hitler Youth]!
One thing has to be said for the victims at least. We have to be totally aware constantly that there is a stronger, let us say, stronger element of subjectivity than somebody writing, a totally new generation ‐ grandchildren, let's say ‐ from the perspective of, God knows, Milwaukee. This is obvious. But the moment you are constantly aware of this you hold yourself back sometimes too much almost. You lean back so much to be very careful that you may hesitate to express things which otherwise would be expressed more naturally. And, in the Pius XII for example... I don't know if it's of interest to you, but you will see afterwards. I had the manuscript, and based on documents I had found in the German Foreign office archives in Bonn, at that time in '63 as I was writing my dissertation I saw the Vatican documents being displaced and asked for them afterwards. When this was finished I was aware that I had something very important in terms of documentation.
The German reports about Pius XII's behavior, or responses. I went to a publisher who happened to be a Jew, very left wing, in Paris, (Les Editions de Minuit, Jerome Lindon was very well known) who had just published La Torture, Torture about Algeria, and this had an immense impact in France. And he said, "Oh this is fantastic," and so on and so forth. And then I realized that this was a big mistake. That I had to go to a more directly Catholic, in any case not Jewish, publisher and moderate also in it's [politics].
And I think it's Elie Wiesel who at that time I knew very well in Paris, to whom I said, "Look, I'm..." And he sent me to Editions du Seuil, which was left-wing Catholic publishers they published [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin and other things which were... And he went to Rome, the owner, at that time on a (also died long ago), went to Rome to see Monsignor [Agostino] Casaroli and asked whether I could see the Vatican documents. The answer was no. So we published it, but there was a Catholic journalist, Jacques Nobécourt, who went with me over each sentence. He said, "You know, maybe you put 'perhaps' where you seem to assert things." And I agreed, in most cases I said, "It's absolutely right." The preface was written by Alfred Grosser, a converted Jew but very much a Catholic intellectual.
So you take guarantees against yourself if you're honest and if you know that there is a possibility of a kind of strong subjectivity.
Q. [Lipstadt]
But you could also hold yourself back at times.
A. [Friedlander]
You will hold yourself back. Now I learned it of course this time. You can hold yourself back and if need be you ask friends who, let's say, a priori would agree in general but point out to you that here there is something; you should think twice about being so assertive ‐ maybe say "perhaps."
And I am absolutely in favor of this kind of... not because we... because we are careful, because we really check things, we deal with this, and because there is this constant (not at that time in '64, but from the '70s on), this constant presence of this lunatic fringe.
  Q. [Lipstadt]
But I think you would agree, I know you would agree, that even without the presence of a lunatic fringe you would be just as careful with it.
A. [Friedlander]
As a historian, of course. But then I want to add something which occurs to me now. At some stage a French colleague who wrote Les Lieux de Mémoire, Pierre Nora, published a book, published a book together, Essais d'Ego-Histoire, "Ego History," that is the historians who lived through. And I remember one of those interviews, there was Le Roy-Laduri and there were many of the very famous names in French historiography. One whose father had been killed in World War I, and who wrote many books about World War I, he was asked about this ‐ the personal involvement in his father's memory and the way of writing down the history of World War I. And he answered more or less the same thing, that is, the emotional involvement is in itself a plus of course because you sense things that others may not see. But then you have to know: careful, careful. So that is also another aspect. Because you lived through, let's say the fears, and the horror and the terror of the epoch you can read a word or a sentence and you know that is that. In the diaries you sense that much better than people who write so many decades later.
Q. [Lipstadt]
You know who does that also very beautifully is Ruth Kluger. Both in the German and the English, which are essentially two different books. The English book is fantastic.
A. [Friedlander]
Absolutely. That's why I chose among the memoirs. She lives in Irvine.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Yes, yes. Yes, I know. She was here last year. One of her students is Caroline Schaumann is here, and she brought her last year, and she was really wonderful. She read from your next work. Angelica [Bammer] and I co-taught a course on the memoirs and she brought in the German Weiter Leben and she compared that ‐ like the scene with the traffic accident at the end, which is completely different in the two volumes.
But Ruth has a way of seeing things and saying things that, you know, just are so obvious if you read it. You know, about her childhood in Vienna when her father comes back. And the hot chocolate, which they give her something that she hated drinking because it had a film, when you know, it gets that scum on the top when you overcook it. And the family would make her, the mother or grandmother, whoever it was, would make her sit and drink it and she hated it. And then she would be late to school and she would be punished being late to school. And she said, "I just wish grownups could get organized, because the grownups here are making be late and the grownups here are punishing me for coming late." That of course could be a child writing anywhere, but even in her scenes in Auschwitz and the relationship with her mother, is just...
A. [Friedlander]
Her mother. Astounding.
Orna Kenan:
Wasn't it her mother who told her?
A. [Friedlander]
...To move, to move to another line.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Yes, go back. Go back. No, no. The mother told her... They came forward and they were being told which way to go. And she said, "Go around." And her mother just took a chance.
A. [Friedlander]
That was, by the way, extremely dangerous.
Q. [Lipstadt]
Yes. But the mother also says to her at one point, I think in one of the early nights there, she takes her to the fence and says, "Let's throw ourselves on the fence and kill ourselves." And that's so counterintuitive because the one thing a parent is supposed to do for a child is protect the child. But it's a marvelous... You've read it haven't you?
A. [Friedlander]
Oh, it's powerful.