Randolph L. Braham, the preeminent historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, died on Sunday. He was 95.
A Holocaust survivor who lost his parents at Auschwitz, Braham found his calling early in his adult life, documenting the tragedy that had befallen the Jews of his native land.
Braham, whose name was originally Adolf Ábrahám, was born in Bucharest to a family of modest means and raised in the Transylvanian town of Dés. He was drafted into the Hungarian Labor Service in 1944 and detained briefly in a Soviet POW camp. Immediately after the war, he worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Berlin.
In 1948, Braham emigrated to the U.S., landing in New York, where he earned a doctorate in political science at the New School for Social Research in 1952. He spent the bulk of his career teaching at New York’s City College and at the CUNY Graduate Center, whose Rosenthal Institute for Jewish Studies he founded in 1979.
For the distinguished UNC-Chapel Hill Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, Braham was “the authority on the Holocaust in Hungary, single-handedly creating a body of scholarship on the tragic events in that country that was not equaled for most other countries in Europe until many years later.”
Braham is perhaps best known for his meticulous two-volume study The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, which was first published in 1981 and was revised and reissued twice in the decades that followed. “It remains impossible to think about the topic without consulting his monumental work,” said Rutgers historian Paul Hanebrink.
For István Deák, professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, Braham’s conclusion that America would be an appropriate place for doing research on the Holocaust made him a “unique phenomenon,” both professionally and generationally. What distinguished Braham’s approach throughout his career was his work’s systematic nature. In speaking of Braham’s three-volume Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary, Deák marveled at how Braham goes methodically from county to county, town to town, village to village, documenting what happened down to the lowest of levels.
“His conclusions were not happy ones,” Deák said, “because he showed that the local council or rabbi always obeyed the orders of the government and put together lists of people with information about income, wealth, everything.”
Though drawn to history at the granular level, Braham did not shy away from the big challenges posed by the unique case of the Holocaust in Hungary. How is it that the Jews of the Hungarian countryside perished in overwhelming numbers while the Jews of Budapest largely survived? By the end of the war, when everyone knew the allies would win, some countries took steps to protect Jews. Why is it that Hungary did not?
“Braham cannot answer these questions, because nobody can,” Deák said, “but he’s very, very good at opening up these problems and presenting different views.”
Braham’s works were read and admired in Hungary, even during the Communist era. He grew more celebrated still after the fall of the Berlin Wall, earning a slew of the country’s leading awards, including the Order of Merit, the nation’s second-highest honor. In 2014, disgusted by what he saw as the Orbán government’s whitewashing of Hungary’s wartime crimes, Braham very publicly returned his awards.
Joshua Moses, an anthropologist at Haverford College and a relative of Braham’s, remembered the historian as a serious character who did not suffer fools gladly, but one who could still, at times, surprise. Braham, he said, was a gifted furniture maker, who applied the same surgical precision at his workbench as he did in the archives.
Moses last saw Braham at a memorial service for Moses’ father, Stanley, who was also a professor in the CUNY system and who died last year at 80. “Your father was supposed to be at my funeral, not me at his,” Moses recalled Braham saying to him in his Hungarian-accented English. “But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”