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At Home in History, and Nowhere Else

Saul Friedländer’s ‘small masterpiece in the literature of the Holocaust’

Adam Kirsch
November 10, 2016
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia

If there is such a thing as an archetypal 20th-century Jewish life, Saul Friedländer has led it. All three of the central Jewish experiences of the era left their mark on him: the Holocaust, which he survived as a young boy; the founding of Israel, where he moved in 1948; and the rise of Jewish life in America, where he now lives, after retiring from teaching at UCLA. No wonder that a man so shaped and pressed by history became a historian. Friedländer is one of the world’s leading scholars of the Holocaust, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nazi Germany and the Jews, among many other works. But what does it mean to write the history of events that are, in fact, part of one’s own personal memory? What does a life like Friedländer’s feel like from the inside?

These are the questions he set out to answer in his most personal book, When Memory Comes, a short, sparely written memoir first published in 1978. It has now been released in a new edition, by Other Press, to accompany a newly published second volume of Friedländer’s memoirs, Where Memory Leads. Taken together, these books form a primary document of modern Jewish history—a contribution to the study of the past that uses the tools not of the historian, but of the autobiographer. A scholar attempts to ascertain details and facts, and synthesize them into a complete narrative. A memoirist, however, knows that what matters most about the past, the way it felt, is always elusive, partial, reconstructed rather than recollected. Friedländer’s title tellingly reverses the formula he uses in the epigraph to When Memory Comes, taken from the Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink: “When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing.” For Friedländer, it is memory that comes first, bringing a kind of imperfect knowledge in its train.

Friedländer’s early life, as he describes it in Where Memory Leads, followed the pattern of many Central European Jews born at what he calls “the worst possible moment”—in 1932, just months before Hitler took power. “Everyone in our house felt German,” he recalls, and he was called Paul—a Christian name, and a sign of the family’s seemingly complete assimilation into the culture of German-speaking Prague, where they lived. (Later, after he moved to Israel, he would change it to Saul, thus reversing the process that turned the first-century Jew Saul into the Christian saint, Paul.) Like all children, he believed his world to be normal because it was the only world he knew: “The way of life of the Jews in the Prague of my childhood was perhaps futile and ‘rootless,’ seen from a historical viewpoint. Yet this way of life was ours, the one we treasured, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.”

This way of life came to a sudden end in March 1939, when Hitler seized the rump state of Czechoslovakia for the Third Reich. As Jews, Friedländer’s parents knew they had to flee, though they dissembled this fact for their young son: “I was told that we were leaving Prague because the Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia and because we were Czech.” The family ended up, like many Jewish refugees from Hitler, in Paris, which at the time seemed like a haven. Yet as Friedländer shows, the trauma of dislocation and exile was inescapable, even before the worst came. One of his most painful memories of this period comes from the months he spent at a Jewish boarding school, where he was bullied and beaten up by the other students because he did not speak Yiddish or wear a kippah. He was, they taunted, a “goy”—an unspeakably bitter irony, and one that echoes through Friedländer’s later account of his complex, ambivalent relationship with Jewishness.

After the fall of France in 1940, the Friedländers fled to a small town called Neris, but soon they were no longer safe even there. Paul’s parents took a last, desperate step: They had their son baptized as a Catholic and entrusted him to the care of a severe, conservative Catholic school. In his reserved style, Friedländer conveys the utter desolation and misery he felt at being separated from his parents, which led him, at the age of just 10, to attempt to drown himself. He would never see them again: As he learned much later, they were captured while attempting to cross the border into Switzerland and deported to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, Paul-Henri, as he was now known, embraced Catholicism with the ardor of a preadolescent. The contradiction of his situation was flagrant: Here was a Jewish boy being hidden by Catholics who embraced the anti-Semitic Vichy regime and admired Marshal Petain.

Yet at least Friedländer had found a kind of home; and then he lost this one too, after the war, when he was released into the custody of a local Jewish guardian. By the age of 16, when he started at a prestigious lycee in Paris, Friedländer had been through more shock, dislocation, and loss than most people experience in a lifetime. It was as a reaction to all this, he makes clear, that he embraced Zionism. Only in Israel could he find anything like a secure home: “I did not become a Zionist by way of a renewal of contact with buried emotional layers, but rather as a result of logical argument, of a simple line of reasoning that nonetheless in those days seemed to me to be a compelling one.”

In 1948, as the War of Independence raged, Friedländer determined to join the Jewish state at any price. Although he knew little about intra-Zionist politics, he lied about his age and joined Betar, the youth group associated with the Irgun, the right-wing terrorist organization. Fatefully, the ship he boarded to leave Europe was none other than the Altalena. Students of Israeli history will recognize the name: Packed with Irgun fighters and weaponry, the ship was seen as a threat by the new government of David Ben-Gurion and was not allowed to dock. Friedländer left the ship with most of the passengers before it got embroiled in a gun battle with the IDF and was sunk outside Tel Aviv. For years afterward, Friedländer writes, any Israeli who learned that he had been on board the Altalena looked at him with suspicion.

This story, with its stranger-than-fiction twists and unspeakable emotional devastation, is told in When Memory Comes with a kind of quiet amazement, as though Friedländer himself doesn’t know exactly what to make of it. The scars of his childhood, he makes clear, never left him: He was prone to panic attacks, emotionally withdrawn, and phobic. The narrative that unfolds in the book is regularly punctuated by scenes from the then-present, where Friedländer is writing it in Jerusalem in 1977, and so we know that, in spite of everything, he survived, even thrived—he married, had children, became an eminent professor. Yet Friedländer makes very clear that he is not writing a story with a happy ending, much less a Zionist fable about redemption through aliyah. Instead, writing just as Israel was beginning peace talks with Sadat’s Egypt, Friedländer looks around him and is gravely suspicious of the country he lives in—a Jewish state occupying Palestinian land, prey to what he sees as extreme nationalism. Walking the streets of Tel Aviv, he writes, “aroused in me a feeling of malaise …and somewhere awakened in me profound misgivings that, perhaps, went to the very heart of things.”

When Memory Comes is a small masterpiece in the literature of the Holocaust. Its new sequel, Where Memory Leads, is a more conventional kind of memoir because it deals with a more normal, adult life, but it displays the same probing intelligence at work. The book follows the course of Friedländer’s life from 1948, when he arrived in Israel, down to the present; and it makes clear that while Friedländer was an Israeli, he retained an emotional and often physical distance from his adopted country. After spending five years in Israel and doing work in an army intelligence unit—an experience he passes over almost completely—Friedländer returned to Paris for graduate study. He went on to work as a secretary to Nahum Goldmann, the Zionist leader, which involved frequent travel between Jerusalem and New York. He got his doctorate in Geneva and spent part of every year there, even after he occupied a chair at Hebrew University and later at Tel Aviv University. And in the last part of his career he moved to Los Angeles, to teach at UCLA—a place about as far removed from Israel and Europe as you could get, spiritually and geographically.

Friedländer has an interesting store of anecdotes about the people and places he encountered—mainly scholars, from Gershom Scholem to Ernest Nolte—and he traces the growth, over decades, of his scholarly understanding of the Holocaust. He also notes that he played a vocal role on the Israeli left, participating (or trying to) in dialogues with Palestinians, and criticizing the West Bank settlements from the very beginning. He is dismayed by the vicious and thoughtless anti-Israelism that now pervades academia, yet he is also highly critical of what Israel has become: “If the present trend is not reversed…then, metaphorically speaking, regarding the values Israel once held dear, regarding the survival of an Israeli democracy, there is nothing more to say than God help us.” Yet throughout all his peregrinations, geographic and political, Friedländer always returns to the central fact that his is a Jewish story: “If anyone were to ask me what I consider my core identity, beyond any cultural imprint, something I would never be willing to deny or give up, I would answer without the least hesitation: I am a Jew, albeit one without any religious or tradition-related attachments, yet indelibly marked by the Shoah. Ultimately, I am nothing else.”


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.