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It Can't Happen Here (Again)

The specter of Czech-born Holocaust orphan Saul Friedlander receiving Germany’s most prestigious literary award at the flower-decked altar of Frankfurt’s Church of St. Paul offered as much irony as could be found in the nearly 400,000 titles at the Frankfurt Book Fair a short distance away. “In this church,” intoned Wolfgang Fruehwald, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, “we award the German Book Trade’s Peace Prize to an Israeli-American historian, whose mother tongue is German, who grew up in a liberal Jewish family, who was baptized Catholic while in a French hideout, and who — as a young man — followed the advice of a Jesuit and decided to be a Jew.” Fruehwald kicked off a round of tributes in front of 1,000 VIPs, including Bundesrepublik President Horst Koehler (who, to add further irony to a peace-prize ceremony, was attacked — though not harmed — as he left the church). Thus did Friedlander, currently a professor of history at UCLA, join such luminaries as Orhan Pamuk, Albert Schweitzer, Vaclav Havel and Susan Sontag in receiving the 25,000-euro (approximately $35,000) award given every year at the Buchmesse, the largest publishing-rights market in the world.

Capping a career spent documenting the Third Reich’s atrocities and those who enabled and collaborated with it, Friedlander’s massive two-volume work, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939 (HarperCollins, 1997) and the recent The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 (HarperCollins, 2007), draw extensively from diary and journal accounts of Nazi victims and together represent a 1,350-page bulwark against the swelling tide of Holocaust revisionism.

And here, at the scene of the crime of the century, as it were, the man who chronicled the evil and suffering moves bleary-eyed and jet-lagged through endless interviews and fetes, taking a moment in the lobby of his Frankfurt hotel to reflect on what it means to turn 75 among the people whose grandparents tried their damnedest to make sure he never even reached his bar mitzvah.

L.A. WEEKLY:You and the Germans go back quite a long way. How does it feel to be here?

SAUL FRIEDLANDER: I started coming here in the early ’60s for my dissertation research, and when I crossed the border, I suffered anxiety attacks so bad that I had to leave and go to Geneva, even though I rationally thought, “Well, it’s another Germany now.” With age and time, things calmed down. Today, I can say quite honestly, not that I’m totally unaware of anything, but I feel at ease here. I speak the language. And my daughter married a German musician and they have a little son, Yonatan. They live part of the year in Berlin, and whenever I have a chance, I come over to see them.

Holocaust history is part of the German educational program. Do you find a difference between the U.S. and Germany in the type of questions you get asked and the knowledge base of the people asking them?

Well, those who engage me [in dialogue] are not the youngsters who’ve just gone through the Holocaust course in high school — which, by the way, is on the program. They are usually historians or journalists who are very seriously engaged in this topic. In that sense, you must distinguish between the man on the street, or even the youngster who learns a little bit, and an intellectual elite who are very informed and concerned — I would say even more so than in the States.

You went from fighting with the Irgun [a quasi-terrorist Zionist paramilitary group] to joining the Israeli movement Peace Now. Many Germans feel inhibited when discussing Israel’s behavior vis-à-vis the Palestinians, while others believe that embracing Palestinian rights masks a latent anti-Semitism. What’s your take?

What you’re talking about is more pronounced in Great Britain or France than in Germany. Criticism is legitimate. But what bothers me at times is a shrillness that gives you a feeling that it is not only based on an analysis of policy but on some deeper emotions — I don’t want to say hatred — which comes through acceptable political pretext.

What did the fall of the Berlin Wall add to Holocaust research?

A lot. The opening of Soviet archives gave us an enormous amount of new material because they were keeping for themselves a lot of German documents. Of course, it also exposed the tendency to say, “Look, we spoke enough about Nazis, now let’s see about the second barbarian system in the world, communism and communist dictatorship.” They are so concentrated on their own dictatorship experience that the past before that is already ancient history. It is often a kind of unintentional layering of the other past. So the answer is that you have to study this and you have to study that. You can’t replace one with the other.

I hear people say that if fascism ever came back to Germany, it would target the Muslims and not the Jews. Do you agree?

Well, it will not come again to Germany. Of that, I am almost sure. But it’s true there’s a kind of xenophobia and hatred, possibly more in the former East Germany than in the West, of minorities coming in, mainly from Turkey.

Do you think the U.S. is embracing fascism?

No. That’s Philip Roth’s book The Plot Against America, where Lindbergh was a metaphor, I think, for President Bush. I like Roth a lot and I am critical of the U.S. as well, but that’s much too overstated.

You’re a Jewish writer from Prague. Any affinity with Kafka?

Yes. Not because of our similar backgrounds, but I think he is one of the most phenomenal authors of the modern era and very enigmatic. Ever since I was a student, I’ve read him and read about him, and I always planned that when I have more time and I can do things that I want and not the things I feel I have to, that I would write an essay about Kafka. And now I will have the time to do it.

So you’re done writing about the Holocaust?

Yes, because it wouldn’t make sense after these two volumes. I will still read whatever I can get my hands on, but now I will work on this. I’m 75, and I have other things I want to do.

Where would you like to see people pick up the ball with Holocaust research?

There is much to be done, particularly in the microhistory. I have a colleague, an ex-student, Omer BarTov, a professor at Brown, who is writing about a small village in Galicia [in present-day Ukraine], Buczacz, where you had Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and then came the Germans. So he studies the relations between these people before, during and after the war. The Jews then were gone, of course, so he looks at the memory of the Jews among the others. There is this whole concreteness which still needs to be studied — why did the neighbors with whom they lived together for centuries suddenly kill them?

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