Tuesday, October 27, 2015

David Cesarani (1956-2015)

"A Scholar of Tremendous Depth and Breadth"
Dr. Robert Rozett
Director of the Libraries, Yad Vashem

Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway in London had passed away unexpectedly. David was a scholar of tremendous depth and breadth, great brilliance and remarkable eloquence. It often seemed to me that having had the privilege to study with the great George Mosse (as I had), David had learned one of the most important tasks of the historian: to deflate myths and replace them with well-grounded and well-stated historical narrative and analysis.

It is not by chance that his two most important scholarly projects about the Holocaust reflected all of those qualities. His book Eichmann: His Life and His Crimes, published in 2004 presented a more historically accurate portrait of Eichmann, removing him from the clouds of partial truth and contradictory images that had emerged from his trial in Israel in the early 1960s. Eichmann was neither the master mind of the Holocaust nor a mundane desk bureaucrat only following orders. David drew a more complex portrait of the man, and no less important, he set him in the context of events that led to the unfolding and carrying out of the "Final Solution" against the Jews. He showed that Eichmann was not a decision maker, but certainly had initiative. He revealed that the man changed over the course of the war, from a gung-ho young officer to a rather jaded murderer. Throughout the book, David provided the historical envelope, harnessing the most up-to-date understanding of the events of the Holocaust available at the time he wrote.
Professor Cesarani at a Yad Vashem workshop in 2010

Over the last two years or so, David was engaged in another project that demanded depth and breadth of knowledge. He wrote a one-volume history of the Holocaust that remained unpublished at the time of his passing. Last year David asked me to read the manuscript and comment on it. What I read revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust and the most recent writing about it.  Moreover, David tried to ensure that his narrative closely followed the events of WWII. To do so, he read scores of diaries and memoirs of leading figures and less well-known figures of the time, as well as monographs on the war. One of the rooms on the second floor of his home is lined with them; they literally fill an entire book case. David also tried to bring balance back to the history of the Holocaust, especially when he wrote about Jewish behavior. In much of the literature over the decades since the end of the war, the image of the Jews in the Holocaust has moved from being portrayed as one-dimensional victims, to being nearly lionized for having gone through the Holocaust. David sought to show that first and foremost the Jews were human beings, and as such had many diverse qualities, strengths and foibles, and displayed a great range of behaviors.
Professor Cesarani addressing the public at the
inaugurtaion of the Oppenheim Chair, 1998

David was an excellent speaker. His public lectures were not only well grounded in history, lucid and interesting, but they almost invariably contained some sort of punch line that not only made a good point, but engendered laughter. David was a frequent guest of Yad Vashem at international research conferences and symposia, and in 1998-1999 he was a fellow of the International Institute for Holocaust Research as the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the study of Racism, Antisemitism and the Holocaust. In private, David was a great story teller, and it was always a pleasure to sit and talk with him over a meal or glass of wine, and hear about some arcane but amusing piece of history or something from his personal experience.

An important role David played was that of public historian. He was involved in films, such as about the last survivor from Treblinka, as well as in establishing the Holocaust exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum. David was frequently interviewed in the British media on subjects relating to the Holocaust and antisemitism, and indeed was a well-known figure in the UK. For his work in advancing Holocaust commemoration in Britain he was awarded an OBE by the Queen. Most recently during the British chairmanship of IHRA, David returned to that body, lending the British delegation his prestige, experience and vast knowledge.

Over more than twenty years of our friendship I spent many hours with David. I learned many things from him and although I'm the Yad Vashem Library Director, I even received more than one good suggestion for a book to read. But mostly, I just enjoyed his company: sitting in his backyard on a cool April evening; taking our children on a hike in Israel followed by a barbeque in "Little Switzerland"; meeting for coffee when we both happened to be in Budapest; driving back and forth to Yad Vashem when he was here for research and bunking at my home; enjoying a Shabbat meal with our families and other friends – and all the while moving from talking about our work, to current events, to subjects more personal.

It is hard to believe that David is no longer here and that we will no longer benefit from his knowledge, his critical thinking, his wisdom, his eloquence, his wit and his warmth.

May his memory be blessed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Setting the Record Straight

Yad Vashem Chief Historian Professor Dina Porat:
It is a well-documented and undisputable fact that many years before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler was already obsessed by the notion that the Jews constituted an existential danger to the humankind, and thus world Jewry needed to be eliminated at all costs. 

This ideology began to be formed by Hilter when he was a solider during World War I.  Hitler believed that the war had not only been caused by the Jews, but also that the Jews had stabbed Germany in the back.  Hitler went on to develop his obsession with the Jewish problem in his infamous manifest, Mein Kampf, and later in other central documents of the Nazi Party that began to establish itself in the 1920s.  Finally, in a speech at the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler stated outright that if world Jewry would ‘once again drag the entire world into a World War’ then the only possible outcome would be the extermination of the Jewish people. 

All of these facts clearly show that Adolf Hitler was determined to annihilate the Jews, and subsequent historical events demonstrate how this mania developed them into official Nazi policies.  Hitler didn't need anyone else, including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseni, to come up with the idea to implement the "Final Solution." 

The Grand Mufti's visit, over two years after the outbreak of WWII, came once many "Final Solution policies were already in full swing.  Almost immediately following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich received instructions from Berlin giving the orders to establish ghettos and Jewish Councils in the occupied Polish territories.  It was widely understood amongst the SS that the ghettoization process of the Jews in Europe was a stepping stone for the implementation of the "Final Solution."  In addition, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 the SS Einsatzgruppen began the mass murders of the 1.5 million Jews in Lithuania, Russia, and the Ukraine.  The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations at the beginning of December 1941 just days after the meeting with the Grand Mufti.  The building of the death camp had already been underway for several months when these two leaders met. 

Therefore, the way Prime Minister Netanyahu worded his comments was historically inaccurate from the perspective of the "Final Solution" of European Jewry, but was on point for plans to expand this policy to Jews living in Mandatory Palestine. The Mufti had a specific agenda in meeting Hitler in 1941. The Protocol from this fateful meeting specifically states that "The Fuehrer replied that Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews and that naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine."  Hitler promised that he would carry on the battle to the total destruction of the "Judeo-Communistic Empire" in Europe.  The Mufti of Jerusalem was no lover of the Jewish people.  He was an ardent antisemite, but the idea of the "Final Solution" was Hitler's alone, as was the implementation of its appalling policies and actions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Courage, Strength and Humanity

"I look at my family and I see a miracle!" exclaimed Tova at the ceremony at Yad Vashem on Monday. "It's marvelous to be here" she said with a big smile on her face.  Tova was attending a special ceremony honoring the late Angele Larose. Angele saved Tova's life during the war by hiding her from the Nazis. During an emotional speech, Tova expressed her gratitude to AndrĂ© and his family who were attending the ceremony honoring their late grandmother for her wartime heroism. Tova reminisced about many happy memories she had from living on the farm and came to personally thank Angele's grandson for rescuing her. "Angele saved my life by her actions…my parents understood what they owed her. I did not because I was too young. Now, however I fully understand and appreciate her courage, strength and humanity."
Before the war, Hersch and Esther Lowenbraun emigrated from Poland to Charlerio, Belgium together with their two daughters; Sala (born 1925) and Matylda (born 1929). Their third daughter, Theresa-Tova, was born in Belgium in 1938.  Sala was arrested and deported with the first transport from Belgium to Poland in 1942.  In an attempt to save their two remaining daughters, Esther brought both Matylda and Theresa-Tova to the Saint Joseph Hospital and Convent. There, she asked the Mother Superior, Sister Julienne Aneuse, to hide the girls. Before leaving Esther instructed Matylda to recite the "Shema" prayer with her younger sister Tova in order not to forget their Jewish heritage. 

In 1943, Esther decided to move the girls to a safer location. Tova was taken to the farm of Angele Larose in the village of Villers-Poterie. The Larose family treated Tova well, and Tova benefited from the quiet life of the village, enjoying the animals. Occasionally, Esther would visit but, as Tova told Yad Vashem, "I didn't remember her as my mother, just a woman who visited and brought me a doll." Tova would accompany the Larose family to church every week, and at a certain stage asked the Priest to convert to Christianity. The Priest told her she would be able to do so when she was older. At the end of the war, Esther came to get her daughter and along with Hersch and Matylda, they immigrated to the United States. 

AndrĂ© was also very moved by the experience. "Who would've thought I would be talking about my grandmother here in Jerusalem. Her name will forever be remembered at Yad Vashem. It's wonderful to see Tova and all of her family."  

On March 16, 2015, Yad Vashem recognized Angele Larose and Sister Julienne Aneuse as Righteous Among the Nations.

Irena Steinfeldt, Director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem concluded the ceremony by noting that "not only were the Righteous extremely courageous for risking their lives to save others, but also the survivors themselves are remarkable as hiding is an enormous challenge. We can only admire them."

For more information about the Righteous Among the Nations: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/index.asp

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Behind-the-Scenes at Yad Vashem: Reference and Information Services Department

This first in a series of Q &As with Yad Vashem staff, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Reference and Information Services Department of the Archives Division.  Department Director Lital Beer gives an overview of the their current challenges and accomplishments:

Lital Beer, Director of the Reference and Information Services Department
Why was the Reference and Information Services Department established?

The Reference and Information Services Department was established in 2000 in order to streamline public enquiries directed at Yad Vashem's Archives, Library and Hall of Names. Until this point, these three branches offered separate services to people seeking information about the fate of certain individuals during the Holocaust. The precedent-setting decision to unite them, stemmed from the understanding that in most cases, this kind of query requires a search across multiple databases, producing a far more comprehensive answer. 

Over the years, the Department employees have developed specialties in database management, particularly the ability to cross-reference accurate information and documentation about Holocaust victims.

Which people or groups seek help finding information, and in what fields?

Approximately 10,000 people per year come to Yad Vashem’s Reading Room, and around 20,000 more contact us in writing from all over the world – from Israel, Europe, America, and even from Arab countries. A considerable amount of requests deal with clarifying the fate of Holocaust victims, mostly from relatives, but our services also help professionals in the fields of genealogy and law.

I'll give you an example. Recently, Henry Horvath from Ecuador visited the Archives with his son, Ronny. Henry's father, Aladar Benjamin Horvath Goldstein, was born in 1907 in Zagon, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today located in Romania. Aladar survived the war in France, where he was located for business purposes, and from there he escaped to Portugal. He was the only surviving member of his family. His son Henry sent us the names of his father's brother and sisters, about whom he had no information. Rita Margolin, a senior researcher in our Department, was able to locate information about each and every member of Aladar's family.

Other inquirers are Israeli and international researchers from various disciplines looking for archival and academic sources, as well as book publishers and even film producers seeking information to complete their research. We also assist museums and other memorial institutions searching for sources and information for exhibitions and ceremonies.
Searching for Archival material in the Reading Room

What challenges do you see for the Department in the future, and what tools do you already have to help solve them?
Nowadays, people are exposed to a wealth of information and documentation on the Internet, and therefore their inquiries are more challenging in terms of the material itself, its context and its significance. If a large part of our work in the past involved assisting people with accessing available materials on Yad Vashem’s physical campus, our role in the future will focus more on the need to help the public identify what’s relevant from the variety of accessible materials from around the world. This challenge demands that we learn and continuously develop specialties, and we do this both by training new staff members and by regular professional development programming.
Another challenge is the gap that often exists in the third and fourth generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust versus that of the first and second. In many cases, we receive requests for information from people who don’t know all the family details, such as names, birthdates, and places. In my opinion, this trend will increase in the future, so we have to be able to fill in the missing information in a variety of means. Often this is real detective work. The greatest difficulty is understanding that it is not always possible to be completely sure of the final fate of a particular person.

Why is it important for people to know about your services? How do you reach people that are unaware of your work?

Despite the distance of time, the Holocaust continues to be an important and major subject in the consciousness of people in Israel and the entire world.  Many are unaware of the vast information stored at Yad Vashem. The material accumulated here is meant to assist the public – as individuals and as groups – in researching the Holocaust and the history of individuals during that time, and commemorating them.We aren’t fulfilling our mission if our sources aren’t being used by the public in the most effective way.  As such, we maintain working contacts with a great many Holocaust-related institutions and organizations; we initiate and participate in conferences and study days; and we also work with universities and colleges to inform people studying the topic about our services. 

Researching in the Reading Room
Our greatest satisfaction is when we can help those who have approached us by supplying them with information they were unable to reach alone. After returning to Ecuador, Henry Horvath wrote: "My father was the only survivor of his family. I lament the pain that accompanied him during his lifetime. He was never able to talk about it or share whatever information he had, and suffered in silence. I understood from an early age not to ask questions, since they caused him pain. I only recorded in my mind the few comments that once in a while would escape him… We are especially grateful to everyone who helped put together the story of my family. Now I know the names of the husbands and the wives of my uncle and aunts, and also the names of their children and how many of them existed... Now I know when they were deported and where. Now I have been able to put names to the people in one family photograph that dates back to 1937… [this has] finalized an open question I have wrestled with my entire life."