August 7, 2007

Raul Hilberg, 1926-2007

Raul Hilberg at the Museum, January 2005

I first encountered Raul Hilberg in the form of his magisterial book, The Destruction of the European Jews, which I had been assigned -- all 790 pages -- as the reading for a particular week in a seminar I took in my junior year of college in the spring of 1972. The two-inch-thick-plus paperback, which cost $3.95, is on my bookshelf today, and I still consult it from time to time. The book is based on Hilberg's careful examination of the huge collection of captured German records which first became available to scholars in the 1950's. From these documents, Hilberg revealed a comprehensive picture of the Nazi regime, its institutions and the bureaucracy that was its backbone. Hilberg's reliance on the documents and his skill in putting them into context made a mighty impression on me.

Later, when I worked for the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg, but to work with him (I confess that I was star-struck because he was so towering a figure to me). He served as an expert witness in a number of our cases, and I was assigned to work in preparing him for his testimony. I met with him in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington. Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost xerography and computers. He made his way through archives with pencil and paper, taking careful notes and digesting key documents. His mastery of those documents and their meaning was a model for all of us who worked in the field. Hilberg was also a riveting speaker, who could deliver well structured paragraphs, extemporaneously, as if he had drafted and edited them beforehand. Those who saw him in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah will recall his measured tone and simple eloquence.

I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I am saddened by his passing and will remember him with profound respect and affection.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

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