August 16, 2007

Remembering Raul Hilberg

The Jewish Week asked me to write a tribute to Raul Hilberg. The following, an edited and expanded version of the previous blog, was published today, in the August 17th issue.

Documenting The Horror
Remembering the pioneering work, and presence, of Raul Hilberg.
David G. Marwell - Special To The Jewish Week

When I learned last week that professor Raul Hilberg had died from lung cancer at 81, it was a sad reminder of the passing of a generation. Nearly every week, we learn of the death of another Holocaust survivor or World War II veteran, and we wonder what our world will be like without them.

Hilberg was born in 1926 in Vienna, left his native land for Cuba in 1939, and eventually landed in the United States. A graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, Brooklyn College and Columbia University, he served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He was a political science professor at the University of Vermont for more than 35 years.

I first encountered Hilberg in the form of his landmark book, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” which I had been assigned — all 790 pages — as the seminar reading for one particular week during 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.

The book, first published in 1961 and followed by two expanded and updated editions over the years, was based on Hilberg’s meticulous examination of the transcripts and exhibits of the Nuremberg trials and the huge collection of captured German records to which he had access as a member of the team of analysts hired to catalog and assess them. 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 powerful impression on me.

And I was not the only one. Indeed, Hilberg’s work defined a field of study and inspired a generation of scholars. In his memoir, “The Politics of Memory,” published in 1996, Hilberg describes the origin of his masterwork — the lonely effort, the years of research and writing, the long and difficult search for a publisher. He also describes the surprising inspiration he found. Hilberg tells how he arranged his narrative in the way he believed Beethoven crafted a symphony: “I grasped for an overall symmetry. ... The first chapter was thematically reflected in the last. The second was matched with the next to last, and the third with the tenth. The longest of my chapters was the one on deportations. It was the Andante of my composition, with a theme and multiple variations that mirrored the special conditions under which deportations were carried out in each country.”

Perhaps the musical metaphor reached too far, but Hilberg had composed a masterpiece, whose contribution to our understanding of the actions of the perpetrators remains unmatched.

When I worked for the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s, I had the opportunity not only to meet Hilberg but to work with him. 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 confess that I was star-struck when I first met him because he was so towering a figure to me, and I was nervous indeed when I first delivered to Hilberg the fruits of my own archival research for his interpretation. We met in his office at the University of Vermont and in his home in Burlington, and I saw firsthand how he approached a document.

Hilberg was of a generation of scholars who came of age before the advent of low-cost photocopying and computers, and I remember him describing his research methods to me. 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.

“I could not write about this complex phenomenon without searching for evidence in pieces of paper, sifting them, combining them, immersing myself in the atmosphere of the time when they had been composed, measuring the pulse of the whole development and assessing its gravity,” he wrote in “Sources of Holocaust Research,” published in 2001.

Hilberg was a riveting speaker — in the courtroom and at the lectern — with a distinctive voice and elocution. He could deliver a stream of 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. Those who had the privilege of hearing him in person will not forget the precision and clarity of his delivery.

I was privileged to have known Raul Hilberg and to have sat at his feet. I will remember him with profound respect and affection and will treasure my dog-eared copy of his path-breaking work. It will remind me of a great scholar who labored to make clear what was unimaginable.

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