Raul Hilberg (1926-2007)

Raul Hilberg, the acknowledged dean of Holocaust Studies, died of lung cancer on August 4, 2007 in Burlington, Vermont. He is survived by his wife Gwendolyn and by his children from an earlier marriage: David of Brooklyn and Deborah of Jerusalem.

Born in Vienna, Hilberg well-remembered Hitler’s triumphant entry in 1938. His family left Austria shortly thereafter, and found a temporary haven in Cuba, where he witnessed the ordeal of the SS St. Louis passengers. Unlike his parents, they were denied entry into Cuba and returned to Europe. His stay was brief for his family was admitted into the United States. Settling in Brooklyn, his solidly bourgeois middle class
parents from Vienna became factory workers.

Hilberg studied at Brooklyn College. then joined the US Army at 18 and was assigned to a combat unit in Europe. He returned and earned his BA at Brooklyn College and attended Columbia University for his MA. His professor was Franz Neumann, who had written on the four centers of power within the Nazi state. It was Neumann who said—when Hilberg wanted to expand his MA into his Ph.D thesis—“OK, but this will be your funeral.” It was also Neumann who recommended Hilberg for his job at the Alexandria Documentation Center, where he reviewed captured Nazi war documents. This work reinforced Hilberg’s notion of the overarching importance of documents and gave him unsurpassed knowledge of this particular documentation. In 1956, he moved to the University of Vermont, where he made his academic home for the next 35 years. He retired from teaching in 1991, but never abandoned his research.

Hilberg is best known and most deeply revered for his monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. It was reissued in “a revised and definitive edition” in 1985 and yet again, ever more greatly revised and more definitive in 2004 by Yale University Press. In reality, each of its many foreign language editions was a revision of the original, and Hilberg never ceased honing his insights and reconsidering his work in light of the many new documents that surfaced because of declassification and the opening of archives in Eastern Europe.

Christopher R. Browning, Hilberg’s most important disciple wrote: “Hilberg’s major contribution was to portray the Nazi destruction of the European Jews not as a giant pogrom, but as a bureaucratic and administrative process, requiring specialists of all kinds and successfully eliciting participation from virtually every branch of organized German society… Hilberg created an overarching structure for his study through the interplay of two key concepts: a ‘machinery of destruction’ comprised of Neumann’s four hierarchies—the party, civil service, military, and industry—and a ‘process of destruction’ comprised of three crucial stages—definition, concentration, and annihilation, with each stage accompanied by commensurate expropriation.”

Yet this work, widely regarded even by his critics as “monumental and magisterial,” almost did not see the light of day. Publisher after publisher rejected his manuscript. Commercial presses were uninterested in such precision and detail—presented in hundreds of dense, double-columned pages, describing bureaucratic struggles and foreign language documents. University presses saw little reason to consider a work on the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, which had agreed to publish the work, reneged after facing stiff internal opposition to Hilberg’s treatment of armed Jewish resistance, central to Zionist narrative, as a marginal phenomena of last resort.

Throughout his long career, Raul Hilberg would not back away from his description of Jewish behavior as moving along a continuum from alleviation to evasion to paralysis and finally to compliance. He wrote persistently and persuasively of anticipatory compliance. Writing from the perspective of German documentation, he minimized the importance of armed resistance altogether.

Hilberg’s work was finally published in 1961 by Quadrangle Press, and only with a private subvention—just as interest in the Holocaust began to grow in response to the Eichmann Trial. Hannah Arendt made much use of Hilberg’s work in her famed New Yorker columns, but without attribution; only in her later work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, was the young scholar given his due. According to Browning “What Hilberg portrayed as a catastrophic and tragic failure of perception, Arendt in contrast portrayed in terms of seduction by apparent power, self-serving corruption, and ultimately betrayal—in short a searing accusation of moral failure.”

Unfortunately, Hilberg’s point was too subtle for many to grasp; in all but the most sophisticated of circles, Hilberg and Arendt’s portraits of Jewish leadership were regarded as identical.

Hilberg did grapple with the role of Jewish leadership in his moving portrait of Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, who’s diary was translated into English and published with a meticulous commentary by Hilberg, that informed both the non-technical reader and even the most scholarly. Only in 1979, with the emergence of
Yehuda Bauer—the distinguished Israeli scholar who was Hilberg’s contemporary and friend—was Hilberg permitted into the Yad Vashem archives. Only then could Hilberg hold the final book of Czerniakow’s Diary and realize that on the night that Czerniakow refused to sign the deportation orders, at the hour he took his own life, he had finished the ninth volume of his handwritten work. Had Czerniakow lived, he would have had had to start a new notebook for the next entry in his journal.

Hilberg was gracious in his response to Isaiah Trunk’s definitive work on the Jewish Councils, which transformed the debate. A scholar of scholars, he venerated good scholarship. Other works followed. When Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders was published, Hilberg was bitter over what he perceived as the less than laudatory New York Times review by Michael Marrus. His study of the German railroad system, written in German, is still unsurpassed. He had shown that railroads were essential to the killing process, making the victims mobile and allowing for stationary killing centers.

His memoir, The Politics of Memory was an angry work. Written at a time when his role in the academic study of the Holocaust was secure, he did not claim vindication, he did not celebrate his triumph, he settled scores with Hannah Arendt, Lucy Dawidowicz and with Nora Levin, none of whose work could hold a candle to his own. One reads this work with sadness, as Hilberg should have been able to write as one who was finally venerated, and widely respected. Still, the wounds of his youth, the loneliness of his pursuit and the pain of the beginnings were all too apparent. His later work, Sources of Holocaust Research, taught one how to read documents as only he could read them. This work should be required reading by all students of the Holocaust who must begin to understand how to approach a text, critically, respectfully.

I worked closely with Raul Hilberg on the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Already regarded as the preeminent American scholar by1979, President Carter appointed him to the President’s Commission of the Holocaust and later to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He served on its Academic Committee and traveled extensively for the Museum, most especially to help their efforts to open archives in the then Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain. He was in it for the long haul, reviewing the finding aids one by one, choosing the documents to be sought, the records to be copied and read the microfilms one by one, making sure that the archivists had kept their word.

Walking into an archive with Raul was like walking into a restaurant with a master chef. The archivist was always aware of his presence, always in awe of his reputation. Just as the chef would bring out his best dish to impress a master, even an archivist, so very well trained and trusted to keep important material hidden from view, would be tempted into bringing forth something new, something uniquely valuable to impress the master.

Raul never once accepted remuneration for his work on the Holocaust Museum even when others were paid for their time and their efforts, even when he offered seminars and gave lectures. He was a consistent, gracious and insisting presence demanding the highest of standards and he measured up to them.

When word of his death became known, I wrote to Bauer, who has received the Israel Prize for his own important work. Bauer replied: “Hilberg hated Nazis, he hated murderers, and he hid his emotions, by no means always successfully, behind a cold, analytical exterior. When he permitted himself the luxury, he became what he really was, a warm and emotional human being.
“We fought each other publicly, and became close friends privately. He was exactly my age, and we came from the same cultural background. But he was different: his experiences as a new immigrant to the U.S., and then as a soldier in a fighting unit, and afterwards as a pupil of Franz Neumann at Columbia, made him what he was. He did not ask the big questions of ‘why’ because, as he often said, he did not want to answer those big questions with small answers. He was a confirmed atheist, and a lover of Judaism. He was a marvelous public speaker, yearning for confrontations and argument. He was a Mensch.”

Everyone in the field of Holocaust Studies knows that if a Noble Prize were offered for Holocaust Studies, Hilberg would have been its most worthy recipient. Such was the quality of his work, and also the man.

Michael Berenbaum is a Professor Jewish Studies at the American Jewish University Los Angeles (formerly UJ). He worked with Hilberg for more than three decades.