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The Uncivil Servant: Saul Friedlander, Memory and Identity

Mitchell Abidor
March 5, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: When Memory Comes, by Saul Friedländer, translated by Helen R. Lane, Other Press, 2016, 176 pages; and Where Memory Leads by Saul Friedländer, Other Press, 2016, 283 pages.

IN 1978 the Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer published his highly-praised memoir, When Memory Comes. The volume recounts his pre-World War II childhood in Prague, his family’s flight to France, his life as a practicing Catholic when his parents placed him in a seminary for his protection while they attempted (and failed) to flee France for Switzerland, his later life in Paris as a student in one of France’s most prestigious high schools, and his departure for Israel on the ill-fated Irgun arms ship, the Altalena.

Reading this volume now, re-released by the always interesting Other Press to coincide with their publication of the second volume of his autobiography, Where Memory Leads, one can’t help but be struck by a certain lack of emotion in its descriptions of the young boy’s life.

There is nothing dramatic about the telling of the tale. Eschewing the dramatic tone of most Holocaust memoirs, Friedländer recounts his family saga with apparent calm. As he tells of the final moments –- which he wasn’t aware were such -– with his parents, of his learning of their deaths, no attempt is made to tug at our heartstrings. The very neutrality of his telling made it all the more chilling.

This lack of feeling was recognized by his French publisher when he submitted the original manuscript, as we learn in Where Memory Leads. The editor at the Seuil publishing house sent him what he describes as an “elegant” rejection letter. “Interesting but lacks all feeling. According to him I had produced a lifeless narration of events.” His final version is not “lifeless,” but it is coldly rational.

Given the “lack of feeling” in the sections on his experience during the Occupation, his dithyrambic descriptions of Israel in When Memory Comes, given in flash forwards, jar. These passages about Israel, where he lived and taught for many years, show all the feeling lacking in the Holocaust sections, and don’t gain for it. It’s shocking to read a scholar write, in praise of Israeli soldiers, describing them as “[b]earers of the nation’s destiny . . . young people thirsting for knowledge . . . those back from a battlefront, and soon to return to it, sitting leaning against a tank to read a poem or a page of philosophy.” As if love for high culture has ever stood in the way of atrocities.

His emotional coldness is something that Friedländer recognizes and discusses in his second volume as a constant in his life, writing that those who lived in “catastrophic circumstances” “may have built a normal exterior . . . [but] some flaw remains in their personality.” He goes on, in an especially revealing and perceptive passage to say, “In my case, the inner flaw manifested itself mainly in emotional paralysis. At some stage in the seminary, I stopped longing for my parents and started worrying about how I would express happiness upon their return. I cried profusely when told they would not come back, but wasn’t that expected of me? Soon thereafter, mainly after I left the seminary, I recognized that nothing could touch me profoundly.”

MORE THAN the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor and scholar, Friedländer’s two volumes of memoirs are about identity: the loss of identity, the confusion of identity, the difficulty in reclaiming one. His difficulty was, it might be said, a hereditary trait: In When Memory Comes, he describes his assimilated father as being “hunted down for what he had refused to remain: a Jew. What he wanted to become, a man like others, had been taken away from him, leaving him no possible recourse.” Friedländer’ describes the stocking hung on the family fireplace on St. Nicholas’ Day, how he was not circumcised (though we learn in the second volume he considered having it done later in life in Israel) and has never learned Jewish prayers.

His confusion of identities, both national and religious, is expressed in his varied names. Born Pawel in Prague, he became Paul in France, then was baptized Paul-Henri-Marie as a Catholic, then was Shaul in Israel (where for a time even his last name was changed, from Friedländer to Eldar as part of mandatory Hebraization at the ministry of defense), and finally to Saul.

The very languages in which the two volumes were written speak to this. When Memory Comes was written in French (and brilliantly translated by the late Helen R. Lane), while Where Memory Leads was written in English. Friedländer admits that he writes better in French and thinks in the language, and the prose in the second volume is, indeed, inferior to that in the first. Still, Where Memory Leads has a meandering charm, as he describes his peripatetic existence in the 1950s, saying that “in the next two years I would change countries three times . . . I liked living on the surface of things. Possessions I had none; deep attachments to people, I hadn’t either. . . Thus, at 24, I was a luftmentsh in the true sense of the word.”

In Where Memory Leads, Friedländer also reveals his discomfort with Israeli policy and politics, which was only hinted at and buried beneath mountains of praise in the first volume. His situation after World War II is certainly far less dramatic than his pre-war and wartime one, and the memoir of someone on the road to scholarly stardom might be assumed to lack a certain oomph. But his vivid descriptions of battles over interpretation of the Holocaust and its place in German history are riveting, and mold the way we view the event and its protagonists.

He began his career in the field with a study of the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust, a study set off by the accidental discovery, while writing his doctoral dissertation, of a letter by a Vatican official asking for a private Wagner concert from the director of the Berlin Opera. “At the time of the request,” he writes, “Nazi exterminations on Soviet territory were widely known and reported. Under such circumstances, the pope’s demand for this private concert by a German orchestra amazed me.” This led Friedländer to ask the large questions of the Church’s actions, but also how they tied to his own experience. “Would I have been hidden if my parents had not accepted my baptism?” The damning results were published in French in November 1964.

He would go on to author many books on the topic, most importantly his two massive volumes, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 and The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945. In these books, he synthesized years of study into a global and irreplaceable study of the operation of the Nazi extermination program., one that would place him at the heart of debates on the subject, among both historians and writers and filmmakers. Friedländer , for example, condemned the film Our Hitler and its director, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg for antisemitism, and questioned the attractiveness granted Hitler by George Steiner in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of AH. At no point in his discussion of these debates is there the queasy feeling that he feels no one can touch “our Holocaust.” Rather, we see Friedländer insisting on intellectual probity for all involved, and having no patience for those lacking in this quality.

His casual manner of storytelling is engaging, and there’s no way to be bothered about his uncertainty over whether an event occurred in January or February of a given month, since it adds to a certain verbal aspect to the writing. Misspelling Meir Kahane’s name and the Montreal neighborhood Westmount is less forgivable, but doesn’t detract from the book.

Friedländer makes no claims to having suffered the worst, exaggerates nothing, and remains lucid and modest across the pages of his two memoirs. They are the work of man seeking not only his past and his identity, but also trying to get as close to the truth as is possible, and there can be no higher praise than this.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.