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10 Questions with Saul Friedlander

UCLA History Professor Saul Friedlander, chronicler of the Holocaust, will receive the top award at the Frankfurt Book Fair this month.

This article was first published in UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

History Professor Saul Friedlander, whose parents were killed during the Nazi Holocaust, is a master of the art of grasping the incomprehensible. On Oct. 14, in recognition of his acclaimed narratives of the Holocaust, Friedlander will receive the 2007 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Frankfurt Book Fair's top award. He talks to Staff Writer Ajay Singh about what it was like for him, personally and professionally, to chronicle the Holocaust.

Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Why has it been so important to you to keep the history of the Holocaust alive?

Historians very often, without acknowledging it, have some personal reason to deal with a specific topic. As I was a child in Europe during World War II and went into hiding, it's not so astonishing that years later I decided to go back to this topic.

What is it like to live with the memory of the Holocaust?

It creates a problem in the sense that when I work on the materials, I am sensitive to them more directly than, I guess, people who are totally unrelated to these events.

Could you give an example?

While researching the second volume of my (2006) book "The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews," I came across the letter from a young French-Jewish girl to her father. She didn't know about Auschwitz but she was going to Auschwitz. In her letter, she tries to cheer her father up. This letter unsettled me much more than some documents describing the worst atrocities.

Given that memory is often imperfect, do you think narrative history is often mythologized — or as some have said, 'coarsened?'

No. This was an argument that was brought by a German historian 20 years ago against Jews trying to write the history of the Holocaust. The historian, Martin Broszat, and I had an exchange in which I asked him: Was it less of a burden for a historian who had been a member of the Hitler youth — after he passed away, it also came out that he had been a member of the Nazi party — than it is for a historian who is among the hounded?

What is likely to happen to the Holocaust's memory after its last survivors pass away?

These events seem to be deeply anchored in not only the German imagination or that of the Jews but in the Western imagination.

Why do you think the world knows so much more about the Holocaust than about other mass exterminations?

The Holocaust happened in the midst of the European continent — and Germany documented very thoroughly its own murderous actions. Plus, the survivors, who very often were literate people, could tell or record what they had seen or gone through.

Are you religious?

No. You can call me totally agnostic.

Agnostic or atheist?

Yes, atheist, but "atheist" has a kind of activist connotation. I am not going around saying to people, "Don't believe."

What are your hobbies?

I like reading and listening to classical music.

What's your next work going to be about?

You will be astonished. It will be on Franz Kafka, the Czech-Jewish writer, born in the same city as I was, Prague.

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