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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,484


This is the grave of Raul Hilberg.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Hilberg grew up in the Jewish elite of that city. His family had moved there from Poland and spoke Polish. His father was World War I hero. Raul was not a social kid. He was a real loner, into trainspotting among other rather individualistic activities. The family was quite secular, but did send Raul to a Zionist school. This was of course at the same time as the rise of the Nazis. The family tried to hold on in Vienna. After the Germans took over Austria in 1938, his father was arrested, but freed because of his war hero status, which most certainly would not have happened a few years later. The family got out in April 1939, first going to France, then Cuba, and finally the U.S., where they arrived on…..September 1, 1939.

The Hilbergs ended up in the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Raul was going to be a chemist but ended up not much caring for it in the end. He dropped out of high school and worked in a factory before joining the Army in 1944. It did not take the Army to realize they had a very talented kid here. His language skills were first rate and just because one dropped out of school did not mean that one did not have huge talents that could be put to use on the academic side of the military. Hilberg was already reading everything he could about what would become known as the Holocaust and was probably a greater expert on the subject than almost every American even by 1944. Dealing with the erasure of Jews from Europe, including dozens of his own extended family, would become Hilberg’s obsession for the rest of his life. The Army put him in the War Documentation Department, which was there to comb archives in Europe for evidence of the Holocaust and other war crimes. So it was Hilberg who discovered Hitler’s hidden private library in Munich. One can see why that would have an impact on a young Jewish man!

Upon leaving the military in 1946, Hilberg went back to school to prepare himself for his life of studying what happened to the Jewish population of Europe. He personally despised the term “Holocaust,” but it’s hard to not use it today and he ended up using it too in the end. Wanted to make a note of this though. He enrolled in Brooklyn College and graduated in 1948. While there, he had a class from Hans Rosenberg, himself a leading historian of modern Europe. But Rosenberg refused to talk about the Holocaust and Hilberg found this true of a lot of Jewish scholars. They preferred silence. I can get this, I think. Dealing with that level of trauma is not for many people and it’s just easier to study other things. In any case. Hilberg decided to make an academic study of the massacre of Jews in order to fight that silence. So he went on to graduate school at Columbia, getting his PhD in 1955 and despite getting warnings from his Jewish advisors that discussing the Holocaust was professional suicide, he didn’t care. It did work out for him. The University of Vermont hired him shortly after his defense and he stared there in 1956. He was in the Political Science up there for his whole career, until he retired in 1991.

Hilberg’s biggest contribution was his tome The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. Running at a mere 1,388 pages, it works as well as a weapon, assuming you are strong enough to wield it, as it does a book on the Holocaust. Effectively, this is the book that started the intensive study of the Holocaust in the United States, and to some extent in Europe as well. This was based on his dissertation. But he had a really hard time getting it published. Many presses rejected it and finally it was Quadrangle Books that published it, a small press. In short, this was just not a topic that people wanted to talk about before the 1960s. And this wasn’t just anti-Semitism. Hannah Arendt herself advised Princeton University Press not to publish it. They didn’t like each other anyway. He hated her idea of the “banality of evil.” Moreover, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial organization, also refused to publish it because Hilberg didn’t center Jewish armed resistance enough for their tastes. Another piece of the initial hostility to all of this was the Cold War. In short, Cold War liberalism did not have a place in it for attacks on the West German political class, many of whom were at the very least complicit with the Nazis when these people were 20 years younger. Some hated this book for being ant-German, others for being anti-Jewish. Hilberg wrote lots of other books over his career too, all on the same topic, more or less.

So say this for Hilberg–he was no hack. He was going to tell this history the way he saw it no matter what Cold War liberals or Jewish nationalists wanted. And he just laid it out, especially the functioning of the Nazi machine. The man understood bureaucracy and centered it in his story. He was much more interested in how the Holocaust than why it happened. Maybe he just couldn’t quite go there. What he did focus on was how Jews often helped their own persecutors, which definitely was controversial at the time. Despite her initial reticence, Arendt found the book very influential and it played a major role in Eichmann in Jerusalem, published in 1963.

By the 1970s, the Holocaust was starting to take the position it does in American life that it holds today, which is as the key story of World War II and one that Americans hold a lot more dearly than they do in Europe or really anywhere else in the world outside of Israel of course. Hilberg had played a huge role in this. Jimmy Carter named him to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1979. That is part of what laid the groundwork for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for which Hilberg served on the governing board for many years. He was also the only scholar interviewed in Shoah, which I suppose I should watch one of these days, but who really wants to watch a film that long about the Holocaust at this point. I can’t say that I do. Later, Hilberg was a major critic of Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, one of the most debated Holocaust books ever, as I remember from every literary magazine back when I started reading that stuff around that time. Basically, he not only said Goldhagen was an amateur hack, he said no one in the Political Science department at Harvard knew anything about the issue and so let him pass through with bad work. I will leave that debate to people who know more about it.

I am curious as to how Hilberg would have seen current events in Israel and the U.S. He was quite dismissive of the idea that anti-Semitism was making a comeback, openly deriding what he saw as ridiculously over-sensitive Jews in the 2000s. In 2007, shortly before his death, he called these worried the equivalent of “picking up a few pebbles from the past and throwing them at windows.”

Hilberg died in 2007, at the of 81. It was lung cancer, although he was not a smoker.

Raul Hilberg is buried in Scottsville Cemetery, Danby, Vermont.

If you would like this series to visit other scholars of the Holocaust, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lucy Dawidowicz is in Paramus, New Jersey and Richard Rubenstein is in Fairfield, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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