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Volume 18, No.1 / Fall 2004            
Yehuda Bauer, Historian of the Holocaust (Part 1)
Portrait of an Historian  

Introduction
Section 1
Memory of a Boyhood
A History of the Holocaust
Section 2
Portrait of an Historian
Glossary
Credits
Second Issue

 

 

      “Let me tell you a story.”  This is a phrase that appears often when Dr. Yehuda Bauer speaks to students and teachers about the history of the Holocaust.   As he explains, it is not enough to know the dates and facts of an event.  “We must know the stories of individuals.  We must study their moral dilemmas.”   And such stories!  His stories capture the very essence of the Holocaust experience.  Take, for example, the following account about Abba Kovner, as told by Professor Bauer:

 

 

     When the attempt at the rebellion in the ghetto [Vilna] failed and one of the two main units was captured by the Germans, Abba decided that there was no other choice—try to escape through the sewers, and go to the forest.  The chances were slim, as they did not have enough weapons, and the exit from the sewers was not secured, so that they could easily have fallen into German hands.  Nor did they have an exact idea how to reach the forests of Rudniki and what to do once they arrived there, surrounded as they would be by a hostile peasantry.  The entry into the sewer was difficult:  they would have to go in a single file and crawl through a narrow space with little air.  Abba decided to admit only members of the Underground, or young people who had joined it at the last moment.  His mother suddenly appeared from her hiding place and asked her son what she should do.  He could not admit his mother while refusing to admit the other older people.  He left his mother behind.
 

 

  Why are stories important for learning about the past?
  How do you learn about the past?
  How did you learn about the Shoah?
  Talk about a film or a television program on history that has helped you learn about a certain history.  Why is this medium effective in teaching an historical event? 



     In the fall of 2003, Yehuda Bauer was a visiting professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  His dynamic presentations, unforgettable stories of the Holocaust era and commitment to teaching the Holocaust left an indelible impression on audiences.  Many who heard the professor wanted to know his story:

  Where did he come from?
  How did he become an historian? 
  Why does he take such an interest in the issues of rescue and resistance?
  What are his current areas of research?
  Why has he written about his rethinking of the Holocaust?

 

    

 

     Dr. Bauer delights in telling how his interest in history started with a dynamic and concerned history teacher he had as an adolescent.    Along with this positive educational experience, one cannot help but wonder if the times in which Yehuda Bauer was growing up peaked his interest in history, the history of the Jews in particular.   Hitler’s National Socialist Party came to power during Yehuda’s boyhood, and by his fifteenth birthday the Nazis were implementing their “Final Solution” to the Jewish Question.   As a young adult, Bauer became involved with the Israeli struggle for independence.

 

  To what extent did these major historical events influence the thinking and decisions of the young Bauer?
  Why has he found the study of history essential for dealing with present issues?
  Why has the study of the Holocaust remained for him the central defining event of modern history, the history of the Jews in particular?

 

 

The Formative Years of Dr. Yehuda Bauer

 

       Yehuda Bauer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1926.  He grew up in Prague, fluent in Czech, Slovak and German.  From 1934 until 1939, his father, a dedicated Zionist, tried to get his family to Palestine.  It took him time to raise the money (a thousand pounds) required for emigration to Palestine.  On March 15, 1939, the very day that Germany assumed control of Bohemia and Moravia, the Bauer family departed for Palestine.  

 

 

     Bauer attended high school in Haifa, Palestine.  It was during this time that a dynamic history teacher, Rachel Krulik, cultivated his love for history and inspired him to become an historian.  As Bauer recently recalled:

 

     I attended the Hugim (pronounced khugim} high school in Haifa.  From, I think, the eighth or ninth grade we had Rachel Krulik as our history teacher.  She was quite an attractive, smallish, round woman, and she taught us what was known as general—as opposed to Jewish—history.  The textbook was pretty boring, but her way of teaching was wonderful.  She brought pictures to the classroom, maps, and stories about the people she was teaching us about—not only the kings and generals, but the ordinary people, the peasants and townspeople.  She talked about the era of Louis XIV and she made it come alive. 

 

     Influenced by her, and at the ripe age of 16, I decided that I was going to study and write history.  I used to visit her in her very modest home, which she shared with her very intelligent, very friendly, but reclusive husband (they had no children).  She told me she had been born in Cracow, in Poland, and had studied in pre-Hitler Germany.  In actual fact, if she had been born later, she probably would have been a university teacher, but Palestine in the early forties could afford no such luxuries.

 

     I finished school, and went my own way.  Many years later, I had put my mother in an old age home, in Haifa of course.  It is a home for people with a Central European background, mainly German-speaking seniors.  As my mother slowly declined, I visited more often.  One day, suddenly, I saw Rachel again—an old woman, who had lost her husband, and was moving into the home.  She was immediately glad that I had recognized her, and then, for a few months whenever I visited my mother, I went up to her room for a chat.  As alert and brilliant as ever, she no longer had a will to live—not because she was desperate or sad, but simply because she had nothing to offer anymore, and was quite happy to leave the stage. 

 

     One day I came, and she was gone, suddenly and peacefully.  Some of what I have to offer comes from her.

 

  Upon completing high school he joined the Palmach—the Jewish underground that later became the core of the Israeli Army.  Having received a British scholarship he left to attend a University in Cardiff, Wales.  His university studies were interrupted when he returned to fight in the Israeli War of Independence during 1948-9; Bauer resumed and completed his university studies in Cardiff.   He then returned to Israel where he joined Kibbutz Shoval and began his graduate work in history at Hebrew University.   His doctoral thesis focused on the Palestine Mandate, and in 1960 he received his doctorate. 

 

     In 1961 as the freshly minted Ph.D. began his teaching career with the Institute for Contemporary Jewry (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), he had a conversation with Abba Kovner, a Holocaust survivor and poet and well known Zionist leader.  Kovner said that Bauer’s work on Jews in Palestine during World War II was “not bad,” but asked why he was wasting his time writing about Jews in Palestine.

         Kovner in later years

 

      When Bauer inquired why?  Kovner replied with a question: “What was the most important event in Jewish history?”

 

      Bauer answered, “the Shoah.” 

 

      “Well then,” said Kovner, “why don’t you deal with it?”

 

      “Because I’m scared,” replied Bauer.

 

      “That,” said Kovner, “is a very good starting point.”

 

      “And I still am scared,” says Bauer today.

 

      The conversation with Kovner took place in the early 1960s.  Today, Dr. Yehuda Bauer is one of the preeminent historians of the Holocaust.  For more then four decades his research, publications, and teaching have focused on the Holocaust.   Although his interpretations have changed as new archives have become available, Bauer maintains that his fundamental belief in the importance of the Holocaust remains unchanged:

 

     But the statement, eighteen years ago [when he published his first History of the Holocaust], that the Holocaust must be considered the watershed event in modern history not only stands, but is the basic reason that hundreds of university and college courses in the United States and Canada, as well as in other countries are devoted to the subject.

 

Connections:

 

  What teachers have had a decisive influence on your life?
  Why do you think Abba Kovner argued that the Shoah was the watershed event in Jewish history?
  Why do you think the young Bauer said he was “scared” about investigating the subject of the Shoah?

 

 

Brief Overview of Dr. Yehuda Bauer’s Research and Teaching

 

The Research of Dr. Bauer

 

       From the outset of his research on the Holocaust, Bauer recognized the significance of fluency in several languages.  He already knew Czech, Slovak, German and English.  He soon mastered working knowledge of Yiddish, French and Polish.  

 

 

      During the 1960s and 1970s his Holocaust research focused on the experiences of survivors and the policies pursued by major American Jewish organizations during the Holocaust.  His principal publications in those years reflected these interests.  As early as 1968 he prepared a small book entitled They Chose Life for the American Jewish Committee that examined various facets of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.  Subsequent studies included: Flight and Rescue (1975), a study of Jewish refugees in Europe 1944-8; My Brother’s Keeper (1974) outlining the history of the American Joint Distribution Committee, 1914-1939; American Jewry and the Holocaust (1982) centering on the activities of the Joint Distribution Committee and other European organizations during the Holocaust.   Several years later, in 1989, he published Out of the Ashes on how the American Jewish organizations dealt with survivors in Europe  

between 1945 and 1954.  His latest book is Rethinking the Holocaust (2001), which attempts an overview of the main issues of Holocaust research.

     Over the last two decades Dr. Bauer has turned his attention to the little explored topic of relations between Jews and Nazis on the rescue of Jews.  He was intrigued by these negotiations.  Even though many of these efforts failed, Bauer felt it was important to examine them and consider possible scenarios whereby the efforts might have succeeded.  Much of his work on the topic was synthesized in his Jews for Sale (1994).

 

 

 

 

Dr. Bauer:  The Consummate History Teacher

 

 

      Teaching has been another significant aspect of Dr. Bauer’s career.   During the 1970s he served several years as the Chair of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry and became a full professor at Hebrew University in 1977.  In 1980 he became the permanent Academic Chair of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry and founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.  He remained in this position until 1995.   

 

     Over the last decade, he has been a visiting professor at several universities including Yale, Brandeis, University of Hawaii, and the Center for the Study of Antisemitism in Berlin.  Twice he has been the Ida E. King Scholar in Holocaust Studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. 

 

     Teaching the Holocaust for several decades prompted Dr. Bauer to synthesize his interpretations in A History of the Holocaust (1981), a textbook for college and university teaching on the subject.  He also compiled his lectures in The Holocaust in Historical Perspective and Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness.   His most recent publication, A History of the Holocaust (2001, Revised Edition) incorporates recent research from the newly opened Eastern European archives and updates information from his 1981 History

     What makes Bauer’s teaching approach so exciting and memorable for students and general audiences is his ability to tell stories.  The following story of his mentor Abba Kovner illustrates his amazing skills as a storyteller:

 

     Abba Kovner told the story, which seemed to be pure fiction, of his going to an attic in the ghetto, where he found a tailor bent over his sewing machine.  When he looked closer, the tailor was sewing a long piece of paper, and when he looked closer still he realized that he was sewing without a thread.   He asked the tailor:  what are you doing?  Why are you sewing paper, and without a thread?  And the tailor answered:  I am sewing to write the history of the Jewish people, and especially of the people today.  There is no substance, only paper, and on it I am writing, but there is no thread.

 

     I had always thought that this was the figment of Abba’s wild imagination, but then he told me once, that there was some reality behind it.  At one point, in the ghetto, he went to a cellar, and he saw there a tailor, and the man was actually sewing, but there was no material and no paper, there was simply nothing.  And the tailor was working on the machine, and the machine had no needle, and no thread.  And when Abba asked, thinking the tailor had gone out of his mind, the man answered, that he had no work, and the machine was useless, and he was pretending, just like the Jews were pretending that there was substance to their live in the ghetto, and that that was the core of the history of the Jews.

 

      Throughout his career, Dr. Bauer has believed it is imperative that he explore new ideas and themes.  “Historical research is continuing,” he remarked in a recent workshop, “and new insights will undoubtedly have to be added in the future.”

 

      To keep himself and others abreast the latest research, Bauer has been instrumental in organizing major international conferences: he organized the first international conference in New York in 1975 and co-edited the papers in The Holocaust as Historical Experience (1981).  In 1988, he worked with Dr. Elizabeth Maxwell to organize the international conference at Oxford; three volumes of papers resulted from the conference.  Also, he edited the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies between 1988 and 1995:

 

   

      Dr. Bauer’s is particularly interested in making sure the broader public has access to and understanding of the history of the Holocaust.  He has been the adviser to numerous film and television productions on the Holocaust:  he takes special pride in his association with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. 

 

 

      Also during recent years Dr. Bauer has received numerous recognitions for his research and writing in the field of Holocaust Studies.  In 1998, he was the recipient of the Israel Prize, the highest civilian award in Israel.  In 2001, he was elected a Member of the Israeli Academy of Science.  Currently, he serves as academic adviser to Yad Vashem, academic adviser to the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and senior adviser to the Swedish Government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention. 

 

 

Who, or What is an Historian?

 

       Dr. Bauer has been a practicing historian for more than four decades and has very set ideas of what it means to be an historian. 

 

     First and foremost, he insists that history is not a science.  It is not possible to conduct experiments or prove theories with historical information.  Nor does he believe history is an art.  From his perspective, the best description of history is that it is a craft:  history is the attempt to describe events of the past and move from description to analysis, in accordance with certain agreed rules of evidence, of analysis of language, and of logic.  The study of history is based on the assumption that while one cannot recreate the past as it actually happened, one can assume that the event was the product of human action and is therefore accessible to human understanding.  As Dr. Bauer observes:

 

     Historical events are the products of meetings of infinite numbers of causal chains, and because they are infinite, they cannot be fully known; however, detailed analysis based on a carefully differentiated accumulation of descriptions can bring us very close to the events, to that elusive historical truth. 

 

     New post-modernist theories that tell us that there are no facts because we all view whatever happened from subjective angles are . . . unacceptable.  The fact that we may view events from subjective angles does not mean that these events did not happen, and there are ways of mitigating the influence of subjective factors, so that the never-ending effort to get as close to the actual event as possible can yield satisfactory results.  We may come very close to a full understanding.

 

     For the historian, Bauer notes that there is a major difference in collecting evidence in the Ancient World and in more recent times.  The amount of written materials and archaeological evidence of ancient empires is limited and one can usually only draw conclusions of a general nature.  For example, we know little about the private lives of Egyptian pharaohs except what they wanted inscribed on their tombs.  We have some general knowledge of the social and economic life of Egyptian peasants, traders and officials because they are often inscribed on hieroglyphic inscriptions.  Yet we have no way of knowing how accurate such descriptions are and whether they can be generalized for the whole, complicated society. 

 

     Biblical stories create special problems for historians.  These stories are part legend and part historical fact, and it is often difficult for an historian to distinguish between the two.   However, philological analysis can yield important suggestions of life in the Ancient World, and this evidence can either be confirmed or contradicted by archaeological evidence.

 

      Working on modern history differs dramatically from working with ancient history.  We have a deluge of written materials—political, economic, social, philosophical and literary.  We also have artistic, musical, and architectural evidence of the lives people lived.  In many cases, however, the abundance of written documents hides the fact that much of the material is secondary in importance, and we miss the centrally important evidence of decision-making processes, both for main institutions and for ordinary individuals.

 

     Nothing more clearly illustrates the difficulty of ascertaining the decision-making process than examining the discussions between Hitler and members of his elite.  After 1938, there was not a formal government meeting in Germany.  Rather, Hitler had conversations with leading Nazis.  Since Hitler would not allow any of the discussions to be committed to paper, those present at the meetings composed notes of their meetings with Hitler.  Historians have no way of knowing that what was written down accurately reflect what was said.  No other government operated in this fashion.  Even in the Soviet Union, there were documented accounts of meetings.  Granted officials of the Soviet Union may have doctored their accounts to comply with the party line, but, in fact, records were kept.

 

     Similarly problematic are records of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte)Even if records were kept of meetings, it is more than likely that the records were written with the understanding that the Nazis might subsequently read them.  Thus, these written records do not necessarily reflect what transpired during the council meetings.  And only some of these records survived.  Daily life, internal controversies, debates over armed and unarmed resistance have to be gleaned from comparisons of different types of documentation including oral histories conducted in the postwar decades.

 

  How do you verify that something is true?
  What if you heard something on the bus or in the classroom, how would you check to see if it is true?

  

What are Documents from the Nazi Era?

 

      Bauer is an historian, and working with documents is central to his work.  He has very precise ideas about ways to interpret documents and the rules of evidence an historian must follow to ascertain the veracity of a document whether it comes from perpetrators, victims or bystanders.    

 

    The documentation of the perpetrators includes a wide variety of sources:  instructions, orders, correspondence between bureaucrats and their respective agencies, reports and memoranda, and recorded conversations.   In his efforts to understand the evolution of the “Final Solution” and the relationships between Nazis in different bureaucracies and countries, Bauer has spent many hours sifting through the Nazi sources. 

 

  Why do you think it would be difficult to verify a document by a perpetrator?

 
 

    While some scholars of the Holocaust consider Nazi documentation as accurate descriptions of past events, Bauer refuses to take the documents at face value:  he subjects them to critical analysis, ascertaining whether or not the documents were prepared to serve as Nazi propaganda or put the Nazis in a positive light.    Bauer’s cautionary approach has, at times, led him to develop different interpretations of events than have been commonly accepted by other historians.  As Bauer explains:

 

    Some historians see German documents as literally reflecting the events they describe or to which they relate.  . . .[T] his can be very misleading.  German documents were often created in order to mislead, or beautify, or cover up.

  

     The classic example of a misleading document is Adolf Eichmann’s report of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting of key bureaucrats from various Nazi ministries held on January 20, 1942.

The report covers discussions on how Jews would be moved eastward and how Jews would be treated after being exploited as a slave labor force.  Although some historians have written that the Nazi decision to implement the ”Final Solution” took place during the Wannsee Conference, Bauer carefully notes that the decision was developed over a period of months before the conference.  The principal purpose of the conference was to discuss the ways for implementing the “Final Solution.”  Moreover, Bauer notes, Eichmann revealed at his trial in 1960 that his Wannsee report omitted certain crucial discussions of the conference such as the methods of killing Jews.  Eichmann testified that Heydrich wanted the report to be a relatively harmless version of the meeting. 

 

  Why did Heydrich want this harmless version of the Wannsee Conference?
  Consider Bauer’s discussion of the report on the Wannsee Conference.
  If you were a newspaper reporter in January 1942, how would you have written about the Wannsee Conference?

 

     Also misleading are Nazi accounts of the partisans in Eastern Europe.  Some Nazi reports of clashes between German forces and partisan units stress the threat of Jewish bandits.  In fact, during these particular confrontations there were few or no Jews involved.  Other documents of Nazi encounters with Jewish partisan units repress mention of the involvement of Jews.  To speak of Jewish involvement in partisan activities would have been embarrassing for the Nazi regime.  According to Nazi propaganda, Jews could not be an effective fighting force, nor was it possible that Jews could pose a threat to German armed forces. 

 

     In order to avoid misinterpretation, Bauer urges scholars to compare documents with other sources to verify or question an account.  This kind of comparative analysis, Bauer continues, must be applied to all sources of the era, not just those of German provenance. 

“Not everything that is committed to paper is also true,” warns Bauer, “and not every document has the same veracity value.”

 

     Diaries and private letters written by perpetrators as well as victims are other sources of documentation.    The immediacy of such documents appeals to historians.  On the other hand, these sources are private, subjective accounts, and the historian needs to be circumspect in using such sources without other means of verification. 

 

  Why would we read memoirs of Holocaust survivors rather than novels?

 

 

     Oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors are invaluable sources.  “One must never argue with a survivor,” explains Bauer, “and every testimony must be treated with utter respect.”  However, Bauer does echo other historians in Holocaust Studies who say that oral testimonies must be subjected to the same rigorous analysis that is accorded other sources. 

 

     Bauer notes several challenges with survivors’ testimonies.  First and often problematic is the question of memory.  Survivors may forget things or events.  In some cases, survivors have told their stories so many times and begin infusing memories of other survivors.  There are also cases in which survivors hide certain facts that they find embarrassing or, in their minds, not worthwhile relating.  Bauer has even come across testimonies in which the survivor seeks to mislead listeners.

 

     As with written documentation, Bauer stresses the significance of verifying testimonies.  One testimony of an event or a situation should not be considered a reliable source.  Yet, when a number of testimonies converge, provided they have been recorded independently of each other and there has been no prior adjustment between witnesses, they are “at least as reliable as written documents, if not more so.” 

 

     Another factor to consider in analyzing testimonies is the time they were recorded.  Contrary to historians who have argued that testimonies taken immediately after the war and the Holocaust in 1945 and 1946 contain more accurate recollections than testimonies taken several decades later, Bauer is careful to note that the testimonies given by survivors directly after the war often omit the details of more terrible experiences because the survivors are dealing with trauma that makes it difficult to convey the details of pain and suffering.  Survivors giving testimonies years or even decades after the war are more selective in what they chose to remember, but the survivors are often more willing to disclose vivid descriptions of painful events and reveal details that they previously suppressed. 

 

       This problem can be addressed if the historian can interview a survivor at different intervals.  However, Bauer warns: 

 

The interviewer, and especially the historian, has his/her own subjective problem in that they are justifiably reluctant to doubt survivors’ testimonies and relate to them the same way they would to any other historical source.

 

          Memoirs are essentially testimonies that are written without the mediation of an interviewer.  Bauer once again urges caution in using such sources.  While people often have a tendency to believe what is written and published are accurate reflections of what took place, this is not necessarily the case.  Moreover, memoirs dealing with memory must be subjected to the same rules of evidence that apply to oral testimonies.

 

 

Working as an Historian of the Holocaust

 

      The genocide of the Jewish people during World War II has come to be known as the Holocaust.  Bauer joins a growing number of historians who criticize the term that means “whole burnt offering.”  The Jews were not offered to anyone, they were murdered. 

 

     The word “Shoah” which is becoming more widely used among Jews and non-Jews means “catastrophe.”  In Hebrew the term applies to natural cataclysmic events as well as manmade catastrophes.  However, as Bauer concedes there are no better terms than “Holocaust” and “Shoah.”   And, interestingly enough, the Polish term for the genocide of Polish people during World War II is “zaglada” or “catastrophe” in Polish.  The Romany term for the genocide of Gypsies is “porrajmos” which also means  “catastrophe.”

 

 While precise language for the atrocities suffered by various peoples during World War II is still lacking, all these events can be considered under the larger category of genocide—a term coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943.  

 

       There are many parallels between the Holocaust and other modern genocides. 

 

  The suffering of the victims is unwarranted.  There is nothing the victims did in these instances:  they were persecuted and murdered for who they were.  There is no difference between the victims regarding their sufferings.
  The perpetrators made use of bureaucracies to carry out persecution and state sanctioned murder of victim groups.
  The perpetrators made use of the latest available technology for transporting and murdering victims as well as disseminating propaganda vilifying victims.
  Concentration camps were created for holding civilian victims.

 

     On the other hand, Dr. Bauer lists five factors that make the Holocaust an unprecedented form of genocide.  He is very clear to say “unprecedented” rather than “unique.”  If it were “unique,” Bauer says, it would be a onetime occurrence in human history and therefore stand outside the human experience.   Unprecedented means that it can become a precedent for another event.  And, indeed, the Holocaust has been a precedent for more recent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor. 

The five factors that make the Holocaust “unprecedented” are as follows:

 

1.   The totality of the Holocaust: The Nazis sought to murder all Jews.  This effort to eliminate an entire people has not been found in other genocides prior to the Holocaust.
2.   The universality of the Holocaust:  The Nazis sought to murder Jews everywhere that German interests predominated.  Since the Germans intended to extend their control throughout the world, they aimed at a global campaign to murder the Jews.
3.   The non-pragmatic nature of National Socialist ideology:  Nazism, in contrast to other ideologies of genocidal regimes, was not pragmatic.  Even when an action did not serve the Nazis’ military or economic interests, they pursued a policy of murdering Jews.  One graphic example, cited by Bauer, pertains to the thousands of Jewish armament workers in Berlin.  At the height of the war when the Nazis needed skilled workers, they sent the Jewish workers to concentration camps.  According to Bauer, pragmatic concerns have been prominent in other genocides, but the Nazis only offered pragmatic reasons for actions as a rationalization for what they had done.  What came first and foremost was the advancement of Nazi ideals even if this course of action endangered the security and stability of the Reich.
4.   The centrality of race in the organization of the National Socialist state:  The Nazi movement was based on the pseudoscience of raceology or eugenics.  For the first time in history, Bauer stresses, the Nazis set out to create a society based on a racial hierarchy—this was revolutionary.  In fact, Bauer continues, National Socialism was the only real revolutionary movement of the twentieth century.
5.   The National Socialist view of the Jew as the eternal, omnipresent threat to the Third Reich and Nazi civilization:  The Nazis perceived Jews as the embodiment of enlightened ideals of western civilization, with a culture that had developed as a continuity for thousands of years.  In seeking to attack the basis of western civilization, the Nazis focused on the Jews as the symbol of  modern, enlightened, civilization seen as the antithesis of their movement—a symbol that needed to be destroyed if the Nazi revolution was to achieve its goals.

 

  What relation do you see between the Holocaust and other genocides?
  Do you agree with Dr. Bauer’s distinctions?

    

 

Information on the Holocaust:  An Ever-Growing Body of Material

 

     One of the most remarkable features of Dr. Bauer’s career is his ongoing quest for information on the Holocaust and his willingness to change his interpretation of events as new sources become available.   For this reason, he is excited by the information in the newly opened archives of Eastern Europe and the greater accessibility to sources in Western European and American sources.   

 

     In recent years, there has been an explosion of information about the Holocaust and its context.  The opening of the Soviet archives after 1989 has been a sea change.  Important German materials were uncovered there; Soviet investigations into Nazi crimes, and post liberation inquiries into the fate of all the inhabitants in areas occupied by the Germans, have elucidated and will continue to elucidate, many developments in areas about which we knew very little.  Relations between Jews and non-Jews in those areas of Eastern Europe can now also be better understood.  Polish archives have been open for quite a long time, but there, too, new materials of great importance have been uncovered.  Romanian, Hungarian and most recently Bulgarian documentation has become available. 

 

     [New materials in Western Europe and the United States are being made available.]  French provincial archives are being opened.  In the United States, materials of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American spy agency during the war, have been released, and in their wake, British Intelligence sources are slowly becoming available.  A huge amount of memoirs have been and are being published, some of them very important and instructive ones. 

 

     Amid all this excitement with newly uncovered sources, Bauer has also encountered disappointments and frustrations.  He is especially irritated by the policies of the Vatican and the International Tracing Service (ITS).     

 

      The Vatican has only recently opened its archives up until 1939, coinciding with the death of Pope Pius XI.  The sources for the war years remain sealed.  Since information flowed into the Vatican from all over Europe, Bauer feels it is imperative that the wartime sources be made public.  Moreover, the opening of the wartime sources would shed more light on church personalities and policies during the Nazi era and deepen our understanding of the role the Church played in the era.

 

     The International Tracing Service, located in Arsolen, Germany, refuses to change its policy of an inaccessible archive.  The service has the names of millions of prisoners held in camps of Nazi Germany.  Its international board that includes the United States maintains that the archives must remain closed since the privacy of individuals must be maintained.  A specific request for information on a person whose name is known will be honored:  usually it takes at the very least six months to a year to get the information.  Recent decisions of the governing board may hopefully change this situation.

 

ITS

   

    Yehuda Bauer has taken a prominent position in the campaign to open Vatican and ITS archives.  Together with Saul Friedlander, another major historian, he refused to participate in the Catholic Jewish commission created by the Vatican to examine already published sources from the Vatican.  Bauer indicated that he would only agree to sit on the commission if scholars were permitted to study Vatican archives.  His request went unfulfilled.  As the Academic Advisor to the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Bauer worked together with others in the attempts to open the ITS. 

 

       Bauer stresses three factors that will help in the exploration and research of the newly opened archives—knowledge of several languages; use of the computer technology; and use of video testimonies.

 

       As he himself learned as a young scholar, facility in several languages is essential for research on the Holocaust.  Increasingly, it is becoming vital to know Eastern European languages to handle the documentation from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union.  Similarly, findings of Jews who took refuge in Shanghai require knowledge of Chinese and Japanese. Without these linguistic skills, Bauer maintains that serious research on the genocide of Jews is restricted.

 

     “The introduction of computers,” Bauer argues, “ has influenced all historical research, including that of the Holocaust.”  Research time is made more efficient by the digitalization of archival materials.  Writing and creating bibliographies are also made easier by the computer.  Bauer, however, warns that the researcher must be careful to select reliable sites and avoid the misinformation from the websites of Holocaust deniers.

 

     Thirdly, Bauer praises the video testimony projects such as the Shoah Foundation.  Thousands of testimonies have been made available to scholars.   Bauer estimates that at least a third of these are valuable sources for historians.  

 

 

 

Essential Documents for the Study of the Holocaust

 

     Bauer has a deep appreciation of documents.  Both in writing and teaching about the Holocaust, Bauer presents documents for careful scrutiny and encourages students to know well the skills of critical analysis.   When he was asked what he considered fundamental documents needed for a study of the Holocaust, Dr. Bauer cited the following:

 

--The article “Wear it with pride, the Yellow Star,” by Robert Weltsch, April 4, 1933

               

 

--The Nuremberg Laws, September and November 1935

 

--The discussion of German policy towards the Jews in Hermann Goring’s office in the wake of the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht), November 12, 1938

 

--Hitler’s speech to the German Reichstag (Parliament), on January 30, 1939

 

--The instructions of Reinhard Heydrich (head of the SS police department), 

September 21, 1939 (the Schnellbrief)

 

--The letter of Goring to Heydrich on July 31, 1941, on the solution of the “Jewish problem”

 

--The cable of Dr. Gerhard Riegner in Geneva, on August 8, 1942, informing the United States and Great Britain about the murder of the Jews

 

--The Declaration of the United Nations on December 17, 1942, acknowledging the Nazi murder of the Jews.

 

--Excerpts from the diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, March 10 and October 2, 1940

 

--The last letter of Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to Antek Zuckerman, his deputy, on May 23, 1943.

           

--Heinrich Himmler’s speech to SS officers on October 4, 1943, in Poznan

 

--Excerpt from the letter of Reszoe Kastner (who tried to rescue Hungarian Jews by negotiating with the Nazis in Switzerland), July 12, 1944.

 

--Hitler’s testament, April 29, 1945

                                                                

      

 

The Challenges of Holocaust Education Today and in the Future

 

     Just as Dr. Bauer has very set views on methods of research and the handling of documents, he has developed fundamental guidelines for teaching the Holocaust and genocide.

 

       The first guideline is that teachers give students a strong background on the narrative of events of the Holocaust.  In addition to the chronology of the Nazi era and an exploration of Nazi ideology, Bauer stresses that three themes should be addressed: 

  1. The evolution of the Nazi policy regarding the Jews;
  2. The varied reactions among the victims—Jews and other victims;
  3. The rescue efforts of Jews and non-Jews. 

New research and recently opened archives, explains Bauer, have greatly enhanced our understanding of these themes.

    

      Once students have a firm background in the Holocaust, they need to place the Holocaust within the larger framework of studying genocidal violence—this will enable them to discern the similarities among genocides as well as single out factors that make the Holocaust an unprecedented event of genocide. 

 

     Bauer emphasizes that genocide and mass violence must be taught—for example the genocide and mass violence that occurred in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan.  Students must confront the reality of mass murder and human destruction.  For American students he believes it is particularly important that they examine the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves.   They must grapple with the question of whether or not these American events were genocidal events.     

 

                                    

                                                              

 

     Dr. Bauer is fully aware of the time constraints in the study of genocide, the Holocaust in particular.  Bauer responds by saying it is possible to combine factual teaching with examination of moral dilemmas.  “Moral conclusions have to be reached by the students themselves, hopefully in open discussion, and the teacher has to make clear that that he or she does not have all the answers.”  Thus, it is critical for teachers to select out stories of moral dilemmas faced by perpetrators, victims or bystanders. 

 

     It is also critical that students examine the stories of rescuers and gain insights into why these individuals made their choices to help others rather than take part in the persecution and brutality of others.  The rescuers’ stories highlight the fact that it was possible for individuals to act on behalf of others.  Rare as these stories were, they serve as an important contrast to the more typical stories of bystanders and perpetrators who did not see victims within their universe of moral concern and obligation.  Bauer observes that the newly opened archives in Eastern Europe have deepened our knowledge and understanding of these themes.

 

     Whatever stories are selected, students should be encouraged to ask:  What would I have done?  What could I have done? What should I have done? 

 

     Bauer is optimistic that education on the Holocaust and genocide will persist in the future.  Genocidal violence offers a window into the dangers inherent in racism, ethnic and national hatred, antisemitism and discrimination.  Even though the generation of Holocaust survivors is passing, some of their children and grandchildren are carrying on the story.  Moreover, video testimonies of survivors provide invaluable educational materials.

 

     Bauer believes that Holocaust and Genocide education throughout the international community and the development of international tools and mechanisms for the prevention of genocide will help to restrict the levels of genocidal violence that have characterized earlier generations of the modern era. 

 

 

     Literally hundreds of millions were killed in the last two centuries or so, and fighting these phenomena would improve the lot of all of humanity very considerably.  Whether the political forces in the world will rise up to this challenge is to be seen—education about these things should lead to an awareness that could be translated into pressure on politicians to act.  . . .  It is all up to us.

 

Connections:

  In your education, what have you discussed about genocidal violence?
  How do you define your universe of moral concern and obligation?

 

 
 
 

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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Dimensions continues to be the leading journal in Holocaust studies -- appealing to both serious scholars and the mainstream audience.
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