The ProsenPeople

Reading the Holocaust

Thursday, January 19, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Peter Hayes introduced readers to the teachers named in the dedication and acknowledgements to his book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust. Peter is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


While writing Why?: Explaining the Holocaust, I tried to address two groups of readers at once: people new to the subject, and people well informed about it. My goal was to open understanding to novices and to extend or sharpen the knowledge of veterans. Readers will decide whether I succeeded in this chancy undertaking. But the effort made me think about authors who have done so. What other books on the subject can be recommended as both readable and reliable to both newcomers and old hands?

Of course, the classic such works—e.g., several by Primo Levi, Saul Friedländer’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews, and Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men—remain indispensable, but I can think of a number of lesser known or newer titles that should have similar resonance.

Let me start with three outstanding books that emerged from family histories and powerfully foreground personal experience, Edmund de Waal’s elegiac The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), Göran Rosenberg’s searing A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz(2012), and Modris Ekstein’s harrowing Walking Since Daybreak (1999). De Waal artfully portrays the rise and dispersal of a European Jewish family through the story of one of their possessions, a collection of miniature Japanese carvings (netsuke). Rosenberg tells the story of his father, a survivor of the death camp and much else, as he tries to rebuild life in postwar Sweden and descends into despair and suicide. Ekstein, a non-Jewish Latvian who became an accomplished historian in Canada, immerses you so intensely in the cauldron of conflicts in his native region during the era of the World Wars that you feel its multi-dimensional tragedy. When you reach the end of each of these profound and graceful books, you will want to start again—when you can bear to.

My other recommendations consist of knowledgeable and accessible responses to central questions about the Holocaust. Certainly high on any such list is “How does a country become a persecuting society?” as Germany did after 1933. To get an answer, you could hardly do better than to start with Thomas Kühne’s aptly titled Belonging and Genocide (2010), a disturbing demonstration of the dark side of community-building. Another such question is “What kind of people could do such things?” Two illuminating sets of answers emerge from Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2014), a book that exposes not only the mentality of a murderer, but also the origins of Holocaust denial, and Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies (2013), which shows that women were not immune to corruption.


In recent years, much of the “action” in Holocaust studies has centered on issues of complicity on the part, to take the most controversial examples, of non-Jewish Poles, foreign governments, the Catholic Church, and even American businesses, both in and outside of Germany. Journalist Anna Bikont’s excellent The Crime and the Silence (2015) is about both what some Poles did to Jews during the war and how stubbornly many Poles have resisted acknowledging such acts ever since. The late Theodore Hamerow’s Why We Watched (2008) draws on numerous contemporary sources in assembling the most vivid and comprehensive account available of how Europeans and Americans justified doing so little to aid Jews. A worthy supplement to his book is Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews (2013), which reminds us, despite the biographical focus of the title, that the American public deserves more blame for the shortcomings of national policy than the president at the time. On the choices made by the Papacy and American investors, the sharpest, most absorbing studies are David Kertzer The Pope and Mussolini (2014), which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize, and Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 (2013).


Two fine and concise new books with great pertinence to the present are Deborah Lipstadt’s Holocaust: An American Understanding (2016), which perceptively traces how and why the Holocaust became a prominent theme in American culture, and Michael Marrus’s, Lessons of the Holocaust(2016), a well-reasoned warning against drawing them too readily.

Finally, I want to draw renewed attention to my personal favorite among the pioneers of Holocaust studies, Yehuda Bauer. To experience the good sense, limpid writing, and sharp judgment that he brought to the subject for decades, read Rethinking the Holocaust(2001), a collection of thoughtful topical essays. You will be able almost to hear the British-accented voice of this wise and articulate man as he converses with you.

Peter Hayes currently chairs the Academic Committee at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was from 1980 to 2016 Professor of History and German and from 2000 to 2016 Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor at Northwestern University. He writes and lectures widely on German and Holocaust history in the United States and abroad.

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On Dedication(s)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 | Permalink

Peter Hayes is an award-winning educator and the author of  How Was It Possible?: A Holocaust Reader. With the release of his new book Why?: Explaining the Holocaust today, Peter will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


A friend of mine says that the most interesting parts of any book are the dedication and the acknowledgements because they reveal most about the author. In the case of my newest book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, I doubt this generalization will apply. The subject matter is too unsettling and important. But I hope my expressions of thanks will get readers’ momentary attention, especially the dedication. It is to six teachers who changed my life.

Public education was one of the glories of America in the decades just after World War II, which is when I grew up. The first two people I mention opened worlds to me in the middle and high school classrooms of Framingham, Massachusetts. Mary Faherty was a devout Catholic who not only assured that I got confirmed in that faith, from which I already was falling away at the age of thirteen, but who also introduced me to Shakespeare, Browning, and Ibsen, who are not exactly canonical Catholic authors. I ended up a writer, and I might never have become attuned to words as I am without her. James McGillivray taught history as I had never encountered it before: in the spirit of his era, as a subject that focused as much on the “frame of reference” of those who wrote it as on the matters they wrote about. I ended up a historian of a less subjectivist bent, but I might never have been as questioning and skeptical of received wisdom as I am without him (and Ibsen!).

I came in contact with the other four of these mentors at the elite private institutions—Bowdoin, Oxford, and Yale—to which scholarships gave me access. All men (such was the era), they could not have been otherwise more different from each other or from me, the product of a family in which no one had completed college. Athern Daggett was an elderly, endearing New England Yankee who taught constitutional and international law in Mr. Chipsian fashion; John Rensenbrink an intellectual iconoclast and gadfly (and later Green Party leader) of Midwestern Dutch Calvinist heritage who supervised my undergraduate senior thesis on African politics; Tim Mason, a brilliant and charismatic English Marxist specializing in central European history, moved my attention toward Europe and backward in time, and then passed me on to Henry Turner, a classically liberal American scholar and careful prose stylist, who devoted his career to unmasking the easy certainties of marxisant approaches to German history.

What all six of these disparate people imparted was a combination of passion and rigor. They loved and believed in what they taught, and they treated it—and wanted me to treat it—with the kind of respect that hard work indicates. They made participating in their interests seem like the most fascinating thing I possibly could do with my time and energy. That ability to spark is, of course, the kinetic secret to great teaching. It’s also the singular talent that gives the lie to the old saw that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Good teaching, whether in person in a classroom or at a distance via the pages of a book, requires the capacity to inspire that these people had, along with one other vital component of their magic: empathy, the ability to sense where listeners and readers are, to reach that place, and to bring them to a new location.

All but one of these six individuals is gone now; and the exception is 88 years old as I write. But, whenever and wherever I have taught and written during a long career, they have been constant presences. To a young person whose parents were not very adept in that role, these teachers provided models of why and how to pay it forward. Now, at long last and in a small way, I get to pay them back.

Peter Hayes currently chairs the Academic Committee at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was from 1980 to 2016 Professor of History and German and from 2000 to 2016 Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor at Northwestern University. He writes and lectures widely on German and Holocaust history in the United States and abroad.

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