When Mem­o­ry Comes

Saul Fried­lan­der
  • Review
By – November 8, 2016

Saul Friedlander’s two-part mem­o­ry begins with his youth in France, at the resort two which his fam­i­ly (and ser­vants) relo­cat­ed from Ger­man-occu­pied Prague. Reli­gious­ly unaf­fil­i­at­ed and wealthy, Friedlander’s par­ents remained in France longer than many of their rel­a­tives, who left for Swe­den, before decid­ing to flee to Switzer­land. They placed their son in a Catholic sem­i­nary, where Fried­lan­der even­tu­al­ly accept­ed his new life after a painful peri­od of adjust­ment and decid­ed to become a priest.

At the end of World War II, Fried­lan­der approached a high-rank­ing men­tor about his con­tin­u­ing his edu­ca­tion and find­ing his par­ents. Paul,” the priest answered, address­ing Fried­lan­der by his Catholic name, your par­ents are dead.” It was the first time Fried­lan­der ever heard about the Holocaust.

For the first time,” Fried­lan­der writes, I felt myself to be a Jew.” He left the meet­ing ago­niz­ing over whether to con­tin­ue on his intend­ed career path or to cast his lot with the per­se­cut­ed peo­ple from which he came. 

Years lat­er Saul real­ized that his stress­ful life as a child had ren­dered him emo­tion­al­ly starved, inca­pable of deep feel­ing. After mov­ing to Israel, becom­ing a cit­i­zen and serv­ing in the army, Fried­lan­der wan­dered as an adult, vis­it­ing an uncle in Swe­den for a time and enrolling at Har­vard only to drop out. But once he returned to Israel, Fried­lan­der con­clud­ed that his future lay in the field of his­tor­i­cal research.

Begin­ning his work on the Holo­caust peri­od, Saul dis­cov­ered a trove of rel­e­vant papers and learned that the Pope and his bish­ops had not tried to stop the mass mur­ders of the Holo­caust — in fact, the Pope had encour­aged Hitler, regard­ing him as an ally against god­less com­mu­nism. He learned that Jew­ish coun­cils had orga­nized Germany’s Jews into groups for ship­ment to con­cen­tra­tion and death camps; though his book on the sub­ject was sup­pressed by the author­i­ties and nev­er pub­lished, he dis­trib­uted his mate­r­i­al to the stu­dents in his sem­i­nar course and engaged in dis­course with Ger­man historians.

Some of the Ger­man his­to­ri­ans Fried­lan­der met with regret­ted the loss of the lives they had led under Hitler, and crit­i­cized the dom­i­nance of the prac­ti­cal, data-dri­ven approach to their field intro­duced by their Amer­i­can and Israeli col­leagues. Did we know about the exter­mi­na­tion of the Jews?” one woman admit­ted. Of course we did. The news­pa­pers kept pub­lish­ing long lists of peo­ple who had been arrest­ed, and all their names were Jew­ish. We knew some­thing ter­ri­ble was going on.” Besides, Fried­lan­der learned, Ger­man sol­diers wrote about the camps and trans­ports in their let­ters, and talked about these hor­rors when they vis­it­ed home on leave — and Hitler even men­tioned the process­es involved in sev­er­al of his speeches.

Many of the Ger­man his­to­ri­ans, Fried­lan­der found, felt that the time for dis­cussing the Holo­caust was past, and some con­tin­ued to believe in Hitler’s anti­semet­ic con­spir­a­cy theories.

But Ger­mans were not the only lead­ers incrim­i­nat­ed through Friedlander’s research. Fried­lan­der unearthed direc­tives issued by Pope Pius XII to have bap­tized Jew­ish chil­dren returned to their homes from hid­ing. Fried­lan­der found an encycli­cal of Pope Pius XI con­demn­ing Hitler’s treat­ment of the Jews, but learned that Pope Pius XII had smoth­ered that mes­sage, replac­ing it with a friend­ly let­ter of approval, as long as no Ger­man troops were sent to Italy. Fried­lan­der also learned that the Swiss were com­plic­it, help­ing Nazi Ger­many finan­cial­ly by trad­ing cash for the gold loot­ed from Holo­caust vic­tims’ teeth, wed­ding rings, and oth­er jewelry.

Friedlander’s mem­oir address­es his per­son­al life out­side of his his­tor­i­cal work and expe­ri­ences, as well. He under­went lengthy and inten­sive psy­chother­a­py treat­ment, which helped him to some degree byt did not ulti­mate­ly cure the trau­ma he suf­fered as a child sur­vivor. He writes about build­ing a home for his first wife and three chil­dren, includ­ing his par­ents-in-law, as well, and about his divorce and remar­riage to anoth­er woman. Mov­ing from place to place for so many years of his life, Fried­lan­der deter­mined that it was only in Europe that he felt com­fort and accep­tance, though he end­ed up retir­ing to the Unit­ed States at the end of his life. Although he was nev­er quite as ease in Amer­i­ca as he felt else­where, when Fried­lan­der remem­bers the troops that brought about an end to the hor­rors of Europe dur­ing his life­time, all he has to write is God Bless America.”

Relat­ed Content:

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

Discussion Questions