History and the Holocaust

How can historians create meaningful narrative out of a jumble of past events? What if those events are unimaginably horrible? rooted deep in history and living memory, yet influenced by passing political trends? Historians face such questions all the time when the subject is the Holocaust.

Two noted scholars will discuss how they grapple with these issues on Monday, March 31, 4:30 p.m. in Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center auditorium, 53 Wall St. Saul Friedlander, professor of history at U.C.L.A. and Tel Aviv University; and Benjamin Harshav, J.&H. Blaustein Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature and professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale, will present a dialogue on “Problems in the Narration of History,” moderated by Michael Holquist, professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Yale. The discussion, free and open to the public, is sponsored in part by the Woodward Lectures.

Prof. Friedlander is considered one of the leading contemporary historians of the Holocaust. His newly-published book, “Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939,” is the first volume in a two-part series. The second volume will focus on “The Years of Extermination.” In volume one, Prof. Friedlander describes and interprets the steady increase of anti-Jewish measures in Germany after the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933. He demonstrates the interaction between intentions and contingencies, betweendiscernible causes and shifting circumstances to suggest that there was no master plan for the destruction of the Jews from the outset. Using new documentation, he provides insight into the mentality of Nazi leadership and lower-ranking party functionaries, as well as members of the intellectual and professional elites; leaders of the financial world and the Church; and, of course, the victims, themselves. By bringing together entirely different levels of reality, as perceived by those to whom he gives voice, Prof. Friedlander creates a richly textured, complex, and subtle narrative of the Nazi era.

Prof. Harshav takes a somewhat different approach to Holocaust studies than Prof. Friedlander. He applies literary theory and methodology to his study of historical narrative, comparing and contrasting the Nazi era with other 20th century totalitarian systems, each of them governed by a small, powerful group of avant garde.

Prof. Friedlander is editor of the journal “History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the Past.” He has published books in several languages, including “History and Psychoanalysis: An Inquiry into the Possibilities and Limits of Psychoanalysis,” “Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death,” and a personal memoir, “When Memory Comes.” Born in Prague in 1932, Prof. Friedlander survived the horrors of the Holocaust as a child by hiding under false identification in a monastery in Nazi-occupied France. When the war was over, he emigrated to Israel. He is currently a member of the historical commission to investigate the role of Switzerland during World War II.

A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Prof. Harshav was founder and director of the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics and editor of the international journal “Poetics Today,” based at Tel Aviv University. He has written “Language in Time of Revolution” and, forthcoming from Yale University Press, “The End of Jerusalem of Lithuania,” an annotated edition of Herman Kruk’s chronicles of life in the Vilna ghetto and concentration camps, 1939-1944. A portion of Kruk’s diaries were published in Yiddish in 1961.

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325