Yesterday was the 29th anniversary of the death of the great Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz. Robert King, a professor of Yiddish and a longtime friend, reminisces about her scholarship, her trenchant and often biting essays, and her sometimes fierce personality. He begins with the second time he heard her speak:
Lucy (she shoved aside my “Professor Dawidowicz” the first time I used it) gave . . . a marvelous lecture on the controversial role—actually, in her view, the lack of a role—that the American left had played during the Holocaust; the gray establishment (and conservative) Jews had done a lot more to save Jewish lives, as she saw it. That was what got Lucy Dawidowicz in the trouble she enjoyed so much: tossing Molotov history-cocktails expertly into previously quiet, still corners of liberal Jewish guilt and ambiguity. . . .
The book, however, that brought her to widest recognition and controversy was The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945 (1975). In it she argued that Hitler’s driving force was the destruction of world Jewry. . . . Her other books attracted less controversy, but she always had her critics, mostly from the left. Everything she wrote holds up remarkably well, however: A Holocaust Reader (1976); The Holocaust and the Historians (1981)—a harsh criticism of other historians’ evasions and hypocrisy in dealing with the Holocaust. . . . An invaluable guide to her work, and to her as a person, was published posthumously by her friend Neal Kozodoy, What Is the Use of Jewish History?
“Woke” Lucy Dawidowicz was not. But there is a richness in the historical detail of her work that rises above the liberal/conservative, woke/retro binarity. I do not claim to understand the Holocaust very well—why one supposedly civilized, gifted people tried to exterminate another civilized, even more gifted people—but without Lucy Dawidowicz’s books I would understand it not at all. Texture is what she brings to the table; one feels that one was there, grasping at rotten potato peels in the ghetto or in the Ponar forest awaiting a bullet in the back of the neck.