The Challenges of Holocaust History, Four Decades Ago

April 7, 2021 | Lucy Dawidowicz
About the author:

In 1969, only a handful of books about the Shoah were available in English. That same year, the great Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz reflected in the pages of Commentary on an academic conference on the Holocaust held the year before, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Much has changed since, but Dawidowicz’s essay remains thought-provoking reading for Yom ha-Shoah, which begins this evening:

Yad Vashem is, so far as I know, the last survivor of the folk tradition in East European Jewish historiography. Critical study of East European Jewish history began at a comparatively late date, in the last decade of the 19th century, when Simon Dubnov decided to devote his life to the history of the Jews in Russia and Poland. Dubnov’s first step was to collect basic raw data, primary-source materials, and—a mammoth task—to construct from these a vast chronology of events in Russian Jewish history. To compensate for the lack of Jewish national or municipal archives, Dubnov started a movement for what may be described as “folk” archives.

He sparked an extraordinary popular movement among thousands of Jews in the tsarist empire—university students as well as plain folk—who, following his guidance and instructions in Voskhod, a Russian Jewish periodical, accumulated for him huge amounts of documentary sources. Dubnov’s historical efforts, which coincided with the rise of secular national and socialist movements among East European Jews, succeeded in making plain people aware of the national uses of history. For activists in these newly stirring movements, Jewish history became the secular substitute for Judaism.

While Dawidowicz expressed serious doubts about whether the Holocaust survivors writing in this “folk tradition” she encountered at Yad Vashem could produce serious scholarship about the destruction of European Jewry, she had hope for the future:

Holocaust history will, I believe, be written in Israel. The younger Israeli historians, some associated with the Hebrew University, whose work is now beginning to be published, have impeccable academic credentials, sound historical training, and a professionalism that has sensitized them to the pitfalls of subjectivism. Furthermore, Israeli Jews have in abundance two qualities which American Jews lack but which Holocaust historiography requires. One is the ability to face death—its idea and its reality—and the other is a wholesome sense of Jewish identity. Handling the historical data requires both physical stamina and a heart strong enough to bear the anguish, endure the degradation, and transcend the defilement. It means being able to resist the natural desire to escape the victim’s fate. Few American Jews, I fear, can meet these standards.

No doubt the Dawidowicz of 1969 would have been surprised by how many American Jews would try to do so—with varying degrees of success. Her claim, however, is disproved by her own book, The War against the Jews (1975).

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