Shoah scholar to use ‘genius grant’ to finish his volume on the war years

LOS ANGELES, June 28 (JTA) — Saul Friedlander, survivor and chronicler of the Holocaust, plans to use his $375,000 “genius grant” to complete the second volume of his life’s crowning work: “Nazi Germany and the Jews.” The 66-year-old scholar was named last week as a recipient of the award, given annually by the John D. Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to the most creative and promising minds in the sciences, arts and humanities. Popularly dubbed the “genius grant,” the fellowship is given on the recommendations of anonymous “talent scouts.” It can be used for any purpose chosen by the recipient and usually goes to younger men and women. “I understand the award is for the young and youngish, so I guess I’m the oldest of the youngish winners,” observed Friedlander, a resident of Jerusalem but currently a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. In this case, however, his age proved to be an advantage, as the amount of the five-year grant increases with the recipient’s age. Friedlander received the highest dollar award among this year’s 32 fellows. Ranked as one of the world’s most incisive Holocaust scholar, Friedlander’s first volume, covering “The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939,” was greeted by historians and reviewers as the new standard reference on the period, when it was published two years ago. The second volume will carry the tragic story forward from 1939 to the end of World War II. What struck reviewers, and apparently the MacArthur Foundation, in Friedlander’s writing is the combination of rigorous scholarship with profound, and astonishingly lively, insights into the responses of the victims, the attitudes of German bystanders, and even, when possible, the mental processes of the Nazi hierarchy. Friedlander, born in Prague in 1932, was hidden in a French monastery during the war years. He was raised as a Catholic and even planned to become a Jesuit until he was told of his Jewish roots at the war’s end. In 1948, when he was 15, Friedlander lied about his age and boarded a ship to Israel to help in the fight for its survival. After the War of Independence, he remained as a permanent citizen. His parents had attempted to escape to Switzerland during the World War II, were turned back by Swiss border guards, and later perished in Auschwitz. However, the government of the guards that turned his parents toward their deaths asked him two years ago to serve on the Independent Commission of Experts. The task of the panel, commonly known as the Bergier Commission, is investigating all aspects of Switzerland’s controversial wartime role. With access to all government documents, Friedlander’s special assignment is to probe Switzerland’s refugee policy and treatment during the Nazi era, and his report is eagerly awaited by historians and Jewish organizations. While the $375,000 grant will allow him to concentrate more on his book, and though he has retired from professorships at Tel Aviv University and the University of Geneva, Friedlander will still have a full plate. He will continue to serve on the Bergier Commission, as well as chairman of an investigative committee named by Bertelsmann, the German media giant, to probe its activities during the Hitler period. Most important to the lifelong teacher is his permanent appointment to the UCLA Chair in the History of the Holocaust. The endowed professorship, which was the first of its kind established at an American public university, is underwritten by the 1939 Club, a leading Los Angeles organization of Holocaust survivors. In recent years, Friedlander has frequently expressed his concern about trivialization and misuse of the Holocaust. He has warned that some Jewish institutions and organizations exploit the Shoah “in simplistic and emotion-arousing ways to justify their self-serving agendas.” Last week, a small group of colleagues and students gathered at UCLA to toast the new “genius” and heard David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, praise Friedlander’s “moral urgency” and “intellectual restlessness.” The honoree, Myers said, “has moved from archival historian to synthesizer to master theoretician,” and has combined these diverse talents in his writings on the Holocaust.

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