October 21, 2009
When Memory Comes
A rare opportunity to see and hear one of the world’s great historians—and a participant in the historical events that he studies—is coming up on at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 5, 2009, when Saul Friedlander appears at the UCLA Faculty Center to deliver an address on “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Some Further Reflections.”
I was first introduced to Friedlander’s work by Gene Lichtenstein, founding editor of The Jewish Journal, who urged me to read Friedlander’s memoir, When Memory Comes. It’s a compelling and deeply challenging account of his experiences as a child in wartime France, where he was baptized and raised in a Catholic boarding-school after his parents were sent to die in the camps, and the rediscovery of his Jewish origins and identity when he arrived in Palestine aboard the ill-fated Altalena during the War of Independence.
Friedlander won a Pulitzer Prize last year for The Years of Extermination, the second title in his ground-breaking two-volume history of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and the Jews. His UCLA talk actually harks back to his first published work of history on the Holocaust, Pius XII and the Third Reich (1966). But if Nazi Germany and the Jews is the crowning achievement of his work as a historian, his brief but searing memoir remains his masterpiece.
When Memory Comes is achingly intimate, and his recollection of his last encounter with his parents—- restrained in the telling, but deeply poignant nonetheless—- turns out to be one of the most shattering passages in the vast literature of the Holocaust. Then, too, we can be grateful that a man with a genius for the study of history was himself an eyewitness to history in the making. That’s why When Memory Comes is such an important work, one that transcends the experiences of a single Holocaust survivor and addresses the destiny of the Jewish people and, really, all people.
“Sometimes when I think back on our history, not of these past few years, but rather its entire sweep,” writes Friedlander in When Memory Comes, “I can make out a perpetual movement back and forth, a search for roots, for normality and security, forever threatened down the centuries, and I tell myself that the Jewish state may perhaps be only a step on the way of a people whose particular destiny has come to symbolize the endless quest – ever hesitant, ever begun anew – of all mankind.”