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The Rebel Academic: The Life and Work of David Cesarani (Rob Rozett's Remarks)

The Rebel Academic: The Life and Work of David Cesarani

The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research organized a symposium in the Fall to honor the work of leading Holocaust scholar David Cesarani from Great Britain, who died just weeks after being named by the USC Shoah Foundation the inaugural Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence. These are the remarks made by Rob Rozett at the event. To read a summary of the event, click here.

David Cesarani 1956-2015

by Rob Rozett

It was never dull talking to David Cesarani.  He always had a story, an anecdote, or some interesting and not all that well-known fact to add to a conversation – usually with a point. Over the years we spoke quite a lot about many different things, some related to work, some to family, some to current events, and some to other things we both enjoyed, like Jazz and films.

I don't always remember all the details of particular anecdotes or stories, but I usually remember the tag lines, because like a good historian, teacher and raconteur, David was illustrating an idea, when he offered up a story.

An anecdote my wife Shoshi and I heard from him goes like this: One day David was taking a train to an exhibit opening and sat across from a rather disheveled and seedy looking man.  Based on the man's appearance David concluded that it might be better to avoid conversing with him.  So he buried himself in a book, not exactly an exceptional thing for him to do, since he was such an avid reader. At one point, however, the man drew David into conversation, and David tried his best to bring it to a close, and return to his book as quickly as possible, speaking a bit condescendingly to the fellow. When the train reached its destination, David was surprised to discover they were both heading for the same place – the exhibit. At the exhibit, he was even more surprised to discover that the down and out, and disheveled looking man was the curator. So much for prejudging someone based on his appearance.

David could not only tell a good story, he could write with elegance and wit, evoking a scene pithily, and sometimes with just the right note of sarcasm for spice. I think that David really appreciated great lines, especially as a lover of films and someone who was very knowledgeable about them. I would not be surprised if lines like the one delivered by Lauren Bacall in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not, inspired his style.  I am sure you know the scene and I'm sure David would appreciate recalling it. After a flirtatious exchange between the character Steve played by Humphrey Bogart and the amazingly alluring young Bacall, she tells him: “You don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle.”  Pause:  “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.” 

So here is one my favorite lines written by David. In his massive biography of the Hungarian Jewish intellectual Arthur Koestler, David describes a post-war encounter in Paris between two of the most prominent intellectuals of the day, Koestler and André Malraux, the French novelist and later minister of culture.  His line is a master of characterization: “Malraux got drunk on vodka and was consequently even more incomprehensible than usual.” [1]  Can't you just visualize the two men talking, Koestler fidgeting and getting more and more exasperated as he listened to Malraux, without the foggiest notion about what, he was trying to say.

David was not just a great raconteur and writer.  He was incredibly knowledgeable about many things in addition to his areas of expertise, the history of the Holocaust and the history of Anglo-Jewry.  A few years ago my wife and I were in Ireland, and on the way back to Israel we stopped off in London for a day. Late in the afternoon we met David, Dawn and Daniel for an early dinner. We met them at Victoria station, if I remember correctly. The four of us then took a walk together by the Dock Lands before we went to a restaurant. Mostly I was talking to Dawn as we walked, and David was talking to Shoshi, who is a geography teacher and is always interested in the physical and human geography of places we visit. I think Daniel was with David and Shoshi. What I overheard, and then got a fuller account about from Shoshi later on, was an amazing explanation by David about the history, architecture and renovation of the area in which we were walking. Shoshi was astounded at how much David knew. I was not astounded, just delighted at learning of one more area in which David's brilliance shined through.

Over the years David and I sometimes asked one another to read each other's manuscripts and comment on them. David read my first book and suggested it to Frank Cass for publication by Vallentine Mitchell, Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts.  It was a runaway best seller, and I think that after Frank Cass recouped his costs, I got about $300 in royalties.  Then David was the first reader, along with David Silberklang, of the monograph I wrote about Hungarian Jewish forced laborers Conscripted Slaves, that Yad Vashem later published in 2013. For David, I read a large part of the manuscript of his biography about Adolf Eichmann,  Eichmann his life and crimes[2], and almost the entire manuscript of his magnum opus, the posthumously published one-volume history of the Holocaust: Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49.[3]

I should add here, that David was always a gentleman, and my family has taken delight in discovering that they have been among those he thanked in his books for the hospitality he received in our home while doing research in Jerusalem

For the recently published issue of Yad Vashem Studies,[4] David Silberklang asked me to write an article discussing David Cesarani's publications about the Holocaust.  As a result I spent quite a few weeks rereading, and sometimes reading for the first time, books David wrote and chapters he had contributed to books that he had edited about the Holocaust. Although I knew it beforehand, reading David's writings brought home even more forcefully the great breadth and depth of knowledge he had attained about the subject.

Most historians of the Holocaust today are subject specialists. They work on a very specific chapter or one aspect of events.  Of course, many of the subject specialists produce very valuable works of research. But David was among the few about whom it could be said that he worked on the entire scope of the subject.  He began with Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (1992),[5] a publication that grew out of his work with the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group about how Nazi war criminals had entered Great Britain.  In this work, he explored issues of collaboration as well as post-war understandings and attitudes about the Holocaust. 

He went on to examine the understanding of the Final Solution in historiography up to early 1990s. As many will recall at that time, the argument between the "Intentionalists and the Functionalists," whether the Final Solution was top-down and planned, or ground-up and improvised, was in full bloom, but would soon be put to rest.  It began to become clear by the end of the decade from research by Christian Gerlach, Peter Longerich, Christopher Browning, Ian Kershaw and others that Berlin was crucial to the policy, and that on the ground people had latitude regarding its implementation and expansion. David provided an early voice that would begin to propel the discussion beyond the "Intentionalists and Functionalists."

David continued to address important chapters of the Holocaust. The Holocaust in Hungary, the issue of Bystanders, Bergen Belsen and its meaning for Britain, Holocaust Survivors and their Memoirs, and the Politics of Memory of the Shoah.  The two biographies David published about two diametrically opposed individuals Arthur Koestler[6] and Adolf Eichmann were each seminal in their own way. Koestler for the exploration of a mid-20th century European Jewish intellectual, and for a good part of the book, his encounter with the evolving Holocaust; and Eichmann for an in-depth study of one of the icons of the Holocaust, one of the symbols of the murderers.  I will get back to the Eichmann book a bit later.

There is no question that my exchanges with David – notes on manuscripts, conversations, emails and lectures I heard him deliver -found resonance in my own work. I asked David to contribute an essay to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust for Facts on File and Yad Vashem that the late Shumel Spector and I were editing. It was aimed at students and interested "laymen," and came out in 2000.[7] I thought it would be a good idea to have some introductory essays and I asked David to write one about the immediate post-war period. This was around the time that he was working on Bergen-Belsen and its meaning for the UK, the subject of post-war Survivor memoirs and the politics of Holocaust memory.  So he was eager to write the piece. 

What emerged was a survey, actually a tour de force, about the immediate and more distant aftermath of the Holocaust.  In the roughly 12,000 word essay he wrote, David touched on all of the main subjects that come under the heading of the aftermath, all the while making incisive comments about those subjects.  His opening paragraph foreshadowed what would follow: "Although the persecution and mass murder of the Jews ended with the defeat of Hitler, the physical and psychological effects linger while their social, cultural, and political consequences seem endless. It has taken decades to set right the destruction and plunder of Jewish communities or to achieve a measure of justice against those responsible. One reason for the delay was the lack of understanding about what had occurred in Europe in 1939--1945 and the slow dawning of awareness about the Final Solution. The delay was due to social, cultural, but mainly political circumstances---the Cold War, in particular. Consequently, it was not until the 1980s that the full impact of the events that had now become known as the Holocaust penetrated fully into public consciousness around the world. Then, with astonishing speed, the Holocaust became a central feature of global culture and a universal metaphor for evil. The universalization of the Holocaust has proceeded so far that it is now in danger of losing its specifically Jewish connotations." [8] 

It is perhaps the last point, that was prescient; and it is worthwhile quoting David's closing paragraph to the essay to elaborate on it: "Paradoxically, the more popular the Holocaust becomes as a subject, the more universal its message has to be. By using Auschwitz as a metaphor for ‘absolute evil,’ by making the camps a scenario for exploring human relations in the most extreme of situations, the specific fate of the Jews becomes irrelevant. The presence of the Holocaust in popular culture has ensured that it is no longer a marginal subject, confined to the collective memory of the Jewish people; but the price that has been paid for this is a blurring of what made it happen in the first place, why the Germans were responsible for it, and why it happened to the Jews in particular. In this sense, ignorance may be replaced by incomprehension and remembrance may lead to forgetting."[9]

Today in 2016, many of my colleagues at Yad Vashem and around the world would agree with David's assessment from the start of the 21st century: the over universalization of the Holocaust was leading toward losing its particular aspects.  I think that this is often in my own mind when I teach and write to make it clear that the Holocaust is a particular event with universal ramifications.  Perhaps this is why David, I and many of our colleagues came to believe that you cannot discuss the Holocaust without discussing human beings, and within that, Jewish voices are crucial; and always context must be maintained.  In David's last book about the Holocaust, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49, he used Jewish voices frequently.  In the introduction he wrote: "This account also strives for an 'integrated history', but the focus is primarily and unapologetically on the Jews.[10]   I think David would have liked the last book that I worked on for its presentation of Jewish voices, and because it complements his own writing about early post-war survivor voices, as opposed to the myth that survivors did not want to recount their stories.

After So Much Pain and Anguish, First Letters after Liberation is an anthology of letters written by Holocaust survivors from the earliest period of liberation in Soviet territories in 1943 through letters written in 1946. It is a book about the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, but in which my co-editor Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto and I tried to present each letter in context.[11] 

I'd like to quote an excerpt from the introduction we wrote: "While reading the entire corpus of letters one is immediately struck by the feeling of responsibility and the need to tell in order to commemorate the victims, since the writers often believed they were the last survivors of families and often of entire communities. Many of them describe their inner struggle and hesitation before recounting their story, since they were afraid to cause their correspondents too much suffering, and because they were afraid that people would not be able to comprehend their words. And yet, the impetus to write and tell was stronger than their misgivings. We can readily see that the commonly held belief that survivors didn’t speak up and kept silent is mistaken… One of the main feelings that emerge from most letters is immense grief. This suggests strongly that while the war was raging, individuals were focusing on survival and couldn’t allow themselves to think about their suffering. But liberation changed this. All of a sudden, they realized the profundity of their losses: How many of their beloved had been murdered; the horrors they had experienced; and their intense feelings of loneliness, mourning, and even guilt. These emotions are often overwhelming in the letters… Often the pain was made even sharper because of the difficulties of returning to life. Society did not always ease the reintegration of survivors, as is noted in many letters. Quite often, the trauma of the return to normative life became a catalyst in the decision to emigrate. And yet, we can also see in these letters the very first signs of recovery and the will to find the strength to return to life. Writing letters was a central cultural characteristic of European society, and throughout the Holocaust we see that Jews wrote letters whenever possible. Therefore, the will to write again after the liberation and recreate family and social networking represents an essential step in returning to “normalcy.” The letters reflect a swinging pendulum between agony and hope, between what was lost and what could be rebuilt. In them, we see the yearning to rejoin family or friends and to become acquainted with new family members who were born abroad during the war."[12]

Essentially, as the one who researched the letters, I wrote a mini-history for each letter and its writer, ferreting out information about the writer, other people mentioned in the letters and the events mentioned in them as well.  A great effort was made to identifying as many people as possible, so as to ensure that they would be presented not as abstract objects, but as flesh and blood human beings, many of whom were murdered during in the Shoah, and some who survived along with the writers. It was a book that only could have been reasonably produced now, and not twenty years ago, because the research could only really have been done for each letter in a world where digitized information is searchable. Mostly I used the Yad Vashem database – records from the Hall of Names, the International Tracing Service, the Archives, Photo archives and Library - but also information from the Visual History Archive here at USC, the Joint Archives, and even just straightforward internet searches using Google Advanced Search.

If I may quote again from our introduction: "The following is a cogent example of how an Internet search led to the unwinding of a substantial wealth of relevant information. Jane Geismar wrote two letters from Auschwitz in February and March 1945. Searching for her name in all of the databases at Yad Vashem yielded nothing but the letter itself, for which there was no accompanying information. Scouring the Internet, however, led to an unexpected find that helped unravel her story and identify the people in the letter. A search for “Jane Geismar” yielded a testimony in French by a woman named Françoise Azoulay on a Jewish website. In the course of reading the testimony, it became apparent that Françoise was Jane (Jeanne) Geismar’s daughter. Françoise’s father was Gaston Schwab who had passed away several years before the outbreak of World War II, so the original family name and Jane’s previous name was Schwab. In 1943, Jane married and became Geismar. A search for Françoise Azoulay in the Yad Vashem Archives yielded another surprise. Françoise had given a testimony, but under the name Dalia Azoulay. Living in Ashkelon, Israel, after the war she had changed her name to Dalia. Moreover, under her Israeli name, she had submitted a number of Pages of Testimony, which yielded additional information about people mentioned in her mother’s letters. Among other things, this story highlights the changes in the lives of many survivors that are reflected in the changes in their names."[13]

Another very important contribution David made to our understanding of the Holocaust regards the perpetrators. This began with his first book Justice Delayed, where he offered one of the earliest explanations as to why people, especially in Eastern Europe, took part in the persecution and murder of Jews.  Their primary motivation was survival, since many first joined the Germans to escape the inhuman, or more accurately, deadly, conditions in prisoner of war camps.  But many also harbored a set of interwoven ideas: the Jews had been responsible for Soviet crimes, they believed, and this was tied to an intense antisemitism. The men themselves were staunchly anti-Communist and hoped to gain independence for their countries.  Ultimately they had no problems changing sides and engaging in systematic mass murder.[14]

David's latest book is replete with a nuanced understanding of the Nazi machinery of murder, which he calls dysfunctional. This is how he characterized the Nazi leadership before the Final Solution coalesced: "…its fragmented leadership was constantly trying to accomplish a great deal in a short time with limited resources. Personalities and policies tugged in opposite directions, cut across one another and just ran out of steam…Judenpolitik didn’t appear coherent or purposeful because it wasn’t; it was improvised, unplanned and, hence, unpredictable."[15] 

In his biography about Eichmann, David broke down the myths that had accumulated around Eichmann at the time of his trial in 1961 and in its wake. Eichmann had been portrayed by the prosecutor Gideon Hausner as an all-powerful and evil bureaucrat, boiling over with hatred for the Jews. Many journalists and pulp writers had cast him as an unbalanced person, who had suffered from a terrible childhood, and who came to serve a maniac - Hitler. Hannah Arendt and especially those who misrepresented her, saw him as a colorless “everyman.”  David showed that Eichmann was not just a cog in the machinery of murder, or a raving monster. Neither was he the one who set policy and decided things on his own. David writes:  “He managed genocide in the way that the CEO of any corporation would run a multi-national company.”[16] 

Of course David was not the first to break asunder the myth that Nazi murderers were all beasts (although among them, there were those who were certainly bestial).  In 1992 Professor Christopher Browning published Ordinary Men Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, which was a seminal work that argued that many factors influenced men to become murderers.[17]  Browning demonstrated how factors like peer pressure, desire for advancement, fear of appearing weak, and a gradual process of brutalization all contributed to making men mass murderers, and that the adoption of fanatic version of Nazi ideology or psychopathology were not necessarily the keys to understanding them. Although in the book itself and discussions about it Browning reiterated that there was a context, that of Nazi German society, its ideology and values, that has sometimes been lost of late.  Especially in education and public discourse there tends to be a discussion that posits that anyone could become a Nazi-like mass murderer, without and reference to the specific context and the particularity of the times in which the Holocaust unfolded. At the moment, I am involved in a project at Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies to explore our current understanding of perpetrators, and develop new teaching materials that will reflect that understanding.

In Eichmann, His Life and Crimes, David draws us strongly to the centrality of context. As such, he makes some very important observations about Eichmann, which I have found very useful in our work at the International School in Yad Vashem.  

David writes: "Eichmann was not the sadistic, lustful beast that the press later made him out to be, but he certainly was not a dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat, either. Power, the power of life and death, corrupted Eichmann. By 1944, he was rotten from the inside out."[18] If at first Eichmann was not a hateful, murderous antisemite, he became one as time went on.

David says in not so many words, that Eichmann was able to become a murderer because of his values, or more precisely, his lack thereof: "The inevitable conclusion is that Eichmann did not object to inflicting horrible suffering on Jews or consigning them to certain death. There was no aspect of the Nazi treatment of the Jews that bothered him enough on prudential, legal or moral grounds to warrant rebellion, resistance or evasion when he was required to implement it."[19]

In summation, David makes sure that his readers understand that Eichmann developed as a murderer in a very specific historical context. He was certainly a man of flesh and blood like all men, but that does not mean that all men in all times can become an Eichmann. David writes: "The key to understanding Adolf Eichmann lies not in the man, but in the ideas that possessed him, the society in which they flowed freely, the political system that purveyed them, and the circumstances that made them acceptable."[20]

What David says here, is all too relevant today when antisemitism, racism, hate speech, calls to violence and acts of violence are omnipresent. Today a tsunami of hatred has washed over much of earth, and continues to spread virtually uninhibited with the speed of fiber optics and satellite communications. There is no dearth of political and religious leaders who embrace ideologies and politics of hatred, and try to harness the masses to act in accordance with them.  Of course there are also many good people who oppose them, including presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders and educators, but ultimately, it is an issue of inculcating the kind of values that will not let hateful ideologies take hold, and making the values of respect for human dignity, indeed for human life, so pervasive and robust that they cannot be undermined.

If David could respond to me here and now, I'm quite sure he'd say with a mix of acerbity and modesty: "Wait a minute, Rob, we need to be very careful about drawing lessons from history, especially the history I wrote."  And of course he would be totally correct in saying that history is limited in what it can teach us about our own condition. Nonetheless, I would reply, that it is only through the analysis of history and current events that we can hope to achieve some insights that may help us steer our way into the future.  We may not have a clear map or an accurate compass, but those insights are the best we have. 

David has been gone now for nearly a year, and we, his friends and colleagues, miss him very much. I personally miss his friendship, his sharp intelligence and wit.  I miss his gentler side and acerbic side, and I'd love to share a good cup of brewed coffee (David was a coffee master of great expertise), or a glass of fine wine, or a mug of full bodied beer with him. I miss being able to discuss our work together and current events. I'm sure his take on antisemitism in the British Labor Party and on Brexit would have given me understandings that I could not glean from following the news.  I am sure that David's counsel would be invaluable in many spheres.

I believe that David's body of writings, his legacy as a historian, his legacy as David, can help us gain important insights about human behavior and about the ultimate questions of good and evil. In turn those insights may help us set our course more wisely, even as we realize that we are far from capable of fully controlling the trajectory of our voyage.

May David's memory be blessed.

[1] David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind, The Homeless Mind (London: William Heinemann 1998, p. 287)
[2] David Cesarani, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (London: William Heinemann, 2004).
[3] David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (London: Macmillan, 2016).
[4] Robert Rozett, "David Cesarani, A Historian with Breadth, Depth, and the Flair of a Raconteur," in Yad Vashem Studies 44(1), (Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, 2016, pp.
[5] David Cesarani, Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (London: William Heinemann, 1992).
[6] Arthur Koestler, p. 557.
[7] Robert Rozett and Shmuel Spector (eds.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2000)
[8] David Cesarani, "The Aftermath of the Holocaust," in Rozett and Spector, pp. 85-100)
[9] ibid
[10] Cesarani, Final Solution, p. xxi
[11] Robert Rozett and Iael Nidam-Orvieto (eds.), After So Much Pain and Anguish, First Letters after Liberation, (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2016)
[12] Ibid, p. 9
[13] Ibid, pp. 12-13
[14] Cesarani, Justice Delayed, pp. 13-14
[15] Cesarani, Eichmann, p. 56
[16] ibid, p. 13.
[17] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992)
[18] Cesarani, Eichmann, p. 188.
[19] Ibid., p. 367.
[20] Ibid., p. 367.