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The Rebel Academic: The Life and Work of David Cesarani (David Silberklang'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 David Silberklang at the event. To read a summary of the event, click here.

In Memory of David Cesarani

by David Silberklang

Thank you very much Wolf.

My talk is going to be a little bit different. Of course, it’s also very personal because I also knew David well for many years—we were friends for some 20 years or more—and I have some things to say of course about that. Some of those comments may sound familiar because he’s the same friend to many of us. But I’m also going to talk a little bit about some research that I discussed quite a bit with David in the last couple of years of his life, and whereas we didn’t always agree on everything, I think in a sense what I’ll talk about relates to things that influenced him, influenced me and influenced research on the Holocaust in general. 

I want to first say that it is an honor to be here taking part in a panel talking about David Cesarani. When Wolf Gruner wrote to me and invited me, I was very honored to be part of this. At the same time, it’s also a very bittersweet feeling, because I have so much to say about David and I so admire him. I learned so much from him. But I really wish I could be saying things about David under a different context—when he’s getting an award, or praising him for his great achievements, and his profound insights into history and so on, rather than this kind of remembrance.

I miss David Cesarani very much. He was both, as we know, an outstanding scholar and he also was a very good friend, and like Rob, I was also honored very much and moved that he mentioned me and my family as well in his introduction to Final Solution. Similarly, about our discussions of history and about the Holocaust and about sharing family things that we discussed, and our families got to know each other. And as we all know, David was an outstanding public figure. There have been many times since his most untimely passing when I have genuinely felt the need for his sense and for his voice. I’m certain, as you’ve already heard, that I agree that he would have much to say about Holocaust research and remembrance issues today, whether in Poland or in Hungary, or in Croatia, and other countries who are—let’s say, revising our understanding of the Holocaust in ways that are less than healthy. And he’d have much to say about current antisemitism, whether in political parties, or in BDS movements, or elsewhere. And of course, he would have much to say about various current subjects that are being debated among scholars of the Holocaust, of Modern History, of Jewish History, of Anglo History and of much more. If you ever wanted a keen insight that penetrated to the heart of the subject, you went to David. His contribution to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, about which we heard a little bit about earlier from Steven, was of great significance. I’m a member of Israel’s delegation to that organization, and when the UK was the chair in 2014, and there was a major crisis regarding the country that was going to be the chair the following year, Hungary, it was David’s in depth analysis of the issues, various extensive documents that were involved, that helped guide that organization through the crisis and help navigate it to more peaceful waters. That contribution is greatly missed, now, as we still have many problems there.

Over the more than 20 years that we knew each other and we became good friends and our families, as I said, got to know each other well, we shared many meals together in restaurants, in our homes, Shabbat meals, and so on. The conversation always flowed about everything and anything. When the kids were around we talked about the kids. When they were around we had to ask them things directly, of course. I won’t tell you what he said, it was all nice, but we talked about everything personal and professional. And I consulted him about a great deal about many things, about jobs in Yad Vashem, universities where I would teach as an adjunct, and about research, about personal things and so on.

David and Dawn were also famous hosts. I remember a little less than two years ago, when David came over to our house one evening, Dawn was visiting other friends, and my wife Bobbie and I mentioned in passing in a conversation that our son and daughter-in-law were planning a brief trip to London that was both part professional and part vacation; the professional – our daughter-in-law is a fashion designer and there was an exhibit that she wanted to see or an event she wanted to visit. Before we completed the sentence that they are going to the UK, that they would be in London, David had already invited them to stay with the family ... “we can give them the key, they can come and go as they want…and of course we’ll feed them whenever they want, we’ll have Shabbat, we’ll do this, we’ll do that.” Of course the report that we got from Hillel and Liron after their return back to Israel was only superlative, which is no surprise.

David was also a constant great tour guide. Like Rob, I had the great fortune to be guided by him twice, once of course in his own backyard of East End in London, where he knew every nook and cranny, every doorway, every sign intimately. He could point to a grocery on some street that I think was run at the time that we were there by someone from Pakistan, and say, “well you see that, that used to be so-and-so’s grocery store, before that it was so-and-so’s butcher shop.” He gave us all the details about who lived there and who did what, all through the years at that place. But he knew not only the East End; of course he knew much more. We were once together in Washington, D.C. for a workshop. That’s the capital city of the country where I grew up, since I’m originally from New York. But he knew DC far better than I. He said, “let me take you on a tour of certain things in DC.” And he took Bobbie and me, my wife and I, on a tour, one evening. We walked together at a furious pace, but were able to keep up with him, we didn’t have to slow him down once, although I was breathing more heavily than he was. He would say, if you walk through that alley over there to the Kennedy Center, it’s a shortcut to get to…so on and so on. And of course, not only did he know how to get there but he made the sites come alive, because he knew not only about the site but about what went on behind the scenes in creating the site or developing the site, or whatever else was relevant.

Well I’d like to not only comment on David personally, although I could go on for a long time, but also on his scholarship and his approach to history. I won’t repeat anything that Rob and Todd have said, but all who knew him are aware of course that David read very widely and voraciously, but he also remembered everything that he read. It was a humbling experience to discuss some aspect of history that I researched, yet he read more books about it. I’d tell him about this or that aspect, and he would say yes, but so-and-so had something else to say about Poland. And of course, he was right. But he had that rare and remarkable ability not only to read everything and remember it all, but also to analyze and synthesize all of that vast information into a coherent whole. His approach to history was multi-faceted, both in history in general, and to the Holocaust in particular. And he was very much conscious of both the text he was looking at and discussing and the context of the historical events and developments. And, as we’ve heard, in examining the Holocaust, he emphasized the importance of various contexts. In his book Final Solution, one of those contexts is World War II. Not that no historian has ever said it’s important to look at World War II and study the Holocaust – of course other historians have said that – but he drove home so clearly how essential that context is for discussing the developments of the Holocaust. He also took into account various voices, as Rob has pointed out. The voices of the victims, the voices of the Jews were central to his discussion. And he was unabashed about that, and he would make that point to anybody and everybody in any discussion about the Holocaust. That approach came out very much in all of his reading and all of his writing, but especially in Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49.

Now David and I discussed the Holocaust and Modern Jewish history in all ways, on many levels, through multicultural approaches, and so on. And whenever he would visit Jerusalem he would ask me about recent publications, particularly in English by Yad Vashem, but especially of Jewish things, Jewish diaries, Jewish letters, or other Jewish documentation, and he would gobble that up. I couldn’t get it to him fast enough. He would finish reading an item and then would say “what’s next?” And whenever he would write something for Yad Vashem Studies, that journal that I edit, whether he was writing a book review, or an article, or a peer review, he would bring to bear all of his vast reading and knowledge, and multiple types of sources in his keen analysis and deep sensitivity to the victims’ voices and perspectives. Whenever I would send his peer review – anonymously, of course – to authors as part of the recommendations for revisions of an article, the authors might disagree with some comment, but they found it very difficult to disagree with David’s comment. They didn’t know with whom they were agreeing or disagreeing, but over the years I have seen that while they might disagree with a certain revision request, and they might have a point, when it came to David’s comments they would just go to work and do the revisions.

Indeed, in discussing history with David, or any other topic, it was an exhilarating experience for me very often. It was in light of that multi-level and multi-faceted approach of David’s that I’d like to discuss a particular piece of research that I discussed with him quite a bit, including at that dinner in our home a little less than two years ago, and it relates, in a broad sense, to fortune in history.

I would like to look at the last year or so of the war and the Holocaust, and the beginning of liberation, reflecting research on the Holocaust through comments on a particular person, a particular place, a particular region, and then come back to that period. And I hope at the end, you’ll see how that ties into David, and to me and to other scholars pretty directly.

The person I want to mention is a man named Joseph Kermisz. Joseph Kermisz was a Jewish historian who was born and raised in Poland. He was born in 1907 in a small town in what was Eastern Galicia in inter-war Poland and now is part of Southwestern Ukraine. The town called Złotniki, a village in Podhajce County in the Tarnopol District. We’ll come back to that area. He got his PhD from the University of Warsaw in 1937 in Jewish history, well History, but he wrote about the history of the Jewish community in Warsaw. In fact, his PhD was the first scholarly publication in Poland after the end of World War II. It had already been typeset and was about to be printed when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. And the publisher managed to throw the type-set manuscript away, and hide it from the Nazis, and that’s the first scholarly publication in Poland after World War II. In 1939, Kermisz fled Warsaw and went back to Złotniki, ostensibly to join Polish forces that were regrouping there. Of course, they never did regroup. And in the end, when that area was conquered by the Soviet Union in 1939, for the next almost two years, Kermisz became first a history teacher and then the principle of a high school in a small town in the same area called Husiatyn.

The Germans conquered Probużno, where Kermisz was living, in early July of 1941, and Kermisz got a job working for the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, in Jewish social welfare in the ghetto. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, he fled, and he hid with a colleague from the school, a teacher named Franciszek Kamiński, who lived in a tiny village called Czabarówka, in the same general area, not far from the town that I now want to mention. And the town will come back to Kermisz, and to David, and me as well. The town is Buczacz. Buczacz was a medium sized town in Eastern Galicia. There were about 7,500-8,000 Jews there before World War II / on the eve of the war they constituted a little more than half of the town’s population. This little town, actually, a medium sized town, is a place from which many well-known people have emerged. I don’t know why, maybe it’s something in the water in Buczacz.  But Agnon, the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, was from Buczacz; Emanuel Ringelblum, the famous historian in the Warsaw ghetto who created the Oneg Shabbat archive was from Buczacz. Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi Hunter, was from Buczacz. And on one side of the family, Sigmund Freud’s great grandparents apparently were from Buczacz. Now, why are all these well-known people from Buczacz? I don’t know.

Buczacz, like all these other places I mentioned, where Keremish was from and where he worked during the war, was under Soviet occupation from 1939-1941. The Germans conquered Buczacz on July 7, 1941, and between July 7, 1941 and May of 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators murdered more than 10,000 Jews on the hill outside of Buczacz and in the Jewish cemetery. These murder operations included the Jews of Buczacz and other Jews from little villages and towns in the area. They murdered all the Jews there, as far as they were concerned. In May of 1943, the German authorities in Buczacz declared the town, “Judenfrei”, clean of Jews.

The Soviet army advanced on the town in 1944. On March 23, 1944, the Soviet army liberated Buczacz and the area around Buczacz, and as it turned out, Buczacz was not “Judenfrei”, not entirely, because between 700-800 Jews emerged from hiding. Some had been hiding out in fields and nearby woods and others had been hiding with people who had been protecting them, local Christians who had been protecting them. And among those people who emerged was Joseph Kermisz, who was hiding in that little village in that same general area. Kermisz, having been a teacher and principal of a high school under Soviet authorities, immediately went to the Soviet authorities, the armed forces that were there, and identified himself. They immediately sent him to the officers’ training school further east of there in Ukraine in Zhitomir, and there he became he a history professor. As a professor, he got a uniform and a rank as well, not as a combat soldier, but rather as an academic teaching history to Polish officers being trained by the Red Army. A few days later, on April 3, 1944, the Germans re-conquered the town and the area. They seized every Jew they could find and they shot between 600-700 Jews. When the Soviets returned to the town on July 21, 1944 to finally liberate Buczacz and the area, it turned out that the Germans hadn’t quite gotten everybody, and 100 Jews emerged from hiding again.

I want to move to another area and then to tie again back to Buczacz and back to Kermisz. The same period of Spring/Summer 1944, when Buczacz was liberated, then re-taken by the Germans, then re-taken by the Soviets; that same period of time, the Lublin District, the same district that I researched in greater depth and on which I published a book and discussed in great length all the different things that came up in the research with David, in that area in that period of Spring/Summer 1944, it was a wild time. Polish partisans and Jewish partisans, but especially Polish partisans, because there were more of them, were busy fighting the Germans. The Germans were so afraid of the partisans that every German official had orders never to travel alone, never to travel unarmed and never to enter the forests of the Lublin district. The Polish partisan groups, the main ones, the AK, the Home Army that was the mainstream/right-wing, but not radical right, representing the Polish Government-in-Exile, the AL, Soviet led, Communist led underground, and the NSZ, the far right Fascist underground that was sometimes more pro-Nazi than anything else, were all also fighting Nazis, while also fighting each other and killing each other. The NSZ in particular and also units from the other two were also busy hunting Jews and killing Jews that were hiding, as were of course the German SS and the German police and German civilians. There were hundreds of Jews hiding in the forests of the Lublin District. Only hundreds remained from several hundred thousand that had been there in the early part of the war. And some of them were hiding in family camps in the forest and were being protected by Jewish partisans. Alongside that, there were nearly 10,000 Jewish forced laborers still working in various forced labor installations run by various German authorities, the SS or the armed forces or the police or others. And, during this period of Spring/Summer 1944, as Soviet shells began to rain down on this district during the end of spring/beginning of summer of 1944, the Germans began moving out, themselves and their forced laborers.

I want to mention a few of those camps where there were Jewish forced laborers from which they were moving out. I won’t mention all of them of course, there isn’t time for that, but that’s not the point. One of those camps was Budyzn. Budyzn was a place where there had been a Polish aircraft factory before the war that produced Polish military aircraft, and it was now turned into during the war, beginning in 1942, a camp that produced mostly for the Heinkel aircraft company in Germany that produced engines for German fighter planes. There were about 3,000 Jews who were working there. Their work masters were mostly people from the factory but their security guards were SS guards who killed many of the Jews there along the way. The camp was gradually liquidated and the prisoners were transferred between March and May 1944 to camps further west within Poland, and some of those people survived in those camps or in subsequent death marches and moving further into Germany.

Dęblin, in the northern part of the Lublin district, where there was a camp run by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, where there were between 1,000-2000 Jews, including women and children, where there were kindergartens being operated by the women who were teaching children from kindergarten to other early childhood care. The Luftwaffe commander of the camp allowed these children to be there and these women whose job was to take care of the children apparently to maybe keep things calm, so that the male workers, who were the majority of the forced labor would be calm. It’s not entirely clear why he did this. The camp functioned almost to the day that the Red Army arrived in July 1944 and then all of the Jews were transferred further west into Poland to other military related camps in the area of Częstochowa and in that process nearly all the children were killed. The Jewish leaders of the camp were so upset that the children were killed that they actually dressed down the Luftwaffe commandant for not keeping his part of the bargain. They had agreed that the children would be transferred as well. And none of the Jews who dressed down the commandant were ever disciplined. It was a very bizarre kind of place.

But the most bizarre of all these camps is a camp that was in a small town called Kraśnik. The SS commander of the Lublin District, one of the greatest mass murderers of the Holocaust, was a man named Odilo Globocnik, and in the fall of 1942 he created a camp that Germans who had served there, later on in post-war trials called “Schwartz geführt.” It was a black market kind of a camp. It was, they said in their testimony, not really revealed in in its true nature to Himmler, the head of the SS. The camp was run officially as a camp that was going to make furniture for German schools and German authorities in the district, but in reality what the camp mostly engaged in was making private gifts for German officials in the district and making money for the SS officials running the camp. There were between 250-300 Jews in the camp, including women and children, Jewish men in the camp who were permitted to bring their wives out of hiding to the camp, bring their children out of hiding into the camp. There weren’t that many women and children there but there were some. And the commandant of the camp, named Alois Gröger, had a 6 or 7-year-old boy who had no one to play with, so the Jewish children of the camp were permitted to play with the boy. He was allowed to play with the Jewish children. Gregor also was a mass murderer. Given the opportunity, he would shoot Jews, freely. But his son could play with Jewish children.

Between October 18 and December 24, 1943, this camp received orders for 692 personal gifts that were made by the Jewish forced laborers for SS and other officials in the Lublin District. Things like children’s toys made out of wood, that various German officials going home to Germany for Christmas could bring home to their children as Christmas gifts, and more and more. We’ll get into all of that. In 1944, beginning in March, the work in this camp shifted to work that related to the German retreat – the Germans were moving out. What we find is that the camp was now making things that the Germans needed in order to pack up and leave. For example, they made dozens of huge trunks for packing office material and other things into for moving out. They made field kitchens for the SS Wiking Division that had many northern Europeans and Scandinavians. In the division, they made 13 closets to be put on the back of trucks for a unit of Panzer Regiment 5, so they could put their materials there, and so on and so on and so on. And parallel to that, they were also busy making private gifts that all these people who were retreating would take with them back to their families as souvenirs. One of the things they were also making was sausages, because sausages are dry, cured meat that can last long while you’re traveling – you don’t have to cook them, you can just eat them. The reason they were making sausages was that they received orders from the Lublin officer overseeing the camp, who represented Globocnik, although he as no longer there. The Germans in the camp were told to buy a sausage-making machine and to buy animals, cows and pigs, and so on, in order to slaughter them and make sausage, but not to keep a record. They were to not pay for these things in money, but rather to barter for these things so there’d be no written record. Then they produced massive amounts of sausage for all these retreating Germans.

During the last month of the existence of this camp, the commandant of the camp at the time was an SS sergeant named Franz Bartetzko, who had previously cut his teeth at the death camp of Bełżec; after experiencing Bełżec and becoming a mass murderer, now he’s got his own camp. He was told to write weekly reports. The last 4 reports we have until the camp was liquidated and everyone moved Westward across Poland, were dated June 17, June 24, July 3, and July 10 of 1944. During that period the Jewish personnel in that camp increased by about 15 or so Jews who apparently entered the camp from hiding because it was a relatively safe place to be. During those 4 weeks Jews were working in 18 different crafts and produced 1,896 items for the German retreat that they took with them. Then they were taken westward, most of them to the Plaszów concentration camp in July of 1944. I won’t go on with the details of the Majdanek camp as time was running out at other camps that were liquidated, other than to say that Jews were taken out of the Majdanek camp, out of small camps in Lublin, and out of other towns in the area, as were other forced laborers. Some of them were shot, some of them were moved Westward. In one illustration, in the castle in Lublin, the Zamek, which goes back several hundred years, between July 19 and July the 22, there were somewhere between 1,000 and 1,600 forced laborers who worked in the Zamek for the German police and for the SS various odd jobs, about half of them Jews. All were taken out and shot. And there’s a record, a German record of the shooting.  So that when the Soviets entered the city of Lublin on July 22 and 23 and the rest of the district in subsequent days and liberated Majdanek as well, what they found in the entire district was that there were between 300 and 500 Jews who emerged from hiding – hiding in the forest or hiding with other people.

As we know, the Polish provisional government that arose after the liberation and was under Soviet influence but was not yet a Soviet government, organized things quickly, alongside ongoing violence all over Poland. As regions of Poland were liberated, the different Polish underground units were fighting each other and trying to fight the Soviets for domination of the country. The Provisional Government on August 31st issued a decree that has gone down in history as the August decree that discussed how to prosecute Polish people, or begin criminal investigations to prosecute them for treason in collaboration with the enemy. And murdering Jews, helping to murder Jews was one of the things for which they could be prosecuted. But alongside that there was also a great deal of antisemitic violence. We know that in October of 1944, very shortly after the liberation of the district, 6 Jews who were trying to return home were killed. They were trying to see who else had come home and were killed. In April 1945, the beginning of April, Leon Feldhendler, who was one of the organizers of the uprising and escape from Sobibór, was killed in his hometown, Żółkiewka, when he went back to see if anyone had survived in his family. Chaim Hirszman, one of the only two known survivors of the Bełżec death camp, was murdered the morning of March 20, 1946 by local Polish people. The day that he was meant to go to the Jewish Historical Committee in Lublin and tell his story about the Bełżec camp. In the end, what we know of his experience is what his wife told us, summarizing what he had told her. We know that in that period, this post war wild period, at least 118 Jews in the Lublin district were murdered between 1944 and Spring of 1946.

I’d like to come back to Joseph Kermisz and what all this means for David and for me and for research. Joseph Kermisz managed to get himself transferred from the officers training camp in Zhitomir in September 1944. His ostensible reason was to help train and teach history over there, but what he really wanted to do was meet Holocaust survivors. He immediately joined two other historians who were already on the scene and had begun to report Jewish survivor accounts by the end of August 1944 – Philip Friedman and Nachman Blumental. The three of them – Kermisz, Friedman, and Blumental – had organized recording survivor accounts, and as the Red Army advanced in Poland, they moved on. They set up a committee to continue in Lublin and they moved further West and set up committees in other places. What you find in the course of the latter part of 1944 and the first months of 1945 is that similar historical committees whose job was to record survivor accounts were created all across Poland, in Kraków, in Lodz, in Warsaw, and in other places. And Kermisz went around from place, working on this and collecting documentation. By mid-1945, just after Germany surrendered, they had already collected about 1,500 survivor accounts; ultimately they were to collect more than 3,000 in Poland.

All of these regional and local committees were merged in early 1946 into an institution that still exists today as a very important institution for research, and that is the Jewish Historical Institute known by its Polish acronym ŻIH in Warsaw. They have a very important archive for very important research that is done there, and Joseph Kermisz moved to Warsaw to take up a role in this new institution. He became the first chief archivist of ŻIH in 1946, and he proceeded prior to getting that job and following getting that job in running around all over Poland looking for documentation. Now, recording survivor accounts was one thing, but he went looking for written documentation and he was perhaps the most significant figure in gathering German documentation, such as the Lublin District civilian Governor’s archive which has 914 files, or the Lublin Juderat archive with its 181 files, as well as various other archives in the Lodz district, The Jewish Social Self-Help archive he helped find part of in Poland, and more. He was also one of the people who led the way in discovering the first part of the Oneg Shabbat archive that had been buried by Ringelblum and his cohorts before the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He was able with others to identify that site. In fact, in some of the famous photographs we see of people who clearly weren’t doing the digging because they were wearing suits and ties, but they’re in the pit pulling out the milk cans we can see Joseph Kermisz there in the center of the photograph.

So, Joseph Kermisz was essential in creating one of the most important archives in the world on the Holocaust and beginning to do research. But he was also essential in pushing and bringing to trial German criminals. And when he moved to Israel in 1949, he made sure that he went back to Warsaw after putting together a hefty affidavit so that he could testify as an expert witness in the trial of Jürgen Stroop, who was the commander of the German forces that put down the Warsaw ghetto uprising. In Israel, he became the first chief archivist of the first memorial institution to have an archive in Israel created about the Holocaust, Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetta’ot, the Ghetto Fighters’ House, in 1950. When Yad Vashem was created in 1953, Yad Vashem hired him as the first chief archivist of Yad Vashem, a job he held for the next 25 years. After he retired in 1978, that doesn’t mean he retired, he continued producing for the next 20 years or so in research and publications until he became ill and died in 2005.

Kermisz was a major figure in laying foundations in major research and for bringing criminals to justice. He collected a wide variety of documentation because he had a vision that only through integrating sources, German sources, Jewish sources, local sources, a variety of sources for each body of material--only in that way, through that integration, having actually begun to do the research can we perhaps begin to understand what had happened. That idea of integrating sources in a sense began with Joseph Kermisz and some of his colleagues. He was the one who began to develop the archive at Yad Vashem that is the largest archive in the world and certainly one of the most important in the world. Kermisz was essential in that as well, first in Poland, then in Israel, and in his influence on the integration of sources. 

And if we sum all of this up together, we might say that but for a stroke of luck in history, in March of 1944, in Buczacz, where Kermisz happened to have survived and where Kermisz happened to have decided to go report to the Soviet commander during the 10 days that this place had been temporarily liberated, and the Soviet commander just happened to decide, oh, you’re a historian, we’ll send you east to Zhitomir, where the Germans are not going to reconquer the place, that piece of luck resulted in gathering all this material, developing  the foundations for research--one of the people developing that--and in developing a concept for research that is of course at the heart of what David did. David writes about Kermisz in Final Solution. He was at the heart of what David did: integrating sources and putting Jewish voices at the heart, but integrating a wide variety of sources, and hopefully it’s also the heart of what very many of us do. Thank you very much.