On June 11, 1942, Heinrich Himmler demanded 100,000 Jews of France, for Auschwitz. Pierre Laval agreed in July to turn over 10,000. This would “cleanse France of its foreign Jewry”: the deportations, Laval insisted, would take only Jews from Germany and Central Europe who had sought refuge in the Unoccupied Zone. The roundups began at once. Switzerland sealed its frontiers. “We cannot turn our country into a sponge for Europe,” the Swiss Minister of Justice announced. Jews who stole across were promptly returned to their fate. Among these were Jan and Elli Friedländer of Prague. They later perished, as planned, at Auschwitz. In Britain Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, entertained a proposal to admit at least the children of Vichy’s doomed Jews. The Foreign Office, however, balked. Sir Alexander Cadogan, Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, observed that “it seems to me wrong to support bringing children to this country at present.” Among these children was Jan and Elli’s ten-year-old son, Pavel.*
Pavel Friedländer survived the war. He had been baptized, becoming Paul-Henri Marie Ferland, and was harbored in the doctrinal gloom of a Catholic seminary in the Indre, where he gladly quit the storm outside for the church, and for its calming certainties. Paul-Henri Ferland was no longer a victim:
The simple unquestioning faith drummed into us was…the one I needed…. I had passed over to Catholicism, body and soul…. I felt at ease within a community of those who had nothing but scorn for Jews…. I had the feeling…of having passed over to the compact, invincible majority, of no longer belonging to the camp of the persecuted, but, potentially at least, to that of the persecutors.
The boy who had been fascinated by the tales of the Maccabees his father told on Hanukkah now adored the Virgin and Pétain, the Savior of France. In time France was delivered from its savior. The war ended, but no family returned for Paul-Henri. The seminarist was preparing for his novitiate when a charitable priest, pausing beside the church altar, told him about Auschwitz.
And so, in front of this obscure Christ, I listened: Auschwitz, the trains, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens, the millions of dead…. For the first time I felt myself to be Jewish—no longer despite myself or secretly, but through a sensation of absolute loyalty. It is true that I knew nothing of Judaism and was still a Catholic. But something had changed. A tie had been reestablished, an identity was emerging, a confused one certainly…but from that day forward…there could be no doubt: in some manner or other I was Jewish….
He was Pavel again, the impersonation was ended, but he did not know who Pavel was.
Pavel had been born in 1932 into the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of Prague. Jan Friedländer’s book plates displayed a score by Chopin set within a Star of David, an emblem of an honorable delusion. “Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared” from Pavel’s family, Friedländer writes, and the filaments of tradition that had randomly come down to him could not make up the Jewishness for which he was renouncing his ecclesiastical haven. “Had I been born of a ‘really’ Jewish family I would at least have had coherent memories….” The troubled orphan moved to Pairs, where he lived with Russian Jews, and among them found
instead of reserve and carefully controlled emotions, and the apparent coldness [of my background], a noisy exuberance, very soon carried to extremes; instead of the almost total absence of a Jewish tradition, an atmosphere saturated with Jewish emotions, allusions, customs, mannerisms.
From his guardian Pavel first learned, in 1946, of Eretz Israel.
The restitution of Pavel Friedländer’s Jewishness eventually took the form of Zionism. For Pavel, as for many of Europe’s other surviving Jews, Zionism was now “a simple line of reasoning”: a state was required. From the autumn of 1947 Pavel made of Zionism “the most important thing in my life.” When his Socialist Zionist group refused to arrange his passage to Palestine, Pavel joined Betar, the militant youth movement of Menahem Begin’s Irgun, and ran away to Marseille, to board a ship carrying arms to Begin’s underground. The ship was the Altalena.
Sailing from Port-de-Bouc on June 11, 1948, the Altalena was still at sea when the first Arab-Israeli truce went into effect. The Irgun command refused to turn over the ship’s ammunition; David Ben-Gurion correctly recognized a threat to his young government, and ordered the vessel attacked. Israeli forces on the coast opened fire, the ship burst into flame, twenty people died. On June 21 the Altalena docked in Tel Aviv. What remained of the Irgun was disbanded. Menahem Begin went into opposition, and the humiliation of this defeat still rankles. Pavel went to Nira, a farming village near Natanya, and became Shaul.
In the bright early days of the state, Shaul studied Hebrew, danced horas, and tried to do his part. But still,
Should I confess that since the beginning I had nonetheless had vague, confused, intermittent feelings that something was missing?
He would wander to the sea to read Fromentin—“I thought I was thus affirming, for myself alone, the permanence of a culture that remained the only one that mattered to me.” In the army he worked on “my secret masterpiece,” a map of the Paris métro, reconstructed from memory in Jaffa. “I was a person divided,” an aesthete beached in the cruel Levant. Nor was that all. “I was becoming more and more aware of the future dilemmas, almost impossible to grasp, of this first period [of Israel’s history].” There appeared social, political, cultural contradictions. The dream began to disappoint. Shaul understood that dreams often do; but still there remained a question:
What is the point, the invisible line, beyond which the imperfections of everyday life come to undermine the very meaning of the undertaking?
Shaul Friedländer became a distinguished historian at Hebrew University, an authority on the near-Final Solution. He joined with members of left-wing groups who tried to save the Jewish state from the more ruinous consequences of nationalism, and sought out Arabs who would talk about peace. He buried students killed in the wars. He returned to teach in Europe. But all this he did as Saul, his last and most appropriate name. Saul: midway between Pavel and Shaul, between Paris and Jerusalem, between the burned-over world to which he fell heir and the slowly dimming society he chose to serve.
The most remarkable feature of When Memory Comes is its composure, an elegance that is unnerving. Friedländer describes his experiences in lean, graceful sentences; his language seems armored (even more formidably so in the French) against the dissolution it describes. Yet dissolution triumphs. The pieces of memory do not cohere: When Memory Comes is a significant work partly because of this failure. Friedländer’s life remains disrupted, despoiled of its dreams; not least because of the honesty with which he has attempted to discover what the death of the Jews might mean.
For understanding Auschwitz, grand patterns of historical explanation have been proposed. Auschwitz has been attributed to the evolution of European societies, economies, and political systems; to the contest between culture and instinct, and the development of the demonic as a force in the modern world; to the psychological consequences of unprecedented dislocations; to the contradictions of Jewish life in the Diaspora; and to the inevitable eruption of the anti-Semitism that had polluted Europe for centuries. It has even been ascribed to the resentment of the West at the introduction of conscience by the Jews—this is George Steiner’s cranky contribution. The speculations continue to proliferate. Friedländer knows them, but it is not as a historian that he has produced this book. He has put aside the conventional logic of historical explanation, and does not even tell his own story in sequence. He inserts pages from his Israeli journal into the account of his childhood, and these seem abrupt and intrusive. Even the structure of his memoir thus seems disconsolate; he refuses to impose narrative order upon his account of the catastrophes, because their victims cannot believe in their necessity. They may be given causes but never reasons.
The author of When Memory Comes knows that memory is not history. Memory’s objects and gestures are not quite past, and they are not yet interpreted. Memory is the accurate record of the partial, private, passive character of experience. Thus what is gained from memory is incomplete, and it is all the more illuminating, because memory is the consciousness of things and events that have not yet disappeared completely into knowledge—the panic in the eyes, the halt in the whisper, the flavor of the slop, the stench of the smoke. Such are the memories with which Friedländer has tried to heal the terrifying gaps in his life. Memory makes parting impossible.
Friedländer’s book is, I think, a major document of Jewish bitterness in this century. American Jews can learn something from its bitterness, for they tend to be much too enthusiastic in their sorrow. When one considers the states of spiritual exaltation into which some American Jews are cast by “the Holocaust,” it almost seems necessary to remind them that the disaster might better not have occurred. Six million dead are no occasion for pride, only for rage, and that rage is missing. The extermination of Europe’s Jews has become a “growth experience” for too many Americans.
And the struggle in Israel as well. About this, too, American Jews take too much pride too soon. How many are aware that the Israel which fires their imaginations is dying, and not at the hands of Arabs? Friedländer writes on this matter with rare candor. For the melancholy argument of his book is that, if things did not work out for the Jews in Europe, they are not exactly working out for them in Israel either. “The peace initiatives are going to bring to light the hidden contradictions of our society,” Friedländer wrote after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem:
the will to reach a settlement, certainly, but also territorial ambitions; the will to compromise, but also the belief in a particular and decisive right to the land of Eretz Israel; the will to return to normal, but perhaps also an inability to accept what is normal.
He faithfully reports the gathering uncertainties of Israeli society, and soberly concludes:
I have done my best in these pages to avoid any sort of strictly political reflections. It is nonetheless true that political decisions now dominate our lives and will determine the future of all of us. If we must one day take up arms again, not to defend what must be defended at all costs, but because we will not have been able to accept compromise at the proper moment, what today is only a temporary situation will have then become the very essence of the gravest of dilemmas, the very essence of tragedy.
Throughout his life, Saul Friedländer has seen one nation’s triumphant convictions quickly become another nation’s oppressive facts. This often happened to the Jews, and it has happened to the Palestinians. Friedländer, who escaped the Nazis and fought the Arabs, has the courage to say so. Instead of offering hoarse and unthinking support, which serves mainly General Sharon and his army of chiliasts, American Jews committed to Israel would do well to consider, as Friedländer has, the reality of the Palestinians. “The permanence of the Jewish world,” he writes, “but the permanence of the Arab world too.”
Friedländer is without illusions (unlike many other doves). He recalls an exchange in Geneva with an impassioned young Palestinian from Ramallah. To Friedländer this seemed “a beginning of possible contact, a first step toward brotherhood.” Two years later the same Palestinian masterminded the massacre at the Munich Olympics. There are Palestinians who must be met only on the battlefield. But Friedländer believes there are others as well, and that—when they finally come forward—Israelis must be prepared to honor their national needs. There are 750,000 Palestinians on the West Bank who wish to govern themselves, and for Israel’s sake they had better.
October 25, 1979
The citations from Swiss and British policy on French Jewish refugees are in Bernard Wasserstein’s scrupulous and chilling study of bureaucratic turpitude, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1979). ↩