Friedländer’s eloquent Holocaust non-speech in Frankfurt

October 15, 2007

Imagine you are a Jewish historian of the Holocaust. You are being awarded one of Germany’s most prestigious prizes. The ceremony is solemn, the audience filled with the great and the good. The three Germans speaking before you give lofty speeches praising you and your life’s work for recording and explaining what they must never forget. What kind of speech should you deliver?

saul-friedlaender.jpgSaul Friedländer found just the right tone on Sunday when he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt. He gave a non-speech. To be more precise, he broke with the tradition of long-winded oration at such ceremonies and simply read Holocaust- related documents from the early 1940s. But these were not just any documents. Friedländer, whose German- speaking Jewish family fled from their hometown of Prague to France in 1939, read letters telling how his parents tried and failed to escape the Nazis, but managed to save him.

One was a letter in 1942 from his mother to a French neighbour who helped hide her son from the Nazis by having him baptised and enrolled in a rural Catholic school . “If we perish, then we will have that one great joy to know our beloved child has been saved.” she wrote. His father wrote her a final letter after he and his wife were arrested following a failed attempt to escape to Switzerland. “I am writing this to you from the train taking us to Germany,” he wrote, “please accept for the last time our never-ending thanks.” He handed it to a Quaker group that waited in train stations to help deported Jews and they mailed it.

Another letter was from his aunt in Prague to her mother exiled in Stockholm, telling her she was being sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. All three were eventually murdered in Auschwitz.

After the war, Friedländer reassumed his Jewish identity, changed his name from Paul to Saul and emigrated to Israel, where he taught history at Tel Aviv University. He is now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The German Book Trade honoured him for his two-volume history Nazi Germany and the Jews.

In his non-speech, he said that his calm reading of his family’s desperate letters was not meant to be polemical. “I just want to express myself as seems fitting to me on this occasion,” he said. Some in the audience were in tears.

The German Book Trade website has the announcement of his award only in German. I’ll post the text and any English translation if they are provided later.

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