The Trauma of the Gifted Child

When Memory Comes BY Saul Friedländer. Other Press. . $25.
Where Memory Leads: My Life BY Saul Friedländer. Other Press. . $25.

The cover of When Memory Comes The cover of Where Memory Leads: My Life

Somewhere a child is being hidden. The time is mid-July, 1942, and the first great roundup of Jews—more than thirteen thousand foreign Jews in all, including four thousand children—has begun in Paris, to be followed by more arrests days later in the unoccupied zones. A small boy—"born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power," he recalls in the memoir he will grow up to write—has been living for two years in Néris, a resort town in France known for its waters, with his parents. Before this, the family has been continually on the run, trying to flee across the Hungarian border by car before discovering that the Germans had already occupied Hungary, and then settling in Paris, where the father, once vice president of a large German insurance company in Czechoslovakia, studies to be a cheesemaker and the mother a beautician. They have learned to keep their heads low, in hopes of going undetected by the glare of the Nazi searchlight. The boy has grown up in the assimilated context of the Central European Jewish bourgeoisie: "We observed none of the rules of life that Orthodoxy laid down, celebrated none of the holidays, respected none of the customs." The first song he was taught when given piano lessons was a funeral march played in the German army and performed at ceremonial occasions during the Third Reich.

The boy, whose name is Pavel—it will be changed to "Paul" when his family escapes to France—is an avid reader, devouring Jules Verne, Karl May, Jack London, and a novel of Pearl Buck's, The Patriot, that his mother is reading. As the Nazi net closes around foreign-born Jews, Paul is placed by his parents first in a Jewish children's home and then in a Jesuit boarding school, where he becomes officially known as "Paul-Henri Ferland." The "little pagan" is, unsurprisingly, deeply unhappy at the school. "Everything at Saint-Béranger stifled me: the austere discipline, the continual prayers, of which I didn't understand a word, the dreariness of our dark building, and, finally, the food, which seemed revolting to me," he later wrote in his memoir When Memory Comes. "I don't know why, but I imagined that the rubbery meat that was served us on the day after my arrival was cat meat."

In one of the most poignant scenes in this scrupulously untearjerking but all the same heartbreaking book, the ten-year-old Paul decides to run away from school. "I had to rejoin my parents at any cost," he recounts. "It was more than distress or nostalgia, it was a physical need, so to speak, and nothing could stand in its way." All on his own, he makes his way to the hospital in Montluçon where his father had been admitted with an ulcer shortly before Paul was sent to the school he finds so unbearable. After a tearful reunion, his parents assure him that they won't be separated for long, and of the necessity of his returning to Saint-Béranger. His mother puts her arms around him and then, in what for him is a sign, his father hugs and kisses him. "It was the first time that that timid father of mine had ever kissed me." As it turns out, Paul will never see his parents again; after attempting to cross the border into Switzerland, they were arrested and eventually transported to and killed in Auschwitz.

Written by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Holocaust historian who came to call himself Saul Friedländer, When Memory Comes was published in 1978; translated from the French by Helen Lane, the book was recognized as a lapidary masterpiece, evoking the author's traumatic childhood, his conversion to Catholicism, and his gradual rediscovery of his Jewish roots in adolescence with the lightest of touches. Friedländer shifts back and forth between the past and his current life in Jerusalem, reflecting on the Zionist principles that came to galvanize him after the end of the war, when he went to live with a Jewish guardian in Paris—eventually leading to his departure for Israel in June 1948—and on his present resistance to the emerging spirit of intransigent nationalism that informs Israeli society. For those who missed out on the book when it originally appeared, it has now been reissued, with an elegant introduction by Claire Messud, in tandem with a new memoir, Where Memory Leads, which picks up threads of the earlier narrative.

One of the questions that implicitly haunts When Memory Comes and is explicitly addressed in Where Memory Leads is the emotional cost of surviving a childhood whose "catastrophic circumstances" included the abrupt loss of both parents and the assumption of a false identity, whereby Friedländer became, however temporarily, "a staunch Catholic." The challenge to integrate the opposing influences of his formative years—a background of "non-Jewish" Jewishness, followed by an immersion in Catholicism that inspired him enough to want to enter the priesthood, followed in turn by a recognition of the reality of the Holocaust and a reversion to his origins—is enormous. We learn in Where Memory Leads about "the dream of total acceptance" that led him first to embrace Catholicism and the Jesuit seminary, where he was "taken in by a collectivity that was strong, protective, and nurturing," and then to embrace the idea of Israel.

But behind Friedländer's yearning to belong lurks a permanent sense of divided loyalties, a deep ambivalence about submitting to any one milieu. He felt caught on "a kind of seesaw," as he describes it, "between these two opposing drives—fervent commitment on the one hand, constant search for an escape route on the other." He would put down roots in Israel, teaching international relations at Hebrew University and speaking Hebrew at home (both his first and second wives are Israeli), at the same time as he continued to hold a teaching position in Geneva. "My cultural identity," he explains, "has remained essentially French throughout my life." (Where Memory Leads was written in English.) We also learn that one of the things that saved the young Friedländer was, ironically enough, his parents' "total assimilation," which included not having their son circumcised. And yet he tells us that he considers his "core identity" to be that of a Jew, "albeit one without any religious or tradition-related attachments, yet indelibly marked by the Shoah. Ultimately, I am nothing else."

In many ways, Where Memory Leads is a reshaping of the contours of the first memoir, written from the perspective of old age; it is possibly a less artful book but also a richer and more candid one, providing glimpses of the turmoil and conflicts that afflict Friedländer under his public persona and "the construction of a normal life." Early on in the narrative, he describes himself as suffering from an "emotional paralysis" when it comes to relationships. "I was like an insect whose antennas had been torn off," Friedländer explains. "It was not easy to recognize this from the outside—I smiled a lot, knew the right things to say, and readily adapted to fast-changing circumstances. People who knew me well were not fooled, however. 'You are incapable of emotion,' I was not infrequently told. 'Your soul is arid.'" There are other symptoms: About the time he decides to get married, in his mid-twenties, he begins to suffer from several forms of anxiety—claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and nightly attacks of tachycardia—as well as dizzy spells. He eventually enters analysis but along the way becomes addicted to tranquilizers—"hefty daily doses of Librium, then of Valium, and years later of Xanax, Zoloft and Klonopin." He reveals these personal details in a matter-of-fact voice that makes them all the more powerful, a testament to the chasm that exists between his internal experience and his external accomplishments.

Charlotte Salomon, untitled (“We want to know where our men are…”), ca. 1941, gouache on paper, 12 7/8 × 9 7/8". From the series “Leben? oder Theater?” (Life? or Theater?), 1940–42. Courtesy The Jewish Historical Museum.
Charlotte Salomon, untitled (“We want to know where our men are…”), ca. 1941, gouache on paper, 12 7/8 × 9 7/8". From the series “Leben? oder Theater?” (Life? or Theater?), 1940–42. Courtesy The Jewish Historical Museum.

Meanwhile, the outlines of the story he told in When Memory Comes get filled in. After leaving his lycée and arriving in Israel on the ill-fated Altalena, the ship that Menachem Begin's right-wing Irgun had equipped with fighters and weapons and that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion fired on, the fifteen-year-old Friedländer went to live with his "morose" bachelor uncle in Nirah. He briefly attended an agricultural school, at his uncle's insistence, before going to a regular high school, where he went on to become valedictorian of his class. He worked at various political postings, including serving in Israeli intelligence for two and a half years, before returning to Paris in 1953 to continue his studies in political science. He also secured a job at the Israeli Embassy, which led to his meeting Elie Wiesel, who was working as a journalist for the Israeli evening paper Yediot Ahronot, and Shabtai Teveth, a journalist from Haaretz. In the festive postwar atmosphere of Paris, Friedländer spread his wings, frequenting dance halls ("I used to declare that if I ever chose to write a dissertation it would be on Parisian dance halls"), taking up with women, going to plays and films, and appreciating the rituals of eating—"ouef dur mayonnaise, steak frites (saignant), chèvre, meringue Chantilly, espresso and red wine"—after the austerity of wartime and the food rationing in Israel.

In the years that followed, Friedländer's path to becoming an eminent scholar and teacher of the Holocaust, whose book The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 would win the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, was anything but straight. Indeed, it's hard to get a sense of his fairly dazzling ascension because he keeps sidestepping his own achievements, picking up just when a juicy job offer comes into view, attributing much of his professional and academic success to "luck" rather than his own gifts. ("I became an artist in false modesty.") After turning down a position at an important bank in France, he went to Sweden to work for a year at an institution for mentally handicapped boys run by an uncle; musing on his stay there, he wonders if the patients presented a distorted reflection of the "mute self" that he senses within himself.

Next, having done exceptionally well in his studies in Paris, he applied to and was accepted for graduate work at Harvard, where he chose to focus on Middle Eastern studies—only to realize rather quickly that the subject bored him. Several detours later, among them a stint assisting Israel's then– vice minister of defense Shimon Peres, Friedländer decided to pursue his academic interests, beginning with a dissertation on "the American factor" in the foreign and military policies of Nazi Germany. He describes his "monomaniacal" work habits, which dictated that he write "six pages every day, except during archival research." This was followed several years later by the publication in 1966 of Pius XII and the Third Reich,
his groundbreaking book on the Vatican's response to Nazism (the book was translated into "fifteen or sixteen languages" and was featured on the covers of L'Express, Der Spiegel, and Look ), and by his immersion in Holocaust historiography.

Where Memory Leads is an intellectual as well as personal meditation, and among the many pleasures of reading it is the lucid and insightful analysis it provides of the Israeli occupation, its sources in Israeli myths of the Sabra and of national memory, and "the danger of a moral degradation that the occupation could foster within Israeli society." Friedländer, who since the 1990s has lived in Los Angeles, where he taught at UCLA until his retirement, is that rara avis: a committed Zionist who has little use for the pieties of the Left or the self-righteous homilies of the Right. He admires Israel's creative energy while worrying about its character, the "specific Israeli pathology" that stems from a humiliating diaspora history topped by "an attempt at total extermination" and the somewhat preening Zionist response to it.

Most of all, however, this is a book about growing up in the shadow of a dark history—"The impact of the Shoah has determined the course of my life," Friedländer writes toward the end of his memoir—and the heroic efforts of one survivor to wring illumination and self-knowledge out of chaos and bewilderment. He writes fascinatingly about the representation of the Shoah beyond an "exclusive reliance on witnessing," the cultural politics of blame and exoneration that continue to surround the subject, and the attempts of some right-wing German writers to suggest an "equivalence of evil" between the Allies' treatment of Germany and the Germans' treatment of Jews. He also asks the decisive (and too-little-articulated) question about the enduring interest in Nazism, an interest I myself share and have often wondered about: "Is the attention fixated on this past only a gratuitous reverie, the attraction of spectacle, exorcism, or the result of a need to understand? Or is it, again and still, an expression of profound fears and, on the part of some, of mute yearnings as well?"

What, indeed, propels my own decades-long, abiding interest in Holocaustania? I have bookshelves full of biographies of SS officers (Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann, Goebbels), histories of the camps (including ones that focus on specific camps, like Ravensbrück and Majdanek), novels (the latest being Martin Amis's The Zone of Interest and Timur Vermes's Look Who's Back), memoirs of all sorts, and theoretical inquiries into the genesis of the Final Solution. I have read books on the special relationship between Germans and Jews and on the French collaboration with, as well as defiance of, the Nazis. Not to mention the piles of books that seek to understand the mastermind behind all the insensate cruelty, what drove the wish to annihilate an entire people: studies of Hitler's childhood, charisma, furies, philosophers, women, and last days.

It is an odd, queasy-making search for knowledge, this hunt for more appalling facts, more unbearable reality. As if we might contain or give order to the lawless terror that marked the Nazi rise to power and their twelve-year grip on Europe by an ever more refined scholarship, an ever wider reading. Then again, I've often wondered whether the impulse derives from something more primitive than that, a kind of morbid fascination or childish voyeurism, a wish to stand on one's tiptoes and peer through the keyhole of depravity, transfixed by horror. Not so much the why as the how. (Among the pileup of atrocities depicted in KL, a massive, meticulously researched, and compellingly narrated history of the Nazi concentration camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, is the fact that small children in Majdanek were forced to march in circles all day.) Or, again, perhaps from a wish to take hold of the events before the end of the era of living witnesses, before the last survivor gives up the ghost. Or, yet again, it might be a compulsion written into the Jewish bloodline, a passing on of traumatic experience that must be revisited, over and over, in an effort at mastery, at healing the wound, binding the fissure between Nazi-time and our own moment.

Friedländer's memoir, in its rigorous attention to the major and minor devastations that his life has wrought, will set you thinking about your own responses to the collective damage of history. And yet, for all the gravity of his reflections, Friedländer is never self-important, nor does his prose swell. Indeed, it's a tribute to his consuming honesty and taste for understatement that the reader comes away with a sense of the complexity and hesitancy that marks a life that, in other hands, might have been presented as one long triumphal march.

Daphne Merkin's This Close to Happiness: A Reckoning with Depression will be published in February by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.