According to historian Saul Friedlander, Holocaust survivors tend to handle their pasts in one of two ways: "Some try to block it out. Others come to struggle with it by dealing with it."

Friedlander, who holds UCLA's 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies, knows what he's talking about. He chose the latter, inspired by his experiences as a 9-year-old boy sheltered in a Catholic monastery in Nazi-occupied France while his parents tried unsuccessfully to flee to Switzerland, only to perish at Auschwitz. That struggle to come to grips with his own history has led Friedlander on a lifelong quest to understand the nature of the madness that engulfed Germany in the Nazi era. His latest work, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (HarperCollins), is a definitive history of Nazi policies prior to the Holocaust. In June, it landed him the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for work that "transformed our understanding of this period by weaving into a coherent whole the perspectives of the participants: ordinary Germans, party activists, military and political figures and, most importantly, victims and survivors."

Friedlander drew from newly available documents - such as local German police reports, films, personal recollections and his own experiences - drawing an intimate picture of a prewar Germany as "grotesque and chilling under the veneer of an even more chilling normality." Most strikingly, Friedlander concluded that the largely middle-class, educated population of one of the world's most advanced nations "looked the other way" during the systematic removal of Jews from Germany's government, business and cultural life in the pre-Holocaust years, viewing Hitler's anti-Jewish actions during a time of economic prosperity and growing international power as a "peripheral issue."

As Friedlander notes: "The chronology of persecution, segregation, emigration and expulsion, the sequence of humiliations and violence, of loss and bereavement that molded the memories of the Jews of Germany from 1933 to 1939, was not what impressed itself on the consciousness and memory of German society as a whole."

Friedlander systematically documented one anti-Jewish measure after another. In April 1933 alone, the Nazis declared a boycott of Jewish businesses, passed a law requiring non-Aryan civil servants to retire and limited the number of Jewish students eligible to attend German universities, compelling some 2 million state employees and tens of thousands of lawyers, doctors, students and others to search for proof of Aryan ancestry and transforming tens of thousands of priests, pastors, town clerks and archivists into investigators to vouch for blood purity.

Surprisingly, Hitler early on did not hint at any "final solution." According to Friedlander, his main goal in the late-'30s was to force Jewish emigration by confiscating their wealth, forcing them by law to sell their businesses, land, stocks, jewels and artworks, thereby entirely destroying "any remaining possibility for Jewish life in Germany." Friedlander found no evidence of any plan for extermination prior to Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary historians have had most difficulty analyzing why exactly the Jews seemed so passive and why others watched in silence as Jewish neighbors were stripped of everything. In fact, few of the 525,000 Jews living in Germany felt "any apparent sense of panic or urgency," explains Friedlander. Even by the end of 1933, when tens of millions of people inside and outside Germany had become aware of the Nazis' "systematic policy of segregation and persecution," most Jews felt no need to leave the country. During this time, no powerful voice within Germany was raised against the Nazi regime. With few exceptions, the Protestant and Catholic churches were silent, as were the German universities and the intellectual class.

But Friedlander believes that having lived through the Holocaust affords him a unique personal insight into the atmosphere of the times, having "witnessed the paralysis of my own parents."

He plans to use the $375,000 prize from the MacArthur award to help answer such questions and complete his second volume, covering the period 1940-1945.

"Everything we know, we know," he says. "But I hope I can contribute by bringing it in from a new perspective." - D.G.

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"Some try to block it out. Others come to struggle with it by dealing with it."

Saul Friedlander

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