"Dr. Michael Berenbaum - The Holocaust and Its Impact"

Dr Michael Berenbaum

On Thursday 21st of August, Dr Michael Berenbaum, President and CEO of the the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles, was our honoured guest. Dr Berenbaum was in Australia to pay tribute to Survivors who had given testimonies and to the volunteers who collected them.

This meeting was held by the Descendants of the Shoah in conjunction with the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre, the Child Survivors Group, the Friends of the Holocaust Museum and the Katzetler Farband Partisans and Fighters. We hope this will be the first of more joint functions and it was very well attended.

Pauline Rockman, of our committee and the Australian Coordinator of the Shoah Foundation, introduced Dr Berenbaum, for the third time in only 24 hours. Dr Berenbaum had addressed a large audience in Wilson Hall at Melbourne University the night before. He had also spoken to nearly 1000 survivors and volunteers at a Tribute Morning at Mount Scopus College. This attests to his dynamism as a speaker and the wealth and depth of his knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust.

Dr Berenbaum began by stating that great institutions start with great goals. The Visual History Foundation, established in 1994, has nearly achieved its “great goal” of collecting 50,000 testimonies - after 4 years it is nearly there.

The quantity of over 47,000 tapes does not describe the quality and diversity of this material. This is truly a people’s history of the Holocaust. It includes testimonies from the most diverse of participants from all over the world: survivors of the ghettoes, camps and hiding, partisans and fighters and righteous Gentiles.

The task of the Foundation now, as the collection phase draws to a close, is to catalogue, organise and disseminate all of this information. The Foundation is creating videos and CD Roms in international languages, to be accessed initially in 5 repositories and later, all over the world. The uniqueness of this project is that it will be able to talk in an unmediated way to the future.

This material will be available to future researchers, high school students and interested people in the years to come. It will be direct and unedited, exactly as it was told to the interviewers and videographers at the end of the 20th century. Those studying this material will be able to learn something from every testimony; each one will make the viewer shake, laugh and cry, be shattered and shocked.

Dr Berenbaum talked about how oral history provides a very different perspective on events than merely looking at historical facts and statistics. That is why, in this race against time, the gathering of testimonies is so important. Oral history allows us to hear directly from those who were there, those who experienced these horrific events and survived, established new lives often in strange countries, had families and made contributions to society.

Dr Berenbaum went on to illuminate the current controversies in Holocaust scholarship: Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men”. Goldhagen’s thesis is that the Germans had been anti-Semites for a very long time and that there was widespread participation and support from ordinary Germans for the killing of the Jews. Browning’s interpretation was that the Nazi killing machine arose as a product of modern society, an impersonal bureaucracy and division of labour where those making the decisions never saw the outcome of these decisions. Berenbaum believes Goldhagen and Browning are both right and that their views aren’t necessarily opposing. However Goldhagen is wrong in saying that the hatred of Jews was unique to the Germans. This hatred was also found in Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians and many other people.

What was unique to the Germans was their methodology and the transition from mobile killing units to death camps. They replaced killers with killing centres and made the victims mobile by transporting them to the death camps. This also removed the Germans from the front line of the killing - they recruited the assistance of local communities to carry out their deeds. This is what made the Holocaust so distinct from other ways people have been killed; it became a factory model of death and it depended not on the enthusiasm of the perpetrators but on systematic processing.

Dr Berenbaum then asked the question: “What was the motivation of the killers?” The only people not interviewed by the Shoah Foundation are the perpetrators. Why?

Dr Berenbaum spent many hours editing Eichmann’s police interrogations. He said they were lies, fascinating lies; and that when you come face to face with evil, you can get contaminated. He is aware that this would be the impact on interviewers if they interviewed the perpetrators. Evil is so ultimate a corrupting influence. He talked about the Israeli psychiatrist who interviewed Eichmann to determine if he was normal. The psychiatrist said two things: “Firstly, he is normal. Secondly, after interviewing him, I am not so sure I am normal.”

Lastly, Dr Berenbaum touched on Holocaust denial. Holocaust have received a lot of publicity. They are liars and anti-Semites. The killers never denied what they did; they left massively documented records.

A word on how to deal with the Holocaust deniers: we cannot lose if we do our homework well. Martin Buber, when asked how does a master remain a master, said, he elevates the level of the question before he answers it. The Visual History Foundation will have the most enormous amount of material to answer the Holocaust deniers and to ensure future generations are educated about the events as they happened. What is happening now is that the Holocaust deniers have abandoned their approach of revising history and have taken up a white supremacist agenda with a resurgence of racism. We can see this all over the world.

When we study the Holocaust, Dr Berenbaum concluded, we see universality and uniqueness in its themes. There was a multiplicity of victims. People were victimised for what they did (communists, intellectuals); what they refused to do (Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were the only voluntary victims for refusing to swear allegiance to the Reich); what they were (gypsies, homosexuals, intellectually and physically disabled people). However, the Jews were unique in that all the other groups were never subjected to systematic killing and rounding up. The elimination of Jews was the essential mission; for 12 years it was the unrelenting goal of the Nazi regime.

Dr Berenbaum’s talk was riveting and I’m sure all who were there felt privileged to hear such and eminent and scholarly historian on his whirlwind visit to Australia.

The proceeds from this evening will go to the building appeal for the new Holocaust Museum.