Much “Holocaust” but no history: the failure of Rabbi Berenbaum

  • The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck. Indiana University Press (in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), Bloomington and Indianapolis 1998. Hardcover. 851 pages (XV plus 836). Source references. Index. $65.00


Michael Berenbaum, co-editor of this collection of essays, is a theologian and a rabbi. His personal drama arises from having wished, for several years, to pose as a historian, and from finding himself now, with the publication of this book, to be the plain and simple theologian and rabbi that, in reality, he has never ceased to be. Until rather recently (1993-early 1994) he had tried to reply to the revisionists on their own terms, that is, on the basis of material, technical and scholarly arguments: in short, on the level of historical research.

But in this 1998 work there is no more of all that: here we are back to the “Holocaust” dogma, amid statements made without substantiating evidence in a quasi-immaterial world. No longer is anything “disputed” or “reexamined,” except certain near-theological points, like the question of whether the “intentionalists” or the “functionalists” are right in their interpretations of the Germans’ “genocide” of the Jews. This work offers not one photograph, model, drawing or document. Only on the dust jacket does there appear a photograph, that of a heap of shoes. Already in 1993 this image could viewed at the Washington Holocaust Museum, with the caption: “We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.”


Berenbaum gives up on history


In the 1980s and early ’90s several advocates of the “Holocaust” argument tried to adopt an approach based on scholarly and historical reasoning, if only to counter the revisionists. This was the stance of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Georges Wellers, Adalbert Rückerl, Hermann Langbein, Eugen Kogon and Serge Klarsfeld (with the aid of the pharmacist Jean-Claude Pressac). Even Michael Berenbaum engaged in this pursuit, first in his 1993 Museum guidebook, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and then in a 1994 book he co-edited (with Yisrael Gutman), containing essays of 25 contributors: Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, published by Indiana University Press in association with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But, in August 1994, an event was to disrupt Berenbaum’s life. He allowed me to visit him in his office at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in the presence of two other high-level Museum officials. Having taken note of his arrogant attitude, I decided to spare him nothing and, before his two colleagues, I spelled out for him, one by one, certain facts that showed the Museum and his book to be devoid of any scholarly or demonstrative value. In response he became quite angry, and ended up telling me that if the Museum exhibited no real material representation of a gas chamber (the door on display therein being that of a delousing gas chamber, and the model a mere whimsical mock-up), it was because “the decision has been made not to give any physical representation of the gas chambers”.

That interview probably contributed to his more recent decision to abandon the scholarly and historical terrain to the revisionists. It is also likely that the 1995-96 writings of anti-revisionist authors convinced him that the case for the “Holocaust,” with its purported genocide and gas chambers, had become completely indefensible on the scholarly and historical level.

One such author, French journalist and historian Éric Conan, reluctantly admitted that my discovery of the late ’70s was legitimate: the alleged gas chamber at the Auschwitz main camp, visited by millions of tourists since 1948, is merely an imposture and not a “reconstruction.” (See Auschwitz: la mémoire du malL’Express [Paris], January 19-25, 1995, esp. p. 68).

Another anti-revisionist writer, Robert Jan van Pelt (who had collaborated with Berenbaum on the 1994 collective work), aligned himself with Conan’s position, and even reinforced it, in his 1996 study Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (with Debórah Dwork, Yale University Press, London 1996, especially pages 363-64, 367-69).

The coup de grâce was delivered by French historian Jacques Baynac who, in spite of his intense hostility to revisionism, came to recognise that there was no evidence at all with which to establish the existence of wartime homicidal gas chambers. (Le Nouveau Quotidien [Lausanne, Switzerland], issues of September 2 and 3, 1996. (See my article An Orthodox Historian finally acknowledges: there is no evidence for Nazi gas chambers.)


The Victory of Élie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann


Concerning the “Holocaust” or “Shoah,” Élie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann (to give credit where credit is due) have always avoided the scholarly historical method as they would the plague. In his memoirs the former has written “Let the gas chambers remain closed to prying eyes, and to imagination” (All Rivers Run to the Sea, Hill and Wang, New York 1994, p. 74), while Lanzmann has stated that, if he had been able to find suitable archival photographs for his film “Shoah”, he would have “destroyed them” (David Szerman, “Shoah,” Le Chroniqueur [a French Jewish community periodical], June 30, 1993, p. 38).

For his part, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has, in a way, followed their recommendations. His much-discussed 1996 work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, is a kind of moral or philosophical dissertation in which the author deliberately neglects the precept that every historian should strive to uphold: to establish the material facts before making any commentary.


The Rabbi’s wrath, and his warning


For this latest book Michael Berenbaum has enrolled 54 authors under his banner. The great majority of them are Jewish, and all, including Raul Hilberg, respect the religious dogma of the “Holocaust” to the letter. I consider Hilberg to be gifted, as Arthur Butz has put it, with “a remarkable cabalistic mentality” (foreword to The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, 1976). Berenbaum has even rallied to his camp Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, who at times has suffered lapses of independence. In 1992, for example, Bauer suddenly rejected the importance of the Wannsee conference, declaring: “It was a meeting, but hardly a conference… little of what was said there was executed in detail.” He continued: “The public still repeats, time after time, the silly story that at Wannsee the extermination of the Jews was arrived at. Wannsee was but a stage in the unfolding of the process of mass murder.” (Wannsee’s importance rejected, Canadian Jewish News, January 30, 1992).

But in this new book, which contains a contribution by Bauer, that gathering is referred to (p. 155) as “the eventful Wannsee Conference.”

In his contribution to this work, Bauer goes so far as to anathematise Arno Mayer, a professor at Princeton University who, in a book published in 1988, made no secret of his wish to put the “Holocaust” back into the sphere of History. Entitled Why Did the Heavens not Darken? (Pantheon Books, New York), it bore the subtitle The “Final Solution” in History, which, in the author’s mind, meant “in History and not in legend or mere belief.” In that book – and this point deserves stressing – Prof. Mayer committed a grave sin against the dogma, particularly in his treatment of the “gas chambers,” of Auschwitz, and of the Einsatzgruppen. In The Holocaust and History (p. 15) Bauer dismisses Mayer in a few words, castigating him for his popularisation of “nonsense,” his “cocksure” book and his engaging in a “subtle form of Holocaust denial.” Bauer even states that Mayer “flies in the face of well-known documentation.”

Also in this anthology, Polish historian Franciszek Piper issues a warning to anyone who might be tempted to engage in an endeavour in which, not so long ago, he himself engaged: that of rationally analysing the facts and techniques relating to the alleged extermination of the Jews. Thus one may read (p. 384) these words from the pen of Poland’s specialist of the Auschwitz camp: “The work ahead requires sensitive attention to the tragedy of the victims and forbids reduction of genocide to a technological process.” His master’s voice (that of Rabbi Berenbaum) can be heard here.


The title’s meaning


In choosing The Holocaust and History as the title for his new book, editor Berenbaum naturally intended the reader to understand that the “Holocaust” was a historical event. It so happens, though, that the title he selected is, from his own point of view, rather unfortunate because of its unintentionally revealing quality. In effect, the word “and” by itself shows, without his having intended it, that the “Holocaust” is one thing, and History another thing altogether. The “Holocaust” is a fiction, a dogma, a religion. History is, or at least should be, a matter of facts, reason and science.

This patchwork of texts by 55 writers (Hilberg’s contribution dates from 1993) is merely an assortment of essays containing much “Holocaust” but no History. With regard to the aforementioned Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, a work co-edited by Berenbaum and published in 1994 that consists of 25 contributions, I have had occasion to say that this is rather a “Cacophony on the Auschwitz ‘Death Camp’”. With regard to this new work, published four years later and consisting of 55 contributions, I shall certainly not speak of cacophony. This ensemble’s members are in unison; all are playing the same score. We are in a synagogue; chorus and orchestra obey, closely and strictly following Rabbi Berenbaum’s baton. It is everything that one could expect in such a setting: a religious assembly, a ceremony, the celebration of a service. But it is definitely not a seminar of historians, nor a historical work.

August 12, 1998