Efron on Friedman

Reflections by
John Efron
UC Berkeley

Philip Friedman, “The European Jewish Research on the Recent Jewish Catastrophe in 1939-1945,” PAAJR 18 (1948-1949): 179-211.

Prior to the war, Friedman was one of the leading historians of eighteenth and nineteenth Polish-Jewish social and economic history. He survived the Shoah in hiding on the Aryan side of the Lwow ghetto and even before the war’s end, he shifted his historiographical focus, becoming the leading figure among a cadre of scholars dedicated to writing the history of the Shoah.  For Friedman, the nature of the Holocaust, its enormity, its geographical spread, and the social and cultural characteristics of both persecutors and victims posed important methodological challenges for historians. Above all, in his 1948 article, he warned that the voluminous documentation produced by the Germans and their collaborators “are one-sided and apologetically biased.”  Nazi documents, wrote Friedman, “must be balanced…by Jewish records and statements [because] the inner Jewish history, the sufferings and the spiritual reactions are scarcely or rather falsely reflected in the German sources.” And here was Friedman’s great innovation, admittedly inspired by the already well-established Eastern European Jewish model of collecting historical documentation, oral testimonies, and ethnographic research.  He implored historians to make use of contemporary Jewish (and non-Jewish) memoirs, diaries, journals, wills, poetry, fiction, folklore, and photos.  He also insisted historians make use of Jewish music, that which was sung in ghettos, in camps, and by members of the underground and partisans. And then there was art produced in ghettos and camps that illustrated “Jewish life and sufferings under Nazi-rule.”  Historians had to use it all.  

Obvious sounding today, it was not when he proposed this approach some 70 years ago.  Friedman had already published something to this effect in Yiddish but what in this, his only PAAJR article, the first of its kind in English, Friedman did nothing less than create an entirely new academic field, namely Holocaust Studies.  And just as important, his insistence on the necessity of using Jewish sources was intended to drive home the point that the Holocaust was not just a topic in German or European history.  It was Jewish history and, in fact, he was saying that one had to be an historian of the Jews to do the subject justice, for without paying heed to Jewish voices, histories of the Holocaust were incomplete and unreliable.  And, moreover, speed was of the essence. Jewish historians had to stake a claim over the subject and establish the narrative before anyone else did. 


Read the original essay by Philip Friedman now >