Lucy Dawidowicz: “Her most famous and controversial book was ‘The War Against the Jews.'”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz, born in 1915 in New York City. Her parents were Polish immigrants and they raised their daughters as secular Jews; Dawidowicz didn’t attend a Jewish service until she was in her 20s. She went to Columbia to earn her master’s degree in literature, but as the Nazis gained power in Germany she couldn’t concentrate on poetry — she discovered that she was more interested in political events in Europe. She talked it over with a professor, and he convinced her to switch her focus to Jewish history….

In 1938, Dawidowicz went to Vilna, Poland, to study at the Institute for Jewish Research. Vilna had been a thriving Jewish cultural center for more than 500 years, nicknamed “Jerusalem of the North” by Napoleon. She said, “I went there with the romantic belief that it might become the world center for a self-sustaining Yiddish culture.” Instead, by the time Dawidowicz arrived in Vilna, the city was segregated and the Institute for Jewish Research was trying to keep alive a culture that was increasingly threatened.

She loved being in Vilna, and she felt at home there, meeting scholars, families, merchants, students, and activists. She said she felt closer to one family there than she was to her own parents, but she stayed for only a year. Her friends in Vilna told her to return to America for her own good, and finally convinced her that if war broke out she would be more of a burden than a help. Shortly after Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression pact in August of 1939 she sailed home to New York City. By the time she reached New York the Nazis had invaded Poland.

After the war she went back to Europe. For 18 months she worked with Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. She also found and catalogued Jewish books stolen by the Nazis and sent them back to New York City….

Dawidowicz worked as a scholar and professor and she published books about the Holocaust. Her most famous — and controversial — was The War Against the Jews. She believed that the Holocaust was one of Hitler’s main objectives from the beginning and she argued with historians who claimed that the idea evolved as the war took its course. She also argued against scholars who said that the Jews had been too complacent and failed to launch a better resistance. The War Against the Jews was a best-seller.

Her other books include The Jewish Presence (1977), The Holocaust and the Historians (1981), and a memoir about her year in Vilna, From That Place and Time (1989).

She said: “Some people think that the professional historian’s personal commitments — to his people, his country, his religion, his language — undermine his professional objectivity. Not so. Not so, as long as historians respect the integrity of their sources and adhere strictly to the principles of sound scholarship. Personal commitments do not distort, but instead they enrich, historical writing.”

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