SOURCES OF HOLOCAUST RESEARCH: An Analysis
Release date: 08/01/2001
Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews (1961) practically invented the field of Holocaust studies. After a half-century of research, Hilberg has now turned his attention to the sources used to reconstruct the Holocaust. It may seem odd to the casual observer that, after five decades, Hilberg experienced an epiphany: the informational sources are not simply "raw material" for fashioning "a description of the destruction process"; they are phenomena worthy of study. And so he set out to examine these sources, but the result is decidedly mixed. The sources, whether documents, objects or structures—chillingly impersonal in their first incarnation with the Nazis—seem lifeless here as well. There is no adequate introduction to or framing of the epistemological and philosophical questions involved (e.g., Can the meaning of a document change over time? Who determines the "valid" meaning of the source?). Indeed the entire work seems like an exercise in paleography; what saves it from sterility are the anecdotes that bring the people and the tragedy to life. Hilberg freely admits that he did not set out to write an epistemological treatise, but this is exactly what is needed at this point in Holocaust studies. Instead, the work is more descriptive than analytical. The problem that memory poses for the historian is never adequately addressed nor are those problems relating to the depositing of documents in museums. Four chapters are devoted to the "composition," "style," "content" and "usability" of the sources. The result is a dry, academic treatise that resembles a how-to-research-the-Holocaust essay. (Sept. 7)
Forecast: While this may be of use to scholars and generate some thinking about the nature of the sources, it is unlikely to find a larger audience. 6 b&w illus.