"A Scholar of Tremendous Depth and Breadth"
Yesterday evening, I heard the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway in London had passed away unexpectedly. David was a scholar of tremendous depth and breadth, great brilliance and remarkable eloquence. It often seemed to me that having had the privilege to study with the great George Mosse (as I had), David had learned one of the most important tasks of the historian: to deflate myths and replace them with well-grounded and well-stated historical narrative and analysis.
It is not by chance that his two most important scholarly projects about the Holocaust reflected all of those qualities. His book Eichmann: His Life and His Crimes, published in 2004 presented a more historically accurate portrait of Eichmann, removing him from the clouds of partial truth and contradictory images that had emerged from his trial in Israel in the early 1960s. Eichmann was neither the master mind of the Holocaust nor a mundane desk bureaucrat only following orders. David drew a more complex portrait of the man, and no less important, he set him in the context of events that led to the unfolding and carrying out of the "Final Solution" against the Jews. He showed that Eichmann was not a decision maker, but certainly had initiative. He revealed that the man changed over the course of the war, from a gung-ho young officer to a rather jaded murderer. Throughout the book, David provided the historical envelope, harnessing the most up-to-date understanding of the events of the Holocaust available at the time he wrote.
Over the last two years or so, David was engaged in another project that demanded depth and breadth of knowledge. He wrote a one-volume history of the Holocaust that remained unpublished at the time of his passing. Last year David asked me to read the manuscript and comment on it. What I read revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust and the most recent writing about it. Moreover, David tried to ensure that his narrative closely followed the events of WWII. To do so, he read scores of diaries and memoirs of leading figures and less well-known figures of the time, as well as monographs on the war. One of the rooms on the second floor of his home is lined with them; they literally fill an entire book case. David also tried to bring balance back to the history of the Holocaust, especially when he wrote about Jewish behavior. In much of the literature over the decades since the end of the war, the image of the Jews in the Holocaust has moved from being portrayed as one-dimensional victims, to being nearly lionized for having gone through the Holocaust. David sought to show that first and foremost the Jews were human beings, and as such had many diverse qualities, strengths and foibles, and displayed a great range of behaviors.
David was an excellent speaker. His public lectures were not only well grounded in history, lucid and interesting, but they almost invariably contained some sort of punch line that not only made a good point, but engendered laughter. David was a frequent guest of Yad Vashem at international research conferences and symposia, and in 1998-1999 he was a fellow of the International Institute for Holocaust Research as the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the study of Racism, Antisemitism and the Holocaust. In private, David was a great story teller, and it was always a pleasure to sit and talk with him over a meal or glass of wine, and hear about some arcane but amusing piece of history or something from his personal experience.
An important role David played was that of public historian. He was involved in films, such as about the last survivor from Treblinka, as well as in establishing the Holocaust exhibit at London's Imperial War Museum. David was frequently interviewed in the British media on subjects relating to the Holocaust and antisemitism, and indeed was a well-known figure in the UK. For his work in advancing Holocaust commemoration in Britain he was awarded an OBE by the Queen. Most recently during the British chairmanship of IHRA, David returned to that body, lending the British delegation his prestige, experience and vast knowledge.
Over more than twenty years of our friendship I spent many hours with David. I learned many things from him and although I'm the Yad Vashem Library Director, I even received more than one good suggestion for a book to read. But mostly, I just enjoyed his company: sitting in his backyard on a cool April evening; taking our children on a hike in Israel followed by a barbeque in "Little Switzerland"; meeting for coffee when we both happened to be in Budapest; driving back and forth to Yad Vashem when he was here for research and bunking at my home; enjoying a Shabbat meal with our families and other friends – and all the while moving from talking about our work, to current events, to subjects more personal.
It is hard to believe that David is no longer here and that we will no longer benefit from his knowledge, his critical thinking, his wisdom, his eloquence, his wit and his warmth.
May his memory be blessed.