Dawidowicz, Lucy S.
DAWIDOWICZ, Lucy S.
Daughter of Max and Dora Ofnaem Schildkret; married Szymon M. Dawidowicz, 1948
In her lifetime, Lucy S. Dawidowicz was widely regarded as one of the foremost historians of the Holocaust and of Eastern European Jewish life. Her profound identification with her subject and groundbreaking research, marked by her distinctive use of the Yiddish language and traditional Jewish sources, continue to shape the course of Holocaust and Jewish scholarship today.
She was born Lucy Schildkret in New York City in 1915 to Polish Jewish immigrants who had emigrated from Poland in 1908. After graduating with a B.A. from Hunter College in 1936, she took up a postgraduate fellowship at the Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna, Poland, in August of 1938, where she studied the Yiddish language and Jewish history. "One of the last people to see Vilna before its destruction in the fires of the Holocaust," as she later wrote, she was finally forced to flee one week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939.
After returning to the U.S. in 1939, Dawidowicz became assistant to the research director of YIVO in New York in 1940. In 1946 she went to postwar Germany to serve as an education officer in displaced persons' camps for the American Joint Distribution Committee. She also worked to recover the remnants of YIVO's library. Decades later she wrote a memoir of her prewar year in Vilna and of her postwar return to Europe. Entitled From That Time and Place: A Memoir, 1938-1947 (1989, reprinted 1991), the memoir was awarded the National Jewish Book Award.
In 1948 she assumed a lecturing post at Yeshiva University in Manhattan and married Szymon Dawidowicz. Three years later, in 1951, she received her M.A. from Columbia University. Together with L. J. Goldstein she published Politics in a Pluralist Democracy: Studies of Voting in the 1960 Election (1963, revised 1974). Her anthology, The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, chronicles the evolution of Jewish culture and religion from the end of the 18th century up to the Holocaust through the memoirs of Jewish spiritual and intellectual leaders. Published in 1967 (reprinted 1972), The Golden Tradition marked the beginning of Dawidowicz's singular scholarly pursuit of Jewish themes.
In 1969 she became professor of social history at Yeshiva University. Between 1970 and 1975 she held the Paul and Lea Lewis Chair in Holocaust studies and, beginning in 1976, the Eli and Diana Zbrowski Chair in Interdisciplinary Holocaust Studies, both at Yeshiva University.
Dawidowicz published her most celebrated work, The War Against the Jews, 1933-45 in 1975 (reissued 1990). This book, her masterpiece, surpassed previous research conducted on the Holocaust through its use of a wide range of source materials in Yiddish and other languages to support her groundbreaking, critical theses. She challenged a number of prevailing scholarly conceptions of the Holocaust, most significantly those claims holding the Jews responsible for too little resistance against and too much collaboration with the Nazis. In addition, she countered the assertion that Nazi antisemitism had no roots in European history, and pioneered the thesis that Hitler's antisemitism was, indeed, part of his deepest aims, dating back to Germany's surrender in World War I. She maintained the Final Solution was central to Nazi ideology and war aims, as crucial as the conquering of Europe. This argument ran counter to other scholarly assertions that the Final Solution began in 1941 as an evolving response to particular events and circumstances. The War Against the Jews was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Prize in 1976; the same year, Dawidowicz received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
With the publication of A Holocaust Reader in 1976, Dawidowicz presented many of the little known public and private sources employed in The War Against the Jews. This collection proved to be a wealth of resources for later researchers. She also published countless articles, especially in the Jewish intellectual magazine Commentary, on subjects of historical and topical interest, including the sociology of American Jewry. In 1977 she published a widely praised collection of her articles inThe Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History. In The Holocaust and the Historians, published in 1981, she refuted revisionist theories of the Holocaust. From That Time and Place was her last published book. At the time of her death, she was working on a history of American Jewry. Her last article, in Commentary (February 1990), was a critique of Arthur Hertzberg's book on the same subject.
Dawidowicz's entire career was devoted to chronicling the history, influences, and ideas of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe and wherever that culture was transplanted. Her theme was consistently that of Eastern European Jewish culture attempting to reconcile the conflict of modernity and traditionalism. She claimed that whenever Jews compromised traditional values for modernity, whether in Europe or in the U.S., they confused and weakened their identity. Yiddish culture was the only solution to the conflict, but its leaders and practitioners were totally annihilated by Hitler. Because her historical view sees sacrifice of traditionalism as self-defeating to Jewish survival, her position on women is that tradition should prevail, and "in Judaism, women are assigned to primacy in the home, not in shul." Her own life, however, exemplified the fruits born of women's prominence in the world of scholarship. Dawidowicz died of cancer at the age of seventy-five.
The 1966 Elections: A Political Patchwork (1967). For Max Weinreich on His Seventieth Birthday: Studies in Jewish Language, Literature and Society (edited by Davidowicz, with J. A. Fishman et al., 1964). What is the Use of Jewish History? (1980, 1992). Babi Yar's Legacy (1981). On Equal Terms: Jews in America, 1881-1981 (1982). American Jews and the Holocaust (1982).
Altshuler, D. A., Hitler's War Against the Jews: A Young Reader's Version of "The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945," by Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1978).
Commentary (Feb. 1990, May 1992). Jewish Quarterly (Spring 1968). Lilith (Fall 1977). NYTBR (26 Nov. 1967).