Dawidowicz, Lucy (1915–1990)

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Dawidowicz, Lucy (1915–1990)

American historian of the Holocaust, whose major work The War Against the Jews (1975) argued that virtually all of the policies of Nazi Germany were rooted in Adolf Hitler's racism. Born Lucy Schildkret in New York, New York, on June 16, 1915; died in New York City on December 5, 1990; daughter of Max Schildkret and Dora (Ofnaem) Schildkret; sister of Eleanor Schildkret; married Szymon M. Dawidowicz.

Selected writings:

From that Time and Place: A Memoir 1938–1947 (NY: W.W. Norton, 1989); The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (NY: Henry Holt, 1967); The Holocaust and the Historians (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History (NY: Henry Holt, 1977); The War Against the Jews 1933–1945 (NY: Henry Holt, 1975).

Born in New York City as the daughter of Yiddish-speaking Polish-Jewish immigrants, Lucy Schildkret Dawidowicz was a quintessential New Yorker, energetic and always ready to engage in a heated argument over any and all points of Jewish history. Short in stature, she was a colorful personality with a thick Bronx accent and, as a leading historian of the Holocaust, did not suffer fools at all. Despite her contentious nature, she gained the respect of many of her fellow historians for her deep knowledge of her subject and her defense of views that remain controversial to this day. In her major work, The War Against the Jews (1975), Dawidowicz argued that Hitler's ideological goals—the achievement of German racial purity and the annihilation of the Jews—determined his political and military goals. Thus, the energy for Nazi Germany's drive towards war and the attempt to achieve world domination came from its murderous campaign against the Jews. Dawidowicz was 60 when she published this book, having lived a life rich in experiences both rewarding and tragic.

After graduating from New York's Hunter College in 1936, Dawidowicz made attempts to travel to Europe to experience Yiddish culture at its source in Poland. Fortunate during the Depression era to receive a research fellowship, she sailed from New York in the summer of 1938 to spend a year in Vilna working at the YIVO Institute, the leading Yiddish cultural research center. Called "the Jerusalem of Lithuania," Vilna in 1938 remained remarkably intact as a medieval city, a fabled center of Jewish learning with cobbled streets and ancient, crumbling arches. The YIVO Institute, founded in 1925, had by 1938 become the nerve center of a vibrant Yiddish-based cultural Renaissance, and it was here that Dawidowicz met dozens of brilliant young men and women determined to help create a new Jewish tradition appropriate for the 20th century. Without her knowing it, the year Dawidowicz spent in Vilna represented the last flowering of Jewish cultural life in Poland before the onset of the Holocaust. She left Vilna on the eve of war, traveling through Nazi Germany in the last days of August 1939 and then on to Copenhagen, from which she sailed for the United States, arriving in Boston on September 28.

From 1940 through 1946, Dawidowicz worked in New York as the assistant to the research director of the Institute for Jewish Research, the American branch of YIVO. These were years of hope and anguish, hope that somehow the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe might survive the oppression that grew greater with each passing day, and anguish when it became clear in 1942 that an unparalleled disaster of genocidal proportions was taking place. Although Dawidowicz's life during these years was busy and productive, she also experienced a profound sense of anguish for the countless victims of Nazi murder squads. Toward the Germans, there was a growing feeling of rage and a desire for revenge. Many years later, in her 1989 memoir From that Time and Place, Dawidowicz recalled that during these years she "felt as if I were living in disconnected universes—in a real world of normal obligations and pastimes and in a phantasmagoric world of my fevered imagination, in which I partook of its agony and death as if it were my real world."

In 1946–47, Dawidowicz lived in occupied Germany as an educational officer for displaced persons' camps, working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Helping Holocaust survivors set up and run Jewish schools, libraries, newspapers as well as dramatic and musical groups gave Dawidowicz hope that a new life could flourish in the ruins of a morally as well as physically devastated Europe. One of her most satisfying experiences was to supervise the launching of a Yiddish-language journal, using the same Munich printing press that had once been used to print the infamous Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the Nazi Party. Having lost virtually all of her Vilna friends in the Holocaust, Dawidowicz felt a visceral hatred for Germans during her year in that ruined and defeated territory. She saw them as being as "craven in defeat as they had been insolent in victory." In January 1948, soon after her return to the U.S., Dawidowicz married Szymon Dawidowicz, a Polish-Jewish activist who had miraculously escaped from the Nazi net.

From 1946 through 1967, Dawidowicz held the post of research analyst for the American Jewish Committee, finally being promoted to director of research in 1968. During these years, she continued to immerse herself in the often baffling—and almost always horrifying—details of the Holocaust. It was on this subject that she wrote her 1961 master's thesis at Columbia University. A "late bloomer" in terms of publishing her scholarship, Dawidowicz produced her first major work in Jewish history in 1967, a well-received anthology of readings on Jewish life and thought in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe entitled The Golden Tradition. Although she would never earn a doctorate, by 1969 Lucy Dawidowicz's credentials as a scholar were sufficiently impressive for her to receive an appointment as an associate professor at New York's Yeshiva University. During this period, when much of her energy went into writing a major study of the Holocaust, she received a number of prestigious research grants and fellowships, including ones from the Gustave Wurzweiler Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation.

In 1975, at an age when many scholars begin to look longingly toward leisurely years of retirement, Lucy Dawidowicz finally published what would be her magnum opus. Her book, The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, received many enthusiastic reviews from newspaper critics but in numerous instances professional historians were less positive in their assessment of her work. Some questioned her basic thesis, namely that Hitlerian ideology was the sole explanation of the Holocaust, while others noted critically her refusal to either explain or pass judgment on the apparent failure of most of Europe's Jews to actively resist the Nazis during the various stages of the Holocaust. Over the next years, Dawidowicz would often bitterly clash with her critics, either in print or at various scholarly gatherings. She asked whether historians, who had not personally experienced the terrors of Nazi rule, could even be asked to write on such issues, which she regarded as being morally inappropriate for non-victims to render judgment on. Secondly, she noted that under any circumstances Jewish resistance to the Nazis was doomed anyway given the isolation of Jews, their weak organization and lack of weapons, and the over-whelming military superiority of the Nazis and their allies. Nothing of consequence could have been done, she claimed, and to think otherwise was simply to ignore the reality of the times.

In her 1981 book The Holocaust and the Historians, Dawidowicz set off a veritable firestorm by attacking the views of a number of prominent intellectuals, most of them Jewish, on the topic of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust. Among others, she sharply criticized Hannah Arendt , Bruno Bettelheim, and Raul Hilberg for painting portraits of a European Jewish community that with few exceptions was not only weakly led but often cowardly in its relationship to the Nazis and their collaborators. She was particularly vehement in her defense of the various Jewish Councils—Judenräte—set up by the Nazis to help govern Jewish communities in the occupied nations of Hitler's Europe. Rather than indicting these self-governing boards as de facto Nazi collaborators as Arendt and the others had done, Dawidowicz presented a viewpoint in which the terrible dilemmas of wartime were emphasized. She also vehemently defended the American Jewish community against the charge that it had often been complacent during World War II and had missed many opportunities to alert the world to the Holocaust.

Many of Lucy Dawidowicz's contemporaries were taken aback by the direct and blunt nature of her polemics, which were rarely if ever diplomatic. Her unwillingness to clothe her arguments in the often bland language of standard academic discourse may have stemmed from the essential nature of her personality, or it may have been a defense mechanism related to the fact that she never received a doctorate, the "union card" of the modern academic world. Possibly her spiky personality was made even more so in her last years because of grief over the death of her husband Szymon in 1979. There was, however, another Lucy Dawidowicz who was quite different from the implacable debater and sometimes harsh polemicist. Relaxing in her leisure hours, Dawidowicz was a passionate operagoer, a devotee of the Metropolitan Opera and a connoisseur of great vocal art, who in the summer brought the same kind of unbridled enthusiasm to her rooting for the New York Mets at Shea Stadium or watching them in front of her television in her book-filled apartment on 200 West 86th Street. This, too, was Lucy Dawidowicz, a quintessential New Yorker both at work and play.

Lucy Dawidowicz's last book, her 1989 memoir From that Time and Place, was a fitting capstone to her remarkable career as a scholar and Jewish activist. Richly evocative of her youth and early adulthood, it is a bittersweet recollection of her year in the doomed city of Vilna, of her emotional turmoil during the final years of the Holocaust when she and millions of other American Jews were powerless to halt the tragic events in Europe. Possibly the most moving section of this book is Dawidowicz's recollection of her work among Holocaust survivors in a shattered postwar Germany. During her last years, Dawidowicz not only enjoyed her considerable success as a scholar and publicist but also seems to have found a measure of personal peace. In October 1985, she visited Berlin for the first time since 1947 and was able to pass a dispassionate judgment on the German nation's rehabilitation from the burdens of its Nazi past. Her postwar feelings of revulsion and desire for personal revenge for Nazi crimes had now been replaced by the idea that reconciliation between Germans and Jews could in fact begin to take place. While walking down West Berlin's crowded Kurfürstendamm, she suddenly realized that most of the crowd she was in had not even been born in 1945. These young Germans were not the Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s but "ordinary young people, too young to be charged with the burden of Germany's terrible history. They were not the ghosts of the Nazi past."

In her personal life, Dawidowicz had traveled a long and often complicated path over the decades. Raised in a Jewish home that was centered on Yiddish culture but indifferent to Judaism as a religion, Dawidowicz had as a student at Hunter College rebelled against her "mildly socialist" parents by joining the Young Communist League. Disillusioned with Marxist rigidity, she quit after a year. By the final years of her life, her political views had moved to the neoconservative Right, her religion had become Orthodox Judaism, and her former indifference to Zionism had metamorphosed to one of being a passionate defender of a militarily strong Israel. Lucy Dawidowicz was working on an extensive chronicle of the Jewish presence in the United States that, had it been completed, would surely have elicited further lively debates when she died in New York City on December 5, 1990.


Bernstein, Richard. "Lucy S. Dawidowicz, 75, Scholar Of Jewish Life and History, Dies," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1990, p. 1150.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. "Lies About the Holocaust," in Commentary. Vol. 70, no. 6. December 1980, pp. 31–37.

——. "In Berlin Again," in Commentary. Vol. 82, no. 2. August 1986, pp. 32–41.

Gelles, Walter. "PW Interviews: Lucy Dawidowicz," in Publishers Weekly. Vol. 235. May 12, 1989, pp. 264–265.

Kozodoy, Neal. "In Memoriam: Lucy S. Dawidowicz," in Commentary. Vol. 93, no. 5. May 1992, pp. 35–40.

Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History. NY: Meridian, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia