With the US following Europe and Israel in lurching to the right, the Pulitzer-winning author of Nazi Germany and the Jews is ready to turn back to literature

I should have been a literary person, tells Saul Friedlnder, the Pulitzer-winning historian of the Holocaust. My love is literature.

At 84, he is turning once again to his love. He recently published a book on Kafka, his next will be on Proust. First, though, goes promotion of his second memoir. Its title, Where Memory Leads, suggests his debt to the author of la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Friedlnder and I are sitting in the 30 th-floor coffeehouse of a midtown Manhattan hotel, on a bright morning in November. Slight and precise, with a Mitteleuropean accent and cheerful, impeccable manners, he sips orange juice and peppers his answers with laugh. Our conversation is a pleasure, despite the horrors upon which it must touch.

Friedlnders first memoir, When Memory Comes, is now reissued to accompany its sequel. It is a small classic of Holocaust literature. With a light brush, bringing events in and out of focus, the author illustrates his early years in Prague, where he was born in 1932 to Jewish mothers who considered themselves culturally German; the familys move to Paris and flight to Vichy; his seclusion and conversion in a Catholic seminary; his mothers attempted escape to Switzerland and their disappearance, ultimately to die in Auschwitz.

It is a shattering story, writes to 1977 in Israel, where Friedlnder ran first to fight and later to teach, salted with observations on the Jewish nation and relations with the Palestinians, a never-ending debate in which he participates forcefully from the left. Where Memory Leads follows suit, telling a painful post-war story both personal and national, woven into discussions of teaching posts outside Israel, in Geneva and Los Angeles, where he is emeritus professor of history at UCLA.

Where Memory Leads is a history in some sense, Friedlnder tells, of a volume that contains more on his mothers it was not until 1994 that he visited St Gingolph, where the latter are turned back, a journey made as he analyzed Switzerland and the Holocaust and about the two volumes of Nazi Germany and the Jews, The Years of Persecution and The Years of Extermination. Those volumes took a lifetime to germinate and 16 years to write, culminating in his Pulitzer win.

I am finished with historical research on this topic, which has lasted my whole life. It was a conscious decision. I believed I had said what I had to say, mainly in these two runs, which summed up what I was able to do, in a massive style. I wanted really to expend the time that remained on literary topics because thats what I really loved.

The next volume will take as its genesis Monsieur Proust, a memoir by the writers housekeeper, Cleste Albaret, and will focus on all kinds of memory the selections he made and the consistencies and incompatibilities, but also the different tones and so forth, childhood and the later years, social context and so on.

As Friedlnder tells, the book is not even work in progress, its work at its very beginnings, in my mind. As long as hes away from his desk in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles, it will remain there. His debt to literature, however, is evident in every page that he writes.

In a review for the New York Times, for example, the Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans praised The Years of Extermination as an account of unparalleled vividness and power that reads like a fiction. So it does, sweeping the continent, a factual War and Peace. “Its in” some portion attained, as Evans wrote, because Friedlnder attain extensive utilize of letters and journals from victims instead of the sometimes unreliable witnes of memoirs.

Suggesting that some of his techniques for the telling of so many stories are in fact more filmic than literary, in terms of the judicious making and placing of cuts, Friedlnder chuckles nonetheless at the irony.

And yet I have written two volumes of memoirs, yes, yes. It is a self-criticism, from the historians viewpoint. There is a danger in memoir-writing, many years after the event. Memoirs written immediately after the war, like that of Primo Levi, of Auschwitz and others which were very close to the events, may be compared almost to on-the-spot diaries. But otherwise, and I dont know how far I could say it about my own memoir, following the adoption of period one tend to reorganise the past.

The traumatic past remains very much engraved, but nonetheless you have left the period behind, you have spoken to many people about it, you have spoken to yourself, mostly.

Saul
Saul Friedlnder outside his home in Los Angeles, Photograph: Gilles Mingasson/ Getty Images

Friedlnders traumatic past, a mirror of European 20 th century history, wrought upon him change after change. He was born Pavel Friedlnder in Prague, known as Pavlicek. Fled to Paris, he became Paul. Hidden in the seminary in Montneuf, he became the Catholic Paul-Henri Ferland. In Israel, in the army and working under Shimon Peres, he became Shaul. An academic in Europe and America, he became Saul. He speaks Czech, German, Hebrew, French and English, writes in English and thinks in French.

In his histories, he homes in on similar catastrophic experience, on diaries and letters written in the face of events, of history, of in this case the Holocaust, by young or marginalised victims or, in the case of members of the Jewish councils, those tied close to the centre of the horrific procession of events.

The intention is not to confirm facts but to give an atmosphere, he tells, which also escapes you partly in a memoir written 20 or 30 years later. When you are facing whatever it is, you cannot cut that out.

The US is facing its own uncertainties. A few blocks up Fifth Avenue, at Trump Tower, the 45 th president of the United States is preparing for power. The US has lurched to the right. A few weeks before our meeting, Friedlnder told a reporter that if Donald Trump were elected, he might have to leave the country.

I know, he tells, chuckling again, this time with a touch of disbelief. It ran around the world and I got even hate mail. Oh yeah. Telling me, If its so, why dont you leave immediately, and things like that. I mean, some were worse. But I believe like most people its part our fault.

He discuss the shortcomings of the Clinton campaign, decrying liberals reliance on the values of their own surrounding, their own social strata, the underestimation of Trumps appeal to ordinary Americans, to women and even Hispanics. He recognises the resurgence of rightwing patriotism in the US, in Poland, in Hungary, under Putin in Russia, but repudiates a proffered link to conditions and events in the 1920 s and 30 s.

This is not Weimar, he tells, unable to conceive of an assault by Trump on American democracy itself. But its a disaster. And the more you watch what[ Trumps] inner circle is prepare, the more you get to wondering what can happen.

That inner circle includes Stephen Bannon, once CEO of the hard-right news site Breitbart, soon to be White House senior counsellor, presumed influence behind campaign ads and Trump tweets that hired time-worn antisemitic tropes.

Such ideas, Friedlnder tells, appear to be very close to the Nazis, or to the neo-Nazis. He adds: Trump preferred not to[ immediately] refute the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan or whatever on the one hand[ and] on the other hand accepted Bannon as his chief consultant when the man is well known for his absolutely obnoxious political and ideological opinions.

It may present something of Trumps idiocy, but I dont think he is as stupid as some describe him. And if hes not then its even worse, because then he knows something of what he does, which is certainly with evil intent. Taking a human like that as an adviser? Its troubling.

He chuckles, again in disbelief.

Are you going back to England?

No. My spouse and children are American and I didnt vote for Brexit. He chuckles again. You know, some people asked me, So where will you go? So the first answer of course is Israel. But then between Netanyahu and Trump you dont know which is the worst evil.

The temptation to retreat is strong. Friedlnder is too old to human the barricades, but he writes in Where Memory Leads of a period when, living in Jerusalem, he realised he had unconsciously built himself a version of his fathers library in Prague. He came to love, he writes, merely to sit, empty-minded, simply vaguely contemplating, among my volumes.

Hes not empty-minded now theres the Proust book to shape, the rise of Trump to consider, journalists and audiences to talk to. But with children and grandchildren scattered round the world and Orna, his second spouse, at his side, there is a sense of precious period regained.

In his new memoir, he describes his unusual running routine. It involves writing longhand, having the resultant draft typed up, running over it in longhand again and recurring, thus running simultaneously on content and sort. I indicate this process could itself be seen as a metaphor for his is currently working on memory and history, arguments effaced and written over but with traces and shadows remaining. Its not an original believe: Gore Vidal utilized the word for such a document, Palimpsest, as the title of his own memoir.

Friedlnder likes the idea, and says he must read Vidal. But, characteristically, he promptly pulls the conversation back from the empyrean to the quotidian or, in words hed use, to simple everyday life.

His second memoir, he tells, is less literary than his first, a more descriptive, conventional volume, a recount of history and the life of one who wrote it. A segment about the Historikerstreit, a 1980 s feud among German academics over the Holocaust and how to recollect the Nazi era, is a fascinating excursion into the politics of academia. Perhaps his delving back into this world explains the tribute to David Lodge in the title of one of the memoirs chapters: Changing Places. The other explanation, though, is that Friedlnder simply discovers the British novelists campus novels very, very amusing.

In truth, he tells, he writes as he now does, more simply, most directly, simply because he is old. More literary endeavors one of his first pass at writing When Memory Comes involved an attempt to summon a Proustian hurry-up over a strawberry shake at a milk bar on the Boulevard des Italiens, a drinking remembered from his short time in Paris with his mothers, in the late 1930 s are simply too much to ask.

His laborious style of writing, however, does continue principally because he never learned to type.

I ran in circles, he tells of his first battle with inspiration, writing his dissertation in Geneva in the early 1960 s, each time reworking the previous draft that somebody typed, then I got a clean version and then I wrote, and the same person retyped, and it ran 10 periods at least.

Again, with a laugh, he brings literature and history, the span of his art, back to everyday life.

For a student, the main problem was how to pay the typist.

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