Saul Friedläder

When memory comes

a documentary by Frank Diamand

Saul Friedländer

‘Saul Friedländer has given voice to the lament of the people burned to ashes, has made their cry audible, has given them name and memory. He has restored the murdered their stolen dignity, the recognition of which forms the basisof peace between people’.These were the words Wolfgang Frühwald said October 14, 2007 when hepresented the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to the Jewish historianSaul Friedländer. The prize honours ‘the epic narrator of the history ofthe Shoah, the persecution and extermination of the Jews during the NationalSocialist rule in Europe’. 

The Jewish historian Saul Friedländer undoubtedly is one of the most important historians and intellectuals of our time. His book Nazi-Germany and the Jews 1933-1945, that he worked on for twenty years and that was published in two volumes (in 1998 and 2007) was showered with praise and awards and has been translated into many languages. Other pioneering and controversial studies preceeded this book, starting with a very critical  publication about the relation between Pope Pius XII and the Third Reich (1964).

He played a central role in the big historical and theoretical debates, like the Historikerstreit and the discussions about the nature of historical knowledge. His debate with German historian Martin Broszat, who argued that the history of the Third Reich should be treated as a normal part of German history and that Jewish historians could not possibly do so as they were burdened by their past, made him overcome his hesitations to attempt the virtrually impossible endeavour to write an integrated history of the persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich. 

And he was very vocal in the political debate in Israel, the country where he lived for fifty years ever since 1948. Active in the PEACE NOW movement he was against the occupation of the Palestinian territories from the very beginning and in tv-appearances openly criticised the Israeli governement politics, which he branded as evil and illegal.

All Friedländers activities as historian and public intellectual cercle around one central issue: how to comprehend and how to provide insight into the horrors of the years 1933-1945. Is it possible to create representations – not only in historiography, also in film or litterature – that even can come close to what the extermination policies of the nazi’s really meant? The need to understand how this catastrophe could happen and the quest for means to make it conceivable form the underlying motive of his inexhaustible activety. One does not have to be a psychologist to point out the roots of this endeavour: the loss of his parents, who were murdered in Auschwitz, after having hidden their ten year old son in a conventschool. All of Friedländer’s work stems from this inconceivable loss.

My personal involvement in making this film goes back to the year 1966 when I first met Saul Friedländer and interviewed him for Dutch weekly VRIJ NEDERLAND. He was thirty-four then and I twenty-seven. It was an emotional encounter as we did not only talk about the subject of the interview, his book Pius XII and the Third Reich. Documents, but also about how we had survived WWII, he in a convent school in France and I in the camps Westerbork and Bergen Belsen. With whom could one talk about such a subject in those times.

But in spite of the emotional character of our meeting I lost track of Friedländer. Till September 2007 when the two parts of Nazi Germany and the Jews (Part 1. The years of persecution 1933-1939; Part 2 The years of extermination 1939-1945) were translated into Dutch and published in one fat volume by publishing house Nieuw Amsterdam. At that occasion and celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Friedländer gave a lecture in the auditorium of the Amsterdam University. Halfway his lecture I knew I wanted to make this film. Friedländer opened his story with the same image that opens the introduction of the second part of Nazi Germany and the Jews. The photograph of a ceremony on September 18, 1942. David Moffie is awarded his degree in medicine at that same University of Amsterdam. The ban on Jewish students had already been issued, but the 1942-1943 semester started only the next Monday, September 21. Friedländer described the picture, Moffie’s supervisor, the academic robes, the star on Moffie’s waistcoat. He informs us that Moffie was shortly thereafter deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and that he survived “as did 20 percent of the Jews of Holland; according to the same statistics, therefore most of the Jews present at the ceremony did not” That zoom out from the photograph to the whole of the Shoah in less than two minutes was my first reason. The relentlessness of his argument that anti-Semitism was central to the ideology of the Nazis and the way he dealt with historians like Götz Aly, who want to explain the Shoah solely from economic reasons, was the second.

I have made a lot of documentaries about repression all over the world: about the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua; about Chile under Pinochet; a portrait of Nelson Mandela for his 60th birthday serving life at Robben Island and a film about the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in 1938 in a Stalin’s Gulag, but I had never ventured to deal with the WWII or the Shoah.So this film became the most personal film I ever made as my life like his has been determined by the Shoah. It would also be the first one in which I played a role myself. As I would take Friedländer to his lieux de mémoire and as he was in Amsterdam to give a lecture at the NIOD about the historiography of  Nazi Germany and the Jews for my film, I also took him to my place of memory ‘De Hollandsche Schouwburg’, the theatre that in 1942-1943 had been the assembly point from where the Jews of Amsterdam were deported including my parents and my self. That way all at once I became part of the film. Friedländer asking me But weren’t you very young at the time? – I was four I replied. But then, were you not in the crèche at the other side? Yes that was so, as my parents had tried to hide me at night in the house where we were living and the Germans had come back for me at dawn while my parents had already been sent on to Westerbork.

And as I had entered the film it was no longer odd to me to be on camera with Friedländer while we were watching film together or to walk with him through Néris-les-Bains or Prague, or to say I in the narration or to read it myself.


Bakkerstraat 10
1017 CW Amsterdam
tel. 020 6237982

Diamands & Friends Productions
Van Diemenstraat 410
1013 CR Amsterdam


October 25th

Different Screenings


May 18 Saul Friedländer will receive the DAN DAVID AWARD, something comparable to a Nobel Prize for History, with a one million dollar cheque attached. He shares the award with the French historian Pierre Nora and the Polish social activist and theater producer Kryztof Czyzewski. In the framework of Friedländer being one of the laureates 'When memory comes' will be screened at Yad Vashem ( the ‘World center for Documentation, Research, Education and Commemoration of the Holocaust’) in Jerusalem and the University of Tel Aviv. A Hebrew version of the film is in the offing.

In the Netherlands the film was shown at several  Universities and in January 2013 it had a screening at the University of Wolverhampton where the director Frank Diamand had been invited to give the Holocaust Memorial Lecture. It was selected for the Jewish Film Festival Jerusalem 2013 had a screening February 13, 2014 in London at the Wiener Library, the world's oldest institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust, its causes and legacies.

Next summer the film will be part of a nine-day residential workshop for PhD students the Holocaust Research Centre at  the Royal Holloway, University of London will be running.