Auschwitz survivor historian Arno Lustiger dies | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 18.05.2012
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Auschwitz survivor historian Arno Lustiger dies

After experiencing the atrocities of World War Two, Arno Lustiger remained silent for 40 years. Then, in the 1980s, he began to write about Nazi horrors and Jewish resistance, lending history his words and voice.

How must this man have appeared at the age of 40? How did he live, what was he thinking in Frankfurt after the war? Why do people remain silent for decades when they have so much to tell? These questions alone point to the monstrousness of the events which took place in Europe between1933 and 1945. Even today, 67 years after the end of the war, those events remain incomprehensible. Arno Lustiger, who died on May 15th at the age of 88, confronted people after the war with silence.

Understanding the Holocaust

Of course, the Holocaust is well documented in history books. Everything that Arno Lustiger lived through, the concentrations camps, the death marches, starvation and thirst, the torture of uncertainty and fear. We also know this from the books which Lustiger wrote in the 1980s and 1990s. But can the magnitude of these events ever be grasped? Can the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, as documented in books, films and documentaries, ever really be understood? Silence is just one part of the mosaic. It is at least as eloquent as the mass of details recorded in history books concerning the Nazi reign of terror.

Lustiger, a German-Jew of Polish descent, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp

Lustiger, a German-Jew of Polish descent, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp

40 years of silence on the Holocaust. Four decades without speaking a word about the torture and the agony – even in his own family. In an interview last year, Arno Lustiger gave a reason for his silence. A young SS officer in Auschwitz who liked to converse with the Jewish inmates told him: "'You won't survive. But if you do, no one will ever believe you.' That stuck in my mind for a long time."

It stuck in his mind for four decades. When a man continually tells his children that the blue concentration camp number tattooed on his arm is just a telephone number, that also speaks volumes.

Filling the white flecks

At some point, his experiences broke out. In the 1980s, he began to "fill the white flecks of historiography" as he put it. In the intervening years, one book followed the next, as well as essays, articles and petitions. Lustiger became a historian, writing books about the Holocaust and, above all, about Jews who had sought to defend themselves against extermination. He also wrote about the few people, including some Germans, who had helped Jews to survive the war. That was Lustiger's task in the years prior to his death. Lustiger was not a trained historian. That led to a dispute with a famous historical scientist. The American, Raul Hilberg, was one of the first to describe the genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators.

Arno Lustiger wanted to provide a counterpoint to this approach. He wrote from the perspective of the victims, in this he was incomparable. "We can thank Lustiger for the fact that the resistance to the Holocaust, the resistance of Jews as well as non-Jews, found its rightful place in history," wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung in its obituary, "unlike with Hilberg, with his cool consideration of [the resistance's] limited military resources, but as a tribute to people who dared to confront evil."

In this spirit, Lustiger concerned himself with Spanish Civil War, the Jews in the Soviet Union, and with those in Germany who had resisted. Another of Lustiger's fields of interest was the people who had helped to save Jews during the war. That a number of those were Germans, and that Lustiger named them, said a lot about the researcher and writer.

University of life

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that Lustiger had produced a "topography of Jewish resistance," and further: "Lustiger's work reminds us that historical recognition comes from that which would otherwise remain unsaid." "Lustiger never studied at a university, aside from the university of life," wrote one commentator in the newspaper, Die Welt, "But through his discussion with first-hand witnesses, he shed light on the parts of the historical archive which was treated with respect by his academically trained colleagues." How could it be different? His own experiences and suffering drove his research and writing.

Lustiger remained silent about his experiences during the Holocaust for four decades

Lustiger remained silent about his experiences during the Holocaust for four decades

Lustiger decided to stay in Germany after the war. That was for a number of reasons. Not because he necessarily wanted to stay, but because countries, such as the USA, made it difficult for him to emigrate and he could not stand the climate in Israel. Lustiger stayed resolutely silent in Germany and worked as a successful textile manufacturer. But deep inside, the past still tormented him. He couldn't express his feelings for decades. "I knew, or I thought, the people of my generation wouldn't want to believe it and push it aside," said Lustiger in his final year of life. He was certainly right about that. For many years after the war, many Germans did not want to believe what had happened between 1933 and 1945. But Arno Lustiger knew it all along. He had lived through it. It's just that he couldn't speak about it. Thankfully, he eventually did.

Author: Jochen Kürten / hw
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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