Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway in London had passed away unexpectedly. About a month ago he had undergone a successful operation for bone cancer and was beginning to heal, when suddenly things took a sharp turn for the worse.
David was a scholar of tremendous depth and breadth, great brilliance and remarkable eloquence. It often seemed to me that having had the privilege to study with the great George Mosse of blessed memory (as I had), David had learned that one of the most important tasks of the historian is to deflate myths and replace them with well-grounded and well-stated historical narrative and analysis.
It is not by chance that his two most important scholarly projects about the Holocaust reflected all of those qualities. His book Eichmann His Life and His Crimes, published in 2004 presented a more historically accurate portrait of Eichmann, removing him from the clouds of partial truth and contradictory images that had emerged from his trial in Israel in the early 1960s. Eichmann was neither the mastermind of the Holocaust nor a mundane desk bureaucrat only following orders. David drew a more complex portrait of the man, and no less important, he set him in the context of the events that led to the unfolding and carrying out of the Final Solution against the Jews. He showed that Eichmann was not a decision maker, but certainly had initiative. He showed that the man changed over the course of the war, from a gung-ho young officer to a rather jaded murderer. Throughout the book, David provided the historical envelope, harnessing the most up-to-date understanding of the events of the Holocaust available at the time he wrote.
Over the last two years or so, David was engaged in another project that demanded depth and breadth of knowledge. He wrote a one volume history of the Holocaust that remained unpublished at the time of his passing. Last year David asked me to read the manuscript and comment on it. What I read revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holocaust and the most recent writing about it. Moreover, David tried to ensure that his narrative closely followed the events of World War II. To do so he read scores of diaries and memoirs of leading figures and less well-known figures of the time, and monographs on the war. One of the rooms in second floor of his home is lined with them, and they literally fill an entire book case. David also tried to bring balance back to the history of the Holocaust, especially when he wrote about Jewish behavior. In much of the literature over the decades since the end of the war, the image of the Jews in the Holocaust has moved from being portrayed as one-dimensional victims, to being nearly lionized for having gone through the Holocaust. David sought to show that first and foremost the Jews were human beings, and as such had many diverse qualities, strengths and foibles, and displayed a great range of behaviors.
Of course David’s scholarship was not confined to the Holocaust alone. He dealt with “Port Jews” and the London Chronicle among other themes, and for many years was involved in different ways with the journal Patterns in Prejudice.
David wrote a fascinating and detailed biography of Arthur Koestler. In particular he tried to understand him as Jewish intellectual living in the period of the first half of the Twentieth Century. He showed how Koestler truly had a very “restless mind.” He moved from Zionist to Communist to staunch anti-Communist. All the while he wrote and wrote, and David mined both his writings and archive for information that shed light on Koestler the man and Koestler the Jew.
Moving to another subject, British-Jewish relations at the end of the Mandate in Palestine, David wrote Major Farran’s Hat. Essentially this short book is about the British war on Jewish extremists and addresses the mystery of the murder of the Jewish teen Alexander Rubowitz. The book pulls no punches in showing how Major Farran murdered the boy and then covered his tracks.
David was an excellent speaker. His public lectures were not only well grounded in history, lucid and interesting, but they almost invariably contained some sort of punchline that not only made a good point, but engendered laughter. David was a frequent guest of Yad Vashem at international research conferences and symposia, and in 1998-1999 he was a fellow of the International Institute for Holocaust Research as the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the study of Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In private David was a great storyteller, and it was always a pleasure to sit and talk with him over a meal or glass of wine, and hear about some arcane but amusing piece of history or something from his personal experience.
An important role David played was that of public historian. He was involved in films, such as about the last survivor from Treblinka, and he was very involved in establishing the Holocaust exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. David was frequently interviewed in the British media on subjects relating to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and indeed was a well-known figure in the UK. For his work in advancing Holocaust commemoration in Britain he was awarded an OBE by the Queen. Most recently during the British chairmanship of IHRA, David returned to that body, lending the British delegation his prestige, experience and vast knowledge.
Over more than twenty years of our friendship I spent many hours with David. I learned many things from him and although I’m the library director, I even received more than one good suggestion for a book to read. But mostly, I just enjoyed his company: sitting in his backyard on a cool April evening; taking our children on a hike in Israel followed by a barbeque in Little Switzerland; meeting for coffee when we both happened to be in Budapest; driving back and forth to Yad Vashem when he was here for research and bunking at my home; enjoying a Shabbat meal with our families and other friends — and all the while moving from talking about our work, to current events, to subjects more personal.
It is hard to believe that David is no longer here and that we will no longer benefit from his knowledge, his critical thinking, his wisdom, his eloquence, his wit and his warmth.
May his memory be blessed.