Holocaust historian says U.S. not like Weimar

Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander had vowed before the election that he would leave the country if Donald Trump were elected president. Now that Trump’s victory is a reality, Friedlander is sticking around — and reassuring listeners the current situation is not the same as Germany during the pre-Nazi era.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce (left) moderates Saul Friedlander’s Commonwealth Club talk. photo/maya lekach

Friedlander, 84, a professor emeritus of history at UCLA and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for a book on Nazism and the Jews, said the United States of 2016 cannot be likened to the 1919-1933 Weimar Republic in Germany.

“I was afraid it would turn out this way,” Friedlander said Nov. 14 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, six days after Trump’s win, “but I would not compare it to Weimar. Weimar was a very unstable democracy and was an experience wherein democracy failed. The U.S. is not a democracy that has failed.”

Friedlander had told the French news agency AFP in September that he would flee his adopted homeland if Trump got elected, but said at the Commonwealth Club that he meant it as a joke.

The talk, moderated by Congregation Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Emeritus Stephen Pearce, centered on Friedlander’s years of study, his life across three continents and his part in the 20th-century Jewish experience. His expertise in researching and writing about the Third Reich, however, led many audience members to ask about the U.S. election.

Friedlander grew up in France, surviving part of the war in hiding at a Catholic school. His parents were killed at Auschwitz. He began his life as Pavel, changed his name to Paul, Shaul and finally Saul. The changes reflected his many iterations as a Jew in Prague, Nazi-controlled France, Israel — where he made aliyah in 1948 — and Los Angeles.

With so many identities over the course of one lifetime, Pearce wondered how Friedlander had managed to keep his sanity.

“Who says I kept my sanity?” Friedlander responded.

When asked where he considers his home now, he answered, “Nowhere, but also everywhere — the sense of being at home, being rooted somewhere, I never had that.”

Friedlander, who lives in Los Angeles, said his family, a beloved dog and whiskey have kept him going for all these years, even as he faced the difficulties shared with many Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees.

“I have raised a family, I love my children and grandchildren,” he responded, “and I worked on what should have thrown me back, what would have created fear.”