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Fall 1999

When Memory Comes
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"That's a very deep question with no clear answers," he says with a sigh. Holocaust survivors, he says, tend to deal with the past in two ways: "Some try to block it out and never talk about it. Others, like myself, come to struggle with it by dealing with it."

Friedlander says he did not set out originally to study the Holocaust, "but for me it was one way of coming to terms with it. It was my way of handling it." In fact, it wasn't until he was in his 30s and had gone back to Germany to conduct interviews and do research "that I realized how much the past molded my vision of things." In Germany, he writes, he was caught between feeling "pleasant familiarity" and panic, a strong urge to pack his bags and flee.

What lies behind his historical digging is "a desire to preserve and set the record straight," he says. Like Steven Spielberg who, through his Shoah Foundation, is recording the memories of Holocaust survivors, Friedlander feels an urgency to gather as much information as he can, quickly, because the survivors are rapidly aging and dying off. "I'm 66," he notes, smiling.

And there seems to be more interest today in learning about that period than there was when he first began his research in the 1960s, Friedlander says. "Maybe it was still too close then. Survivors themselves weren't keen on discussing it. They wanted to rebuild their lives. And to their children, it seemed very far away."

Even Friedlander did not discuss his experiences with his three children: eldest son, Eli, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University; David, who lives in Paris, where he imports exotic papers; and daughter Michal, a pianist who lives in New York.

"They were aware, but it was not a topic I liked to discuss. It would be difficult to avoid the topic in our house, but I didn't like to discuss my experiences with them," he says.

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