Arno Lustiger: Historian of Shoah resistance dies

Tribute: Writer survived six camps, debunked view that Jews went "like sheep to the slaughter."

Lustiger 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lustiger 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN – Arno Lustiger, an autodidactic historian and author who brilliantly and meticulously chronicled Jewish resistance to the Hitler movement, died on Tuesday in Frankfurt.
Lustiger, who survived six Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and two death marches, was 88 years old. He was born in 1924 to Polish-speaking Jews in Bedzin (Bendzin in Yiddish), in that part of Upper Silesia which became part of Poland after World War I.
He worked tirelessly to debunk the prevailing German historical view that Europe’s Jews allowed themselves to be carted off to Nazi extermination camps “like sheep to the slaughter.”
Lustiger’s seminal work, Fighting to the Death: The Book of Jewish Resistance 1933-1945, was published in 1994.
Arno telephoned me from time to time to announce an essay or book he was working on as well as to inform me of his speaking engagements in Berlin. He had endless energy, and there was a sense of frustration for both of us that the Frankfurt-Berlin distance prevented us from meeting on a regular basis.
Arno knew that I had a longstanding journalistic interest in Jewish resistance during the Shoah.
The last time we crossed paths was in February 2009. He called to say (in his lovely Polish-accented German) that he would participate in a panel discussion with the French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois.
Lustiger wrote the introduction to the German version of Desbois’s book about Ukraine during the Shoah, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.
Lustiger, whose pioneering research attracted international praise and attention, was a guest professor at the Frankfurt-based Fritz Bauer Institute between 2004 and 2006. The institute devotes its research to the study of the Holocaust.
Lustiger’s major contribution was to disprove the ubiquitous notions among post-Holocaust West German historians that Shoah survivors could not present objective testimonies about their persecution and that Jewish resistance to the Nazis was nonexistent.
In a telephone interview with me for a Jerusalem Post article on a controversial member of a German government anti-Semitism commission, he expressed his displeasure about Elke Gryglewski’s view that Holocaust survivors are “not objective and too emotional” as witnesses in connection with Jew-hatred.
“I have heard that all my life. That is well known of German historians,” Lustiger told me.
His exasperation could be felt on the telephone. Lustiger termed the stance of Gryglewski, who works at the House of the Wannsee Conference, to be “exaggerated” and “nonsense.”
The House of the Wannsee Conference is a villa outside Berlin where the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry in 1942, and now houses a memorial and educational center.
Arno would also lament the failure of contemporary academics and researchers to focus on Islamic-animated and left-wing-based anti- Semitism. He explained to me that the intense focus on Nazi-based anti-Semitism serves an “exculpatory motive” for many German academics.
In short, he suggested that a large number of German researchers refuse to deal with modern anti- Semitism (Islamic and leftist) because the past allows them to purge their feelings of guilt and to help rehabilitate their social-psychological regrets.
Dr. Dieter Graumann, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said last week that Lustiger’s “greatest contribution for all time” was in “rescuing from oblivion the story of Jewish resistance in the Shoah.”
Graumann, who lives in Frankfurt, noted that Lustiger helped rebuild the city’s Jewish community.
“Not only did Arno Lustiger contribute greatly to the return of Jewish life in Frankfurt, he also made an important contribution to education and analysis about the darkest chapter of German history through his research on Jewish resistance and on non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during World War II,” he said.
The central council noted in a statement that “Lustiger showed in a highly recognized 2005 speech to the Bundestag on Holocuast Remembrance Day that... anti- Semitism is frequently spread in the form of exaggerated criticism of Israel.”
In 2007 , Lustiger said kaddish at the funeral of his cousin, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. The former archbishop of Paris had survived the Holocaust in hiding in France and converted to Catholicism.
In one of most moving tributes, the Austrian-Jewish journalist Hannes Stein wrote in the daily Die Welt about Arno Lustiger’s final escape from a second Nazi death march and how a Jewish doctor rescued him. “And then began the happiest time of my life,” Lustiger told Stein about his recovery.
Lustiger showed Stein his US Army revolver that he used in the last days of the war as an American soldier and translator.
Stein wrote about the meaning of the pistol for Arno: “It must have been a good feeling... as he was no longer defenseless and could finally fight the murderers.”
All of this helps to explain Arno’s support for the Jewish state and his writings in important newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt combating the delegitimization of Israel in the discourse of the Federal Republic.
Arno’s scholarship did not only revolve around Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. He wrote a book about Jewish volunteers enlisting to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. His other major works covered the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his persecution of Russian Jews, and the role of non-Jews in saving Jews during the Holocaust.
The Israeli Embassy issued a statement in its digital newsletter mourning the loss of Lustiger.
“Israel has lost a good friend,” the embassy tweeted.