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Raul Hilberg

08/21/07 5:55PM By Howard Coffin

(HOST) Commentator Howard Coffin has been thinking about human nature and the importance of historical research.   

(COFFIN) In 1985 when hired by the University of Vermont to handle its national publicity, I headed for the best story on campus - Raul Hilberg. A Jewish émigré from Austria under the Nazis, Professor Hilberg was author of the acclaimed book Destruction of the European Jews. That monumental study of the mechanism of the Holocaust proved that the wholesale slaughter of the Jewish people had been carried out by a bureaucratic machine with thousands of participants. Hilberg was then being filmed as an expert commentator for the nearly day-long Holocaust documentary Shoah which was to be seen in theaters around the world.

Raul Hilberg died recently in Williston, and in reading his obituary I was reminded of our first meeting, over lunch in the faculty dining room high in UVM’s Waterman Building. That day I discovered that the professor was not a publicist’s dream, not easy to engage in conversation. But after some trying, I got him talking.

Hilberg, in that soft voice that required attentive listening, began to describe the massive paper trail he had discovered concerning the system that brought millions to the gas chambers. He said, for instance, that every person transported to the death camps had a railway ticket, meaning not only that railroad companies made money, but that many Germans were engaged in the printing and distributing of tickets. He talked of requisition forms for lethal gas and of meticulous records of clothing and valuables taken from victims. Later, I read that Hugh Trevor-Roper, another major Holocaust historian, wrote that Hilberg’s book "reveals, methodically, fully and clearly, the development of both the technical and psychological process; the machinery and mentality whereby one whole society sought to isolate and destroy another, which, for centuries, had lived in its midst."

But back to 1985. I particularly recall Hilberg’s describing his first encounter with the documents on which he would labor for years. Right after World War II ended, Hilberg was a U. S. Army soldier stationed in Germany. Because he had already begun Holocaust research, he was given permission to work in a Berlin warehouse where Nazi records were being gathered. He recalled for me his entering the building for the first time and confronting a space the size of a football field. It was piled full of boxes. From that moment, he said, he suspected that the story of the Holocaust process might lie before him - how the European Jews were destroyed. But, how to get at it, since the documents were totally unorganized, millions of pieces of paper uncatalogued, most boxes without a label.

"How," I asked, "did you do it?"

He sighed, sipped his coffee, gazed out the window toward Lake Champlain. Then he turned to me, looking me directly in the eyes, and said, "Well, you know, Mr. Coffin, I opened one box."

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who's specialty is the civil war.
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