Raul Hilberg dies at 81

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(Host) Raul Hilberg became one of the world’s foremost scholars on Holocaust Studies during a 35-year career at the University of Vermont.

Hilberg died over the weekend.

He is being remembered today as warm and witty but intensely devoted to his work.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Raul Hilberg intended to study chemistry in college.

But then came World War Two.

The Holocaust – and the war that ended it – changed Hilberg’s life. He became a scholar whose mission was to reveal the horrors of the Third Reich.

(Shapiro) "His contribution to this field is fundamental. Without him, we wouldn’t be here."

(Sneyd) Paul Shapiro is director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington and he worked often with Hilberg.

Hilberg helped to found the museum and studies center, three decades after writing a groundbreaking work in 1961 – The Destruction of the European Jews.”

Shapiro says that book laid the groundwork for the studies now conducted at the museum.

(Shapiro) "It’s so unusual for a founding volume, his Extermination of European Jews, to be still the most revered and most authoritative work in a field, 50 years after it was first written and first published."

(Sneyd) UVM religion professor Richard Sugarman was Hilberg’s friend for nearly 40 years.

He recalls how colleagues would comment occasionally on Hilberg’s serious demeanor.

(Sugarman) "He was a person in whose presence you could feel the force of history."

(Sneyd) Hilberg was trained not as a historian, but as a political scientist. Colleagues say that contributed to the way he conducted his research.

Peter Hayes is a professor of history, German and Jewish studies at Northwestern University. He says Hilberg could take things such as code letters” and routing information” from a document and fit it into the larger puzzle of the Holocaust.

(Hayes) "He could extract extraordinary revelations from these small things."

(Sneyd) Hilberg himself talked about the importance of the little details in unraveling the horrors of the Holocaust. He described during a 1991 lecture at UVM how SS units were given oral orders. But the orders were documented further down the chain of command.

(Hilberg) "There is a telegram directed to specifically, the mounted battalion of the 2nd cavalry regiment in this area. Jews are to be shot. Jewish women are to be driven into the swamps."

(Sneyd) Hilberg’s work at UVM continues to this day. Fifteen years ago, the university established its own Center for Holocaust Studies to honor Hilberg’s long career.

He was 81 when he died of lung cancer.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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