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WWII Odyssey Leads to Chair in Holocaust Studies

January 11, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

A citizen of Israel who once aspired to be a Roman Catholic priest arrives in Los Angeles today to become the first holder of a UCLA chair in Holocaust studies.

And as his background indicates, Prof. Saul Friedlander's journey to the Westwood campus has been much more circuitous than his flight here from Israel, where he now lives as a committed Jew.

Friedlander's odyssey began in 1942 when a family friend deposited the Czechoslovakian-born 10-year-old in a French Roman Catholic school where the nuns agreed to hide him from the occupying Nazis. Cut off from his parents, who were attempting to flee France, the boy gladly adopted the religion of his saviors and decided to become a priest.

His course changed abruptly three years later, at the end of World War II, when the young teen-ager learned that his Jewish parents had been murdered at Auschwitz. Shocked by this information, he developed an interest in Zionism and Judaism and sailed for Israel in 1948.

Along the way, Friedlander changed his name three times, each new identity symbolic of a larger change in life.

He was born Pavel Friedlander in Czechoslovakia in 1932, but assumed the more French-sounding Paul when the family fled to France in 1939 as the armies of Hitler's Third Reich invaded Czechoslovakia. He became Paul-Henri to further disguise his identity when he entered the Catholic school, and later adopted Shaul, Hebrew for Saul, when he migrated to Israel.

After all these changes, his Catholicism has disappeared, Friedlander said by phone last week from Jerusalem, where he and his wife, Hagid, have raised three children.

"The Catholicism was not something I chose," said Friedlander, now 55. "Don't forget I was 10 years old when I was hidden in that Catholic school. At the age of 10 under such circumstances one doesn't choose. One accepts what the surroundings impose on you." In order to take the new UCLA post, Friedlander has resigned a teaching position at the University of Geneva, but will retain his chair in Modern European History at the University of Tel Aviv, where he teaches every fall. The UCLA chair will allow him to focus on his speciality, Nazi policies toward the Jews, said Friedlander, who is a specialist in modern European history and has published nine books dealing mostly with Jewish history.

"This appointment allows me, for part of a year, to connect my research and writing with my teaching," Friedlander said. "I find it very congenial to be able to do that now that I am not a youngster of 30."

By retaining his appointment at Tel Aviv University, 40 miles from Jerusalem, he maintains what he called "my very strong and basic connection to Israel."

Although Friedlander calls himself "a secular Jew" who doesn't go to synagogue often, he feels, he said, "totally part of the Jewish people" and "strongly attached to the spiritual heritage."

"And I'm very attached to Israel," he said. "I teach in Hebrew. I live here. My children are born here. It's a total belonging, as an American would feel part of the American heritage, which doesn't need a special explanation or justification."

Search for a Home

The Friedlanders will stay in a Westwood apartment while looking for a permanent home in Los Angeles, a proposition which Friedlander called "the most mysterious part of the whole trip." But, he added, "many other people have moved to UCLA and I'm sure there is some way of solving these (housing) problems."

Their three children will remain in their current locations: Eli, 27, studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard; David, 23, pursuing a degree in Far Eastern languages in Paris; and Michal finishing high school in Israel.

His arrival culminates a 7-year search on the part of the university. The Holocaust studies chair was authorized in 1980 after the 1939 Club, a group of about 700 Los Angeles Holocaust survivors, raised $250,000 for an endowment. Five visiting professors, including Friedlander in 1983, have temporarily occupied the chair since that time, but Friedlander is the first permanent appointment.

For all his current comfort with his Israeli identity, however, Friedlander's childhood adoption of Catholicism was complete.

Friedlander explained that he knew very little about Judaism because the elder Friedlanders were not practicing Jews and had attempted to assimilate into the Czechoslovakian culture. When his parents attempted to flee Nazi-occupied France, they entrusted their only child to the wife of a French aristocrat who had befriended them. With his parents' prior consent, she turned Friedlander over to a Catholic school.

A short time after he began his studies, Swiss border guards refused to let his parents enter Switzerland. Unbeknownst to the boy, they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.

Without parents or letters or visitors at school, Friedlander threw himself into Catholicism, he recalled in his 1978 autobiography, "When Memory Comes."

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