One Author's Perspective

Michael Berenbaum, Ph.D. is the Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, a think tank that explores the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust and other genocides. He is the author and editor of eighteen books, scores of scholarly articles and hundreds of journalistic pieces. He is also the Executive Editor of the New Encyclopedia Judaica. 

Q. You have written many scholarly books about the Holocaust. What do you consider to be the unique perspective that you bring to your work?
A. I believe that I can express complex, multi-layered ideas in a comprehensive context. My newspaper background taught me how to produce on deadline, and writing museum captions – and on museum walls - taught me to be precise and concise.

Q. Why have you mainly written about the Holocaust?
A. I grew up in Queens and was educated by survivors in a Hebrew-speaking day school, where I received the strong message that I have a responsibility to help repair a broken world. The synagogue that I attended was populated by German Jews who came to the United States just before World War II, thereby escaping the Holocaust.  These immigrants tried to re-create their former community in their new country. Without realizing it, I was surrounded by a lost world and came to feel a responsibility to preserve that world in memory and help to create a new Jewish future.

Q. With so much focus on the Holocaust, how are you able to put it out of your mind?
A. I balance my life between death and life. I have two generations of children and a new generation of grandchildren. Young children are all about life and wonder and joy and mystery.

Q. Do you plan to write about anything other than the Holocaust?
A. About 15 years ago I decided to take a psychological sabbatical from the Holocaust and write a sports book. It hasn’t been published because I’ve only written about three quarters of the book. It’s called, Who Rules New York: Willie, Mickey or Duke? and it aims to answer a major question of the 50’s, “When baseball was centered in New York, who was the best centerfielder?”  With this book I had the leisure of being more interested in being provocative than accurate.

Q. Can you talk a little about your process?
A. That’s easy - garbage out…polish up. First you put everything down and then you refine and reshape. I begin with a problem that I attempt to solve in chapter one. But chapter one then creates a new problem which I try to resolve in chapter two and so on with each new chapter creating a new problem to solve. It is a process of discovery and I bring the reader with me.

Q. So you don’t know everything that you are going to write about before you begin?
A. That is correct. I decide on a direction and follow that direction wherever it takes me.
Writing, refining and reshaping. Someone once said, “A writer never finishes a book, he just abandons it.” Like with children, you have to let your books come out into the world.

Q. How do you define a book as being successful?
A. There are three standards. The first is how many copies are sold. That standard is not very important to me. Secondly, the book says something worth saying from which one continues to learn every time it’s read. And thirdly, the book must advance not only the individual’s knowledge, but add knowledge to the field. The last two are the most important.

Q. What’s the book you hope to write someday?
A. I’d like to write a book about how people used humor as a coping mechanism during the Holocaust. Let me explain. I was reading The Warsaw Diary by Chaim Kaplan and I caught myself laughing. I immediately felt ashamed because what he was describing was horrific but realized that I was laughing because he was funny. He was expressing his outrage and anger through humor. After that, I began to collect whatever humor I found in the writings about the Holocaust, and it became clear that humor is the tool of the oppressed. An example was when a young boy in the ghetto was asked if he could be Hitler’s son, what would he wish for, and he answered, “to be an orphan.” With that joke he could control the situation through his imagination and become empowered enough to withstand the tortuous circumstance of his life. It even helped him retain some dignity by making fun of his oppressor. I’ve held back from writing this book because of the dread that people might think that I wrote a joke book about the Holocaust. But, someday, I do believe that I will write it.

Q. One last question. What comes to mind as one of your favorite books?
A. I would have to say, I and Thou, by Martin Buber, because it has been meaningful to me through every stage of my life.