Sunday, August 30, 2009

Yehoshua Bichler, RIP

My friend Yehushua Bichler died earlier this month, age 80.

His friends from his own generation called him Robino, from Robert, but I felt that would be disrespectful of me so I called him by his Israeli name, Yehoshua. I first met him in a graduate seminar about the SS, in the winter of 1982 I think. He was not a particularly good speaker, and he had trouble focusing what he wished to say into concise paragraphs, so when Prof. Yehuda Bauer anounced one week that the following week Yehoshua would take over for as long as he needed, we were puzzled. We remained puzzled for the first 20 minutes of the next class, too, until it dawned on us that Yehoshua was telling a story none of us had ever seen in the history books.

In a nutshell, we all knew that the Nazi murder policy began with the invasion of the Soviet Union in summer 1941, and it was carried out by the infamous Einsatzgruppen, in which there must have been a few thousand men at most. Bichler, however, had uncovered documents that told of SS Brigades no-one had ever noticed, numbering in the tens of thousands, who had also been part of the operation. They were subordinate to a different part of the SS, their logistics were supported by different units, and their existance changed the picture of general complicity in the murder program.

I recognize this isn't that important to most people, but in all the years since I've never again run into a historian who was able single handedly to rework the outlines of the accepted story in such a clear way. Yehoshua was aware of the stir he was creating, but it didn't go to his head. Perhaps the fact that he himself had been at Auschwitz, had watched the death of his father, and had lost 57 (fifty seven) members of his family, tempered his perspective on things.

A few years later I became the head of archives at Yad Vashem; Yehoshua ran the archives at Givat Haviva, a small research center dedicated to the Zionist youth movements. So now we were colleagues. I came to my task with the energy of youth and lots of big ideas; Yehoshua ran a smaller place and knew every file; he also knew many of the people, places, and the events, in a way I never could. We were friends, but in a very unequal way.

If you ever have two or three spare days, you should go to Yad Vashem and watch Yehushua's 8-hour video testimony about Slovakia, and Auschwitz, and death marches. It's a tape of a man in his sixties, with the mein of a confused and uncomprehending boy, unable to understand the story he was telling, or unable to believe it, or make any sense of it. This, from the man who had uncovered an entire branch of the SS.

Offhand, I don't think I ever saw him not smiling, in an unassuming, slightly embarrassed way.

Nucho Eden, may he rest in peace.


Shalom, Cherry Hill said...

Baruch Dayan Emet.

Thank you for sharing this moving tribute.

Fabián said...

Thank you Yaakov. I will, next time I go to Yad Vashem.