Otto Dov Kulka, 87, Dies; Studied, and Witnessed, the Holocaust

Otto Dov Kulka, 87, Dies; Studied, and Witnessed, the Holocaust

Otto Dov Kulka, 87, Dies; Studied, and Witnessed, the Holocaust

Otto Dov Kulka, 87, Dies; Studied, and Witnessed, the Holocaust

Otto Dov Kulka, at 31, was the youngest survivor of Auschwitz to testify in 1964 when two decades of German failure to reckon with the Holocaust ended with the trial in Frankfurt of nearly two dozen former SS officers who had served at that extermination camp.

He delivered a moving account of how Jewish inmates had sung Hebrew hymns before being loaded onto trucks that would convey them to the gas chambers, how at 9 years old he escaped the mass execution of his mother and all the friends who had been deported with him from Czechoslovakia because he had been ill and was quarantined in the camp’s medical block.

But for nearly the next 50 years, as a historian of the Holocaust at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he would resist letting his personal experiences color his scholarship. Only in 2013 would he finally reveal them, in a haunting memoir titled “Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination” (translated into English from the original Hebrew by Ralph Mandel).

“Few are aware of the existence within me of a dimension of silence,” he wrote, “of a choice I made to sever the biographical from the historical past.”

Professor Kulka, who retired in 1999, died on Jan. 29 in Jerusalem, the University said. He was 87.

If his research was dispassionate, it nonetheless produced unequivocal conclusions, beginning with his book “The ‘Jewish Question’ in the Third Reich” (1975).

Professor Kulka argued that age-old religious antagonism toward the Jews, coupled with the German belief in Jews’ redemption if they converted to Christianity, morphed into a messianic political “redemptive anti-Semitism” that sought to purge Germany of the “Jewish spirit.”

He concluded that the National Socialist Party, or the Nazis, saw the modern world as dominated by “Jewish-Christian-Bolshevik” principles that were based on a “‘destructive’ belief in the unity of the world and the equality of men in all spheres of life” — principles “antithetical to the Nazi Social-Darwinist version of the ‘natural order.’”

He challenged the conventional view that the German people had been indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Instead, he argued, they widely favored deportation, adding that “this attitude persisted despite the population’s knowledge about the fate of the deported Jews.”

He was born Otto Deutelbaum on April 16, 1933, in Novy Hrozenkov, Czechoslovakia. His mother, Elly (Kulkova) Deutelbaumova, was married to Rudolph Deutelbaum, who owned a lumber mill. The couple divorced in 1938 after a court ruled that Otto’s biological father was actually Rudolph’s nephew and apprentice, Erich Schon, whom Elly then married.

Rudolph, his second wife and Otto’s half sister were murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp, also in occupied Poland. Erich Schon was deported to Germany in 1939 and later sent to Auschwitz. Otto and his mother were deported in September 1942 and ultimately sent to the satellite Theresienstadt camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The Nazis designed Theresienstadt as a “model family camp” to deceive the International Red Cross; once the organization’s health inspectors were satisfied with the camp’s conditions and had left, about 5,000 inmates there were gassed.

After the war, Otto and his father, Erich, returned to Czechoslovakia. To honor his mother, they changed their surname to Kulka. Otto emigrated to Israel in 1949, joined a kibbutz and added the Hebrew name Dov.

After graduating from the Hebrew University, he began teaching there in the mid-1960s in its department of the history of the Jewish people. He was named a full professor in 1991 and retired as a professor emeritus in 1999, though he continued to conduct research and publish.

Before writing his memoir, Professor Kulka had approached his research on the Holocaust in a largely impersonal way. The memoir gave him a new way to address the subject. He saw it as an effort to bridge what he called “two modes of knowing — historical scholarship and analysis on one side, reflective memory and the work of the imagination on the other.”

Writing in The Guardian in 2013, the American historian Thomas W. Laqueur wrote of the memoir: “Primo Levi’s testimony, it is often said, is that of a chemist: clear, cool, precise, distant. So with Kulka’s work: this is the product of a master historian — ironic, probing, present in the past, able to connect the particular with the cosmic.”

But Professor Kulka acknowledged that in his long years of scholarship he had been unable to put the past behind him. “In my dreams and diaries,” he wrote, “I lived a double life.”

The British historian Ian Kershaw persuaded him to preserve those recollections, resulting in the memoir. It was honored with the Geschwister-Scholl Prize in Germany and the Jewish Quarterly Literary Wingate Prize in Britain.

Professor Kulka is survived by his wife, Chaia (Braun) Kulka, whom he married in 1954; their daughter, Eliora Kulka-Soroka; his brother, Tomas Kulka; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

After his mother died of typhus in a work camp, Otto Kulka and his father survived a death march from Auschwitz as the Red Army approached in January 1945. What he remembered most was the nighttime snow, punctuated by black stains along the sides of the road.

“As first I was intoxicated by the whiteness, by the freedom, by having left behind the barbed-wire fences, by that wide-open night landscape, by the villages we passed,” Professor Kulka wrote. “Then I looked more closely at one of the dark stains, and another — and I saw what they were: human bodies.”

He grew weaker but knew that “anyone who faltered, anyone who lagged behind, was shot and became a black stain by the roadside.”

As an adult, he told The Guardian in 2014, he continued to be saddened by the thought that just “yards away from the crematoria, which burned day and night,” classes and cultural activities were organized by the Jewish inmates at the Theresienstadt “family camp” as if in preparation for a future life, though the camp, he knew, was one place where “the future is the only certain thing that does not exist.”

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