Otto Dov Kulka obituary

Historian of the Holocaust who wrote an acclaimed memoir of his experiences as a child in Auschwitz

Otto Dov Kulka
His 2013 book Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death earned Otto Dov Kulka fame beyond the bounds of academia. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy
His 2013 book Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death earned Otto Dov Kulka fame beyond the bounds of academia. Photograph: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 12.38 EST

The historian Otto Dov Kulka, who has died aged 88, published a string of important academic works, beginning with The “Jewish Question”in the Third Reich (1975), that portrayed Nazi antisemitism as the product of secularisation. He argued that traditional Christian antisemitism, where the possibility of redemption by religious conversion was inherently present, evolved in the late 19th-century into a secular “redemptive antisemitism”, in which all the ills of modern Germany would be cured by the total annihilation of the Jewish race. He went on to publish research on Jewish self-organisation in the Third Reich that stressed the extent to which the German Jewish community had already prepared itself before the Nazi seizure of power, realising the danger posed to it by the rise of Hitler.

His most important work, however, was on the attitude of ordinary non-Jewish Germans to the Nazi persecution and annihilation of the Jews. In a comprehensive documentary collection, The Jews in the Secret Nazi Reports on Popular Opinion in Germany, 1933-1945 (2010), edited with the German historian Eberhard Jäckel, he presented nearly a thousand pages of compelling evidence that undermined the view, held by most historians up to then, that the German people had been largely indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Instead, it suggested, they not only knew from early on about the extermination camps and shooting pits in the east, but also regarded them in a largely positive way.

In 1978, after travelling from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to take part in a conference in Poland, organised by the International Committee of Historical Sciences, Kulka mentioned to his colleagues that he was going to visit Auschwitz. “Don’t stay in the main camp,” one of them advised: “Go to Birkenau – that’s the real Auschwitz.” It was indeed: it was the part of the vast camp complex where nearly a million Jews from all over Europe had been murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis.

Kulka did not need this advice. He had been in Birkenau before. The purpose of his visit was not academic; it was an act of remembrance. He was born in Nový Hrozenkov, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), as Otto Deutelbaum, to a Jewish couple, Rudolf Deutelbaum, owner of a wood mill, and his wife, Elly (nee Kulka). Elly divorced Rudolf in 1938, and gained custody of Otto after a court ruled that the boy’s biological father was Rudolf’s nephew and apprentice Erich Schön, whom she then married.

Rudolf, his second wife, Ilona, and their daughter, Eva, were murdered in the Treblinka death camp in October 1942. The previous month, the 10-year-old Otto and his mother had been transported to the “model camp” at Theresienstadt; from there, a year later, they were sent to Birkenau and placed in a special “family camp” designed by the Nazis to show to the Red Cross that prisoners in Theresienstadt and its satellite camp were well treated. Six months later, when the Red Cross declared itself satisfied with conditions in Theresienstadt, the family camp was “liquidated” and its 5,000 inmates murdered in the Birkenau gas chamber.

Otto was not among them because he was in the camp infirmary being looked after by his mother. By the time he had recovered, the Nazis had decided that he was fit to work at pulling handcarts, and he survived again. As the Red Army approached he was sent out of the camp with the remaining prisoners, including his father, on a “death march”, where anyone who lagged behind was shot.

As they tramped through the snow, he noticed dark stains on either side, “death’s drips on to the white snow, coiling all who went into some dark chain, constantly expanding and overtaking the human rivers that wound slowly forward. Within a short time it became clear to me that every black stain was a prisoner who had been shot and dumped by the roadside.”

He survived this too, though Elly, who had been sent to work at the Stutthof concentration camp, died of typhus there in January 1945. Otto and his father escaped from the death march and settled in Czechoslovakia, where they changed their name to Kulka to commemorate Elly. Erich became a historian, co-authoring the classic, million-selling book The Death Factory in 1946.

In 1949 they emigrated to Israel, where Otto also added the Jewish name Dov to his original German one. It was at this time that he met Chaya Braun, also born in Czechoslovakia, whom he married in 1954; their daughter, Eliora, was born in 1962.

After completing his education, he began studying history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1958, eventually graduating with a doctorate and joining the department for the history of the Jewish people. In 1985 he was appointed associate professor and in 1988 Sol Rosenbloom professor of Jewish history, retiring in 1999.

Kulka always insisted that the Holocaust had to be treated like any other historical subject, and studied with the traditional tools of historical scholarship. Indeed, he avoided using the terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah” because he thought they got in the way of this and cut off Nazi antisemitism from its place in the longer processes of history. But at the same time as radically separating his scholarship from his personal experience in Auschwitz, he was also recording his thoughts and reflections on his time in the death camp. In 2013 he published these in a short book, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, which earned him worldwide fame far beyond the bounds of academia.

In Landscapes he presented not a connected (and thus inevitably distorted) narrative, but a kind of collage made up from the fragmentary memories which survive from childhood, brief accounts of the visits he paid to Auschwitz and Stutthof long after the war, and a few documents, the most moving of which are three poems a young Jewish woman wrote on the brink of extinction, handed to a kapo at the gas-chamber’s door.

Perhaps it was his insistence on rigidly excluding his experience from his scholarship that enabled Kulka to write this book, an extraordinary and blisteringly honest exercise in how memory works, how much a 10-year-old in an extreme situation understands, and how much – the majority – he does not. Some of the memories are of terrible events – the torture and execution of a prisoner on the camp square, the brutal beatings, the death march; some are uplifting – singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with a children’s choir organised by an inmate, a former musical conductor, in the latrine barracks, where the acoustics were good, reading a copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment given to him by a fellow prisoner. Culture gives hope even in the grimmest of circumstances.

He is survived by Chaya, Eliora, three grandchildren and a great-grandson.

• Otto Dov Kulka (Otto Deutelbaum), historian, born 16 January 1933; died 29 January 2021