Leading British scholar and expert on Jewish history who helped to shape Holocaust education--
In the late 1990s David Cesarani, the distinguished Holocaust historian, was working on what he had intended to be a flattering book about the great Jewish author Arthur Koestler. Towards the end of his research Jill Craigie, wife of the former Labour leader Michael Foot, told him that Koestler had raped her in 1951. Cesarani was shocked, but discovered that other victims of Koestler’s sexual aggression had kept silent because he was such a respected figure. He duly wrote of his subject in Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind that rape was “almost a hallmark of his conduct”.
Cesarani was no respecter of shibboleths. One of the earliest of 15 books he wrote or edited, Justice Delayed, grew out of his work as the lead researcher for the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group and exposed how low-level Nazi criminals and collaborators were allowed into Britain after the Second World War.
Another, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, took issue with the celebrated political philosopher Hannah Arendt over her contention that the logistical architect of the Holocaust was little more than a bureaucrat seeking to please his superiors. Eichmann “liked to claim that he had no choice in becoming a conscienceless killer, but the truth was that he embraced it as an astute career move,” Cesarani insisted. The book was “thoroughly researched, densely factual; there may never be need for another biography of the man”, Barry Gewen wrote in a review for The New York Times.
Cesarani, a history professor at Royal Holloway in London, did not shy away from controversy. He followed his meticulous research wherever it led, which was what made him such an influential and respected historian, a valued adviser to so many Holocaust organisations, and a go-to expert for media outlets seeking an expert on Jewish issues.
His academic work aside, he championed the 1992 War Crimes Act, which allowed British courts to try people for crimes committed in Nazi Germany. He worked closely with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has ensured that the Holocaust is part of Britain’s national schools curriculum and sent thousands of students to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. He advised the government on the establishment of a Holocaust memorial day, the Imperial War Museum on creating its permanent Holocaust exhibition in 2000, and David Cameron’s commission on the construction of a national Holocaust memorial and learning centre by 2020.
He also contributed to numerous television and radio documentaries dealing with the Holocaust, and was appointed OBE in 2005 for his services to Holocaust education.
Cesarani was no cloistered academic, however. He was a man of great energy who loved cycling, ran marathons for charity, enjoyed the theatre, cinema, art and travelling, and cited family holidays in Italy as one of his great pleasures. He lived in West Hampstead with his wife, Dawn Waterman, who works at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and their two children — Daniel, 21, who has just graduated with a degree in ancient history and archaeology from University College London, and Hannah, 18, who is a student of modern languages at Cambridge.
Cesarani was born in London in 1956, the only child of a Jewish hairdresser of Italian descent. He was educated at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, and, after spending time on an Israeli kibbutz during his gap year, won a scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1976 to read history.
He then spent a year studying modern Jewish history at Columbia University in New York before doing his doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford on Anglo-Jewish Zionist history between the two World Wars.
In the 1980s, Cesarani was one of a group of young revisionist historians who argued that the assimilation of Jews into Britain was not as smooth or successful as the conventional wisdom suggested.
After Oxford, he held a succession of academic posts. He was the Montague Burton Fellow in Modern Jewish History at the University of Leeds from 1983-86, a politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London (then Queen Mary College) from 1986-89, and later director of London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust archive. From 2000 to 2004 he was professor of modern Jewish history and director of the Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at Southampton University, then moved to the Royal Holloway in Egham, Surrey, where he remained until his death (he cited “commuting” as his only dislike).
He was, however, a very public intellectual who wrote regularly for publications including The Guardian and the New Statesman and appeared on Radio 4 news programmes. Invested in Anglo-Jewish affairs, he wrote the official history of The Jewish Chronicle.
Cesarani was a Zionist who believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist and abhorred any form of antisemitism. After David Irving was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial in 2006,he declared: “He is no impartial seeker after knowledge. He writes what amounts to propaganda for the neo-Nazi cause. This cannot even be defended as slanted history with a claim on our indulgence. It is incitement to hatred.”
He decried the movement at British universities in the mid-2000s to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians because it was making life impossible for Jewish students — “British universities are a meeting place of different nationalities and ethnic and faith groups. The boycott campaign, anti-Israeli motions, double standards and violent rhetoric poison this precious environment.”
He rebuked Sir Oliver Miles, a retired British diplomat, in 2010 for questioning the presence of two Jews on the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. “This suspicion of Jews is ingrained in certain quarters of Britain’s ruling class,” he asserted.
He was also a voice for tolerance and moderation, and a prominent supporter of the Peace Now movement who sought peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
During his teenage stint at an Israeli kibbutz, he informed an interviewer: “We were always told that the pile of rubble at the top of the hill was a Crusader castle. It was only much later that I discovered it was an Arab village that had been ruined in the Six Day War.”
The true significance of the security wall erected along the West Bank’s border by the Israelis during the early 2000s was “the total disintegration of trust between Jews and Palestinians”, he said. He condemned “the appalling effects of Israeli military tactics” during the invasion of Gaza in 2008.
Sometimes he found himself under attack. After his Koestler book was published in 1998, he became embroiled in a furious public row with Michael Scammell, a fellow academic and Koestler’s official biographer, and Julian Barnes, the novelist. Both men accused him of reneging on an undertaking not to use material from the Koestler archive at the University of Edinburgh for a biography. Cesarani robustly rejected the charge, insisting in colourful language that his book was about Koestler’s Jewishness and not a biography.
Cesarani had cancer of the spine diagnosed in July and underwent a major operation a month ago. He had just completed two more books — one being a biography of Disraeli and the other an account of the events leading up to the Holocaust, which will be published in January with the title Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949.
He devoted his life to researching the Holocaust and ensuring that the lessons of humanity’s darkest hour were not forgotten. “David helped ensure that everybody in society was challenged by the difficult lessons that the Holocaust presents. He worked closely with survivors to encourage them to share their testimonies, and worked hard to make sure that the stories of their testimonies were heard,” the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust said.
He spent the week before his operation checking the footnotes for his final book at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and was still writing just ten days before his death.
David Cesarani, OBE, historian, was born on November 13, 1956. He died of cancer on October 25, 2015, aged 58
Note From Jewish Lives: His biography of Disraeli will be published by the Jewish Lives series in Spring 2016.