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For Alon Confino

Editor's note: Alon Confino, director of the IHGMS at UMass, died on June 27, after a long illness. Professor Buerkle offered the following remarks at his funeral on July 2.

My name is Darcy Buerkle, I am a faculty member in the History department at Smith College and it is a great honor to be asked to say a few words about the work of my beloved colleague and dear friend.

Alon’s insights and contributions to the historical profession were singular, incisive, and undeniable: for anyone working on memory generally or in the field of German Jewish history in particular, he was and will remain a voice not only of erudition; his was also a voice of learned and emotional courage. An enormously accomplished scholar with many publications to his name, there was nothing self-satisfied about Alon’s work, ever: not even in his most mature writing or in his leadership as director at the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies (IHGMS), where he supported year-long seminars with local scholars, hosted dozens of book talks, lectures and webinars that sustained engagement even through dark days of the pandemic. Working collaboratively with his beloved friend Amos Goldberg at the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, the Institute ran a series presenting new books on the Holocaust, genocide, and antisemitism. As director, Alon facilitated a capacious and ongoing conversation about the Holocaust and about global histories of mass violence. When I wrote to the members of the various groups that Alon and I participated in together to ask what they would like me to convey in my remarks, what I received in response were copious testimonies of grief and gratitude; remembering him as creating space for them to share their thinking, however divergent or tangential to his own.

Alon had a daring mind that pressed well past its own comforts, risking free fall again and again and finding a way to write it down. A composer of beautiful prose, he walked his reader through even the most difficult and sometimes contradictory evidence, and through the turns his own mind took. He unfailingly laid out with care the stakes involved. Alon pushed the field in directions it had actively and also implicitly resisted, by writing detailed examinations of the role of memory, laying bare the evasions of historical writing, elaborating with nothing less than unvarnished candor and insight—whether he was reconstructing the details of the imagination that animated Nazism’s zealous hatred, or tracing Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century. Alon’s attunement to the intricacies of the affective world as historical matter sharpened over the years, but his interest was always, as he put it himself in one of his last publications, in tracing “the unspoken and the imaginary rather than. . .[in] the explicit and deliberate.” This subtlety in his work persists, alongside the fact that he was also an enrapturing storyteller, both on the page and in person.

These are some the reasons that Alon became a famous historian, the reasons that I knew Alon’s work long before I knew him: long before he came to Amherst and ran the first year-long faculty seminar in which we read, deliberated, and argued together about the global history of 1948.

As I came to know him as a person, Alon mattered to me not only because of his intrepid and reliable brilliance, but because I learned that he lived the way that he wrote. His moral voice was clarion and meticulous. As his colleague, I saw that his defiance of well-worn claims and foundational myths was also a resolute refusal of the reactionary. Turning away from conversation was anathema to him; the only times I saw him truly vexed was because others had done so. Alon demonstrated in his own work and in his leadership what it meant to commit to understanding the relationship between persecuted and persecutors; he did not shy away from the proximities produced by this relationship, or the sometimes lacerating specificity of the challenges that relationship presented for him. Even as he took positions that could be and often were embattled, on principle and in practice, he excluded no one: he was, as our colleague and fellow 1948 seminar participant Adi Gordon put it of him, “always inclusive,” always generous, always bringing levity and stamina to our discussions—with the particularity of his energy, some wine, and his excellent red shoes.

As some of you know, Alon had recently started to publish histories in which he centered his own family of origin; over several years, we were in a memoir writing group made up of a circle of faculty from all over the world in which he shared drafts of this work. Members of that group knew Alon in a register many others did not; one participant, Karen Remmler, wrote that “Alon’s work opened passageways between the historical and personal with an integrity rare in today’s turmoil.”

What will stay with me from his memoir writing is that he wanted, as he told us, to know the “whole truth”: a brazen claim for a historian. Yet one he nonetheless pursued by telling multiple angles of that whole truth. He honored his sources, and in this case, his own ancestors, in their full complexity. This meant examining the most arcane and even painful evidence. And it also meant vividly describing the wild rosemary he remembered as the fragrance of his Jerusalem childhood; a fragrance that was, as he wrote in a piece for our writing group, “his personal madeleine.”

In one of the last sessions in which he was able to participate, the writing Alon shared was about his grandfather, but by the end of the conversation it was clear that what he wanted talk about next and most were the women in the family.

I think of this now when I look through the last emails I received from him: “I have so many books I still want to write,” he told me.

We have lost not only a great historian, but a deeply human presence who was also a visionary, whose absence hurts those who knew and loved him beyond anything any of us can say today—and whose absence will also be felt by many who did not know him at all.

May his memory be a blessing.

DARCY BUERKLE is a faculty member in the Department of History at Smith College, and a member of the Advisory Board at IHGMS.

ALON CONFINO was Director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professor of history and Judaic and Near Eastern studies and the author of many works, including A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Yale UP, 2014).


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