Peter Novick, U. of C. scholar who analyzed public interest in the Holocaust

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This is a Black & White copy obit photo of Peter Novick, Wednesday, March 21, 2012 |

Peter Novick, a University of Chicago history professor, ignited controversy by asserting the legacy of the Holocaust had become too much a part of American Jewish identity in his 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life.

“What Peter did was say ‘How come no one was interested in this until the ’60s and ’70s?’ ” said Bruce Cumings, chair of the History Department at University of Chicago.

Mr. Novick, described by friends as a non-observant Jew, died of lung cancer Feb. 17 at his Chicago home. He was 77.

“He really hangs his argument around the wars in 1967 and 1973 where it was Israel against neighboring Arab states and there was a feeling of victimization and the sense of ‘Never Again’ developed with the existential threat of being wiped off the face of the earth,” said Cumings.

The book shows a detailed chronology of interest in the Holocaust, says Jan Goldstein, a colleague at the University of Chicago.

“We kind of assume it remained in the public eye consistently since 1945, but Peter showed a complete waning since 1945 and then an upswing since the ’60s and ’70s,” said Goldstein.

Mr. Novick also asserted the Holocaust was being used for political ends.

“It was a very controversial book, and it incensed a lot of the historians of Jewish background and it became commonplace to accuse Peter of being a self-hating Jew, but nothing could have been further from the truth because he had a strong and positive cultural identity as a Jew,” said Goldstein.

Former colleagues describe Mr. Novick as a 24-hour intellectual.

“He was a very intense person – very funny and deeply human – but you really had to be on your toes because he was always questioning things,” said Cumings.

Mr. Novick, a chain smoker, often held lively discussions at his desk. “His office was a cloud of smoke,” said Cumings.

He also authored That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession – which tackled the idea of historians remaining objective observers of the past. “He concluded that it’s ultimately impossible,” said Cumings.

Mr. Novick, who was born in Jersey City, started his career at University of Chicago in 1966 and retired in 1999.

He is survived by his wife, Joan, and son, Michael.

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