Born in British Mandatory Palestine in 1939, Dalia Ofer cited formative experiences with survivors of the Holocaust during her childhood as the reason she became a historian. In her work, Ofer examined the Holocaust through several different historical lenses, including in its relation to the refugee experience, in connection to women’s and feminist histories, and as a consequential component of recent Israeli collective memories. Throughout her career, Ofer has published a wealth of scholarly articles and books that expand the boundaries of Holocaust histories. She has held positions at a number of major universities around the world. Ofer continues to publish her research in her current position as Professor Emeritus at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Early Life and Education
A noted historian of contemporary Jewry, with a research specialization in Holocaust studies, Dalia Ofer was born in Jerusalem on January 8, 1939. Her father, Arie Ze’ev Steinbrecher (b. Sanok, Galicia, 1906–d. Jerusalem, 2004), one of a family of housepainters, was the son of Yakov Steinbrecher, a member of the Zionist movement and head of the Yad Haruzim synagogue in Sanok. When Arie Ze’ev, one of six children, immigrated to Palestine in 1933, two of his brothers were already living there. He continued to work at his vocation until the age of seventy-five.
Her mother, Rachel Schumacher (b. Liban, Latvia, 1910), whose father owned a small store, was one of a family of twelve children. When she immigrated to Palestine in 1934 her brother Arie was already in Jerusalem, working as a driver for the local bus company, Ha-Mekasher. She met Arie Steinbrecher shortly after her arrival and the couple married in 1934. Dalia’s older sister, Carmel Eliav, was born in 1935.
Dalia graduated from the Hebrew University High School in 1956, served in the Nahal (a branch within the Israel Defense Forces that merges the typical military service with an additional focus on agricultural and social projects), and went to Kibbutz Ein Gev. After marrying Gur Ofer (b. 1934) in 1958, she moved to Kibbutz Ha-On. They have four daughters: Talal (b. 1961), Neta (b. 1966), Nurit (b. 1967), and Nivi (b. 1973). In 1959 they moved to Jerusalem, where Dalia received her B.A. in history and Bible from the Hebrew University in 1962 and, a year later, also a teaching certificate. From 1964 until 1982 she taught intermittently at the Hebrew University High School. In 1973 she completed her M.A. in history summa cum laude, with a thesis on “The Rescue and Aid Operation of the Yishuv Delegation in Istanbul, 1943–1944.” In 1981 she received her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University for her dissertation on “Illegal Immigration to Palestine 1939–1941.”
Early Career and Initial Research on the Holocaust
Ofer associates her preoccupation with Holocaust studies with the fact that her childhood was spent in the shadow of the Holocaust. She recalls not only the arrival of survivor relatives and their first attempts to speak Hebrew with her and her sister, but also her identification with the struggle for Jewish independence in Palestine. Derekh ba-yam, her first book, which perceived the illegal immigrants as the true heroes of the rescue efforts, appeared in Hebrew in 1992 and won that year’s Ben-Zvi award. The English translation, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939–1944, won the Jewish Book Award in the same year.
Ofer continued to deal with the same topic in her next book, co-authored with Hannah Wiener, which appeared in Hebrew in 1992 and in 1996 in English translation, entitled The Dead-End Journey: The Tragic Story of the Kladovo-Sabac Group. An extensive part of this book focuses on the life of the Group up to the German invasion of Yugoslavia and is based primarily on the words of the refugees themselves, as found in letters sent to friends and relatives outside the country. Some seven hundred such letters were collected, written by people of various ages, socio-economic standings, and political affiliations; taken together, this amazingly rich source enables the reader to picture the daily life of the group members, their personal and communal concern, and the sense of insecurity and isolation that characterized them.
Work on this book brought Ofer to the second stage of her research, which dealt with the methodology of Holocaust research and led her to write an article on the subject (“Everyday Life during the Holocaust: A Methodological Perspective,” 1992) in which she discussed how Jewish social life in the ghettos should be studied and investigated the Jewish intellectuals’ perception of the reality which they were experiencing. In this she concentrated primarily on the memoirs and diaries of Emanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944) and Chaim Aron Kaplan (1880–1942) in Warsaw and of Oskar Rosenfeld, a Prague journalist who was deported to Łódź. The application of the same type of analysis to Transnistria led to a number of further articles in which she focused on individual experience.
Ofer’s focus on social history in the Holocaust expanded to include the women’s experience, with which she dealt in a ground-breaking conference on “Gender in Contemporary Jewry,” held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1994. The following year she and American scholar Lenore L. Weitzman organized a workshop on “Women in the Holocaust,” the first serious attempt to bring together scholars from Israel, Europe, and the United States to discuss the subject in an interdisciplinary and comprehensive manner. The outcome of this conference, a book she co-edited together with Weitzman, Women in the Holocaust (1998), was a finalist for the Jewish Book Award in 1999.
The role of Jewish organizations and of the government of Israel in mass immigration is another central issue in her research, which was the first to be based on archival material. In this area, too, she not only published a series of articles but also edited a book, Vatikim ve-olim ba-aliyah ha-gedolah 1948–1951 (Veterans and New Immigrants during the Mass Immigration 1948–1951), which appeared in 1996.
Shift to Memory Studies in the Holocaust
The memory of the Holocaust in contemporary Israel is a major topic of Ofer’s work since 1995. She has followed the formulation and development of commemoration as expressed in state decisions, education, literature, cultural activities, and public discourse. Her earlier studies on the Yishuv and the Holocaust, coupled with her research on immigration and absorption during the 1950s, served as background for this more recent work.
In “Linguistic Conceptualization of the Holocaust in Palestine and Israel,” Ofer addresses the public discourse on the Holocaust in the Yishuv and in Israeli society from 1942 to 1953, when the Yad Vashem Law was passed in the Knesset. This article analyzes the discourse on the Holocaust and its conceptualization. It considers how and when words were transformed into concepts, and in what way the Holocaust was linked to the central events of the time, such as information on the mass murder of the Jews becoming available, meeting with survivors, the War of Independence, and the mass immigration to Israel. She concluded that the formulation of the discourse reflects a deepening understanding of the meaning of the destruction of European Jewry and the evolution of a conceptualization of the event. The meaning of concepts such as “Shoah,” “gevurah” (heroism), “tekumah” (recovery), “zon kodashim” (sacrificial sheep), “tevuhim” (slaughtered) “korbanoth” (victims), etc., emerged as a result of efforts to comprehend the fate of European Jewry and to give that fate a concrete political meaning. Understanding was influenced by the experience of the survivors in the DP camps in Europe and during the War of Independence. In a subsequent article, Ofer examined various expressions and concepts that reflected the tensions between survivors and others in relation to remembering and forgetting the Holocaust, and efforts to shape a collective memory (“History, Memory and Identity”).
In a broad survey on Israel published in The World Reacts to the Holocaust, she presented her thesis on the continued genuine “dialogue” with the Holocaust that she sees as existing among Israelis. This “dialogue” results from Israelis’ examination of the role of the Holocaust in their self-perception and identity and their attempt to resolve this issue. It is expressed in multiple voices that have ranged ever more broadly over the years, and is affected by political, social, and cultural developments in Israel. In her description and analysis, Ofer takes issue with the approach that views most state policy concerning commemoration and many of the activities in the field of education as manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust. She also takes issue with the claim that during the 1950s the Holocaust was invisible in the public sphere, confined to private or individual expression by survivors and a few other associates.
Ofer has also written on Holocaust memoirs in Israel. In "Memoir Literature and the Holocaust in Israel," she began to study the personal representation of Holocaust memory and its particularity in the genre of memoirs and autobiographies. The motivation for writing and the presentation of the past reflect not only the writer’s personality, but the nature of the events. Ofer plans to continue working on the question of how much a memoir reflects the current life of the writer and what of the past is truly represented in one’s memoir. Her great interest in the use of literature in the writing of history is also reflected in her article “The Mauritius Expedition and the Story of the Three Boats …”
Later Career and Current Activities
After becoming a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University in 1989 and an associate professor in 1995, Ofer was promoted to the rank of full professor in 2000 and since 1995 has been the holder of the Max and Rita Haber Chair of Holocaust and East European Studies. Since 2004 she has headed the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University. She serves on numerous boards, including that of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, which she headed from 1995 to 2002. She has participated in a variety of committees, most of them dealing with education in general and more specifically with the Holocaust, and has frequently been a visiting scholar or researcher at universities in the United States, including Brandeis, Harvard, Columbia, Yale and the University of Maryland.
Ofer was the 2006–2007 Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As a part of her fellowship, she researched and published “Living Daily: East European Ghettos during the Holocaust: the Individual and the Collective,” a comparative study of daily life in a number of East European ghettos, once again focusing on the social history of the time and place from the perspective of the individual men, women, youth, and children of different social classes and different ages. In this work, Ofer expounded upon the perspective of daily life of the individual Jew to better understand how the Jews managed to survive and make a living until their deportation to the death camps.
Dalia Ofer was the co-editor with Paula E. Hyman of Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (2006). Currently, she is Professor Emeritus at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Escaping the Holocaust, Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel 1939–1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
With Hannah Wiener. The Dead-End Journey: The Tragic Story of the Kladovo-Sabac Group. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996.
Edited with Lenore L. Weitzman. Women in the Holocaust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Edited with Samuel Almog, David Bankeir, Daniel Blatman. The Holocaust: The Particular and the Universal. Edited with Samuel Almog, Jerusalem: Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University, 2001.
Edited with Samuel Almog, David Bankeir, Daniel Blatman. The Holocaust: History and Memory. Jerusalem: Edited with Samuel Almog, David Bankeir, Daniel Blatman. 2001.
Edited with Francoise S. Ouzan and Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz. Holocaust Survivors: Resettlement, Memories, Identities. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
Edited with Sharon Kangiser Kohen and Eva Fogelman. Children in the Holocaust and its Aftermath: Historical and Psychological Studies of the Kestenberg Archive. New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2019.
With Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz. Her Story, My Story?: Writing about Women and the Holocaust. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang AG International Academic Publishers, 2020.
Essays and Articles
“The Rescue of European Jewry and Illegal Immigration to Palestine, 1940, Prospects and Reality: Berthold Storfer and the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet.” Modern Judaism 5/2 (May 1984): 159–181.
“The Israeli Government and Jewish Organizations: The Case of the Immigration of Jews from Shanghai.” Studies in Zionism 11, No 1 (1990): 67-80.
“Illegal Immigration during the Second World War: Its Suspension and Subsequent Resumption.” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 7 (1991): 220–246.
“Rescue and Redemption—A True Dilemma: Mass Immigration to Israel in the First Year of Statehood.” YIVO Annual 20 (1991): 187–212.
“Everyday Life During the Holocaust: A Methodological Perspective.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 9/1 (Spring 1995): 42–69.
“Holocaust Survivors as Immigrants: The Case of Israel and the Cyprus Detainees.” Modern Judaism 16, No 1 (1996): 1-23.
“Israel Reacts to the Holocaust.” In The World Reacts to the Holocaust, edited by David Wyman, 839–923. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
“Linguistic Conceptualization of the Holocaust in Palestine and Israel, 1942–1953.” Journal of Contemporary History, 31 (1996): 567–595.
“How and What to Remember: The Holocaust in Israel in the First Decade.” In Independence: Israel’s Fifty Years, edited by Anita Shapira (Hebrew), 171-193. Jerusalem: 1998.
“Cohesion and Rupture: The Jewish Family in East European Ghettos During the Holocaust,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry 14 (1998): 143–165.
“Holocaust Historiography: The Return of Antisemitism and Ethnic Stereotypes as Major Themes.” Patterns of Prejudice 33, No 4 (1999): 87-106.
“The Mauritius Expedition and the Story of the Three Boats, Milos, Pacific, Atlantic in the Representation of History and Literature.” In History and Literature, edited by Raya Cohen and Joseph Mali (Hebrew), 207-227. Jerusalem: 1999.
“Memoir Literature and the Holocaust in Israel.” Romania Studia, 2000: 94–112.
“The Strength of Rememberance: Commemorating the Holocaust During the First Decade of Israel.” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society Vol 6, No 2 (2001): 24-55.
“Her View through My Lens: Cecilia Slepak Studies Women in Warsaw.” Gender, Place and Memory in the Modern Jewish Experience, edited by Judy Tydor Baumel and Tova Cohen, 29–50. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003.
“A Dual Perspective: Yaakov Shabtai and the Historian’s Account of the Deportation to Mauritius.” In Re-presenting the Shoah for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ronit Lentin, 87–110. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2004.
“History, Memory and Identity: The Perception of the Holocaust in Israel.” In Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns, edited by Uzi Rabhon and Chaim Waxman, 394–419. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2004.
“Fifty Years of Israeli Discourse on the Holocaust: Characteristics and Dilemmas.” In Israeli Identity in Transition, edited by Anita Shapira, 137–162. Westport, Connecticut; London: Praeger, 2004.
“Tormented Memories: The Individual and the Collective.” Israel Studies, 9/3 (2004): 137–156.
“Holocaust Education: Between History and Memory.” Jewish Education 10 (2004): 87–108.
“Cohesion and Rupture: the Jewish Family in East European Ghettos During the Holocaust.” Holocaust: Critical Concepts in Historical Studies. Vol 4 (2004): 207-234.
“The March of Memory: Survivors and Relatives in the Footsteps of the Kladovo-Sabać Refugees.” Israel Studies 12, No 3 (2007) 134-160.
“Intellectuals in the Warsaw Ghetto: Guilt, Atonement and Beyond.” Journal of Jewish Identities Vol 1, No 2 (2008): 7-28.
“Swearing-in Ceremony: the Police in the Kovno Ghetto, November 1, 1942.” Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas Vol 7, No 2 (2009): 229-241.
“The Past That Does Not Pass: Israelis and Holocaust Memory.” Israel Studies Vol 14, No 1 (2009): 1-35.
“Victims, Fighters, Survivors: Quietism and Activism in Israeli Historical Consciousness.” Common Knowledge Vol 16, No 3 (2010)” 493-517.
“We Israelis Remember, But How? The Memory of the Holocaust and the Israeli Experience.” Israel Studies Vol 18, No 2 (Summer 2013): 70-85.
“Studying the Holocaust in Israel.” Israel Studies Vol 23, No 3 (2018): 96-105.