But when he was 13, a Jesuit priest told him what had happened to the Jews of Europe — of Auschwitz, the trains, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens, the millions dead.
"That changed my whole life," said Friedlander, who understood for the first time the fate of his mother and father after they left him in the care of the nuns. "In a way, my Jewish identity was restored."
Today, the holder of UCLA's 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies is considered one of the world's premier historians in the field and the author of the definitive book on Jews during the rise of the Third Reich.
Friedlander will address recent debates in Holocaust studies in a free public lecture on April 29 in the Grand Horizon Ballroom of UCLA's Covel Commons. The 8:15 p.m. event will commemorate the founding of the endowed chair 20 years ago by Holocaust survivors.
At that time — in 1981 — just one debate dominated the field.
"The chair was established as a reaction to negation," Friedlander said. "Some people were arguing that the Holocaust had never happened."
But thanks partly to the proliferation of positions such as Friedlander's, and partly to the abundance of newly public World War II records in the former Soviet Union and former Eastern bloc countries, such voices have been drowned out by the sheer surge in Holocaust research.
"To keep abreast of all the discoveries, you'd have to read four or five books a day," he said. "It's just not possible."
Still, if anybody can do it, it's Friedlander. By the time he was hired for the position, he had already completed his acclaimed 1979 personal memoir When Memory Comes. Since coming to UCLA, he has founded the influential scholarly journal History and Memory and has written History, Memory and the Extermination of the Jews (1993), Reflections of Nazism (1984) and Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (1997). The latter is considered the definitive history of the period and was instrumental in his receiving a 1999 MacArthur Foundation Award, one of the nation's most prestigious creative and intellectual awards. He is using the prize's $375,000 purse to complete the second volume in the series, The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945.
In addition to these strictly scholarly pursuits, Friedlander chairs a commission that is looking into the wartime history of the Bertelsman Publishing House, the international media giant with alleged links to the Third Reich. He also sits on a commission investigating the wartime activities of another recent headline grabber: Switzerland.
Conscious of the dangers of being too personally involved, Friedlander take pains to separate himself emotionally from his work. Still, he is driven by "a desire to preserve and to set the record straight."
"For me, it was one way of coming to terms with my past," he said. "It was my way of handling it."