Obituary: Michael Marrus, 81, a globally renowned scholar of the Holocaust—primarily based at the University of Toronto

Michael Marrus speaking at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2012. (Credit: @yadvashem/Twitter)

Michael Marrus, the dean of Holocaust scholars in Canada and part of an international effort to pry open the Vatican’s war-era archives, died in Toronto on Dec. 23. He was 81 and had been in ill health.

Recalled for the clarity of his speaking style, formidable scholarship, sense of humour, and sartorial splendor (signature bowties and hats), he was a professor of modern European history and taught at the University of Toronto for 49 years. He was also a research fellow and taught at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University; the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem; at the University of California at Los Angeles; and at the University of Cape Town. He was the inaugural holder of the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair of Holocaust Studies at UofT.

“For many, his courses were a seminal part of their university experience,” his death notice stated. “Through his teachings, research, and numerous award-winning books and publications, Michael advanced scholarship on the Holocaust, refugees, assimilation, Zionism, and antisemitism.”

He served as a governor of UofT for 19 years and as dean of graduate studies for seven years.

Marrus authored several well-received books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust in History, Lessons of the Holocaust, and co-wrote, with famed U.S. historian Robert O. Paxton, a seminal book on war-era France, Vichy France and the Jews.

When the volume was first published in France in 1981, the reaction was “explosive,” noted Stanford University Press. “Before the appearance of this groundbreaking book, the question of the Vichy regime’s cooperation with the Third Reich had been suppressed.”

Marrus and Paxton were the first to access closed archives that revealed the extent of Vichy France’s complicity in the Nazi effort to eliminate the Jews.

Since the book’s original publication, additional archives have been opened and France’s role in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps “is now openly acknowledged,” according to the publisher. A second edition of the book was printed in 2019.

Marrus’s overall output, “with its broad perspectives, scrupulous documentation, and moral engagement, stands among the foundation stones of modern Jewish historiography,” Paxton, a professor emeritus of social science at Columbia University, wrote in an email to The CJN.

Marrus was “a titan, an acclaimed historian of France, the Holocaust and European Jewish history,” fellow Canadian historian Frank Bialystok told The CJN. “His writing was incisive, (he was) a brilliant professor and a mentor to generations of students, an erudite speaker, a great Canadian whose imprint is etched into the fabric of our nation.”

A leading voice on the subject, Marrus was named to the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission to examine the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust, amid a longstanding debate that the war-era pope, Pius XII, had turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities.

In 1999, the Vatican finally invited a team of six Jewish scholars, Marrus among them, and six Catholic experts to examine 11 volumes of material relating to the Holocaust.

As the Catholic Register noted at the time, the scholars surrendered to the Vatican’s stonewalling. “By mutual agreement, the academics abandoned the project because of the limitations of only partial access to the archives.”

Indeed, the commission disbanded after just two years. As Marrus told The Canadian Jewish News in 2020, it “ran up against a brick wall” after the Vatican released that first batch of material but remained steadfastly quiet on further queries, contained in 47 specific questions the commission posed about the Holy See’s response to the Holocaust.

It was a frustrating experience, Marrus conceded.

“We were unable to persuade the Vatican that it was in its interest, and the interests of historical truth, to release these documents,” he said. He also urged the Vatican to delay making Pius a saint until his reputation was cleared.

In March 2020, the Vatican finally announced that it would unseal its archives on the wartime pope, but by then, Marrus did not feel up to diving into the thousands of letters, cables and speeches covering the papacy of Pius XII from 1939 to 1958, a task that would take years.

“I’m ready to pass the torch to another generation,” he told The CJN.

The responsibility was passed to Western University historian Robert Ventresca, who completed his PhD under Marrus. Ventresca did a brief research trip to the Vatican in 2019 but has had to rely on local researchers since the COVID pandemic.

“He taught me and countless others the importance of integrity, clarity, and moral purpose in scholarship, inspired by a relentless, unapologetic pursuit of historical truths,” Ventresca wrote in an email to The CJN. Marrus “insisted that we recognize the uniqueness of the Holocaust in history but cautioned us from thinking of it as an event outside of history, somehow evading true understanding.

“Above all, Marrus taught us by example—showing up day in and day out to do the work of the historian’s craft with integrity and a sense of purpose.”

As for Marrus’s work on the Vatican, “he wasn’t afraid of moral judgments of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust,” Ventresca said. “But (he) wanted our moral evaluations to be grounded firmly on historical understanding, even with all its limitations. (He) never rested on safe assumptions, challenging his readers to think critically, and self-critically, about the complex and contradictory lessons of the past.”

The Vatican itself may have been listening: A big breakthrough occurred last June, when Pope Francis authorized the online publication of 170 volumes from the Pius XII archives. But scholars cautioned against finding a smoking gun that would definitively prove the pope’s guilt or innocence.

Michael Robert Marrus was born in Toronto on Feb. 3, 1941. His father, Elliott, was a lawyer, while his mother, Lillian (née Brenzel) was head designer at her father’s dress manufacturing company. Eager to enlist in the war effort, Elliott Marrus signed up for officer’s training at Camp Borden near Barrie, Ont. and then served in the Judge Advocate General’s office in London, England for the duration of the war.

Young Michael initially intended to follow in his father’s footsteps but a boring summer job at his father’s law firm disabused him of that notion. Instead, he dove into the academic life, earning a BA from UofT and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. His PhD thesis was on French Jewish assimilation during the Dreyfus Affair in the mid-1890s.

He wasn’t quite done with the credentials or love of the legal world:  At age 64, he earned an MA in law at UofT.

At his first meeting with historian Doris Bergen, the second and current holder of the Wolfe chair in Holocaust Studies at UofT, Marrus had some advice.

“He said the most crucial thing I needed to know was, in his words, ‘you are not a piece of furniture.’ I wasn’t sure what he was referring to until he explained: ‘You hold the chair, but you are not the chair; you are the Wolfe Professor,’” Bergen eulogized at Marrus’s funeral on Dec. 27.

Bergen recalled that at an event once, a graduate student asked Marrus what he considered the most pressing issues in Holocaust studies that scholars should address in the future. He answered, “That’s for you to decide.”

Marrus believed that “each generation approaches the Holocaust through its own eyes, with its own issues and priorities, and this is how creativity happens,” Bergen said.

Marrus himself was reluctant to offer a hard and fast answer to what the lessons of the Holocaust are.

“The deeper I get into this, the more problematic I see the issue of ‘lessons,’” he said in an interview in 2016 following the publication of Lessons of the Holocaust. “I don’t mean by this that one learns nothing from the Holocaust—to the contrary, I’ve spent my whole career at it—but I think it’s impossible to distill a universally acknowledged set of lessons that people everywhere should accept, although many have tried.”

As for the overall subject, “I’ve never been able to leave it,” he added.

Some of his work is stored in the archives of Yad Vashem in Israel.

Amid a slew of awards, Marrus received the Order of Canada in 2008, in part, for advancing “scholarship on the history, causes and consequences of the Holocaust.”

He also wrote books that were not about the Holocaust, including a biography of liquor magnate Samuel Bronfman, and The Unwanted: European Refugees from the First World War Through the Cold War, published in 1987 “at a time when very few historians were talking about these issues. It remains a key work in the area,” Bergen stated.

An uncharacteristically ignoble fate awaited him in September 2017, when Marrus uttered a remark at a luncheon at UofT’s Massey College that was intended as light-hearted but which offended a Black student. Marrus apologized and, after a public outcry, resigned as a Senior Fellow of the college. He conceded that the comment was “a poor effort at jocular humour” and that he haboured “no ill-intent whatsoever.”

The Globe and Mail noted in an editorial that Marrus had been treated unfairly, “which is as unacceptable as the remark he made.”

In all, it was an episode that seemed more a sign of the times than a reflection of Marrus’s accomplishments and outsized personality.

“He appreciated originality above labels, sartorial style, an interesting home, a buzzy restaurant, a comfortable chair, international travels, a good book, a strong martini, an amusing conversation, and above all, he cherished his love and anchor, (his wife) Randi,” noted his family.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Randi (Greenstein); children Jeremy and Adam Marrus and Naomi Kriss; three grandsons; and sisters Lesley Barsky and Judy Slan.