MILAN – An Israeli-French-American Holocaust survivor and historian and a U.S. scientist specializing in gut bacteria were among the recipients this year’s Balzan Prizes, recognizing scholarly and scientific achievements, announced on Monday.
Saul Friedlander, who has taught at both the University of California, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv University, was awarded the prize for Holocaust and Genocide Studies for his work broadening the perspective on the history of the Holocaust.
Friedlander, 88, was born in Prague in 1932 in a non-religious Jewish family, which fled to France after the German occupation in March 1939. His parents hid him in a Catholic boarding school near Vichy, where they were later captured and sent to Auschwitz.
With his parents’ agreement, Friedlander was baptized as a Catholic and later, out of his own conviction, considered becoming a priest. After he learned in 1946 that his parents had been killed at Auschwitz, Friedlander reclaimed his Jewish identity. He later said, “for the first time, I felt Jewish.”
Friedlander received the Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction in 2008 for “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945,” the second volume in his history of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999, after the publication of the first volume covering the period from 1933-39 and has also been awarded the Dan David Prize recognizing outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary research.
Friedlander was recognized for examining the persecution of all Jews in Europe, going beyond country-focused studies that had preceded him, and for making personal documents accepted in scholarly practice.
“His authority is special in the sense that he is both a scholar and a victim of the Holocaust. He says that you can study your own experiences in a critical way,’’ said Marjan Schwegman, a Dutch historian who announced the prize. “The way he integrates the voices of victims, perpetrators and bystanders in this narrative has changed the way historians write about the history of the Holocaust.”
The Balzan Foundation awards two prizes in the sciences and two in the humanities each year, rotating specialties to highlight new or emerging areas of research and sustain fields that might be overlooked elsewhere. Recipients receive 750,000 Swiss francs ($815,000), half of which must be used for research, preferably by young scholars or scientists.
Jeffrey Gordon, a biologist and director of the Center for Genome Science at the Washington University in Saint Louis, was awarded for founding the field of human microbiome research and revolutionizing its role on human health and disease.
Prior to Gordon’s pioneering work in the 1990s, just 20 papers were published every decade on the microbiome, or the estimated 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of microbiota living in each adult, including on the skin, in the nose and gut, according to Jules Hoffman, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine who announced the award.
That expanded to 4,000 papers a decade after 2000 and is now up to 80,000 every 10 years. “It has become a very hot topic in science,” Hoffman said.
Gordon has expanded his research in the last decade to malnutrition, a primary reason for disease in children under 5, including the possibility of combating the deleterious impact of malnutrition through fecal microbiome transplants, Hoffman said.
Italian physicist Alessandra Buonanno and French physicist Thibault Damour were recognized for work that was instrumental in the detection of gravitational waves, which has helped to promote a type of astronomy that uses gravitational waves as “new, powerful messengers of the universe,'' the Balzan prize committee said.
Buonanno, 52, is director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany, and holds a research professorship at the University of Maryland, College Park and honorary professorships at the Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Potsdam. Damour, 70, has been a professor of theoretical physics at the Institut des Haute Etudes Scientifique in Bures-sur-Yvette France since 1989.
The Balzan Committee has not yet reached consensus on the prize for Art and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, but officials said they hope to do so before the prizes are presented in Rome on Nov. 18 by Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
Next year’s prizes will be awarded in moral philosophy, ethnomusicology, biomaterials for nanomedicine and tissue engineering and glaciation and ice-sheet dynamics.