The Trials of Tony Judt

Historians in the News

On a Monday evening in mid-October, the historian Tony Judt appeared onstage at the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, in Greenwich Village. "I hope you don't mind if I begin by shooting the elephant in the house," he said, speaking from an electric wheelchair, wrapped in a black blanket, with a Bi-Pap breathing device attached to his nose. "As you can see," he continued, his voice gravelly and labored, "I'm paralyzed from the neck down, and also use this rather ridiculous-looking tube on my face to breathe." A little more than a year ago, Judt was diagnosed with a progressive variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal condition that gradually destroys a person's ability to move, breathe, swallow, and talk.

In 2005, just four years earlier, the professor of European history at New York University had reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press), his highly acclaimed account of Europe's rebirth after World War II. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was selected by The New York Times as one of the top 10 books of the year. Beyond academe, Judt had achieved renown as a political essayist and a formidable combatant in the quarrels between the left and right and within the left. He is perhaps best known as a harsh critic of Israel and the most prominent advocate of the creation of a single, binational state—the so-called one-state solution to the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, a position that has earned him both plaudits and scorn.

Judt's appearance in October was part of an annual lecture sponsored by the Remarque Institute, a cross-disciplinary center he created in 1995 to foster greater understanding between America and Europe. Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at New York University and a friend of Judt's, says the lecture was a "legacy speech," an opportunity for Judt to reflect on a "lifetime spent wrestling with what it means to be on the left."

It would be Judt's first time speaking to the general public from a wheelchair. As he dryly puts it later, "I'm aware that I look like a complete basket case." When he rolled out onstage, a tense hush fell upon the more than 700 people in the theater. Judt had decided that the logistics of working from a prepared text would be too difficult to manage. Instead he would speak completely from memory. Would his concentration wander? Would he be able to ignore his unquenchable thirst, unscratchable itches, unrelievable muscle aches? ...

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