Tony Judt, author of 'Postwar,' dies at 62

NEW YORK — Tony Judt, a highly praised and controversial historian who wrote with sharp persistence about the changing world at large and the tragic world within — the fatal disease that paralyzed him — died Friday (Aug. 6, 2010) at his home in New York City.

Mr. Judt, a native of London who in recent years was a professor of European studies at New York University, was 62. His death, caused by complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease, was confirmed by a university spokesman.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 for his nearly 900-page history of modern Europe, Postwar, he was diagnosed two years later with ALS, which attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and destroys the ability to move and speak.

Although confined like "a modern-day mummy," his thinking was unimpaired, as Mr. Judt demonstrated in 2010 through a series of personal essays for the New York Review of Books.

"In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration," he wrote in an essay titled Night.

Mr. Judt's illness and his determination to tell the tale brought sympathy and admiration for a historian not known for sparing feelings. He took on communists, free marketers, supporters of the Iraq war and, most contentiously, Israel.

In 2009, Mr. Judt received an honorary George Orwell Prize for "intelligence, insight and conspicuous courage." This year, he completed Ill Fares the Land, a passionate call for a return to liberal governance and for a close look at the "ways in which our grandparents' generation handled comparable challenges and threats."

A Jew descended from Lithuanian rabbis, Mr. Judt became devoted to the Jewish homeland as a teenager but eventually soured on the country.

In a 1983 article for the New York Review of Books, he labeled Israel a "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state." Mr. Judt called for Jews and the Palestinians to be joined under a single government.

Much of his work was about memory itself, how easily we misunderstand and discard the past. In a 2008 essay that served as the introduction to Reappraisals, published the same year, he worried that the West had advanced too quickly from the previous century's horrors, justifying the Iraq war and casually accepting the torture of prisoners.

"Far from escaping the 20th century, we need, I think, to go back and look a bit more carefully. We need to learn again — or perhaps for the first time — how war brutalizes and degrades winners and losers alike," he wrote.

Tony Judt, author of 'Postwar,' dies at 62 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 10:33pm]

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