Teaching about the Holocaust is important and a mandatory topic in schools, but sharing the stories from books and films with my students wears on me like a wet, woolen overcoat, five sizes too big. I think everyone is aware of the chestnuts, The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night.
I recommend four books that portray this Jewish chapter in history in an intriguing way: Pulitzer winning comic book, Maus I & 2 by Art Spiegelman, Second Hand Smoke, by Thane Rosenbaum, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2005). The film adaptation written and directed by Liev Schreiber is marvelous. It’s a dark comedy about a man on a quest in search of his roots and stars Elijah Wood. Incidently, Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, won top prizes for his first novel, Everything is Illuminated and his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, locked him in as a new voice in literature although some critics dislike his writing style.
There have been hundreds of films about the Holocaust since the end of WWII. A genre all unto itself, I don’t claim to have seen more than fifty, but still, that’s more than many people have seen. How do I feel about that? I mean, “Oh, that’s a great Holocaust film” seems a twisted thing to say and get enthusiastic about.
While all of them concern the central theme of the triumph of the human spirit or the power of friendship or the loss of faith, to rate them also seems distasteful. How do Jews feel about all the Holocaust films? Also, how about today’s Germans? How embarrassing to have Nazis be the number one association of your culture surpassing all the good in German culture like Mozart and Hegel? No wonder there are so few German comedies today.
Stuart Klawans is Jewish and a film critic. His article complained about the
incessant amount of Holocaust films and a wish to stop making them. The problem as he sees it is that people are desensitized to the violence and because it is a film, the viewer steps into the story much like a horror film and then steps out when the film is over and brushes aside the history of the event. I understand his complaint and understand all humans become hardened to a degree and even insensitive to violence.
However, I am in the polar category. I’ve seen so many of them, I brace myself because I know I will become depressed. I know I will cry. Seems like good old-fashioned masochism to me. And therein lies my problem. If you see enough of Holocaust films, the visceral pain of another’s tragedy becomes yours like a shadow or ghost following you. At some inner level, because my heritage is German, watching and reading about the Holocaust seems a flagellation of sorts, an apology to Jews for their suffering.
Ursula Hegi writes about Nazi Germany from the perspective of common citizens. She’s an awesome writer and I highly recommend reading about Trudi, a most unusual and powerful female character in literature.
My relatives were firmly established in the U.S. for many decades before World War II. I was born decades after the Holocaust, and yet, I feel responsible to teach “Never Again”. Of course, my quasi-pain is nothing compared to those that suffered and their children and grandchildren who had to grapple with the experience.
As Stuart Klawans comments that Hollywood’s versions of the Holocaust like Defiance, has been “filtered through calculated performances, invented speeches, dramatic conventions, and cinematographic effects.”
I will still analyze the newest release of a Holocaust film or book I suppose out of habit. It’s not the brutality and gruesome details that attract me. I look for a unique delivery and the compassion.
What’s my favorite Holocaust film? Rosenstrasse. It’s about love and devotion of German women whose Jewish husbands were prisoners in a warehouse and how one of them, the daughter of a German officer managed to free her husband. The tears come from love and satisfaction, not horror. Rent that one–It’s beautiful.