Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Holocaust Remembrance Day

This year, at least in the Unites States, April 25th is Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah. The U.K. apparently observes it on January 27th every year, while in the U.S. the date shifts, based on the Jewish calendar.

So many works on the Holocaust exist, many of them powerful and challenging. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. However, some subjects and issues just grab you. Perhaps because I was obsessed with philosophy and ethics in particular, when I was a teenager and later in college, I felt compelled to study the Holocaust and try to understand it in some small way.

I’d welcome other suggestions to add to the pieces I mention below.

For books, Elie Wiesel’s Night is a small, potent work. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is half Auschwitz biography, half philosophy, and a book dear to my heart. Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is an extraordinary piece about the fallibility of memory and the dangers of making excuses for evil men — but I would not recommend it to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the basic history. His Survival in Auschwitz is probably better for that. Eichmann in Jerusalem is one of the greatest non-fiction books I’ve ever read, penned by the scathing, unfailingly insightful Hannah Arendt. Arendt was initially much misunderstood, because she argued the morally complex notion that Eichmann’s trial was essentially just a show but that he also deserved to die. Eichmann as portrayed by Arendt is not so much a monster as he is a petty bureaucrat, a man utterly lacking in imagination, certainly morally. I’m sympathetic to Arendt for being misunderstood to a point, but when she casually tosses off one of the greatest observations of the 20th Century, about “the banality of evil,” she explains it so fleetingly (even in a later-added appendix!), I have to think, really, that’s the thesis of the book and it demands more discussion. Arendt in her appendices lists several major scholarly works for further study. (The documentary The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal uses video footage of the Eichmann trial; apparently, it was one of the first events to be so recorded!).

Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After combines autobiography with poetry. Hilda Schiff has compiled an entire anthology of Holocaust Poetry.

The “For Beginners” series is wildly uneven, and unfortunately The Jewish Holocaust for Beginners is shockingly bad. However, the British series “Introducing” (they came first and are labeled “For Beginners” in Britain) has a title called Introducing the Holocaust which does quite a good job for a basic overview. Hitler’s Willing Executioners has its proponents, and some useful anecdotes, but most academics I know view its scholarship as shoddy. If you are of the “intentionalist” versus the “functionalist” school regarding the Holocaust, you’ll likely find it much more persuasive.

One of the most effective Holocaust narratives remains Art Spiegelman’s unconventional, but moving comic book Maus. It works well as an introduction.

For children, there’s a good book called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. And, of course, there’s The Diary of Anne Frank. The fairly recent television movie Anne Frank: The Whole Story depicts the end of her life as well as the more familiar time she spent in hiding. The textbook Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior is well-regarded. I've met Judith Magyar Isaacson, who wrote Seed of Sarah. She's a remarkable woman, and her book works well for high school freshman and up.

The Discovery Channel has an astounding hour-long piece they sometimes show called Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich. It chronicles the T-4 euthanasia programs and the Nazi propaganda efforts that predated “the Final Solution.” I’ve found it invaluable for understanding the German culture of the time. It may be hard to find, however. I did find one professor’s website that references it here. The film Judgment at Nuremberg, offers a glimpse at some similar issues. The most famous documentaries are, of course, the nine and a half hour Shoah and Alain Resnais' 32-minute Night and Fog . I still have not seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days.

For narrative films, while Schindler’s List has its critics, I find it powerful and an unparalleled introduction to the Holocaust for younger viewers unfamiliar with the subject. I attended a film conference the year after it was released, and was grateful to hear some critics fall silent as a German scholar spoke about the impact Schindler’s List was having in Germany and how the youth there felt it was an very important film. Life is Beautiful is of course a fantasy, and I completely respect those that do not like it for that and other reasons, but I still find it both effective and moving, in an unusual way. The Pianist is of course a remarkable work. Europa, Europa deals with the Holocaust somewhat more peripherally, but is a great film. Triumph of the Spirit is an odd but good film starring Willem Dafoe as a concentration camp inmate whose attempt to survive depends on his skill in the camp’s boxing matches. Sophie’s Choice is a beautifully shot if uneven film. Nonetheless, I find women in particular tend to respond to it more than some of the other films I've mentioned. The central action — and such things did happen — is absolutely brutal.

HBO’s film Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh (and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann) is a recreation of the infamous Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was discussed and implemented. The notes were supposed to be destroyed, but one set survived. The film’s only 96 minutes long, and mostly talk, but I find it utterly engrossing (I’ve watched it four times at least). I have yet to see the film of Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, about the sonderkommando, but I have read the play. The play In Quest of Conscience is uneven but possesses powerful moments. It’s an adaptation of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, wherein she interviews the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl. Sereny also penned a well-regarded biography of Albert Speer that I haven't read yet. Rutger Hauer made his mark with English-speaking audiences as Speer in the excellent television film Inside The Third Reich and was in another TV-made film about a escape from a concentration camp, Escape from Sobibor. The play Kindertransport focuses on the displaced children of the war; there are several non-fiction books about this program, as Jewish families shipped their children off to try and save them. Bertolt Brecht contributed Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, Round Heads and Pointed Heads and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, among many other plays. But as with Downfall, which I still need to see, the focus for Brecht is more Hitler and Nazism than the Holocaust specifically.

For music, the London label has a series of “Entartete Musik: Music Suppressed by the Third Reich.” In this series, I own Ullmann’s odd, atonal Der Kaiser von Atlantis, that Ullman wrote in a work camp before later being killed. There’s also a Holocaust Cantata of “Songs from the Camps” with a CD booklet of stories behind the songs. Still, the most astounding Holocaust-related music piece I know has to be Gorecki’s Third Symphony (the Polish Gorecki lives only a short way from Auschwitz; make sure to get this edition, with Upshaw).

Finally, visiting The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC may still be the single most comprehensive and educational experience available in the U.S. I'm overdue to visit the museum again. It's a fairly large facility, with a multimedia wing, resources for scholars, and an area for quiet reflection. Not surprisingly, their video materials draw from Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. Two halls house temporary exhibits, although I think one of exhibits is always aimed at young visitors. When I was there, we were all given timed entrances passes for the permanent exhibit and a laminated card with a photo and bio of some person alive at the time of the Holocaust (in at least some cases, the media center had more information on them). For the permanent exhibit, an elevator takes you to the top floor of the building, and you gradually work your way down. Near the end, there are theaters and a glass-encased "room of voices," but prior to that, the path is pretty set. At one point you must pass through a German railcar, empty but nonetheless slightly spooky. As I recall, most visitors spend two to four hours there; I spent five to six (but I was reading almost everything and it was crowded due to the Jewish high holy days). While I was struck by many pieces in the exhibit, I found that rather than feeling some grand sudden shock, I felt a gradual weight growing on me as I progressed, and ultimately emerged very grateful for the experience. It's really quite extraordinary.

I’m reminded of one of my teachers in Moscow, who with his tales of Soviet Russia showed us that serving as a witness can be not only an act of courage but a moral imperative. Every Holocaust survivor I’ve ever heard, from the most bitter to the most serene, has conveyed this same lesson.

Again, I’d welcome other suggestions for good Holocaust materials. But for me, the most important thing is to take a moment to remember, or bear witness.

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