Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014

How to remember and teach the Holocaust have always been issues of debate, further complicated by the passage of time and the dwindling number of survivors. The Shoah Foundation started by Steven Spielberg has done an admirable job of capturing survivors' stories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum remains an extraordinary resource. For high school students and younger, the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum has proven useful. And in past posts in this category, we've discussed some of the many books, films and other works that grapple effectively with the Holocaust.

If it's offered again, I'd also recommend the Coursera MOOC The Holocaust. (If it's not, I hope the video lectures are put online for public access.) I went through it last year, and it was one of the best Coursera classes I've taken. For those already familiar with the subject matter, there are still new details and stories to discover. (For instance, a fascinating guest lecture focused on various Holocaust memorials around the world and the thinking behind them.) For those new to the subject, the course introduces basic key history, major themes and some notable stories.

A brief aside on MOOCs (massive open online courses). They're great for lifelong learners interested in studying something new or revisiting a beloved subject. They're also good for students with limited educational opportunities otherwise. They're not, however, a substitute for a solid overall education or good classroom instruction. (They're definitely not a good reason to fire teachers or pay them less.) MOOCs with written assignments use peer review. It's a necessity given the number of students normally involved, but it's the weakest element and (in my experience) ranges from adequate to maddening. (Critical thinking and advanced writing can't really be taught with a blunderbuss approach.)

Anyway, here's the course's blurb:

This online course grows out of the "on-campus" version that has been co-taught by Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature (Literature Department), and Peter Kenez, Professor Emeritus (History Department) for over 20 years, and has been aptly dubbed a “Legacy Course.”

The cross-listed and interdisciplinary nature of this course is its very force. Murray and Peter locate the theoretical stakes of the Holocaust at the nexus between history and literature. To this end, students will be asked to explore memoirs, historical documents, poetry, documentary footage, filmic representations, novels, and many other forms that attempt to convey the multiplicity and variety of human experience.

By the end of the course, students will have expanded their knowledge of Eastern and Western Jewish communities, the origins and development of antisemitism, the formation and operation of concentration camps, resistance movements, and the Holocaust as a problem for world-history. Additionally, students will have engaged with the problematics of representation, memory, "the memorial", and witnessing.

The assignments consisted of three short essays based on the lectures and readings. The essays were then peer reviewed.

Peter Kenez is a Holocaust survivor and Murray Baumgarten's family fled Europe before he was born. Kenez would lose his train of thought occasionally when lecturing, but he's a thoughtful man and knows the subject extremely well. Baumgarten's the more sardonic of the two and the more entertaining lecturer, but the two play off each other well, filling in important points for each other and pointing out areas of dispute between them (mostly semantic). They also have great warmth for one other. This is a class taught by two old friends who know their stuff. No doubt the real class is much better, and I doubt most of the online students went through all the materials (I still need to finish some myself). Still, given the limitations of MOOCs and the weightiness of the subject matter, I thought it was well done (helped immensely by a great teaching assistant who was very active on the discussion forums). This is material I think I know to some extent, care deeply about, and have a little experience teaching. This course and others like it could be another valuable option for teaching the Holocaust to new audiences.

Besides the lectures and some essays, these were the core materials:

Suggested Texts

Appelfeld, Aaron. Badenheim 1939
Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas
Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust
Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men
Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz
Kertész, Imre. Fateless
Schwarz-Bart, André. The Last of the Just
Tec, Nehama. Dry Tears
Wiesel, Elie. Night

Related Films

Image Before My Eyes Everything Is Illuminated
Shoah (excerpts)
Night & Fog
Europa, Europa
Partisans of Vilna
Divided We Fall
The Wannsee Conference
The Pianist
Shop On Main Street

Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, also known as If this is a man, is probably my favorite piece listed above (I wrote about in a previous year), along with Alain Resnais' short but powerful documentary, Night and Fog. Anyway, it's a good list of recommendations. (Feel free to pass on any other favorites in the comments.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Peter O'Toole

(I didn't get a chance to write a proper post earlier, so…)

Peter O'Toole was one of the all-time greats, a true master of the craft and art of acting. There were better fits for specific roles or projects, but you couldn't ask for anyone of higher caliber. He didn't start out as an actor, and his career was the result of risk-taking, fortuitous chance and immense talent. He didn't like to give interviews, but he was a wonderful raconteur and charming guest. He said acting had always been very hard for him, yet in his performances, he made it all seem completely natural. He garnered headlines for his off-screen carousing, but his work remained impeccable, and this was no contradiction; he was a bon vivant who didn't do anything by half-measures. He must have done meticulous preparation and thinking before a role, but when actually performing, he was fully present, electric, a high-wire act, a presence.

One of the many stories he told about Lawrence of Arabia centered on the scene where Lawrence tries out his new Arab garb for the first time. It’s a character moment without dialogue, and director David Lean asked O'Toole to improvise. It was O'Toole's first big movie role and he felt a bit stranded, then started thinking, what would a young man do in this situation? He would want to see how he looked. And how would he do that? O'Toole seized on the idea of Lawrence using his dagger as a mirror. O'Toole heard Lean say quietly off-camera, "Clever boy." O'Toole smiled as he told the tale, and he had many great ones.

My favorite O'Toole performances are Lawrence of Arabia (no surprise) and My Favorite Year (which needs a good, new, affordable disc version). I'm also fond of his work in Ratatouille and as King Henry II in both The Lion in Winter and Beckett (I don't like some directorial or studio-driven choices in Beckett, but O'Toole himself in superb). Troy is a so-so film, but O'Toole is marvelous in it, as he was in many not-so-great films. (Venus is the second film I reviewed here.) O'Toole didn't win a Best Actor Oscar despite his eight nominations mainly due to extraordinary bad luck, but honorary Oscar were devised for precisely his situation, and his is one of the best deserved.

Here's the dagger moment from Lawrence and the scene that follows:

Here's one of O'Toole's best talk show segments, telling tales of Lawrence:

Here's O'Toole presented with his honorary Oscar:

Relevant links:

New York Times obituary.

Los Angeles Times obituary.

The Guardian obituary.

The Washington Post obituary.

Irish Examiner: Peter O' Toole: ‘I will stir the smooth sands of monotony’

The New Yorker appreciation.

Peter O'Toole's 1993 interview on Fresh Air, covering his films, Shakespeare and much more.

Monday, January 20, 2014


I didn't get a chance to put up a proper post when Nelson Mandela died, so MLK Day seemed a good date to at least post a roundup. If nothing else, watch the video below.

The New York Times: " Mandela’s Death Leaves South Africa Without Its Moral Center"

The Guardian's obituary.

Bill Moyers: "Nelson Mandela on Overcoming Hatred"

Common Dreams: "12 Mandela Quotes That Won't Be In the Corporate Media Obituaries"

New York magazine: "17 Awesome and Inspiring Facts About Nelson Mandela"

Mother Jones: "Nelson Mandela's Epitaph, in His Own Words"

KCRW: "Nelson Mandela, South African Music and the Struggle Against Apartheid." (South African theater was also powerful.)

Placido Domingo on meeting Mandela.

Pieces with a more American (and British) focus:

Crooked Timber: "Mandela Sanitized"

Think Progress: "The Right Wing’s Campaign To Discredit And Undermine Mandela, In One Timeline"

Roy Edroso on the American rightblogger reaction, one, two and three.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Apartheid's Useful Idiots"

Jonathan Chait: Why Conservatives Got Segregation Wrong a Second Time in South Africa"

Joan Walsh: "Fight the right-washing of Nelson Mandela’s legacy"

Crooks and Liars: "Gingrich: Mandela Death 'Just Another Excuse to Smear Reagan'"

By any measure, Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man, but he was not universally lauded during the various stages of his life and career. Similarly, as several pieces today outline (and as we've explored before), Martin Luther King was denounced by conservatives during his lifetime and long after. It was only when King was widely considered a national hero that conservatives changed their tune and tried to appropriate him for themselves. (I'm speaking mostly of professional conservative outlets, not average Americans.) He can also be overly sentimentalized and defanged as a social critic. The same has happened somewhat with Mandela, although a notable number of conservatives still express their outright hatred (see Roy's posts) with a small but admirable minority admitting they were wrong about Mandela. Like King, Mandela is too towering a figure to be dragged down by such attempts, but it's wise to remember that neither man was a saint, and their greatness emerges in large part because of that, not despite it.