It's difficult to explain what it's like to grow up in a place where 90% of the people are Jewish for five kilometers in any direction to people who have never lived in Israel. It's hard for most people to imagine the entirety of a sold-out movie audience booing a Mel Gibson trailer. It's impossible for most people to imagine an American place where there isn't a single Christmas light for miles at a stretch. But that is exactly what happens in Pikesville, Maryland and on January 3rd 2003 the entire population seemed to pack itself into the Charles Theater's biggest screen for the Baltimore premiere of The Pianist.
I was with some old friends of mine who had been my classmates since we were five, and we entered the 500 seat theater to find that we had to go to the far right side of the third row to find any seats. Fifteen seconds later the lights dimmed. Within that time we seemed to get waves not only from half the people we went to school with but from half our parents' friends as well. The movie began, and for 150 minutes a theater full of Jews sat in rapt silence. A full half of the movie is without dialogue, and yet the audience was so quiet as to make me feel that I was the only person in the room.
No movie can possibly convey what being in the middle of the Holocaust was like, but more than Sophie's Choice, or Europa Europa, or even Schindler's List, The Pianist gives us an approximation. It is a survivor's story, and a lot of critics said that it was a testament to Wladislaw Spillman's perseverence that he survived an event that killed so many millions. But no other Holocaust movie contains The Pianist's ultimate insight: that no amount of willpower could save a single victim slated for death. All that allowed for Spillman's survival was luck, and luck of the most pure variety.
Spillman had help from gentiles, but so did millions of other Jews, many of whose lives were not saved. Two of those who were were my grandparents, Morris and Eva Tucker (formerly Maishel and Chava Ticoczki), but two who didn't survive was their daughter, Tzipporah and my great aunt Rachel Slodke. The chances are infantessimally small, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that Roman Polanski was hidden in the same Polish convent as my father's sister, or that one of the many people he probably saw shot was my father's aunt Rachel.
So maybe I have too much sympathy for a bad man. Holocaust survivors can be bad people too and I've had occasion to meet a few. But bad people are deserving of sympathy too and even if Polanski might deserve to go to jail for the rest of his life, I don't feel ashamed for having sympathy for him.
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