It’s so easy to do. In some ways, it’s unavoidable. It feels oppresive enough to any Jew growing up in relative privilege during he Holocaust’s wake. But anyone who grows up in a family descended from survivors will understand how hard it is to treat the subject with the dignity it commands. Before you realize it, social gatherings for the second or third generation descendants can devolve into a kind of oneupmanship game, in which everybody sees who can make the most tasteless soap or lampshade joke. One friend of my parents, the son of Holocaust survivors, once said that he hoped to one day attend a Holocaust themed Bar-Mitzvah party. People could be assigned seats at the Treblinka or Bergen-Belsen tables, and the place-cards would be in the shape of Yellow Stars. Instead of the kids playing Coke and Pepsi they can play ‘work’ or ‘gas’, and instead of bringing out a cake you bring out the oven. I have no idea if anybody else would be as delighted by the tastelessness of this idea as we were, but my parents quote it to this day and still think it’s really, really funny. And I agree with them.
(Springtime for Hitler...imagine viewing this in 1967)
There is only one way to properly deal with something so horrific - laugh at it. I will always maintain that the greatest and most dignifying of all Holocaust fiction is The Producers. How else can you react to something so horrific? Life can be terrible and tragic. But life must go on, and we have to find a way to live with horror. The only proper response is to laugh at it. The Nazis tried to kill us all, but the Jews are still here and Nazis have nearly vanished from the face of the planet. So y’know what? F*&^ Nazis!
There is no book or movie or work of art that can do justice to the experience of the Holocaust for the simple reason that anyone who experienced its full horrors has been dead for nearly seventy years. If we want a tragic view of the Holocaust, the best we can do is to look at it sideways, perhaps told from the point of view of those who survived it. But those who survived necessarily did not experience the worst of it. And there weren’t that many survivors to begin with. What remains unique about the Holocaust was its almost complete success. Never in modern history had a people 7 million strong spread throughout a continent had six out of every seven murdered within five years. One of the longest thriving cultures in all of Europe disappeared overnight. Yes, Hitler targeted homosexuals, gypsies, and the disabled, but none with the ferociousness he reserved for Jews. Yes, the Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20’s, the Hutus 800,000 Tutsis in 1994, Stalin as many as 10 million people in the Ukraine ‘Black Famine’ of the early 30’s. But even after those geno/democides, there were still 3 million Armenians left, 2.5 million Tutsis, more than 20 million Ukranians. Never in the history of the world has there been anything approaching so successful a genocide as the one Hitler waged upon European Jewry, nor has there ever been a genocide so well documented. Hitler achieved neither his goals of annihilating the Jewish people nor a thousand year Reich, but he did end a thousand year history of Europe being the main wellspring for Jewish life.
It’s weird to begin to ponder how one can trivialize the Holocaust. Particularly I’m by no means an exhaustive reader of Holocaust Fiction - would any person aspiring to sanity be one? The Holocaust writers I’ve never even read must include Victor Frankl, Victor Klemperer, Imre Kertesz, Jerzy Kozinsky, Jean Amery, Arnost Lustig (even though he was a professor at my University), and not even Primo Levi (boo! hiss!). I haven’t read the fictional recreations by William Styron or Martin Amis or Jonathan Safron Foer. But most embarrassing of all, I’ve never even read the Diary of Anne Frank........I’m going to climb into my bed and cry now.
It’s doubly a shame, because there are a lot of works about the Holocaust that really don’t get it. In the hands of some artists and entertainers, the Holocaust becomes an experience not about itself, but about something else. Sometimes something lofty, sometimes something trivial. The movies, with the inevitable compromises and simplifications that come from large-scale productions, have a particularly bad record of trivializing the Holocaust.
(It’s funny but.....)
Until recently, the most trivial of all could only be Life is Beautiful - that cinematic insult to intelligence that swept the world in 1997. In Roberto Benigni’s world, the death camps become a place to learn life lessons, in which a clownish Italian manchild can spare his son their harsh realities by pretending it’s all a game. Apparently, all those 1.5 million kids who perished could have survived if only they had a father as heedlessly optimistic as Roberto Benigni.
(Yevtushenko’s poem, set to Shostakovich’s terrifying music)
Another trivializing vision of the Holocaust, completely different from Benigni, is by the Soviet Poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In the early 60’s Yevtushenko was as important a Soviet celebrity as Bob Dylan was here. In 1961, Yevtushenko’s first volume of poetry, The Heirs of Stalin, spread through Soviet underground publishing like wildfire. The most famous of th e poems was Babi Yar, which denounces not only the Nazi massacre of roughly 34,000 Ukranian Jews in the Babi Yar ravine, but also the Soviet Government’s refusal to acknowledge it. As a denunciation of anti-semitism, it is fantastically effective - and must have felt like a first breath of fresh air after Stalin had murdered or silenced all of Russia’s great poets for speaking out against him twenty years earlier. But as poetry, it’s not very good. Like Walt Whitman at his worst, Yevtushenko goes through an endless list of various historical events to recall. As a recollection of the Holocaust, it is utterly tawdry. Yevtushenko declares “I am each old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead.” No you’re not, you’re a rock star/poet idolized by millions and denounced by a later, greater poet like Joseph Brodsky as an appeaser of the Soviet government. The last line of the poem is the worst: “In my blood, there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all anti-semites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason, I am a true Russian.” If only true Russians can love the Jewish people, then the true Russians must have numbered one in every thousand Russians in the last thousand years and excluded most Russian Jews too. Far more effective was Dimitri Shostakovich’s setting of the poem for the first movement of his 13th Symphony. As only a genius could, Shostakovich uses the cliched banalities of Yevtushenko’s text as a pin on which to hang some of the most terrifying music ever written. Here, a thousand times more than in the original poem, is the true terror of Babi Yar.
(Part 1 of 59)
I often joke with friends that some year I will host a birthday party which consists of nothing but an airing of the ten-hour documentary - Shoah. The truth remains that I’ve never been able to get through it. It’s simply too long, too challenging, and too solemn. In this movie, the point is not what the Holocaust itself meant, but what the Holocaust meant for human nature. The philosophical questions posed in this movie are for weightier minds than mine. But one has to give Shoah its due credit. Twenty-five years ago, the details of the Holocaust were neither completely known nor accepted by the broader public. It is only in the last 25 years that the Holocaust has been accepted for the unique horror in human history that it is. Perhaps more than any entry by by Anne Franck or Primo Levi memoir, it was Shoah which blew open the facade that this was just another horrible experience in the course of human events and not something singularly apocalyptic.
A still different type of cheapening is found from the source of a very great writer. For more than forty years, you haven’t been able to understand Judaism in America without reading Philip Roth. But when he comes up against the question every Jew sometimes asks: could it happen here? The result is relatively disappointing. The Plot Against America, his imagining of an isolationist, Nazi-Sympathizer Charles Lindbergh presidency, is a pretty good novel - hardly Roth’s best, but a clever re-imagining of American politics. Where it fails is in the implication that we should somehow take the fears of American Jews about an anti-semitic America as seriously as what happened in Europe. We read about a little boy named Philip Roth who is tormented by his goyisher classmates and whose older brother returns from a re-education camp in the midwest with seething contempt for his Jewish background. The Roth family relocates to Kentucky so as to seem more American and fears anti-semitic riots which never come to their doorstep. And somehow this is supposed to make us as fearful of the possibilities of American antisemitism as the millions of murders taking place across the ocean, the extent of which they didn’t yet even know about. For all the steam built up, the America of Lindbergh is still only a moderately authoritarian country - akin to a Latin American dictatorship of the 70’s in which many people are in danger. But at no point does the prospect of a Lindbergh America strike the terror which a death machine like 1930’s and 40’s Europe would.
(A very great scene.)
But there are many ways to trivialize the Holocaust. Sometimes its done by movies that take every pain to honor the suffering that happened. Schindler’s List is a great, moving piece of art. But it sanitizes European history for a larger audience by finding a single story of redemption in the midst of so much squalor. Schindler’s story is entirely worth telling, and got as worthy a treatment as it could possibly get. But could so much extraordinary filmmaking ever be put to a treatment of a story less uplifting?
(I’ll link to it, I’m not embedding this....)
The new standard for the most astonishingly trivial Holocaust film is Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz. By now, I think it’s fairly clear that Uwe Boll is the most controversial filmmaker in the world. Boll is best known for adaptations of video games so violent, so nihlistic, that many people call them the worst films ever made. True to form, he last year released a film no other filmmaker would ever make: a recreation of an ordinary day at Auschwitz. This is when I have to admit two things:
1. I still haven’t seen it.
2. I can’t deny a fervent curiosity to see what he made.
From one vantage point, this must be one of the most tasteless movie ever made. To even think that he could approximate a horror in fiction that we can barely recreate on a documentary level is laughable. To think that people would want to see recreations of acts so morally disgusting is a kind of especially sick pornography. And yet....when else will we ever get a better chance to understand what people went through? Do we even want to understand?
This could be an ongoing list. I’m not even going to get into Marathon Man...But the truth remains that there are some works, both on page and on screen, which truly get into the Holocaust’s reality. Not surprisingly, the list is more book-heavy. The number of works that do some justice to the subject is surprisingly large, but not nearly as large as it should be. That could be the subject of another post. Perhaps later this week....