As, I suspect, many of us are, I’m of two minds about the way the Shoah has slowly worked its way into the cultural consciousness of non-Jewish Americans and, for that matter, of the non-Jewish citizens of other countries as well.
On the one hand, obviously, I feel very satisfied. The biblical injunction never to forget the deeds of Amalek, the nation that attacked the Israelites from the rear as they wandered in the wilderness, thus attempting to win a military victory by preying on the elderly, the weak, and the defenseless, clearly has its modern-day equivalent in the moral imperative that drives us all neither to allow the events of the Holocaust to be forgotten nor to permit the memory of the martyrs to fade from history as those who remember them personally slowly fade from the scene. And, reasonably speaking, we have had great success in both those regards. There is a very active and well-visited
On the other hand is the concomitant trivialization of the Shoah that the insinuation of its details into popular culture seems almost inevitably to entail. I don’t mean by that to refer to the kind of vulgar attempts, some bordering on the grotesque, to depict the Nazis as bumbling fools (as, for example, on the television show of my youth Hogan’s Heroes) or to depict their leader not as a demon or a tyrant but as an effeminate buffoon (as in the original movie or the Broadway remake of The Producers). I am thinking instead of a different kind of trivialization, the kind that results when, in an attempt to tell the story of what specific people endured during the years of the Shoah, an author or a director ends up creating a kind of parallel between the perpetrators and their victims in an attempt to show how moral ambiguity can be a feature even of the most apparently cut-and-dried example of genocidal violence. Perhaps this is the price we must pay for the story being “out there,” for our collective decision not to keep the stories of our martyrs close to our collective breast and there treasured and nurtured as our legacy to future Jewish generations but instead to publicize them widely and to encourage school systems and movie studios and publishing houses to tell those stories in even more detail and with ever increasing urgency. Perhaps that really is how things must be, but it still creates a sense of deep ill ease in me when I encounter the phenomenon face to face.
The other night, Joan and I went to see the hit movie, The Reader. Based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, which I read when it first came out (and which went on after Oprah Winfrey touted it on her show to become a huge bestseller and which is still the only German book ever to reach the number one spot on the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list), the movie tells the story of a woman named Hanna Schmitz, formerly a guard at Auschwitz, but now, as the movie opens in the late 1950s, a streetcar conductor in an unnamed Germany city. In the opening sequences of the film, Hanna, played by Kate Winslet, meets, befriends, then ends up conducting a passionate love affair with a young teenager named Michael Berg, played—and, I must say, played incredibly well—by a relatively unknown German actor, David Kross. When Hanna mysteriously disappears at summer’s end, the affair is over. And then the movie resumes eight years in the future. Michael is now a law student. And in the context of a seminar that requires that participants attend one of the war crimes trials
It’s books and movies like The Reader that leave me perplexed and unsure about how exactly I do feel about the popularization of the Shoah. To deride the phenomenon as the mere commercialization of history does not feel quite right—surely we are pleased, not unhappy, to see the world being exposed to stories like this one. (Michael, the young man, visits
It’s this kind of moral equivocation that disturbs me. In a sense, it’s a good thing for the world to confront the fact that the perpetrators were human beings, not alien creatures from some other galaxy. They were men and women—bakers and bankers and street car conductors and professors of medicine and law—who turned away from decency, who embraced evil…and whose national and personal decisions led to the gates of Auschwitz. It is healthy for us all to face the truth that there is no bottom line to the evil human beings can perpetrate when they turn away from morality and away from God. Depicting Hanna as a human being, therefore—who falls in love, who likes it when Michael reads Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence and Mark Twain to her, who can enjoy bicycling in the countryside and stopping for lunch at a country inn—is healthy and good: it reminds us not to forget that the perpetrators were people, not machines. But is that really the lesson the world derives from movies like The Reader? Or do people come away thinking that even the guards themselves who sent millions to their deaths were themselves also victims of some sort? Does it ennoble the (real) victims’ story to note that their murderers were human beings who turned to evil, and that there is no bottom line beneath which people cannot sink once they abandon morality? Or does it trivialize the horror they were forced to endure by presenting their oppressors as mere cogs in a machine, as men and women who once had really terrible jobs that obliged them to do really bad things? There are the questions I had on my mind as we left the theater…and went home to order Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel. (January 30, 2009)