Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Reader

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 Holocaust Museum adjacent to the National Mall in our nation’s capital and there are similar museums and memorials in a very large number of cities across the globe, especially in North America and in Europe. When Pope Benedict, attempting to heal a schism within the Catholic church, lifted the ban of excommunication last week on a renegade bishop who also happens to be a vocal Holocaust denier, there was an immediate outcry of protest not only from Jews but from Catholics themselves. (A well-known Catholic author, Mathieu Grimpet, wrote in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that the pope’s actions made him ashamed to a Catholic and this view was apparently widely shared by many Catholics in other countries as well. Even the Holy See’s own newspaper, the Osservatore Romano, took the exceptional step of including in its coverage of the incident a blanket condemnation of any who would question the historical reality of the Shoah.) Many nations in Europe, including Germany, Austria and Romania, actually have laws making it actually illegal to deny the historical reality of the Shoah. All of these details, plus many more I could cite, lift my spirits and make me feel that perhaps the memory of the events of the Holocaust really will never be forgotten. That, at any rate, is my hope, just as I know it is the hope of us all.

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 Germany conducted during the 1960s, he enters a courtroom and finds Hanna on trial for, among other things, the murder of 700 Jewish women. Eventually, she is convicted—although we, the viewers, know that she is being punished far more severely than the other women on trial because she is too ashamed to admit her own illiteracy in public—and she goes to prison for more than twenty years as a result. At the end of the movie, the adult Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, has some final interaction with Hanna. (I don’t want to ruin the end of the movie for any of you who might see it, so I won’t describe the ending in more detail. But it is very powerful and, in its own way, very moving.) And that is the basic story line of The Reader.

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 Auschwitz in the movie, but it is the camp as it now exists that he sees and the sequence has a strange, otherworldly feel to it almost as though he were visiting some distant planet. Still, how many Oscar-nominated films take its viewers directly into the camps?) On the other hand, Hanna is depicted as a beautiful but dull-witted woman who, judging from her comments at the trial, barely understands the larger implications of her own behavior. Perhaps that is accurate—surely there were among the perpetrators many whose sense of their own role in the larger picture was limited, perhaps even non-existent—and yet there is something unsettling about seeing this guard depicted as a bewildered victim, as someone bearing the weight of an entire nation’s sins on her narrow shoulders, as someone who goes to prison because, in the end, someone has to be punished and she lacks the courage to do what it takes to avoid it being her. She is, I think it’s fair to say, a sympathetic character in the story. Michael, especially the adult Michael, is repulsed by her past. But not repulsed enough to abandon her to her fate or to turn away from her, really, at all. When he cries during the trial, it’s not at all clear for whom he is shedding his tears.

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)

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