Conversation with a Descendant of Nazis

Today was the first day of a series of Thursday afternoon lectures and special events in the Jewish Studies department at the City College of the City University of New York. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it certainly sounded interesting. The event was a Skype call with a woman in Germany named Barbel Pfeiffer who had discovered that her family had worked closely with the Nazis and had made serious contributions to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Barbel spoke to us via Skype in German, while a translator on our end here in New York related her story to us bit by bit. She began by giving us a brief overview of antisemitism in Germany, starting in the 1300s. That part was a bit dry, but when she began to tell us about her family’s personal involvement in the Holocaust, the tension in the room increased. Her story was riveting.

She began by telling us that she didn’t know about this part of her family’s history and only found out through a series of discoveries and revelations prompted by direct questioning of relatives, including finding correspondence between her deceased great-uncle and Adolph Hitler. Her great-uncle had requested permission to make Hitler an honorary citizen of the town as a reward for being the first “Jew-free” town in Germany. I forget the name of the town, but according to a little Internet research, thousands of towns gave Hitler honorary citizenship and, as that fact comes to light, many town councils are voting to rescind that honor. Some people argue that removing Hitler’s honorary citizenship is an attempt to whitewash history and hide the crimes of the past, while others argue that keeping him on the rolls is an insult to the people that he tried to destroy and glorifies his crimes.

Barbel also spoke about her grandfather, who built the electrified fence around Auschwitz that many Jews threw themselves onto in order to commit suicide. She related a story to us about children taken from the camp for experimentation by Joseph Mengele and how, when the children were returned to their mothers damaged and barely alive, many of those women commit suicide on the fence that her grandfather built. Her grandfather also designed and installed the tubing that carried Zyklon B gas into the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Barbel talked to us about how this impacted her personally. She said that it was a terrible thing to find out and she said she wasn’t sure for a while that she was going to be able to live with this knowledge in her head. Even though she herself didn’t take part in the Holocaust, she feels that she has an obligation to try to do something about it, to make up for it and make sure that people do not repeat the actions of the past.

As a way of atoning for the sins of her ancestors and to try to build bridges between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Germany, she participates in speaking events, talking about the history of her family, what it means for her, and asks for forgiveness from those who her family had a direct role in harming. She said that times were different back then, but people all made choices that led them to do the things they chose to do. So now, she’s choosing to try to heal those old wounds the best way she knows how.

In addition to speaking engagements, Barbel takes part in an event called the March of Life, a program that brings people to Holocaust remembrance sites, like Auschwitz, in an effort to keep the results of the Holocaust in the public mind and to say that anti-semitism is not ok.

At the end of her story, Barbel took questions from the audience and in response revealed a bit more about herself, her family, how speaking out has affected her personally and how it affects others. According to Barbel, admitting to having a family history that involves the Nazis is a taboo for some families, because it is a source of shame. Barbel said that it is important that people not be silent about the past, however, because anti-semitism is still very embedded in the culture.

Overall, I was really impressed with the event. It was difficult to listen to her story at some points, but it was informative and encouraging. The world is full of people who think nothing of engaging in genocide or even promote it as something honorable and righteous, but in Germany there are people who are very aware of the past and are trying to ensure that something like the Holocaust never happens again.

For more information, I found an article on the Times of Israel about Barbel Pfeiffer and the March of Life Event: “Grandpa, who helped install the gas chambers

Comparing Antonin Brtko and Oskar Schindler: Holocaust in Film

Tono Brtko, from The Shop on Main Street*, and Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, are both main characters in Holocaust films that, while similar, have very different impacts on the Jewish communities they interact with.  The Shop on Main Street takes place in a small town in Slovakia during 1942, at a time when the fascist government is cracking down on Jewish residents. Schindler’s List** takes place in the latter years of World War II in and around Kraków, Poland. Both characters are non-Jews that are placed in positions of power over Jewish people, one as a shop manager and the other as a factory owner. The roles are similar, but because of the different motivations that guide Tono and Schindler’s actions, their relationships with Jews lead to very different results.

Antonin "Tono" Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

Antonin “Tono” Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

The more complicated of the two characters by far is Tono Brtko. The Shop on Main Street is a highly symbolic film and endless meaning can be read into Tono’s actions, but it is fairly safe to say that Tono represents the Slovakian nation. He is “Mr. Everyman Slovakia” and his behavior in the film can be seen as a critique of how the average Slovakian citizen treated his or her Jewish neighbors. In the film, all of those Jewish neighbors are represented by Mrs. Lautmann, a widow that runs a bankrupt button shop on Main Street.

Tono’s relationship with Mrs. Lautmann is essentially predatory. Throughout the film, he acts only in his own interest. Tono’s only purpose in interacting with Mrs. Lautmann is to satisfy his greed. As part of the Aryanization process in Slovakia, Jewish people were required to turn over their businesses to Aryan managers. This is depicted in the film and, because of his brother-in-law’s position, Tono is appointed Arisator of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. The idea of stealing the wealth of another person and not having to work for it put Tono in good spirits, which were dashed when he realized Mrs. Lautmann’s store was bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. The only reason he continued to have anything to do with her was because the Jewish community offered him a salary to look after Mrs. Lautmann and her shop. So, Tono was only interested in Mrs. Lautmann when there was an apparent means of profiting from her situation.

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, is easier to understand. He is the hero of the story and a hero of the Jewish people. His development as a character follows a path similar to Tono’s, but there is a key difference. Unlike Schindler, Tono never has a change of heart. He never wants to help Jewish people because it is the right thing to do. Instead, he is only interested in profit. Schindler is depicted as being far more altruistic. At the beginning of the movie, Schindler is a cold, calculating business man who sees an opportunity to make massive profit off of cheap Jewish slave-labor during wartime conditions. This is similar to Tono’s desire to become wealthy through the acquisition of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop. In both cases, they are stealing the labor of others and converting it into personal profit, but when Schindler comes to understand the brutality of the Nazis, he empathizes with the Jews and expends all of his wealth in an effort to save as many of them as he can.

At the end of The Shop on Main Street, Tono attempts to hide Mrs. Lautmann from fascist soldiers approaching the button shop. It is possible that he does this because, in that moment of crisis, he realizes he actually cares about Mrs. Lautmann and feels guilty about what is going on, but it is more likely that Tono acted out of self-interested fear for his own well-being and a desire to avoid being considered a “Jew-lover.” In contrast, Schindler takes much greater risks than Tono in an effort to save people.

At the end of the two movies, both Tono and Schindler are broke, but while Tono ultimately has nothing to show for his efforts except a town empty of Jews, Schindler has saved over a thousand lives. If Tono had come to the same conclusion as Schindler, he could have saved Mrs. Lautmann, but because he was only thinking of how to profit from her, he caused her death. In the end, Tono and Schindler really aren’t that alike after all. They start out in similar circumstances, profiting from the labor of others, but their motivations and desires set them widely apart.

*For more on The Shop on Main Street, see this post:

The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Film

**For more on Schindler’s List, see these posts:

Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Criticism of Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Schindler’s List, also check out this additional post that summarizes common criticism’s of the movie.)

Schindler's List DVD Cover Image

Schindler’s List is a movie by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. The movie is based loosely on a book written by Thomas Keneally, which is also called Schindler’s List. The book, in turn, is based on the eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the actions of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who used his position and influence to turn his enamelware manufacturing labor camp into a refuge for Jews. The movie attempts to track the course of these events while also showing Schindler’s inner transformation from a cold, calculating businessman into a savior. The events depicted in the movie take place near the end of World War II in Kraków and later in the Płaszów labor/concentration camp, both of which are in Poland.

Various methods were used to turn this semi-historical information into an entertaining movie. Spielberg’s choice of coloring in the film was very intentional. Schindler’s List was designed in a way to make the audience feel as though they were viewing something historically accurate and making the film (mostly) black and white, rather than color, was a deliberate and effective means of making that connection. This was probably done to connect emotionally with the viewer and pull him or her along as the story progresses.  Spielberg also set up his characters in an oppositional way that is simple and easy to understand, probably to appeal to a wider audience, and reinforced this image of good vs. evil through the use of light and dark imagery.

Schindler’s List is almost entirely shot in black and white, but there are scenes that are in color for added effect. The opening scene of the movie is in full color and shows a Jewish family lighting the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. As the candles burn down and the flame goes out, the film transitions to full black and white. The point of this switch to black and white is to give the movie a documentary-style feel, to impress upon the viewer the historical reality of what is being depicted and more easily elicit an emotional response. I won’t go into the problem of presenting fictionalized material in a way that makes it appear to be completely historically accurate here. Essentially, what Spielberg has done is make it easier for the audience to empathize with people they know are real. The climax of this effective use of color is in the final scenes, when the characters in black and white transition to the actual living survivors when the film was shot. They are shown moving across a field and then moving forward in a line to lay flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. That scene completes the emotional connection and reinforces the power of what the audience just saw in the rest of the film.

The most famous use of color in the film is the “girl in the red coat” in the Kraków ghetto liquidation scene. In this scene, everything is black and white except for the coat a little girl is wearing. The camera follows her as she walks down a street and adults are gunned down behind her and in front of her. This is meant to draw the audience’s attention and probably to emphasize the innocence of the children who suffered through this event. The next time the audience sees the red coat the little girl was wearing is when it is in a pile in a wheelbarrow. The audience is left to draw the conclusion that she no longer needs it anymore, because she is dead. Another instance of coloring in the film is during the Friday Shabbat candle lighting ceremony in Schindler’s factory. Schindler not only gives permission to, but insists that the rabbi in the factory welcome the Sabbath. During this scene, the flames of the candle are in color again, like they were in the opening scene of the movie. This may indicate a restoration of the Jewish people, through Schindler’s respect for them as human beings.

Color also plays an important role in the depiction of characters in the film, primarily in the use of shadows on their faces. This ties in with the essentially oppositional nature of the main characters in the film: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. To make this film more easily understood by a wider audience, Spielberg created a good vs. evil paradigm that posits Schindler as the hero and Goeth as the bad guy. Schindler is the troubled hero who starts out selfish and uninterested in others, much like Spiderman. Like Peter Parker, Schindler has to experience a traumatic event before he changes his mind about the Jewish people and uses his power for good. Like Parker’s uncle Ben, Schindler has the one-armed man and the girl in the red coat, among others. Schindler’s path to heroism is painted in a very easily understood way. Goeth is presented as an ultimate evil, a man that is beyond the bounds of sanity. He even has an evil sounding accent and an army of evil henchmen (the camp guards). To take the comic-book reference a bit further, we can think of Helen Hirsch as the damsel in distress that the hero, Schindler, rescues from the bad guy, Goeth.

This set-up of hero and villain is reinforced throughout the film by facial lighting effects. When Schindler is introduced, he is dark and mysterious and his face isn’t shown in full. When he is doing something negative, his face is in shadows. For example, when a Jewish woman shows up at his office to ask for his help, he is shown at the top of a staircase, in the distance and completely in shadows. Why? Because this scene shows him bowing to his dark impulses. In this case, he is acting on his lust for attractive women and because this woman is dressed conservatively, he sends her away. When she comes back dressed in a sexually appealing way, he agrees to meet her. When Schindler does something good, his face is shown fully lighted. An example is when he gives a chocolate bar to Helen Hirsch when questioning her in the basement, to reveal his good will toward her.

Fascism is not really addressed in this film, because it focuses more on Oskar Schindler and his transformation from Nazi party-man to Jewish savior. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the role of Jewish people in the film. There are many opportunities for character development, but the only Jew that really gets any serious screen-time is Yitzchak Stern. The Jewish people in Schindler’s List are essentially part of the backdrop of the Holocaust and act as supporting players to tell Schindler’s story. Not to belittle Schindler’s efforts, but it is odd that a film dedicated to the memory of six million dead Jews gives them so little time to tell their own stories, or act in any meaningful way.

Despite any flaws the movie has, Schindler’s List is an important part of the film industry’s portrayal of the Holocaust. It is the top rated Holocaust movie according to IMDB.com and has and will expose more people to the Jewish tragedy of World War II than any history book is likely to do, as sad as that may be. The use of color and the portrayal of the characters is very effective in drawing in and holding the attention of the viewer, allowing them to experience the film without having to think too hard about it.

Life is Beautiful: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Life is Beautiful, also take a look at this paper I did on general criticisms of the movie.)

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

Life is Beautiful DVD Cover

Life is Beautiful, an Italian movie that was originally released in 1997 under the title “La vita è bella,” is a drama and romantic comedy. The story takes place in 1930s Arezzo, Italy and focuses on the life of a Jewish man named Guido Orefice, who arrives in town with plans to open a bookshop. Almost immediately after arriving in town, he becomes interested in a woman named Dora that he keeps running into (sometimes quite literally) around town. He begins to pursue her romantically, eventually winning her away from her fiancé and starting a family with her. Years later, Guido and Giosué are rounded up and deported to a death camp during World War II. Dora, who is not Jewish, demands to be placed on the train along with her husband and son, because she can’t stand to be apart from them. Ironically, she ends up as a prisoner in an adjacent death camp for women and is still separated from her family. For the remainder of the movie, Guido spends all of his time trying to convince his son that the entire experience is part of an elaborate game where the winner takes home a brand new tank.

 

Life is Beautiful is a complicated movie to analyze or compare with anything else because of how unusual the genre is for the subject. Comedy is not usually part of the Holocaust discussion, because there’s really nothing funny about it, in terms of the scope, the scale and the end result. When I think of the scene from Night and Fog where the camera pans out and then up, showing a mountain of hair, I think about how many people had to have died for that pile of hair to be created. It is both powerful and subtle and clearly indicates the nature and scale of the tragedy and it does so in a manner that I find wholly more appropriate to the subject. Nonetheless, comedy is used as an important plot driver in Life is Beautiful. Specifically, the main character, Guido, engages in slapstick comedy antics throughout the movie. In the first half of the movie, when Guido is attempting to woo Dora away from her fiancé, Guido’s antics seem to serve no real purpose, other than to entertain and endear himself to the audience. In the second half of the movie, the use of comedy is more questionable given the subject matter, but it is used to better effect as part of the plot. Guido uses comedy as a tool, along with distraction and elaborate stories, to distract his son from what’s going on in the camp. The problem with this use of comedy is that Guido sometimes ignores the well-being of himself, his son and everyone around him in an attempt to keep his son entertained, causing the situation to become unbelievable.

Comedy aside, one of the important themes in Life is Beautiful is the effect of the Holocaust on families. The first part of the movie builds up an almost fantasy-like love story where the “hero” gets the girl and settles down to raise his son and run his own business. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? Then, the fascists arrive, and everything Guido has managed to accomplish, the fairy-tale existence that is meant to appeal emotionally to the audience, is suddenly destroyed, simply because Guido and his son are Jewish. To maximize the emotional effect on the audience, Dora is presented as being willing to sacrifice herself to remain close to her family. During his time in the death camp, Guido puts himself and his son at risk to find opportunities to let his wife know that they are still alive. The idea that anyone could have actually pulled off the stunts portrayed by Guido in the movie is ridiculous, but the inclusion of these scenes in the movie is probably meant to call attention to the fact that families were ripped apart during the Holocaust in a way that would be emotionally appealing to the audience. The moment that truly symbolizes this loss, however contrived the plot, is when Guido dies while attempting to find and save his wife from the guards’ final extermination efforts before abandoning the camp.

The presentation of Jews in this movie is two-sided. On the one hand, “the Jews” in the movie are a faceless mass that acts in a supporting role to the main story of Guido and his son. They are shown as docile followers of orders in a rather two-dimensional way. On the other hand is Guido, who is the main character. The story of Life is Beautiful could almost be said to be Guido-driven, rather than character or plot driven. He is a one man show that overwhelms the narrative with monologue. He manipulates people, takes risks and actively engages in his survival and the survival of his son and wife. So, this movie presents both popular narratives of Jewish people during the Holocaust: passive sheep allowing themselves to be led to the slaughter and active resisters in any way possible.

Because of its use of comedy, Life is Beautiful is difficult to take seriously and, in light of the seriousness of the historical events the movie uses as a backdrop, many people find it offensive. More than that, some people find it insulting to the victims of the Holocaust. Not everything in the movie is emotional fluff, however. There are still worthwhile messages and themes that can be pulled from the movie, though it’s probably not something I will watch again.

Au Revoir Les Enfantes: Holocaust in Film

Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).

Jean Bonnet (aka Jean Kippelstein, left) and Julien Quentin (right).

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a 1987 film directed by Louis Malle. The film is a biographical war drama that focuses on events at a French boarding school run by priests during World War II. The film follows the developing relationship between two students, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, who is actually named Jean Kippelstein. Father Jean, the school’s principal, has been hiding Jewish children in the school to save their lives. As the story develops, Julien realizes that Jean isn’t like everyone else. To hide his identity and excuse the fact that he doesn’t know the Catholic prayers, Jean Bonnet claims to be Protestant, but Julien discovers the truth. Instead of driving a wedge between them, this shared secret brings them closer together.

Based on a true story, this film demonstrates the level of common knowledge of Jews in France and how they were seen by their French neighbors. The relationship in France between Jews and non-Jews is presented as being complex, rather than black and white. This can best be seen in the restaurant scene, where an older man is sitting alone and Vichy government officials come in and ask him for his papers. When the official discovers the old man is a Jew the official begins to harass him. Some of the restaurant’s patrons express feelings similar to the official’s, but the majority believe the official’s actions are a disgrace and an affront to human dignity, including Julien’s mother.

But, how much did the average French person really know about Jews? When Julien asks his brother to explain what makes a person Jewish, his response is that a Jew is a person who doesn’t eat pork. When Julien asks why everyone hates the Jews, his brother tells him it is because Jewish people are smarter than non-Jews, and because they killed Christ, which Julien dismisses as an obvious lie, since the Romans were responsible for crucifying Christ.  Perhaps this scene is meant to convey the idea that there really aren’t any significant differences between Jews and non-Jews, since Julien continues his friendship with Jean. It is interesting that Jean was at the top of his class, along with Julien, and they manage to develop a strong friendship, while their less intelligent peers are still spouting stereotypes and comparing Jews to Communists and Germans. Perhaps the message here is that a little intelligence and thought leads to peaceful coexistence.

Jean spends most of the film trying to blend in with his classmates, for obvious reasons, but throughout the film he’s shown as being slightly different. He stands out, not necessarily because he looks different, but because of his demeanor. He carries himself differently from the other students. In many scenes he appears to be hunched over slightly, or he walks differently. It almost looks like he’s physically struggling with the mental burden of staying hidden. He does tell Julien that he is afraid all the time. Jean’s desperate need to fit in causes him to attempt to take communion, perhaps to prove to his friend that he is not so different from him, or perhaps because he feared that since Julien noticed that he is Jewish, he should redouble his efforts to appear Protestant. That could also explain why he hid during choir practice, to avoid revealing his unfamiliarity with Christian hymns.

The scene I found most interesting in the film was when Jean was removed from the classroom, because of how his classmates reacted. After the schoolyard repetition of stereotypes and expressions of dislike for Jews, the students did not react violently when they discovered that Jean was Jewish. When the priest came in and asked the boys to say a prayer for their classmates, there wasn’t any rowdiness. In other scenes that involve prayer, there is rough-housing, mocking or laughter. But in this scene, there is solidarity, and later, the non-Jewish students are proud that Negus was able to avoid capture, implying that familiarity dispels ignorance and breeds acceptance and friendship. I wonder if, when producing this scene, the director was specifically thinking of laïcité, the French conception of secularism, which states that religion doesn’t matter because the French are French first.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is an interesting film that depicts the French response to German occupation and fascist doctrine regarding the Jewish community. Some collaborated, some resisted, some were apathetic and some profited from exposing Jews in hiding. But, the film also shows that understanding and familiarity are important tools to overcoming stereotypes. The acting in the film is excellent and the director’s portrayal of Jean Bonnet and his classmates expresses the emotions and ideas buried in the story of Julien of Jean’s friendship excellently.