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

The Shop on Main Street: Holocaust in Film

Obchod na korze (original title)
Obchod na korze (original title)

The Shop on Main Street is a 1965 film directed by Ján Kadár. The film was originally presented in Slovak and Yiddish and was originally titled “Obchod na korze.” The film takes place in a small town in Slovakia during World War II and attempts to tackle the question of how the Jewish people were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. What was going through the minds of the Jewish people? Why didn’t they fight back? How did the average citizen allow their neighbors to be rounded up like animals and packed into cattle cars for deportation? Kadár addresses all of these questions and more. Besides being an informative and well-told story, The Shop on Main Street is packed with symbolism that further addresses the subject of the film. Symbolism is so prevalent in the film that Kadár was able to present much more information and meaning within the confines of the film’s running time than what seems possible.

The main conflict in the film is between the new fascist conception of the Slovakian nation-state and the Jewish people. Because of fascism’s focus on ultra-nationalism, “outside” elements had to be removed from perceived positions of authority and privilege, which resulted in Jewish people having their businesses removed from their ownership and placed under the control of an “Arisator,” an “Aryan” manager. The idea was that Slovakia was for Slovakians (expressed in the film through a marching cadence sung by soldiers marching down the street), and Jewish people were not considered to really be Slovakian. Later, the Jewish people were deported en masse for concentration camps. This conflict is the backdrop for the story that Kadár presents in his film, in which a bumbling “Aryan” carpenter named Tono Brtko is named the Arisator of a button shop on Main Street owned by a Jewish widow named Mrs. Lautmann.

Tono is a very complex character and his relationships with other people, how he interacts with them, is used as a plot device to symbolically portray the director’s opinion of the Aryanization and deportation process. Tono’s symbolism as a character in relation to other characters has multiple layers, starting with his wife in the opening scene, where Tono demonstrates a poor understanding of anything going on in the world while his wife badgers him for money. I felt that this was a critique of Slovakian society, and on a broader scale, Christian society in general, for the apparent greed displayed in the confiscation of Jewish shops and goods during the World War II deportations. It reminded me of something Elie Weisel wrote, when he said that while he and his family were being deported from their home town, he felt as if the people who had just previously been their neighbors were eagerly waiting for them to board the trains, so they could loot and pillage through their homes. Later in the film, Tono’s wife berates him for not finding the gold that Mrs. Lautmann must have buried somewhere in her house, as if all Jews were leprechauns and one need only catch one to receive a pot of treasure.

The other important symbolic relationship that Tono has is with Mrs. Lautmann, the owner of the shop he is supposedly taking over. Mrs. Lautmann is an old, slightly senile widow. Her late husband died in a war (World War I?) and since then she has been on her own, though technically she has been receiving a stipend from the rest of the Jewish community. Her shop is in complete disrepair, but she seems to be completely oblivious to the fact, and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of anything that’s going on around her, including her new “Arisator-Jew” relationship with Tono, until the last scenes in the film, when reality suddenly and painfully dawns on her. Even at that moment, however, instead of proactively trying to hide herself, she runs to her bedroom to study Torah. In this relationship, Tono clearly represents Slovakian society as a whole, while Mrs. Lautmann represents the Jewish community. In this film, while Slovakians are busy robbing the Jewish people of their property and preparing to deport them, the Jewish people are presented as being oblivious to the real dangers that are going on around them and only wake up to reality when it’s too late to do anything about it (Mrs. Lautmann suddenly recognizes the deportation event as a pogram near the end of the film).

The film does present a different view of the Jewish predicament in the form of Mr. Katz, who reminds the viewer that there really wasn’t much they could do in terms of rising up against their oppressors. After all, what could an old woman like Mrs. Lautmann and an old barber do when the fascist government troops were standing on every corner with automatic weapons? The film doesn’t present a clear and easy answer. I don’t think it intended to. It was meant to inform and make the viewer think about how and why something as tragic as the deportation and later near-extermination of the Jews could occur, and it does that well.

These observations are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dissecting all of the symbolism and meaning in The Shop on Main Street. Ján Kadár’s film is excellently done, explaining both the mindset of the Slovakians and the relationship between the average Slovakian and the Jewish community that doesn’t overly simplify the situation into a black and white conflict. Other important aspects of the film are the references to animals and the natural order of the world vs. the activities of the Slovakian government, as well as an excellent use of music to set the tone, but those issues are beyond my ability to address in this short reaction paper.