With Pesach over, a month of national holidays is upon us in Israel. Tonight begins the Memorial Day for the Shoah (Holocaust) and Heroism.
I have had a number of difficulties with this holiday over the years. The addition of “heroism” to the observance in Israel seems to me emblematic of Israeli Jews’ troubled relationship with the Shoah and its survivors, whom they have traditionally neglected and derided, rather than treating as the traumatized, precious remnants of a genocide. Despite the bite that the Germans and their helpers took out of world Jewry (one-third), I have sometimes thought that it should be observed on Tisha B’Av along with the other holidays, since other than the scale and industrialized quality it took on, the Shoah didn’t actually distinguish itself in barbarity from other pogroms in the past. (I think that as long as there are survivors in the world, however, the day should stay as it is, a separate commemoration.) There are so many days and periods of mourning in the Jewish calendar, including the Omer, the Three Weeks, and several of the fast days, that while the Shoah is much more recent and immediate—especially with some survivors still living to tell their stories—in other ways it feels like just another day of mourning.
Another problem I’ve had with the Shoah has been the movies made about it. The mini-series “Holocaust” and the Academy award-winning “Schindler’s List” both represent the sweeping epic-style Shoah films that seek to educate the masses about the barbarity and destruction that took place. In talking to friends about those films, one friend pointed out that most European Jews’ experience of the Shoah was about six months in duration, from invasion to extermination. I agree with this point, and also with the fact that it can be very difficult to sit through yet another exposition of German-sponsored barbarity with each new film that comes out. “Victory” and “Sobibor” showed camp revolts, but these were similarly grueling to watch and predictably feel-good at the end. “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Pianist” were interesting to see, but “The Pianist” was horrific enough that I would not want to see it again, and “Life Is Beautiful”—Roberto Benigni’s attempt to laugh at the unlaughable—had a laudable goal, but not one I took terribly seriously.
That’s why I was interested this year to see some movies that depart from the past formulas. “Defiance” is the story of the Bielski brothers who hid themselves and dozens of other Jews in the forest, while “Die Fälscher” (“The Counterfeiters”) is about Jews who worked in a secret counterfeiting operation inside Sachsenhausen. Both of these movies are snapshots of small operations, focused on a couple of characters with complicated relationships and difficult choices. The Bielski brothers contend with dissension in their ranks and rivalry with the partisans, but the film also shows them being helped by Gentiles, something I’ve rarely seen in a Shoah movie (other than “Schindler’s List” obviously). “Die Fälscher” was particularly interesting to me because the main character was a counterfeiter (read: criminal) to begin with, and by continuing his work reproducing first the British pound, then the American dollar, he is merely pursuing an uninterrupted career in crime while saving his own skin. At the same time, he finds himself helping an enemy that is exterminating his own people, and clashing with a colleague who is deeply troubled by their assignment and threatens the entire enterprise with his misgivings. I would see either of these movies again without hesitation.
The last movie I saw recently that caught my attention was “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s Shoah revenge fantasy. Less gory than “Pulp Fiction,” it was—at least for this Jew—entertaining, at times hilariously funny, and unusually therapeutic. Rather than being one of the harrowing displays of the “Schindler’s List” variety, it is a brief glimpse of what might have been, had the right people (on both sides of the conflict) been in the right place at the right time. It’s not educational, it’s not realistic, but when it comes to the Shoah, there is no way to portray accurately or comprehensively the enormity of the event. And after all the movies that have been made about it (some with greater success than others), we might as well imagine the perpetrators getting their just deserts for a change.