Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why do the "Culture Makers" Want to Sugarcoat the Holocaust?

I read this post by Professor Ken Waltzer (one of the people whose research helped bring to light the fraudulent nature of Apples over the Fence, Director of Jewish Studies, Michigan State University, on Deborah Lipstadt's blog:

Waltzer: "This memoir was at the far end of implausibility, yet until yesterday, no one connected with packaging, promoting, and disseminating it asked question about or investigated it. Some actively resisted such investigation and tried to shut mine down."

"The idea of a prisoner autonomously going to the fence daily, every day, in a Nazi concentration camp and meeting a young girl at the guarded, electrified fence who was allegedly hiding under false identity with her family in the nearby village and who threw him food beggars the imagination. . . .

"So Herman and Roma overreached and actually demeaned their own Holocaust stories -- Herman forgot his brothers who kept him alive in the camps, Roma forgot her own remarkable and sad family story hiding not in Schlieben but elsewhere more than 200 miles away."

"But where were the culture makers on this one? What kind of questions did Penguin Berkley Press bring to bear regarding a memoir about a love story set in a concentration camp? What kind of strategy did Harris Salomon embrace to elevate a candy coated Holocaust love story to bring Holocaust education to Middle America? This was not Holocaust education but miseducation. Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart rending. All this shows something about the broad unwillingness in our culture to confront the difficult knowledge of the Holocaust. All the more important then to have real memoirs that tell of real experience in the camps. "

Deborah Lipstadt on Apples over the Fence

Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, just published an eloquent commentary on on the danger of the most recent fabricated Holocaust memoir, Apples over the Fence. Lipstadt wrote "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving." She was the target of a British libel lawsuit by Irving, a Holocaust revisionist, or someone who denies the truth of the Holocaust. Lipstadt won the case in April 2000.

I found the film producer's words to her quite appalling: "The producer who acquired movie rights tried to intimidate those of us who raised questions. He wrote to me saying, "'I have traveled all over Eastern Europe for several years in preparation for what will be a major feature film. I may be more of a Holocaust expert than you, even though, I have no title nor university affiliation. What I do know for sure is before I make any statements I know the facts. You simply do not know those facts, and that Deborah, is the greatest sin to the memory of all those perished so long ago.'"

She argues: "The events of the Holocaust are horrible in and of themselves. They do not need to be aggrandized or exaggerated to be made to sound any worse than they were. They also do not need to be rendered as joyful love stories that make us feel good about what happened. Both are insults to the survivors and inimical to the pursuit of historical truth. The optimum way of teaching about the Holocaust and presenting its history is, to quote Detective Joe Friday from the old TV show, "Dragnet," "just the facts, just the facts."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Holocaust 'Memoir' Canceled

A few weeks ago I wrote about the flood of Holocaust movies out right now, and how these movies aren't really about the suffering of Jews during the Shoah, how they are trying to tell stories of hope and optimism or teach people to be tolerant without really conveying truths about the Holocaust.

Now there's news that an upcoming book, "Angel at the Fence," about the Holocaust, pitched as a memoir, is going to be canceled because the central part of the love story, that a woman tossed apples over a concentration camp fence to the author, and then the author met this woman ten years later in Coney Island and married her, is fabricated. The movie, however, will still be made.

The author said in a statement released through his publisher: “Why did I do that and write the story with the girl and the apple, because I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people. I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world.”

What's disturbing about this is that at a time when there are very few remaining Holocaust survivors to tell their stories, a survivors felt compelled to fictionalize his true account of what happened to him in the camps. And why should a Holcaust victim feel compelled to "bring happiness to people"? How will people learn about the horrors of the Holocaust and the cruelty and nihilism that people are capable of if the only stories being published and produced into film are schmaltzy, kitschy stories about love, tolerance and hope?

Note that if the author had from the start pitched his story as one of fiction, not memoir, he would not have had to retract anything...Yet the book probably would have had far less appeal to the publishers.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frank Rich Spot on On Blagojevich

I loved Frank Rich's Sunday column. His take echoes mine (in my previous post), in that I'm sympathetic to Blagojevich. I feel sorry for the poor schnook. I was trying to get at that in my post, that he is an easy scapegoat, an easy unsophisticated target for Fitzgerald because of his profanity-laced Soprano-like language, which comes from the culture he grew up in.

Rich writes: "Blagojevich’s alleged crimes pale next to the larger scandals of Washington and Wall Street. Yet those who promoted and condoned the twin national catastrophes of reckless war in Iraq and reckless gambling in our markets have largely escaped the accountability that now seems to await the Chicago punk nabbed by the United States attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald."

"Our next president, like his predecessor, is promising 'a new era of responsibility and accountability.' We must hope he means it. Meanwhile, we have the governor he leaves behind in Illinois to serve as our national whipping boy, the one betrayer of the public trust who could actually end up paying for his behavior. The surveillance tapes of Blagojevich are so fabulous it seems a tragedy we don’t have similar audio records of the bigger fish who have wrecked the country. But in these hard times we’ll take what we can get."

Rich recounts a long list of figures who have betrayed the public trust, President Bush who lied about WMD, and economic advisers like Robert Rubin who gets away with making a "phone call to a former colleague in the Treasury Department to float the idea of asking credit-rating agencies to delay downgrading Enron’s debt." As Rich writes of Rubin and Phil Gramm, "both captains of finance remain unapologetic, unaccountable and still at their banks, which have each lost more than 70 percent of their shareholders’ value this year and have collectively announced more than 90,000 layoffs so far."

These are people responsible for the layoffs of thousands, for millions in shareholder losses, for the loss of lives in the war due to fabrication of WMDs, for are going to walk away scot-free. Rubin is someone who knows how to get away with bending the law while earning millions of dollars in a way that poor Blagojevich never knew how to do. Rubin knows the proper thing to say. Just as Trump, as Rich writes, knows how to avoid repaying a 40-million construction loan on his obscene tower in Chicago by copping to an "act of God."

Friday, December 12, 2008

On Blagojevich's "Character Being Destiny" as Huffington put it

I have to heartily disagree with Arianna Huffington's post from yesterday, that Blagojevich's "Character is Destiny."

Huffington writes:

"Blagojevich's serial sleaziness wasn't about alleviating what the governor called his family's 'financial stress.' Indeed, to understand what it was about, we must turn to literature and philosophy -- the only way to get a handle on this political Tony Soprano, a Big Machine capo with a little boy's haircut. As my compatriot Heraclitus put it so succinctly 2,500 years ago: 'Character is destiny.' Look at Blagojevich's life and his checkered tenure as Governor, and the amorality that led him to hang a For Sale sign on the Illinois statehouse door seems to have been part of his character for a very long time: he was a 78-page criminal indictment waiting to happen. He married into a politically powerful Chicago family, a union that helped take him from a nobody prosecutor trying traffic court cases ("Running a red light is fucking golden. You think I'm gonna let you off for fucking nothing? I'm not gonna do it.") to the governor's mansion in little more than a decade. Soon after taking office, he began delivering favors to those willing to fill his campaign coffers. As Shakespeare had Cassius lay it out for Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

After having just read Malcolm Gladwell's excellent new book The Outliers, I would argue that one's "Cultural Background is One's Destiny". (Where does "character" come from anyway, but from how one was raised)?

Gladwell's argument in the book is that it is very difficult to overcome one's cultural legacy, that cultural legacies have "deep roots and long lives": "They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them."

In one chapter, Gladwell explains that Appalachia was so violent in the late 19th and early 20th century "because of where the original inhabitants of the region came from,;" these regions were settled mainly by immigrants "from one of the world's most ferocious cultures of honor: from the lowlands of Scotland, the northern counties of England, and Ulster in Northern Ireland.

In another chapter, Gladwell shows how Chris Langan, a man with an incredibly high IQ never met with "success," because he didn't learn from his family how to negotiate, how to communicate, with authority, unlike another man, Robert Oppenheimer, who also was gifted with high intelligence, raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan, who attended a private school in NY, who therefore learned how to "negotiate [his] way out of a tight spot." Therefore, Oppenheimer was able to get away with trying to poison his tutor in college, he could talk his way out of things, and into things, into the position of scientific director of the Manhattan Project, while Langan couldn't even get his college professors to allow him to move his classes to the afternoon, and ended up dropping out of college.

Gladwell argues that Oppenheimer, because of the way he was brought up, with a father who had "made his way up in the business world," and who was sent to the private "Ethical Culture School," had developed the life skill of being able to get "the rest of the world to see things his way." In contrast, when Gladwell asked Langan if he would accept a job at Harvard University (he is trying to write a thesis on theoretical physics on his own) he answered: "When you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right versus what the man says you can do to reeive another paycheck."

As Gladwell writes, "What? One of the main reasons college professors accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them the freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right. Langan has Harvard backwards."

Because of Langan's cultural background, his family, how he grew up, he doesn't get how institutions work, he doesn't know how to speak to people in authority properly, how to get what he wants using the right language.

This reminds me an awful lot of Blagojevich. "Quid pro quo" is not at all foreign to politics. If Blagojevich hadn't been so crude about it on those tapes, so blunt, so "low-class," it wouldn't strike us as so offensive. Blagojevich is a man who didn't get along with a lot of others in politics. He wasn't able to get people to see things his way as Oppenheimer was. In September, an ethics bill he tried to pass in the Illinois House was rejected 113 to 3.

Blagojevich's father was an immigrant from Serbia. Through his own intelligence and hard work, Blagojevich himself went to the respectable college of Northwestern and then on to law school. But as the tapes show, his language is one inevitably peppered with the "f-word." He's laughingly being compared to Tony Soprano, another man who obviously was heir to the powerful force of his ethnicity and culture. Both are men who didn't get a chance to learn from their parents how to speak the right language of those in authority, a language of restraint, to get what they want legally.

Blagojevich legally had power over who he selected to fill Obama's senate seat. If he had used different language (and of course, if he didn't directly baldly ask for campaign contributions in exchange for the seat), if he had implied instead of stated things directly, if he had borrowed the language of a more upper-crust, upper-class, Puritan, Ivy-League way of speaking, this wouldn't be a scandal.

Book Review in the Forward

Based upon my last blog posting, I will be reviewing Jonathan Littell's book, The Kindly Ones, not yet published in English, in the spring books issue of The Forward.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On Recent Trends in 'Holocaust' Film and Literature

Last Sunday, A.O. Scott wrote a perceptive piece in the New York Times arguing that the recent flood of American/Hollywood films set in the Holocaust treats the Holocaust as just a backdrop. He writes, "For American audiences a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a western or a combat picture...-part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers. This may be the only, or at least the most widely available, way of keeping the past alive in memory, but it is also a kind of forgetting."

For a week before I read his article, I was puzzling over several recent trends in films and novels set in the Holocaust. A.O. Scott focuses on films, he doesn't mention similar trends in fiction. A very popular book right now with book clubs is The Book Thief, a story set during World War II, which largely tells the story of a young non-Jewish German girl, Liesel. I hated this book, although many people absolutely love it. When I saw the coming attractions for "A Boy in Striped Pajamas," which shares similar traits and motifs with The Book Thief, I realized why I found The Book Thief so repugnant.

There is a cloying sweetness and sentimentality to The Book Thief, which is told from the voice of Death itself--a conceit that I found unnecessary and too "cute," just as the very conceit of "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" is too cute by far--that a German boy would think that he just moved next door to a farm, not a concentration camp, and that the morose boy sitting by the barbed-wire fence is wearing pajamas not concentration camp garb. Why this insistence on turning Holocaust stories into fables?

The title of the novel on which the movie is based is actually, "A Boy in Striped Pajamas: A Fable." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a fable "as a fictitious narrative or statement," "a legendary story of supernatural happenings" or "a narration intended to enforce a useful truth; especially : one in which animals speak and act like human beings." So the very use of "fable" in the title of the book, "A Boy in Striped Pajamas," implies somehow that its story is one of fiction, moreover, that it is using the Holocaust backdrop not to tell a story about what happened in the Holocaust, to testify, but to make a point about some other "truth."

Both "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" and "Book Thief" make as their protagonists a non-Jewish child. So the viewer is made to empathize with the plight of a non-Jew during the Holocaust. There is nothing implicitly wrong with this--non-Jews certainly suffered during the Holocaust. We see how Liesel, the little girl in The Book Thief, is forced to live in poverty and with foster parents, and Bruno, the boy protagonist in "A Boy in Striped Pajamas" loses his innocence along with his life in the last few minutes of the film. But the implication of all these recent works told from the perspective of a non-Jew is that enough has been told of the Holocaust experience of the Jews, that all that is old hat, same old-same old, and that it's time for new stories, new slants on experiences during the Holocaust, to be told.

That's why we have reviews of the recent movie "The Counterfeiters," that start like this (this one is from the Daily Nebraskan): "Whenever a Holocaust movie comes to mind, it's usually the same horrendous, hopeless, desperate, atrocious, pure evil images that flash through my brain...The story of the Holocaust has been told countless times throug the medium of television, film and print; 'Shindler's List' aside, it's usually the same story of desolation and hopelessness from within the camp. 'The Counterfeiters,' however, is one of those intriguing, unconventional true stories that shows there are still more tales to be told about this heinous period of history."

You can almost taste the boredom in the reviewer's voice when he refer to the "same-old" Holocaust movie, the same-old "story of desolation and hopelessness". Audiences want something different. That's why "The Counterfeiters," an Austrian movie that focuses on a group of Jews given the task of counterfeiting German money, and therefore provided with soft bed, bountiful food and a ping pong table in the camp, won the Oscar in 2008 for "Best Foreign Language Film." The movie never shows a single visual of what suffering was like in the concentration camp for millions of Jews, it just focuses on this small group of Jews given special treatment. The assumption is that audiences are educated about the Holocaust, that they don't need to see what actually happened in the Holocaust to six million Jews, that they know enough about the horrors of the Holocaust that they can move on and now watch this movie about the privileged experience of a handful of skilled Jews picked to counterfeit money. But is that really the case? This movie was made in Austria--shouldn't Austrian moviegoers confront images of what it was like for Jews being beaten and gassed and tortured?

What's even more disturbing about this is now we are at a time when there are hardly any survivors of the Holocaust still living. So we have moved beyond the first wave of Holocaust literature, of works by Eli Wiesel and Primo Levi, both survivors, who wrote about their experiences and other Jews', depicting graphically the harrowing suffering of Jews not with a Schindler's List note of optimism but of nihilism, or of Art Spiegelman's Maus, creatively portraying the horrors of the Holocaust in cartoon form. The next wave of Holocaust depictions can be seen as represented by "Schindler's List", a Hollywood film not made by a survivor but a Jew who didn't shy away from graphic depictions of Jewish tragedy and suffering. Yet Spielberg made sure the film had some kind of sunny Hollywood ending, showing actual survivors of Schindler's list marching past his grave.

But this trend in recent fiction in film marks a third wave, a postmodern one, with stories written by non-Jews that make us empathize with non-Jewish German suffering during the Holocaust. The novel Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum, tells the story of a German woman who saved herself during the war by sleeping with a Nazi officer. (O.K., Blum's bio says she is of German and Jewish descent, but still, the novel focuses on the plight of a German non-Jewish woman.) The reader is made to see how this woman suffers, and has to compromise herself to survive--this is not a sentimental book, not in the vein of The Book Thief.

The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, translated from German in 1998 and an Oprah Book Club pick in Feb. 1999, soon-to-be-released in time for Christmas, depicts the love affair between a young German boy and a German woman he learns was an SS officer. Again, the writer makes the reader empathize with the plight of this German woman who surely would have had a better life had she had not been illiterate and chosen to be an SS officer, but very little wordage if any is spent on depicting the plight of Jews. Indeed, there is one passage in which the narrator, the German man, thinks to himself, "When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real."

Similarly, in The Dark Room,, non-Jewish British writer Rachel Seiffert writes three tales about the plight of non-Jews during World War II:
These are are "harrowing" stories, as Publishers Weekly put it, not sentimentalized like "Boy in Striped Pajamas" but similar in that they focus on the suffering of non-Jews: the middle story shows the "flight of a family of five bewildered children, led by Lore, the oldest girl, as they make their way after the Allied victory from Bavaria to their grandmother's house in Hamburg. Dependent on the charity of a fellow refugee (Tomas, a survivor of Buchenwald), the children are always on the verge of starving. After Tomas leads them to safety, Lore's gradual awareness of the Holocaust ages her beyond her years," and in the last story, set in the 1990s, "a young German teacher named Micha digs into the hidden history of his dead grandfather's wartime activity, travels to Belarus to discover the truth of Opa's SS-Waffen deeds and must grapple with the new, terrifying information he unearths."

There's nothing at all wrong with exploring the non-Jewish German experience during World War II, and telling stories about those who served in the SS. But why is there so much recent literature in this vein and not literature or film continuing to realistically depict the story of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust? Why are young Jewish writers not writing about Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, except in a magical realist way (a la Jonathan Safran Foer)?

As I said, the disturbing implication is that that particular story of Jewish suffering has already been told and that it is time to move on.

The problem is, that people today are not sitting and watching the movie "Shoah" or the miniseries "The Holocaust" or reading Wiesel or Primo Levi. Audiences today are seeing the schlock "The Boy in Striped Pajamas," or reading the magical realist "Book Thief," neither of which depicts what actually happened to Jews in the Holocaust. By giving such weight to the suffering of non-Jews in the Holocaust, the implication is that everyone suffered in the Holocaust, not Jews in particular, and this is a misleading and terribly troubling impression to give.

The danger of this is that the particularity of the Holocaust, how Jews in particular suffered, will be blurred by the weight of these works.

As Walter Reich, former director of the Holocaust Museum in D.C., said in a speech in 2005 about the dangers of distortion, trivialization and politicization in the recent "revived landscape of Holocaust memory", there is a central difference between the death of a Jew and a non-Jew during Nazi Germany: "The difference was that the first death was part of a ferocious, total, systematic and industrialized program of genocide, the most ferocious that has ever occurred, and the latter death was part of the savage brutality of Nazi Germany. It was the totality and intent of the first process that made it unique, and that the world must understand, in order to understand the nature and possibilities of murderous racism and genocide. The second process, alas, the world has seen all too much of...The difference isn't in the death; it's in the context and intent of that death. If one erases the difference by merging the deaths under the single rubric of 'Holocaust,' one erases our ability to understand the peculiarly evil nature of the mass extermination of an entire people."

Reich talks about President Carter's executive order creating the Holocaust museum, in which he insisted on referring to the "eleven million victims of the Holocaust, six million of which were Jews."

Reich explains how the eleven million figure was a figment created by Simon Weisenthal to get non-Jews to sympathize with the tragedy suffered by Jews, and says the effect of "this official conflation of historical tragedies" by President Carter's edict is "to rob us of a discrete event from which the whole world has much to learn."

What Reich worried about in 2005 has come true in recent portrayals of the Holocaust. In fact, the director of "The Boy in Striped Pajamas," Mark Herman, says in an interview in Entertainment News Wire (Nov. 6. 2008) that the film "is not specifically about Nazis." And the film's producer, David Heyman, says that while it is a "Holocaust story set in 1940s Germany, for me it is timeless." He then refers to contemporary horrors such as Rwanda, Darfur and Somalia. Reich spoke about how the word "Holocaust" has increasingly been appropriated by a "wide variety of groups to crystallize their sense of their victimization," thereby resulting in a "dilution of the term's meaning and specificity." So the director and producer of "Boy in Striped Pajamas" see their film as a fable about racism and prejudice in general, not as a depiction of what happened in particular, uniquely, and horrifically, in the Holocaust, to Jews. These are not films or novels about the Holocaust at all, but works that are using the backdrop of the Holocaust to tell a story about something general: human failing, racism, moral culpability.

While it's a free world, and art can and should be used to tell a multitude of stories and to express a multitude of meanings, in stripping away the particularity of the Holocaust, of what happened uniquely to the Jews in Nazi Germany, this rise in so-called Holocaust depictions only manages to distort and blur our collective memory.