I was reading a piece about man who faces jail in Germany for using an anti-Semitic Hitler speech as a ring-tone. This particular speech pledged “the destruction of world Jewry.”
Germany happens to have laws in place against hate speech, Holocaust Denial and other types of hateful expression borne of Nazi Germany. The guy faces up to 6 months in jail. It brings to mind an incident not long ago. I was at the gym listening to my iPod. Just after I was serenaded by Billy Joel, I was snapped to attention when a Hitler speech started playing! Quite the musical transition! Imagine my surprise when I went from Billy Joel to a Hitler rant.
I had previously downloaded some Hitler speeches as part of my research for a book on hate speech. Unbeknown to me, the speeches had transferred to my iPod when I synced it with my Mac. Glad there were no police waiting to arrest me. I will be sure to check my Ipod play-list before my next trip to Germany.
Would it surprise anyone to learn that there were upwards of 150, 000 soldiers of partial Jewish descent serving in the German army during World War II? I had no idea until I attended a lecture by Bryan Mark Rigg discussing his book entitled Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers. What is even more startling is that Adolf Hitler was aware of this and for a while allowed them to serve. In most cases these soldiers had no knowledge of the Holocaust killing machine. From their point of view they were simple German patriots fighting for their country. Many did not even consider themselves Jewish. Some were unaware of their “Jewish blood”. According to his book, at least 20 soldiers of “Jewish blood” were awarded The Knights Cross. Included in the ranks were two field marshals and fifteen generals. The most prominently known of these commanders of Jewish descent was General Erhard Milch who had one Jewish parent. He was deputy to Herman Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe(German Air Force).
When I look back at my own Jewish Immigrant background, the “specter” of Jews fighting for the Nazis in the traditional sense sickens stomach. My ancestry is much like other Jewish immigrants. Both sides of my family immigrated to the Unites States from Czarist Russia in the early 1900’s. They came to escape the brutal exterminating pogroms of the Russian authorities much like the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Czarist officials not only promoted pogroms to blame Jews for government failures and economic depressions but also to isolate jews and keep them fearful. They forced the “Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion,” a documents used the to justify persecuting Jews ans stil in circulation now in Middle Eastern Countries to “prove” that Jews controlled World Finance. Moreover, the Czars conscripted Jewish youth as young as 12 to serve 25 years in the army. Some Russian Jews immigrated to Poland only to be ultimately persecuted by both the Hitler regime and their very own. German born Jews treated Eastern Jews as inferior calling them “Ghetto Jews”. Jews of this background constituted the majority of the Jews massacred pursuant to “The Final Solution“.
The common public notion is that no one of Jewish descent would have ever been allowed to serve in the Nazi regime and, if discovered, would be immediately deported to a forced labor or extermination/concentration camp. This was not the case. The Nazi racial classification or “Nuremberg Laws” were complex and bizarre as to who was classified as a “Jew”. (see Nazi classification chart) This classification dispute is responsible for some controversy. Some scholars have complained that the title of Rigg’s book is sensational and misleading because it implies that these Nazi soldiers were Jewish when, in fact, many of them would not be classified as Jews under Jewish law (Young men were considered Jewish if their mothers were Jewish.). Many of the soldiers interviewed did not consider themselves Jewish at all and had been baptized into a Christian tradition. I view this as a simplistic criticism since the overall issue of how Hitler bent and twisted the racial laws of his regime to serve his own bizarre purposes in the face of the Nuremberg laws is a fascinating idea that Riggs explains from a unique perspective. Riggs demonstrates the willingness of the Nazis to bend their own laws of racial classification and Jewish persecution and documents Hitler’s extensive , obsessive involvement in deciding which “Jews” received a pass ,which would be discharged, and which would ultimately be deported. Riggs also explores the historical, religious and cultural individual personal conflicts of “The Jewish Identity”.
While most of Jewish descent were ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers, some rose to very high ranking positions of authority in the Nazi Regime. Some either directly or indirectly participated in the Jewish killing machine. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country whose official policy was that they were regarded as second-class citizens and, in most cases, not even human. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country that was deporting their relatives to concentrations camps for eventual extermination. Germans of Jewish descent were fighting for a country who, some say, planned to ultimately exterminate them also when Germany won the war. How could these “Jews” fight for a country that planned their extinction? Why did Hitler allow this to take place? We know it is not due to the common misconception that Hitler was part Jewish. Scholars universally agree that there is no evidence of this. Rigg’s thesis certainly goes against everything I believed about my identity as a Jew and what it means to be Jewish. Does having “Jewish blood” in itself make you Jewish? While the simple answer seems to be no, it was quite complicated in Nazi Germany.
A fascinating aspect of the lecture and the book is the method by which the Nazis determined who was Jewish and who was not. For racial and military purposes, the Nazi Party classified Jewish people as full Jews, half Jews, and quarter Jews. Each classification was treated differently with regards to whether they could serve in the German military and what rights, if any, they had under German law. As previously mentioned, according to Jewish law, a person is determined to be a Jew if the person’s mother is Jewish.
I would have been a full Jew under Nazi laws. All four of my grandparents on both sides were Jewish. I am also of Russian descent. Not only would I have been prohibited from serving in the German military, I would have in all likelihood been on the first train out to to Auschwitz or some other extermination camp. Jews of Eastern descent or “Ghetto Jews” were also looked down upon and discriminated against by German born Jews as well as the Germans. It was a double whammy. (it was an upper vs lower class type discrimination as compared to the totalitarian discrimination of the Nazis)
Many of those of partial Jewish descent while Jewish by both Jewish law and Nazi racial classification had become so assimilated into the German-Christian society through mixed marriages that they did not consider themselves Jewish. Some were practicing Christians. This was only changed through Hitler’s racial classification system and the Nuremberg Laws which officially made the majority of people of full and partial Jewish descent second-class citizens called “Mischling“, meaning they came from a mixed marriage and had partial Jewish ancestry. Germans of partial Jewish descent who had practiced Christianity all of their lives, were suddenly classified as a “Mischling,” Jews under Hitler’s racial classification laws. They were suddenly stripped of most rights under German law.
Interestingly, the situation was not just a German/Jewish phenomenon. In 1941, Finland joined the war as a “co-belligerent” of Germany. (Finland refused to call itself an ally.) There were 250-300 Finnish-Jews fighting alongside Germany on the eastern front against Russia, and some of the Finnish-Jews were even awarded German battle decorations. Soldiers with Jewish heritage also fought along side the Nazis when Romania was aligned against the Soviet Union as well as for Italy.
There was a huge ideology gap between what occurred in Finland and Nazi Germany. Finland was not under Nazi rule. Finland, from its perspective, was fighting for its independence from Russia rather than to support any anti-Semitic ideology or German persecution. Finland as a nation refused to endorse the Nazi anti-Semitic policies and refused to deport, persecute or discriminate against its Jewish population. It is quite the paradox that despite this policy their fighting alongside Germany certainly helped Germany achieve military goals and indirectly aided in the Jewish persecutions. The Finnish-Jewish soldiers were not blind to what was going on. It caused quite a bit of internal conflict and tension with the German soldiers. This was also not a racial classification issue. Finland did not discriminate against or classify their Jews. In this situation, full, practicing Jews were fighting alongside the Nazis against the Allies, fighting predominately at Leningrad.
The German racial classification system for Jews and the resulting disparate treatment with regards to military service in the Nazi army highlights some of the fundamental issues of Jewish Identify that exist even today. What does it mean to be Jewish? What qualities and beliefs make someone Jewish? If your mother is Jewish you are certainly a Jews by definition of Jewish Law but that may not be how you may look at yourself if you were not raised in the Jewish tradition. Are we as Jews defined by our culture, our religious practices or how other view us? As an example, several years ago I got into a heated argument when a person who was close to me told me in her opinion I was not Jewish because I did not adhere to Jewish religious practices. I was infuriated. It was and is my belief that my bond to Judaism is through culture, common history and suffering. The bond that all Jews share. That is what defines me as a Jew. She could not grasp this concept. This was the dilemma faced by many of the Mischling in Nazi Germany. This is a historical and religious conflict faced by Jews today as mixed marriages have become much more common and accepted in the United States. Jews argue among themselves over this issue. It is a conflict that transcends time.
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According to Fox News, a survey of around 1,000 Britain high school students aged 11 to 16 found 10 percent of youngsters were unsure of what Auschwitz was and 2 percent thought it was a brand of beer. For those of us actually in the know Auschwitz was a Nazi concentration/extermination camp in which over 1 million Jews and other undesirables were worked and gassed to death.
I do not find this survey suprising. It makes perfect sense to me. It is not because Brits are any less intelligent, their teachers any less educated or the schools are any less educationally efficient in world history. IMHO none of these are the reason. The reason is simple. British parents and grandparents who lived through the Nazi terror are sick and tired of talking about it. They lived and breathed the wrath of Hitler when it mattered most. They feel they have been beaten over the head with Hitler and the Holocaust for over 60 years. They want to move on. They are therefore diminishing it in the schools and to their children. How do I know this? They have told me. I have written quite few blogs on the Holocaust and Hitler. Without exception, after each one is written I will get emails from people in the U.K asking me why I find the material intersting and telling me they find it tiresome. While they acknowledge the importance of the events, they feel like they are being held “historically hostage” Whats the logical follow? Schools stop talking about it to students. Grandprents and parents stop talking about it to their children. Is that the right way to go? That is not for me to say. I find the subject of the Holocaust fascinating and believe it should be a historical imperative in secondary education. I will never forget and hope no one else does. I however did not live through the bombing of London.
2008-2009 has seen the return of the Holocaust in Hollywood with several movies either dealing with the subject directly or tangentially. The Holocaust has always been sporadic material for Hollywood. Every few years a small budget independent or documentary will show up, but mainstream Hollywood rarely invests in a Holocaust masterpiece. If a big budget film about the Holocaust manages to become a reality, the result is generally an accurate account of genocide delivered in epic dimensions. The Holocaust is such a sacred, emotional and controversial subject that it would be Hollywood suicide to make a historically inaccurate or irresponsible film. A film that varies from the basic facts of actual events risks being considered revisionist which would be a disaster for a mainstream film as well as the people behind it.
Hollywood is acutely aware that a Holocaust film, to be accepted on any level, must always stay faithful to basic accepted concepts and historical outlines regarding a specific event or specific issue within that event. It is acceptable to create fictional people and places and subplots around a particular event but to alter a Holocaust event even slightly is very risky and frankly taboo. The Holocaust is such a sacred and risky subject for film makers that while many Holocaust films are done very few are released in wide distribution or considered mainstream. Most are, in fact, documentaries. A formidable documentary on the subject is Imaginary Witness:Hollywood and the Holocaust. It had very limited release and is unfortunately very difficult to locate. If you want to see it you are going to have to get lucky on Ebay.
There is no denying that sentiments and views of the Holocaust have changed over the years since the end of World War II. Hollywood has changed right along with those sentiments and views and changed the types of movies and the way events are depicted. A review of the Internet Movie Database reveals that from 1945-2008 reveals that there were over 400 theatrical productions and documentaries made which addressed the Holocaust in one form or another. Of those, the majority were foreign-made documentaries. One explanation for this is that Europe as a whole was much more willing to face and deal with the horror of what happened than the United States as a whole. This would make sense just in terms of the sheer numbers of Holocaust survivors in Europe and Israel as compared to the United States starting from the end of the war. The vast majority lived, and still live, in places other than the United States. The numbers would obviously balance out over time to some degree based on shifting demographics and the extremely high mortality rates of aging survivors.
If you look at the types of movies that were made, there is no escaping that up through the 1980’s the Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust was very shallow and dismissive not counting documentaries. Here is my list of Hollywood movies and television media that I feel offer the most to the viewer in the portrayal of events and figures of the Holocaust. I include foreign films if they had mainstream United States release. I am only including films whose main focus was the Holocaust as compared to the holocaust being just one historical event in the movie. An example would be Band Of Brothers. This mini-series addresses the Holocaust but is not about the Holocaust. Another recent two films I left off because I did not consider them Holocaust films are Defiance(2008) and Good(2008). I will start with the most recent entries into the Holocaust genre, “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” and “The Reader”.
The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. Adapted from the book of the same name by John Boyne. A heart ripping movie along the same lines as Life Is Beautiful. This time told from the side of the child of a Concentration Camp Commandant who befriends a Jewish child imprisoned in the camp. The child has been shielded by his father from the horror, brutality and the truth of the purpose of the camp. I consider this one of the best if not the best film of 2008. A must see.
The Reader(2009). Ralph Fiennes harkens back to his brilliant performance as the brutal Plasow Concentration Camp Commandant Amon Goeth in Schindler’s list to once again tackle the Holocaust in a much different light. His character has an affair with his care-taker and Eight years later, while a law student observing the Nazi war crime trials, he is re-united in a shocking way. She is a defendant charged with war crimes.
Paperclips(2004) An extraordinary documentary that I stumbled across surfing cables channels once night. Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the last place that you would think would be a hot bed of Holocaust study. It however is the setting for this documentary about a unique experiment in Holocaust understanding. The students at Whitewell collect six-million paper clips to better understand the extent of Holocaust and share that understanding with Holocaust survivors.
The Diary Of Anne Frank(1959). The 1959 version appears to be Hollywood’s first mainstream attempt to bring the Holocaust to the masses although it did so by sacrificing the depth and emotion of the Holocaust to give the public a Hollywood blockbuster movie. The movie itself was a Hollywood hit by the standards of the day. It won three Oscars. An interesting side note is that Audrey Hepburn turned down the role of Anne Frank because she herself lived in occupied Holland and witnessed Nazi atrocities first-hand. To get a feel for early Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust, the Diary of Anne Frank is a must see, but be sure to view the original before viewing the remakes.
Holocaust(1978). A four-part made-for-TV mini-series. That was the first major network big time portrayal of the subject. The series was a monstrous success, drawing a 49 percent market share. So many people watched this mini-series in New York City when first broadcast, that when commercials were on, the local water pressure dropped due to the large number of people using their toilets at once. It won Golden Globe and Emmy awards. It was very instrumental in rocketing the career of Meryl Streep. Michael Moriarty is brilliant as an out of work lawyer who enters the Nazi party and advances through brutality and helping implement “The Final Solution”. Interestingly the series was only as of May 2008 available on DVD in the United States. It had previously only been released in Europe. I am not sure if that was an economic issue, a rights issue, or once again an example of a much more apathetic view of the subject in the United States.
Schindler’s List(1993). The Holocaust comes to Generation X with the Steven Spielberg story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and Nazi party member who started out getting rich off the backs of Jewish slave labor and ended up finding his own humanity. He went on to save thousands of Jews from the gas chamber, risking both his personal wealth and his safety to save as many Jews as possible. He spent his entire fortune to bribe Germans and basically “buy” the Jews who worked for him. He kept them for the most part safe until Germany’s surrender. He ended up penniless. Today, there are more than 6000 descendants of “Schindler Jews” living around the world. The movie is done in and black and white and riveting from beginning to end. When I saw this movie, I could hear sobbing all over the theater. Ralph Fiennes is absolutely brilliant as Amon Goeth, the brutal commandant of the Plazow forced labor camp. I view this movie as the first mainstream attempt to bring the true graphic brutality of the Holocaust to our doorsteps. This is the Holocaust movie of our generation. If you asked 100 people under 40 what movie they last saw about the Holocaust, I would be shocked if the majority did not say Schindler’s List. The movie itself was a huge critical and box office success winning seven Oscars
Sophie’s Choice(1982). Sophie’s Choice is a brilliant performance by Meryl Streep as a Holocaust survivor with dark secrets in her family’s past. Her performance as Sophie Zawistowska is ranked #3 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. She won an academy award for her performance. It should be noted that this film was released 11 years prior to Schindler’s list. It contains one of the most heart wrenching moments in movie history when Sophie recounts the night she arrived at Auschwitz with her children, and of how she was forced by a Nazi officer to choose life for one child and death for the other.
Life Is Beautiful(1997). Life is Beautiful is a Holocaust film told like no other. Instead of focusing on the tragedy, brutality and death of the Holocaust, it is told from the view of a man who uses the gift of humor to protect his only son from the inhumanity while in a concentration camp. The film is incredible in that it allows you to smile and laugh with Guido right up until the tragic end and not feel sad. It sends the strong message that our ability to laugh and make others laugh is ours alone, no matter what forces pull at us. This movie won three Academy Awards. While classified as a Holocaust film, this film is also a joyous celebration of the human spirit. I almost did not see this film, but I have now seen it a total of four times.
The Pianist(2002). This movie is told from the viewpoint of a very talented piano player hiding out in the Warsaw Ghetto throughout the Warsaw Ghetto Liquidation and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Adrian Brody does a brooding, self-absorbed pianist. When the German occupation begins, he simply wonders when he will be able to return to his music. When the killing begins, he is forced to hide and change his priorities to simply trying to survive. Even though he can no longer play, music is the hope and salvation that keeps him alive.
The Grey Zone(2001). The Grey Zone is gritty, dark and sometimes hard to follow. It is, however, a must-see for all those who want an understanding of the Holocaust beyond the basics. The Grey Zone deals with an issue that is very sensitive to Holocaust survivors–Jews sending other Jews to the gas chamber. These Jews were called “Sonderkommandos”. Sonderkommando members did not participate directly in the killing, which was reserved for the guards. While their primary responsibility was disposing of the corpses, they often took a much more active role in getting the inmates ready to enter the gas chambers. These inmates were kept in close groups and had much better living conditions than the average inmate, but they were also killed off at regular intervals to prevent any word of the inner workings of the Nazi death apparatus from leaking to the outside world. This movie is about one of several Sonderkommado revolts that took place. The movie features an outstanding peformance by Harvey Keitel.
Playing for Time. Playing for Time is a made-for-T.V piece that is worth seeing. Another movie that gives a perspective on the inner workings of Nazi Concentration Camps in which some inmates were forced to play music for the others as they marched to the gas chambers or life-death selection process. The purpose was to keep them calm and reduce the chances of revolt. You can read an excellent article on the subject here.
Europa Europa(1991). A young Jewish boy poses as a German “aryan” orphan and joins the Hilter Youth in the early days of World War II. An interesting look at the racial, moral and religious identity struggles faced by Jews as they did what they could to prevent their extermination in Nazi Germany. Based on a true story.
Music Box(1989).This is one of the few movies dealing with the issues of aging former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who committed war crimes living in the United States. Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stah give great performances. The movie is based on the true story of John Demjanjuk. While the premise of a daughter representing her father on trial with such high stakes is a stretch, it works well here. Jessica’s emotional opening statement is also unrealistic and inadmissible. The movie is incredibly moving on all levels. You are torn between her father as a loving grandfather and a brutal murderer guilty of terrible war crimes. In an interesting twist of life imitating art, the father of Joe Eszterhas who wrote the screenplay, was accused of writing anti-Semitic propaganda before and during World War II. Like the character in Music Box, his father denied being the person who wrote these materials. Mr. Ezterhas denies knowing anything about his father’s past at the time he wrote the screenplay. There is a great article about this that can be read here.
That is my list of Holocaust films that I feel are must sees for anyone wanting to get a good understanding of the subject through Hollywood. Is this a definitive list? Absolutely not. There are numerous foreign films and documentaries dealing with general and specific issues surrounding the Holocaust. There are also some Hollywood selections I left out such as Uprising. Uprising specifically addresses the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. While it is an entertaining mini-series, I felt it the portrayal was a step backwards in that it was too much in the line of the 1978 mini-series Holocaust. It could have been done much more effectively. I feel the above selections are a good starting point for all.
Please feel free to comment and add you own movies to the list with an explanation of why you feel it is an important film or simply why you enjoyed it.