Director's Statement

Healing from Holocaust


Director’s Statement

by Doniphan Blair


Some say the Holocaust is too monstrous to be understood, while others feel the subject is already oversaturated, two oddly mirrored and, in my opinion, erroneous positions. Certainly, the Holocaust needs to be studied, however imperfectly, to make sense of our modern world. But, to do so, we must dig deeper and find fresh insight.


"The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank (1952) opened the first major window on the subject, but it was not until the television show, "The Holocaust", in 1978, that there was an updated interpretation. Moreover, it was soon followed by the masterful documentary “Shoah” in 1985 and Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List” in 1993. Since the latter is almost two generations old, the time has come for the next level of investigation.


My research started at the Holocaust Center of Northern California, in San Francisco, and continued through university classes, extensive reading, conferences and survivor interviews, both filming for Spielberg’s "Shoah Project” and working with my mother, Tonia Rotkopf Blair, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Mauthausen.


Over the course of over thirty years, I have stumbled on a couple of insights that helped me get a handle on this perverse history.


Why did the Germans consider Jews foreigners, even though Yiddish and Middle German are cousin languages and they lived side-by-side, with some intermarriage, for a millennia and a half?  It started with a legalism inherited from Gothic tribal jurisprudence. After the Goths converted to Christianity, other Christians became honorary tribal members but the Jews not.


Why were the Jews moneylenders? The prohibition of usury is another normal tribal law but it makes commerce between tribe difficult and within a civilization like Christian Europe impossible. Although the Christians insisted on borrowing this as well from Judaism, it was only enforced after Christ did not return with the turn of the millennia. Assuming it was due to their fiduciary sins, feudal lords and clerics began restricting Jews to only two professions, ragpicking and moneylending, the latter as a front for their own banking.


But the discovery most critical to my understanding was that the concentration camps did not prove survival of the fittest.


I first came to Holocaust Studies, or Holocology as it can be called, to address the feelings of rage and injury inflicted by a childhood overshadowed by a secret too monstrous and painful to discuss. When I finally interviewed my mother, in the mid-1980s at age 30, and learned the details, I realized the terrible burden could be examined, learned from and healed.


I also couldn’t help but note the symbolism of my mother marrying my father, a cinematographer. But when I thought about film topics, I was more interested in heroics, like the story of Mordecai Anielewicz, who snuck back from Russia to help lead the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.


I was reminded of the innate Darwinism of the Holocaust by the many references by Nazi leadership, who considered the extermination of the Jews expressions of his theory of evolution. But when I finally read Darwin, I was surprised to find a second theory called sexual selection, which was based on relationships not power.


In war time, in point of fact, relationships become essential, life or death. For every killing there is a saving, someone keeping hope alive. Hence, wars also involve women and acts of kindness, what can be called “the women’s way of war.”


In this light, I came to see my mother as innocently heroic. As men across the world went about the grisly business of murdering each other, from early 1940 to late 1944, my mother worked in hospitals, nursed the dying — often with no food, let alone medicine — comforted children and snuck food to the starving.


Bruno Bettelhiem, an early famous Holocologist (a Chicago-based psychiatrist), would have dismissed my mother, as he did Otto Frank, for irrational passivity. But was it her job to try to kill the nearest Nazi and die in the process?


After the war, when there was in fact an SS man in one of her hospital beds, begging her not to give him a deadly “air injection,” she was confused: killing those she was assigned to heal was beyond her. Indeed, setting a tone of endless revenge and slaughter is not in keeping with Jewish morality, romantic believe in redemption or her own feelings.


Conversely, flirting with a German airforce officer, who worked near her for a while assembling aircraft, restored her faith in the humanity. Although a Jewish organization we contacted for funding said they would not support positive portrayals of “fraternizing with the enemy,” we made that scene the climax of our piece.


When the officer said, “What a wonderful war, every one is burnt, your mother, your father…” he was speaking in a code to avoid eavesdroppers, since fraternization was punishable by death. But he succeeded in reaching across the abyss to communicate to my mother his humanity, emphasized to an extreme by his gift of nylon stockings!


Although my mother claims nothing special in her behavior, by fighting as a woman, not as a woman in the manner of a man, she added some kindness to the avalanche of atrocity that was the Holocaust, retaining her humanity and the hope of progress. So much so, my childhood, which started a mere nine years after the concentration camps, was suffused with love, romance and a trust of strangers.


Certainly, if the women didn’t fight against war in this manner, success on the battlefield would mean little: returning soldiers would find women who were soul dead.


By 1997, when my father was getting on in years and we had to make the movie soon, I found a framework for interpreting my mother’s experience. My daughter Irena was 16 and images of her with my mother would remind the viewer that the elderly woman describing the atrocities had once been a handsome teenager.


In addition, we wanted to highlight how Irena, a third generation survivor, assimilated the experience. Reaching her cohort was always central to our project, hence our inclusion of a partially rock score and some cutting-edge graphics.


Making the piece autobiographical was logical, since we were a family of filmmakers on a tight budget, but it shortened the subject-object distance almost unbearably, especially for my daughter.


Already in a rebellious mode, trying to maintain her identity in the face of the forces of filmmaking, the family and the history was difficult. Her foot dragging and apparent boredom annoyed us, even threatened to derail the film, until we got back to the editing room and noticed she had created a great character arc. She moved from recalcitrance through resistance to anguish and finally understanding.


A critical catalyst for this was in the “star scene:” when the family sewed Jewish stars and then walked through the streets of Freiberg, Germany, some wearing the stars, others not. This re-enactment, which I prefer to call a performances piece, was designed not so much to imitate but conjure an experience for the participants to better understand it—part of my effort to dig a little deeper.


Actually, "Our Holocaust Vacation" was originally a three-hour epic with long sections on my Polish family, additional family interactions, comments on the filmmaking process itself, and many more weird war stories.


One very weird one to hit the cutting room floor was when Tonia was kidnapped by German soldiers, one evening on her way home from the hospital, to become a maid. While cleaning the floor, the German woman living there stomped on her fingers — a vivid testament to the “Pyramid of Pain” on which Nazism depended. Having a Fuhrer on top, able to order an entire nation, requires the concentration camp underneath, the last level of abuse,which finances the entire atrocity.


But we feel our 84-minute version, especially with its remastered music, has a better-balanced view of the grotesqueries as well as of the women’s story and a family healing, while the 56-minute version moves quicker and was the most popular on PBS.


Written in 2012


Healing from Holocaust

by Doniphan Blair


After vanquishing ones opponents in war and protecting ones physical space, the next step is healing the emotional and spiritual injury.


This was a difficult challenge for much of the world after World War II, not just the survivors of the Holocaust. Of course, the obliteration of survivors' families, homes, entire societies, as well as individual psyches, was often so extreme that the only logical option seemed to be suicide. Nevertheless, despite those during the war and the wave of suicides in the 1950s, it was not as extreme as might be imagined.

Indeed, the survivors returned to normalcy surprisingly quickly — once they found a place of refuge — taking jobs, attending schools and rebuilding families. In "Our Holocaust Vacation," we documented how normalcy was maintained during the Holocaust through kindness, gift giving, friendship and even romance.


After the war, although anti-Semitism continued in Eastern Europe and prevented immigration to Palestine, and many Jews remained in Displaced Person Camps for years, Jewish communities and various nations helped with resettlement and starting over.


The survivors were assisted in their resiliency by Jewish history and the Bible, where stories of previous persecutions, from the Spanish Inquisition to Russian Pograms provided some insight, as did the Book of Job.


Contrary to the spectacularly simplistic view that the "Jews must have done something wrong against the people of Europe," as professed by anti-Semites, or “against God," as claimed by religious Jews, The Book of Job explains "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” While couched in a typical Biblical parable, the book points out that the universe is rather large and "stuff happens" beyond the control of any one man.


Although Job "desire(s) to argue my case with God" (13:3), he is famously patient and comes to accept the doings of his Lord even in all its monstrousness. Indeed, the Jobian parable solves the riddle of a single god. Monotheism is a metaphor which stands in for the unified field theories of physics, the evolution of biology and the morality that all men are created equal and joined in one humanity. This provided Jewish agnostics as well as orthodox a framework for believing in the goodness of humanity and progress towards decency.


Of course, recovering from the Holocaust was extremely difficult. After the world was fully informed by Allied newsreels in May 1945, the Allied commanders retreated from a full exposes because it was simply so horrific. People needed to regain their humanity, and my mother Tonia and her friends avoided indepth discussions, attended theaters, went on vacations — partied even.


Although Primo Levi published his "Survival in Auschwitz" in 1948, the only Holocaust story to reach a broad audience was "Diary of a Young Girl," by Anne Frank (1952). Translated into dozens of languages and now the earth’s biggest bestseller after “The Bible”, it reached both Broadway and Hollywood to great acclaim by the end of the 1950s.


This is understandable since "Diary" examines the issues from a bit of a remove and Anne's death from typhus in Bergen-Belsen is not part of the narrative, and few knew how precisely to address the issue.


In fact, the World Psychiatric Association, which had a large Jewish contingent, did not identify survivor trauma — or guilt, as it is sometimes called — until 1963. Eli Weisel only published his seminal book, "Night," in 1955. Even in the late 1970s, there was very little Holocaust curriculums, in the United States as well as Germany. Officials were at a loss how to teach it.


This ended with the television show "The Holocaust" in 1978 which compelled German television stations to start information centers, inspired the survivors to start gathering, and triggered interest in a Holocaust Museum, which signed into law in 1979 by President Carter.


The Museum finally opened in 1993. By that time the world had already been moved by Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" (1985) and Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993).


Numerous survivor groups had been formed, including Benjamin Mead's International Association of Holocaust Survivors, which had its first reunion in Israel in 1982 and Washington 1983, all of which was immensely beneficial in bringing these issues to the light and helping healing. Indeed, the formation of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, in 1985, which my mother joined, and the rest of her family participated in, was immensely cathartic, notably the annual four-day gathering, which we attended religiously.


In my own family's case, my mother Tonia did not marry another survivor or even a Jew, as was standard. In survivor communities, like in Camden, New Jersey, or Skokie, Illinois, people could communicate through shorthand without having to elucidate the grotesque details.


Another important growth event came when Tonia and my father, Vachel, decided to visit Poland, including Auschwitz, in 1980. Coupled with her enrollment in Columbia University, revising the past helped bring her Holocaust experience into the open. The 1983 reunion in Washington was also a big boost, as was the Lodz reunion in the Catskills the following year.


Although I led the way, my entire family entered a deep immersion into Holocology in 1984. After some years of discussion, a certain peace. Yes, my mother is still plagued by nightmares, and introducing the subject to my daughter, Irena, is at the center of our film "Our Holocaust Vacation”. But the discussion, the reaffirmation of love and the basic passing of time were healing.


Speaking for myself, when I could finally wrap my head around the historical and psychological factors that led to the Holocaust — notably through Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951) and Terrence Des Pres’s “The Survivor” (1976) — it took the edge of my internal angst. It allowed me to accept the immense event as a horrific tragedy but also part of humanity's evolution towards increased goodness.


It is important, I feel, to contexualize the Holocaust, see it as massive but not entirely unique, in so much that genocides have occurred elsewhere and oppression of the Jews started long before historically. Similarly, Hitler and the German people were not insane, although the former was obviously disturbed psychologically. They were simply making simplistic solutions within the context of their culture, which tolerated anti-Semitism, and was built on hatred of the other.


Devoted Darwinists, the Nazis failed to read his second book, "The Descent of Man by Means of Sexual Selection," which contradicts a lot of their simplistic survival notions. Indeed, it could be said that they invented Auschwitz to distance their soldier's from the killing process, which they realized would injure them psychologically.


They didn't force their young soldiers to machinegun the trainloads of young Jewish women at the end of the war, despite the obvious fact those women would bear Jewish offspring, because they were human enough to know that would injure those soldiers irreparably when they returned to society to marry women and raise children.


Although we had already been discussing it for over a decade, my family's greatest healing came when we made the movie in 1997. Revisiting the sites of my mother's travails and discussing it at length in a climate of love and understanding appeared to reconfigure it in our psyches. Her stories of kind strangers — Germans as well as her fellow Jews — and our own experiences with helpful Poles, Germans and especially the good Samaritans of Pilsen, Czech Republic, who delivered a load of hot food to my mother's deportation train, restored our faith in humanity.


When we shot the film, Lodz, Poland, was still a thread bare, rust belt Soviet-era city, with only one monument to the Jews who once lived there — often graffitied by soccer hooligans.


When we returned in 2005, we were astounded to find that two more monuments had been build, including a park at the site of the Jewish ghetto, where we planted a tree for our family. Moreover, there was a budding Jewish community with a shule and kindergarten. In fact, the mayor had made his town a sister of Tel Aviv, where the mayor there was from Lodz, and instituted an annual remembrance march. In a sense, Lodz itself had healed.


And so it comes to pass: through love for the traumatized victim, which sustains them through the terrible first healing period, through research of the atrocity, which synches the mind's thoughts with the emotion's awareness, and finally through understanding and assimilation of the all the issues involved, we can heal. Other basic psychological and spiritual endeavors are also recommended, as each most find a regimen suitable to their psyche.


Admittedly, it is not always successful. Nevertheless, my experiences at survivor gathering — as well as general statistics — indicates that the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their descendants were able to heal.


Written in 2012

Read 8390 times Last modified on Monday, 03 June 2019 08:38

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