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 should 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 Anne Frank opened the first window on the subject in the 1950’s but it was not until the television show, The Holocaust, in 1978, that there was an updated interpretation, soon followed by the masterful documentary Shoah and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Since the latter is some fifteen years 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 (filming for myself and Spielberg’s Shoah Project). Over the course of twenty 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, since the 3rd century? It started with a legalism inherited from Gothic tribal jurisprudence: after the Goths converted, other Christians became honorary tribal members but the Jews not. Why were the Jews moneylenders? The prohibition of usury makes commerce impossible but this concept (also borrowed by Christianity from Judaism) was only enforced after Christ did not make a second millennia return. Feudal lords and clerics began to restrict Jews to ghettos and 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, at age thirty to address feelings of rage and injury derived from growing up with a secret too painful to discuss and of which I knew only the barest outlines. When I finally interviewed my mother and learned the details, although I couldn’t help but note the symbolism of my her marrying my father, a cinematographer, when I thought about film topics, I was more interested in heroics, like the story of Mordecai Anielewicz, who snuck back from Russia into the Warsaw Ghetto to lead the uprising.
I was referred to Darwin by the many references by Nazi leadership, who considered the extermination of the Jews legitimate expressions of his theory of evolution. But when I finally read him, I was surprised to find a second theory concerning sexual selection and based on relationships not power. In war time, in point of fact, helping is highlighted. For every killing there is a saving, someone keeping hope alive; hence, wars also crucially involve women and acts of kindness. 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 medicine), comforted children and snuck food to the starving. Bruno Bettelhiem, an early Holocologist, would have dismissed her, 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.
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 a Jewish woman his humanity, emphasized to the point surrealistically when he brought a gift: nylon stockings! Why didn’t the Nazi just machinegun my mother and the one thousand other young women in her transport, potential mothers of a future Jewish race? Even the Nazis sensed making young men murder young women would be psychologically unwise. Despite their limited reading of Darwin, innate sexual selection inspired the construction of assembly-line death camps, so their soldiers could operate at some remove.
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 and retained her humanity. So much so, my childhood, which started nine years after she emerged from the concentration camp hell, 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 brother and I realized my father was getting on in years and we had to make the trip and the movie soon, I had found a framework for interpreting my mother’s experience. Moreover, my daughter Irena was 16 and images of her with my mother would remind the viewer that the elderly woman, describing the atrocities, was a handsome teenager when they occurred. In addition to showing the female side of war, 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 half rock score and some funky graphics as well as our focus on her.
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. Not only did we tell her “just be yourself” but was already in a rebellious mode, trying to maintain her identity despite the immense forces of the filmmaking, family pressures and the history buffeting her. Her foot dragging and apparent boredom annoyed us to no end and her open defiance threatened to derail the film or so we thought until we got back to the editing room and noticed she had created a great character arc, moving 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 better understanding, part of my effort to dig a little deeper. Although the star scene was the source of much malaise, even as my daughter Irena and sister-in-law Tania were protesting, they were testifying to its effectiveness.. A few did not produce discernable results and ended on the cutting room floor but going into Birkenau at midnight, handing out bread in Plsen (to honor Good Samaritans who fed my mother’s deportation train), as well as some other minor ones stimulated fresh insight.
Actually, Our Holocaust Vacation was originally an epic with long sections on my Polish family, additional family interactions, comments on the filmmaking process itself, and many more weird war stories — like when Tonia was kidnapped to clean house for a German woman who stomped on her fingers while she was scrubbing the floor, or when she was ordered to dump the feces bucket from a moving train and it splashed on the soldier, or when the Nazi officer walking across the camp mess hall tables, to take the head count, slipped and fell to howls of laughter (and the cancellation of two days of food). But we feel our one and a half hour version has a balanced enough view of the history and grotesqueries as well as of the women’s story and a family healing and obtaining modest understandings to provide a updated view of this critical civilization event.
by Doniphan Blair
After vanquishing ones opponents in war and protecting the physical space, the next step is healing the emotional and spiritual being. This was a difficult challenge for much of the world after World War II, not just the survivors of the Holocaust, although their chore was extra. The obliteration of the survivors families, homes and societies, as well as individual psyches was often so extreme suicide seemed like the only option. Although there was suicides during the war and a wave after, when finally settling in Israel or elsewhere did not diminish the distress, it was not as extreme as might be imagined.
Indeed, the survivors returned to normalcy surprisingly quickly, first finding a place of refuge, making families and taking jobs. 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 some Jews remained in Displaced Person Camps for a few 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 the 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 God, as claimed by religious Jews, The Book of Job explains "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." Although couched in a typical Biblical parable, which includes God betting with the Devil over the righteousness of Job, the book points out that the universe is rather large and "stuff happens" beyond the control of 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 it is deleterious to his own welfare. This provides the parable that solves the riddle of a single god. Monotheism is a metaphor which stands in well for the unified field theories of physics, the evolution of biology and morality all men are created equal. From religious Jews to believers who question god like Job or agnostics, this provided Jewish intellectuals and individuals alike a framework for believing in the goodness of humanity and the ultimate progress towards increased decency.
Nevertheless, recovering from the Holocaust was extremely difficult. After the world was fully informed by Allied newsreels in May 1945, the Allied commanders retreated from full documentaries or exposes because it was simply so horrific and such a downer. People needed to regain their humanity, party even, and my mother Tonia and her friends avoided indepth discussions of atrocities, attended theaters, went on vacations and other activities to restore their sanity.
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," about Anne Frank which was translated into dozens of languages and 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.
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 about the Holocaust in curriculums in the United States as well as Germany, where they 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 and inspired the survivors to start gathering and for a Holocaust Museum, signed into law 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.
In my own family's case, my mother Tonia did not marry another survivor or even Jew, as was fairly common. In survivor communities, like in Camden, NJ, or Skokie, Il, people could communicate in shorthand about their experiences. Tonia and my father, Vachel, however, decided to visit Poland including her home town of Lodz and Auschwitz in 1980, which coupled with her attendance at Columbia University, helped bring her out of the closet about the Holocaust. The reunion in Washington was also a big boost, as was the Lodz reunion in the Catskills the next year.
Although I led the way, with a deep immersion into Holocology in 1984, my entire family entered the study and after some years of discussion, a certain peace with the issues emerged. Yes, my mother is still plagued by nightmares, and introducing the subject to my daughter, Irena, is at the center of "Our Holocaust Vacation," but discussion, love and time were healing. Speaking for myself, when I could understand the historical and psychological factors that went into producing the Holocaust, it took the edge of my internal angst and opened me to accepting the immense event as a horrific tragedy but also part of the 'human" evolution towards increased goodness.
It is important, I feel, to contexualize the Holocaust, see it as massive but not unique, in so much that atrocities have occurred elsewhere and oppression of the Jews before in history. Similarly, Hitler and the German people were not insane, although the former was obviously injured or disturbed psychologically. They were simply making simplistic solutions within the context of their culture, which tolerated anti-Semitism, and intellectual capacity.
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. Moreover, they didn't force their young soldiers to machinegun the trainloads of young Jewish women at the end of the war (such as the one my mother was on), despite the obvious fact those women would bear Jewish offspring, because they were human enough to know that would injure those men irreparably when they returned to society to romance women and raise children.
My family's greatest healing came with revisiting all the sites of my mother's travails and discussing it amongst ourselves in a climate of love and understanding. Her stories of kind strangers and even Germans as well as her fellow Jews, as well as 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, late in the war, restored our faith in humanity.
When we shot the film, in 1997, Lodz, Poland, was still a thread bare, rust belt city, with only one monument to the Jews who once lived there and devastated by the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of soccer hooligans and neo-Nazi punks. 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 old ghetto where we planted a tree for our family, and 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 was from Lodz, and instituted an annual remembrance march. On top of the financial resurrection he orchestrated, including building many buildings and symphony hall, 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, and each most find a regimen suitable to their psyche. Unfortunately, it is not always successful but my experiences at survivor gathering and general statistics indicate the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and their descendants were able to heal.
by Doniphan Blair
While making "Our Holocaust Vacation," we were looking back on a bit of history that, while it remained critical to us, was fading for much of the public (hence our use of performance pieces and a teenage star).
Unfortunately, the peace process that brought Palestinians and Israelis together in the Oslo Peace and Rabin-Arafat handshake of 1993, has been overshadowed by a resurgence of radical Islamists, both Sunni in the form of bin Laden and Hamas, and Shi'a, Iran and Hezbollah.
Hence we are forced to make new arrangements and analysis in this context.
NOTE: This piece will be updated soon.