I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust in all my years of school, and afterward. I recall listening to speakers talk about their experiences in concentration camps, old men and women with tiny rows of numbers tattooed into their forearms. We read Anne Frank. Years later, I read Maus. And yet, there’s still so much that I don’t understand, both in how this terrible event came about and why there are still people who subscribe to the Nazi philosophy running around out there today.
In a narrative sense, stories about the Holocaust are difficult to make dramatically interesting. It’s pretty clear (to most of us, anyway) who the bad guys are, and overall it’s hard to create a complex character out of an SS officer. On the side of the Jewish victims, there are two real stories – the tale of survival and the tale of not making it through. Notwithstanding the very significant difference of actual people living or dying, in terms of story, there’s a pretty clear path forward. Basically, it’s difficult to think critically about how a tragic story like this is told without appearing to criticize the end result.
All that is to say though, that Schindler’s List both falls into the “obvious story” trap and manages to transcend it. We have our clear villain in Ralph Fiennes character, the gleeful Nazi who has no qualms about shooting Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp. And of course, our hero Schindler, who privately rescues a group of his factory workers. Yet, each is complicated by a mitigating factor. Fiennes’ Amon is in love with a Jewish girl (though not so deeply that he bends over backward to save her from certain death). Schindler comes off as a little self-serving, though I suppose it’s his maneuvering to employ Jews in his manufacturing plant at a discount rate that affords him the opportunity and money to protect them later. It’s a complicated problem, doing something so subversive under watchful eyes.
Here we are, in America and Europe today, witnessing evidence of prejudice and discrimination against Jews, and Muslims, and so many other minority groups around the world. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now. Maybe that’s why stories about World War II still fascinate us, because we see it as a big victory – the ultimate victory – for freedom and democracy everywhere. The Holocaust gets that capital letter not just because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen in history, but because we like to think that it’s the last time such a thing will ever happen. Genocide: that key vocabulary word in World War II units in school. The only problem is, it’s not the first or last time a large population has been wiped out by a stronger power. We haven’t figured anything out yet.
I visited Lithuania a few years ago, a place where Jews once thrived. Now there are few left, though many Americans I’ve met can trace family roots back to Lithuania before the war, before they escaped. There was a recent article describing the archaeological studies of burial pits outside Vilnius. I’ve seen that pit, stood along its rim. It’s covered in grass now, these seventy-plus years later, a quiet place in the woods. You’d almost never know something so terrible happened there.
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: The list is life