There are a number of compelling, memorable movies dealing with the Holocaust. ‘The Pianist’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ spring to mind.
Commenting on a 25 year old movie is unlikely to generate much interest, except for the fact that it is, perhaps, the most iconic film about the Shoah ever made, and a Spielberg masterpiece. From December last year, it has been released as a digitally remastered version around the world, most recently in Lithuania and France, where its release merited a news item on France 24 today.
‘Schindler’s Ark’, Thomas Keneally’s novel, was published in 1982 – I must have read it within weeks of its publication. I can still remember that I bought the hardback which was unusual for me, since paperbacks were a lot cheaper.
More than ten years later, ‘Schindler’s List’ was’ in the hands of a master director with a strong vested interest. Spielberg came from an Orthodox background and was, in his own words, “smacked and kicked around” by the neighbourhood kids who did not attend Hebrew school as he did at that time. The movie was released in black and white, with just one small splash of colour in the form of a little girl in a red dress walking through the slaughterhouse of the Krakow ghetto. Later in the film, Schindler sees her dead body, recognisable only by the red coat she is still wearing. Spielberg said the scene was intended to symbolise how members of the highest levels of government in the United States knew the Holocaust was occurring, yet did nothing to stop it.
The casual, indiscriminate shootings in the labour camps, the desperation of women cutting their fingers and using the blood to colour their sallow cheeks so that the SS would not single them out for special treatment, the lavish bribery Schindler realised he would need to adopt in order to snatch seven hundred people from the gas chambers of Auschwitz…. they all make the hairs on your arms stand upright, in shock and outrage at the savage, mindless cruelty.
Ben Kingsley’s paraphrase of the Talmud, as he holds a gold ring up like a Host before giving it to Schindler as he flees the Brinnlitz camp after the surrender is worth quoting in full. ‘Whoever destroys a soul [of Israel], it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9)
The film still resonates at so many levels.
Why is it important to be re-released? After the original screening in 1993, people were questioned as to whether they knew anything about the subject matter. Many did not, supposing it to be fictional. Mitzvah 614 – ‘never again’ is a mantra that has to live from generation to generation so that Hitler is not granted a posthumous victory and as more of the original Holocaust survivors succumb to old age, a new generation has to be educated afresh. The Eternal Flame in Yad Vashem reminds us all of the lasting importance of fanning the flame of memory. The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, credited with Mitzvah 614, puts it well:
“We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”
Amen to that.