Teacher James Keegstra, of Alberta, was teaching in his "history" classes that Jews were historical devils, and their deviltry was no metaphor. This is for real. You've just got to watch this 20-minute video clip from a Canadian 60 Minutes-style TV news magazine. It's called "Lessons in Hate." Note the modest heroism of the two nosey moms. Among Keegstra's claims: "that John Wilkes Booth was of the Jewish religion."
Still thinking about the late Terrence Des Pres. When I first knew him (mid-70s) he was spending time with the political poet Carolyn Forche. He finished The Survivor (a struggle, to say the very, very least) and became well known for that book (deservedly, but there was always much more to Des Pres than that book). Later, through a poem by Forche (and in many other ways, of course), I came to learn more about what kind of struggle it was for him to write The Survivor. In the poem, "Ourselves or Nothing," Forche tells us of finding notes TDP had written to himself and, after an all-night attempt at writing, left for himself on his desk for the morning. "you will live and die / under the name of someone / who has actually died." And another message (although not one for which Forche was present): "Finish this or die." Here is a copy of that poem.
I have long been a sometimes unreasonable antagonist against Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. It's a film about the Holocaust with an ideologically ironic Master Narrative feel, and Oskar is presented as an I know/You don't, I am/You aren't, I have/you want relationship to Jews individually and collectively. The power dynamic gets sexualized (Oskar is physically attracted to a Jew's weakness in connection with his strength - although he knows the difference is merely a result of the era and will change later). The film uses Oskar relentlessly as a focalizer of our view, and so (despite what I take to be Spielberg's good intentions) this movie gives us the Holocaust of a German (indeed a member of the Nazi Party) when so many other perspectives are narratively possible. When we see the little girl in the red coat, we see her only and precisely from Oskar's point of view (which is to say Spielberg's) and there is no visual choice. We see what he wants us to see. In an otherwise black and white film (pseudo-documentary) her coat is painted red. Get it? Sure, we get it and how can we see anything else. It's a fascistic camera. No formal replication of the chaos, the utter chaos, the multiple views, the self-reflexivity, the varying degrees of complicity, the painful-to-watchness, the who-knows-what's-happening historiography of works like Maus or Shoah.
In '94 the Village Voice hosted a terrific symposium on the film. To me this is the finest way of understanding the issues the film raises about representations of the Holocaust.
Gertrude Koch, a panelist, says, "Who has the power? Who has the power to give life or death? That's what the film's about. I think the film is very friendly toward the concept of sovereignty, in the sense that Spielberg is always reproducing it."
Dated January 3, 2011 - a conservative's view of holocaust education - not very positive. "Genocide Studies has become an academic specialty and a fundraising bonanza, with professional organizations and prizes. Great books have been written and beautiful museums have been built—all in the conviction that they will prevent the production of future mass murderers and their willing executioners." But the conviction is hollow. We give students (starting quite young) ideas about preventing genocide but no sense of what to do. Further on you realize that the failure is largely owing to the left, because, in part, they are too much on guard against scholarly and other presentations of the equivalence of Stalin's regime and Hitlers, of communism and fascism. The issue becomes a matter of "minimizers" of communist mass murder. By this point we've come a long way from the quite reasonable concern that educators are teaching their students about the holocaust in the wrong place, the wrong site - the classroom. That's, for me at least, the value of these doubts. I don't know how to get past this very real irony.
Zalman was born in Warsaw in 1927 as the only child of Izaak and Haja Akerman. Before marrying Zalman's father, Haja's name as Haja Filreis. I believe that Haja was a sister of my father's father--my grandfather--Ben. That would make Zalman my father's first cousin. Ben and his brother left Warsaw to come to Brooklyn in the 1910s, so the family was permanently split up even before World War II.
He calls himself the only survivor of his family. But now, finally, he knows that other Filreises survived.
Zalman's father Izaak was a hat-maker who specialized mainly in leather hats. His mother Haja--formerly Haja Filreis--was a senior nurse in one of the hospitals of Warsaw. Zalman who was an only child studied at the Polish School on Ptasia Street.
As you will see, if you read on, Zalman is a survivor of the Holocaust. He was involved with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fairly far into that battle. The rest of his story is told through a web site called "Virtual Stetl," an attempt by some people in Israel to record the memories of Eastern European Jews who eventually found their way to the middle east.
"I had a happy childhood", says Zalman, yet he remembers very little from his childhood days and from his parents. "All what happened before the war was almost entirely erased, except for a few remembrances". For instance, Zalman remembers a colored painting of him when he was four, painted on canvas, which was hanging on the wall in their living room. From the house he remembers the opening sofa in the living room and the round table, which stood in the middle. The cooking stove in the kitchen, which was heated by fire-woods, and the portable stove from cast iron. One of the rooms served as a workshop for his father Izaak, including special models which Izaak sewed his hats on them.
In Primo Levi's magnificently modern book, The Periodic Table, the finest of the many fabulous sections is the chapter called "Chromium." Readers of this blog who haven't read "Chromium" should drop everything and read it now. Here's a crude PDF. Good enough. Please read.
Thanks to Sam Sharf, vigilant newspaper editor and former student of my course on the holocaust, for making me aware of this announcement:
University of Pennsylvania Students Participate in Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics Rachel Hadler, Jin Suk Kim, and Karen Revere Join Groundbreaking Program for Medical and Law Students
In the new building at the National Gallery in DC, I saw Barnett Newman's series of paintings--done between 1958 and 1966--called "The Stations of the Cross." The Stations of the Cross series of black and white paintings, begun shortly after Newman had recovered from a heart attack, is usually regarded as the peak of his achievement. The series is subtitled "Lema sabachthani" - "why have you forsaken me" - words said to have been spoken by Jesus on the cross. Newman saw these words as having universal significance in his own time. The series has also been seen as a memorial to the victims of the holocaust.
Some weeks ago Cynthia Ozick published a short essay in Newsweek bearing the brash subtitle "Not all Holocaust art is authentic. In fact, much of it is fraudulent." While I don't agree with all her judgments here, I like the gist - the hardness, the high standard, the fussiness about the problem of representing the holocaust. Here is a link to the whole piece. And here is a telling excerpt:
Consider a handful of movies that profess to render the Holocaust. Life Is Beautiful, a naive, well-intentioned, preposterous, painfully absurd, and ignorant lie. Inglourious Basterds, a defamation, a canard—what Frederic Raphael, writing in Commentary, calls "doing the Jews a favor by showing that they, too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters," even as he compares it to Jew Süss, the notorious Goebbels film. The Reader, like the novel it derives from, no better than Nazi porn, and drawn from the self-serving notion that the then most literate and cultivated nation in Europe may be exculpated from mass murder by the claim of illiteracy. As for Schindler's List, its most honest moment, after its parade of fake-looking victims, comes at the very close of the film, and in documentary mode, when the living survivors appear on screen.
So where can the truth be found? In Anne Frank's diary? Yes, but the diary, intended as a report, as a document, can tell only a partial and preliminary truth, since the remarkable child was writing in a shelter—precarious, threatened, and temporary; nevertheless a protected space. Anne Frank did not, could not, record the atrocity she endured while tormented by lice, clothed in a rag, and dying of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. For what we call "truth" we must go into the bottom-most interior of that hell. And as Primo Levi admonishes, only the dead went down to the Nazi hell's lowest rung.
Along the way, Ozick reserves high praise for Paul Celan's great poem "Todesfuge" ("Death is a master out of Germany"); Elie Wiesel's outcry in Night; Dan Pagis's stunted, smothered lyric; Primo Levi's sober taxonomy of brutishness. I admire these judgments (excepting that for Night - a case where I out-Ozick Ozick in deeming it too novelistic, too narratively facile).