Schindler’s Impact (The 10th Anniversary of “Schindler’s List”)

schindler.03.12.04.jpgIn May 1995, I found myself in Lviv, Ukraine. My father died two years before, and I was there on a roots trip. I wanted to see the city where he grew up and perhaps unearth some of the information that he could never bring himself to share, such as the names and birthdates of his brothers and sisters, all murdered. I discovered his own real birthday to be a completely different day, month and year than we had always celebrated.

On that day, I visited a hill outside a prison camp that was likely where his parents and brothers and sisters were murdered, as a reprisal for his having escaped from the ghetto. It was another fact that I had only learned since his death. I said “Kaddish” and went back to my hotel to collapse, emotionally spent.

That night, alone in my hotel room, I channel surfed. Suddenly, there before my eyes was a black-and-white nightclub scene that pulled back to reveal Liam Neeson dubbed in Russian. “Schindler’s List” was being broadcast for the first time on Russian TV (bootleg tapes had circulated but the movie had never been on TV). This was the first time most Ukrainians would see the film. I was transfixed.

I understood little of what was being said in Russian, but freed from the language I was enthralled with the images and their emotional manipulation. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. I don’t remember the movie ending; I don’t remember turning the TV off; I don’t remember falling asleep.

The next morning, I spoke with people at the hotel, at the Central archives in a church — they had all watched “Schindler’s” the night before and were moved. One young woman said to me, “I thought I knew. I didn’t. I thought I understood. I didn’t.” That’s when I realized the importance of “Schindler’s List,” its ability to permeate the consciousness of people in Lviv, Ukraine.

When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was set to make a film version of Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s Ark” — the special 10th anniversary of edition of “Schindler’s List” comes out this week — I worried. I feared that in the story of Oskar Schindler, Spielberg, like Keneally, had found a gentile prism, rather than a Jewish one, through which to tell the horrific events of the Holocaust era. Although Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust, there were many aspects of his story that bothered me. There was something offensive about the paternalistic attitude of Schindler toward “his Jews.” Conversely, the devotion of the Schindlerjuden to him, basically supporting him for the rest of his life, seemed like an unhealthy Stockholm syndrome-like reaction. But that was not my biggest concern. I worried that the story of Schindler would be misleading, that the emphasis would be on Schindler and not the Jews.

“For one Oskar Schindler, how many collaborators were there?” Elie Wiesel once wrote in TV Guide. Schindler and the others deemed “the Righteous” and “the Just” stand out because they were the exceptions to human behavior during those dark years. As Wiesel noted, in his own Holocaust experience there were no Schindlers: “None of the Just crossed my path during the war. None of our Christian neighbors in my small village of Sighet, in Romania, risked his life to take in, to hide, to rescue a Jewish child or Jewish friend.”

I worried that the story of Schindler, rather than showing the truth of what occurred, would create a dangerous myth: That not only were non-Jews in Poland not complicit in the murders, but regular people, Nazi Party members like Oskar Schindler, saved Jews — Jews who were too weak, too powerless, too lacking in any heroism to even save themselves. This would be a slur on the survivors and a second death for the murdered. Such is the problem of making an example of the exceptional.

Then I saw the film and all my reservations disappeared. I succumbed to the power of the movie making. It was as if Spielberg had used all the tools at his disposal to tell a compelling and engrossing story. He checked his ego at the door and let the story be the star. It was an amazing achievement: Spielberg used Liam Neeson as the handsome gentile to seduce the audience into caring, much as Schindler seduced the Nazis into saving lives. It was a valid way, even a commercial way, to tell the story of the Holocaust. For once he had not made a Spielberg film. For that he received an Oscar. For that the film went on to make a fortune. Spielberg used the money to fund the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation — once again, reaching beyond himself to make something that would have a lasting impact on others. But I still didn’t grasp the full impact of the film until that evening in my hotel room in Ukraine.

Schindler rescued 1,100 men, women and children — “his workers,” “his people.” In connection with Schindler, the talmudic saying is often quoted that “whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.” What then can we say about Spielberg who opened the hearts and minds of millions? An estimated 50 million people worldwide saw “Schindler’s List” in movie theaters, and 65 million watched it when it was first broadcast on television.

While there are only 13 million Jews in the world, Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said, Spielberg with one film shed light on the Holocaust to more than 100 million non-Jews. “I find that staggering in its importance.”

Annette Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” the definitive and essential tome on the subject, feels “Schindler’s List” also made it easier for Holocaust films to get made, because, as she wrote me by e-mail, “despite the difficult subject matter, hefty running time and choice of black and white, it had both commercial and critical success.” In the recently published third edition, which looks to be about three times as thick as the first, Insdorf notes that since her last update in 1989, she’s seen approximately 170 Holocaust-related films. As she notes in her introduction to the third edition, “The number of cinematic reconstructions — fictional as well as documentary — is staggering. They both reflect and contribute to the fact that awareness has replaced silence about the Shoah.”

Further, in founding the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Spielberg has dramatically increased our storehouse of knowledge. The recording of 52,000 Holocaust survivors’ testimonies is a great accomplishment, a monumental resource for historians, students — it gives succor and satisfaction to Holocaust survivors and their families, that their experiences are recorded for history for posterity. At best it gives lie to the intention of the Nazis and their henchmen that their crimes and the lives they plundered would be forgotten, would disappear like the ashes dispersed to the wind from the crematoria chimneys at Auschwitz and the other extermination camps.

Ten years after the release of “Schindler’s List” our knowledge is wider, but is it deeper? What has “Schindler’s List” taught us? Certainly, Spielberg has said that the movie shows how one person can make a difference. But that speaks to the good in man. What does “Schindler” teach us about evil?

As concerns the Shoah, itself, the search for meaning must remain elusive. The words of Pinhas Epstein, a survivor of Treblinka, still ring in my ears: “Whoever was in Treblinka, will not go out of it, and whoever was not in Treblinka, will not go into Treblinka.” The Holocaust is not a thing to be understood. It is an event to be remembered. It can serve as inspiration, as lesson, as reminder, as a spur — but even the survivors themselves who experienced it are at a loss to understand it.

Even more difficult, we must ask some tough questions: What good has it done to have released “Schindler’s List” all over the globe in the last decade? To what end?

Was “Schindler’s List” shown in Pakistan? It certainly seemed to make no impression on the murderers of Daniel Pearl who chose to film his violent death, even as they made him exclaim with his last breath, “I am a Jew.” Nor has it inhibited murders in the last decade in Rwanda or currently in the Sudan — or caused the world to stop these murders.

Has it promoted tolerance and stemmed the tide of anti-Semitism? Doesn’t look that way, not in Europe, the Middle East or Asia.

Has it put an end to Holocaust denial? Don’t think so. But let’s ask Mel Gibson’s father what he thinks.

It is a curious coincidence that even as “Schindler’s List” is released on DVD and its 10th anniversary is celebrated, the media has been headlining the subject of the power of film to foster anti-Semitism rather than extinguish it. “The Passion” is the 800-pound elephant in the room. No one brings it up in public, but when I mention the 10th anniversary of “Schindler” to friends, they bring up “The Passion.” As if “The Passion” is payback or backlash for years of Holocaust films. As if “The Passion” were saying: “You’ve had your turn making important Holocaust films, now I want to tell you the most important story for the Christians — one as horrific and violent as anything that occurred during World War II. A story that the world needs to hear, know and see. A story that many people, to this day, denied occurred.” As if “The Passion” is not so much anti-Semitic as it is pro-Christian, and anti-Jewish. “The Passion,” you see, is not a film about the Christ killers. Instead, it is a film that responds to the Christ deniers. Because that’s who the Jews are: The people who deny that Christ is the messiah. Crazy? Sure. That’s why I write “As if.” But it does bring me back to my point: What 10 years later is the impact of “Schindler’s List”?

To answer that question, I watched “Schindler’s List” again, this time on DVD. I was more aware of the film’s artistry this time — which Insdorf details with great precision in her book. What Schindler accomplished did not seem possible: women arrived at Auschwitz, were there in fact for three weeks and Schindler was able to rescue them. It was true but never did fact seem more like fiction.

Finally, I was struck by the moral universe presented in “Schindler’s List.” In Schindler we are presented with absolute evil — embodied in Amon Goeth and witnessed by the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto; and absolute good — in the words of Itzhak Stern, “The list is life.” In between the two is a world of moral ambiguity.

Sid Sheinberg, the former MCA executive who first brought the novel “Schindler’s List” to Spielberg’s attention, told me this week that for him the essential drama of the movie is simply: “Why did he do it?” Schindler, a Nazi Party member and war profiteer, loves wine, women and fine food. He appears to be amoral in every way.

Then I recalled a peculiarity of Jewish belief — the yetzer ha’rah, or evil inclination. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains in “Jewish Literacy,” Jewish tradition would have us born with the evil impulse, while the impulse to be good and altruistic, the yetzer ha’tov is thought to be a learned trait.” As Jewish lore reminds us on several occasions, the evil impulse (ego, envy, lust) has often fueled great accomplishments, even good deeds. This is the story of “Schindler’s List,” I realized: How greed, wine, women, lies and bribes saved Jewish lives. Schindler saved Jews by appealing to people’s basest impulses.

It now appears that we were wrong to think that a movie, even one as powerful as “Schindler’s List,” would rid us of Holocaust deniers, or even reduce anti-Semitism. That is not the way the world works. The evil impulse is always among us. However, we must never forget that one Schindler can subvert the evil inclination, and induce people to accomplish great things. That is man’s challenge and our never-ending struggle. And, 10 years later, the lesson of “Schindler’s List.”