Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“1944 Diary” by Hans Keilson— Nazis in the Netherland

Keilson, Hans. “1944 Diary”, translated by Damion Searls, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Nazis in the Netherlands

Amos Lassen

“1944 Diary” is an account of the Nazi-occupied Netherlands from one of Europe’s most powerful chroniclers of the Holocaust, Hans Keilson.

Hans Keilson was a German Jewish psychoanalyst who had sympathy for both the perpetrators and bystanders of the Holocaust as well as for victims and resisters. In the two books he previously published, he was hailed by critics and fellow authors as a genius.

After Keilson died at the age 101, a diary was found among his papers that cover nine months that he spent in hiding with members of a Dutch resistance group. The diary tells the story not only of Keilson’s survival but also of the moral and artistic life he was struggling to make for himself. Along with an encounter with a pastor who is sick of having to help Jews, and a day locked upstairs during a Nazi roundup in the city, the diary is full of reading notes on Kafka, Rilke, Céline, Buber, and others and is a feast of thought and reminiscence. Keilson had forcibly separated from his wife and young child, Keilson and was having a passionate love affair with Hannah Sanders, a younger Jewish woman in hiding a few blocks away. He wrote dozens of sonnets to her that struggled with claims of morality and of love.

The diary is a revelatory new angle on history we have heard many times before but this time it is very personal important novelists at a key moment of the twentieth century. Damion Searls who translated the novel sees it as a “spiritual X-ray of the mind and heart”. It is harrowing and beautiful at the same time and reveals a lot about the man who is still considered to be one of Europe’s most important novelists.

“The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings” by Rabbi Larry Tabick— Creatively Interpreting the Five Books of Moses

Tabick, Rabbi Larry. “The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Readings”, Jewish Publication Society, 2014.

Creatively Interpreting the Five Books of Moses

Amos Lassen

One of the ways of revealing the holiness of the Torah (which is often hidden under a plethora of details) is to interpret it with creativity. This is what Jewish mystics and spiritual teachers have done in their attempts to reveal the aura. What we have are the attempts in an effort to bridge the gap between the Torah text and the modern Jewish spiritual quest.

This is a collection of a wide variety of interpretations of Torah passages, commentaries, and midrash that come the mystical side of Jewish tradition and have been translated by Larry Tabick. The original Hebrew and Aramaic texts are included. The authors we have span many centuries and speak from many schools of thought including “kabbalists writing within the tradition of the Zohar and other gnostic works; Hasidic teachers, from the modern movement founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov in eighteenth-century Ukraine; and German pietists, or Hasidei Ashkenaz, of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. Tabick looks at how these texts build on the underlying principles of the Torah (the supremacy of God, the interconnectedness of nature and morality, and the unique (though not exclusive) role of the Jewish people in the divine plan for all humanity and we see the deep spiritual truth as a result.

In Jewish tradition, Kabbalah is the secret knowledge in the Torah given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and it has been passed down orally through the ages until it was finally written down in the “Zohar” by Shimon bar Yochai, a second century rabbi who did so while living in a cave to escape Roman persecution. Scholars, however, tend to believe that Moses de León, a thirteenth century Spanish kabbalist, is the actual author of the “Zohar” and that Isaac Luria, a rabbi and mystic who lived in the fourteenth century, drew upon to gives us modern Kabbalah as we know it today. Ḥasidism and Kabbalah become connected through Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, an eighteenth century rabbi who was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov and who founded Ḥasidism based upon reinterpretations of Kabbalah of Luria.

Rabbi Tabick uses three separate verses from each weekly Torah portion and each quote is followed by the verse’s scriptural context, a brief biography of the commentator, the commentator’s interpretation of the verse, notes on the expressions used in the interpretation, and Tabick’s observations and insights. Each interpretation is numbered and link to two appendices, one of which is the exegesis in its original language and the second is linked to an alphabetic listing of authors with their respective biographies.

In the Introduction, we get the information on how to understand the “secret interpretations” of the Torah portion and its imagery. is employed.

Some of the mystical explanations require understanding of the rabbinic use linguistic wordplay in which each letter of a Hebrew word stands for a full word but this is not always necessary to get an understand of what Rabbi Tabick has to say.

Most interpretations do not rely on esoteric symbolisms, but on such Ḥasidic concepts as achieving closeness to God through intense praying and performing good deeds; improving one’s character through quiet contemplation and deep introspection and love for the congregation of Israel and taking personal responsibility.

The exegeses are taken from the heart of Kabbalah and the writings of Ḥasidic masters that have historical value and give the modern reader insights into the ways eighteenth and nineteenth century Eastern European rabbis wanted their congregations to think about life and the Torah. Many of us think of Torah in terms of story or law; the mystics feel that the words contain an inner depth beyond the literal text and look at the hidden meaning itself as a vehicle to self-improvement.

The book is arranged in the order of the weekly Torah reading. Here we have explanatory notes and Tabick’s short commentary. The original Hebrew is printed at the back. Tabick explains the sentiments of the original and we sense his apparent liberalism.

Pertaining to Torah, “aura” is the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by certain spiritual persons. This emanation often connotes a person of particular power or holiness and was most certainly associated with Hasidic rabbis. Here we see that Torah inspires the same.

“The Aura of Torah” is so much more than a commentary to the weekly Torah portion and while what is written here can be confusing, it requires time and patience to reap the rewards that are contained within. There are Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries that are accessible to all, and this is place from which to start understanding them.

 

“The Mighty Franks: A Memoir” by Michael Frank— Quite a Family

Frank, Michael. “The Mighty Franks: A Memoir”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Quite a Family

Amos Lassen

The Franks are an unusual and eccentric Hollywood family. Michael Frank once overhears his aunt say to his mother when he is a boy that she wished that Michael was her son. Michael’s childless Auntie Hankie and Uncle Irving are screenwriters in a family where brother and sister married sister and brother. The two families live just blocks away from each other in Laurel Canyon. This is a strangely intertwined family in which even the author’s two grandmothers share an apartment together.

Aunt Hankie took charge of Michael’s education and she was the kind of aunt that everyone dreams of having—smart, talented, loving and wealthy. She showed Michael what to read, which artists and houses to admire and which people who should respect and love. She trained him well but never thought that he would have liked to discover things on his own.

From the moment I began reading, I found myself pulled into a family like no other. Auntie Hankie is an antihero who is not only narcissistic but feral. She is a character that is not soon forgotten. She is also talented and seems to have money to burn. She

takes charge of Michael’s education and shows him which books to read, which painters to admire, which houses to like, which people to adore. In other words, she trains him in the finer things of life.

However, that doesn’t last forever and when he moods begin to change and become dark, we see that she is not what she appears to be and beneath her loving exterior is rage that can become dangerous at times. In fact, she goes so far as to almost totally devastate Michael and he is forced to rebuild himself almost from scratch. Michael tries to find a way to reconcile himself to the woman he once loved and cherished and to the troubled person she becomes. As we read, we ask ourselves about the boundaries of family and who should make the decisions about what a family should be.

Make sure you clear your day before you start to read because you will not be able to stop once you do. It is impossible not to see the honesty in this narrative and you will be turning pages as fast as possible to see what comes next.

 

 

 

“Zionism: A Very Short Introduction” by Michael Stanslawski— Short and Sweet

Stanislawski, Michael. “Zionism: A Very Short Introduction”, (Very Short Introductions), Oxford University Press, 2017.

Short and Sweet

Amos Lassen

I often find myself at a need for something to bolster the definition of Zionism today with all that is going in the State of Israel. I used to think of myself as being fairly proficient when speaking about it especially after having lived in Israel for many years and having come through the Zionist youth movements. The classic text, “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hetzberg is wonderful but a bit too bulky to carry around so when this small book was published, it proved to be just what I needed. Oxford University’s “Very Short Introduction” series is an excellent way to get information quickly and concisely and there are books on almost every topic.

The traditional definition of Zionism “is the nationalist movement affirming Jewish people’s right to self-determination through the establishment of a Jewish national state in its ancient homeland”. Who knew when Zionism was born that it would become one of the most controversial ideologies in the world. Its supporters cheer its success in liberating the Jewish people after thousands of years of persecution and at securing the creation of Israel. Opponents however claim that Zionism relies “on a racist ideology culminating in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and is one of the last manifestations of colonial oppression in the world”. Since the late 1990s, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become central in world news and media has sharpened the controversy and politicized any attempt to understand Zionism and its significance as an intellectual and cultural movement. It must be seen as what it is— a movement.

Michael Stanislawski has the credential to presents an impartial and disinterested history of Zionist ideology from its origins to the present. This little book charts the crucial moments in the ideological development of Zionism, including the emergence of modern Jewish nationalism in early nineteenth century Europe, the founding of the Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, the Six Day War in 1967, the rise of the “Peace Now” movement, and the election of conservative prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Stanislawski gives a balanced analysis of these controversial events and explains that even with the wonderful success in creating a Jewish state, there are still profound questions about the long-term viability of Zionist ideology in the destabilizing Middle East.

“The Nentershausen Synagogue” by Stephen Denker— A Small Town and a 300-Year-Old Jewish Commumity

Denker, Stephen. “The Nentershausen Synagogue”, 2017.

A Small Town and a 300 Year Old Jewish Community

Amos Lassen

Nentershausen is a small German town that once was home to a Jewish community that went back some three hundred years but no longer exists today. As in many other German towns, the synagogue was the center of life before the Nazi rise to power. The story of what happened there is related to use from two families that survived the Holocaust, the Katz family and the Oppenheimer family.

Erich Oppenheimer had his Bar Mitzvah in this very synagogue on January 26, 1935 at the Nentershausen Synagogue and the very next day, his family sent him to America and it was not long after that that Kristallnacht tried to take the synagogue and while it was damaged severely, it survived. The next day, his parents quietly sent Erich to the United States. In 2015 at the age of 93, Oppenheimer returned to the relocated Synagogue of his youth, A minyan was arranged and Erich once again read the same Torah portion.

  The Synagogue building survived the Third Reich and on. July 16, 1996, it was restored 100 miles away from Nentershausen at the Hessenpark.

It is important to understand that the pogroms that took place on Kristallnacht continued after “The Night of the Long Knives”. November 9, 1938 is just date when we consider what else was going on. Kristallnacht began in the smaller villages of Hessen and even earlier in other places and actually continued over four days. As a result, there was violence all over Germany and much of the violence took place in small villages where only a handful of Jews were present. The list of places in which pogroms occurred includes many unknown. In these small villages, Germans were prepared to bring violence upon the Jews who lived there and as the Nazis came to power, the numbers of Jews dwindled and we all know why that is.

a small, rural town in Germany Nentershausen is a small German town and we read its history here. This little book was written as a companion piece to an exhibit as United States Holocaust Museum about its 300-year old Jewish community, about their Synagogue and it centers on Kristallnacht in Nentershausen and the Synagogue’s relocation and complete reconstruction 50 years later at the Hessenpark Open Air Museum in New Anspach Germany. Today that little synagogue is a functioning place of prayer.

This is not really what I would call a book—it is actually more of a booklet but what I see here are the seeds of what could become an important piece of the Holocaust canon. We have wonderful photographs and a story that cries out to be told. As I read my mouth fell open a couple of times as I learned about the history of this wonderful little synagogue that is part of our history. If we do not get these stories now they will be lost forever as survivors end their time with us. Above the ark in the little shul “Know Before Whom You Stand” and while that refers to the Divine, it can also refer to those that were lost to us during the most terrible time in human history. Had it not been for them, none of us would be here today and I am proud to stand before them. We see that others can trash our buildings and wound out sprits but as Stephen Denker shows us our humanity and love for the world has allowed us to continue on and is an integral part of who we are. Through the stories of two families here we get a much larger look at the past, the present and the future. The four generations that we meet here are symbolic of every single family that experienced the Holocaust.

I just want to say in closing that having lived in Israel and having met survivors and visited museums and talked to people, I am still in awe of the strength and faith that our people had. As I read what Denker has to say, my eyes filled with tears of pain and equally with tears of pride and I so glad that I say “Am Yisrael Hai”, the “Jewish nation lives”.

 

“THE LAST LAUGH”— Humor and the Holocaust

“The Last Laugh”

Humor and the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

“The Last Laugh” is a feature documentary about humor and the Holocaust that looks at whether it is ever acceptable to use humor in connection with such a major tragedy of that scale and if there are really limits on humor in a society that believes in and treasures free speech. I was suddenly reminded of a joke that Joan Rivers made about the Holocaust and was condemned by many and championed by just as many. I am certainly no prude but when we deal with something as massive and consuming as the murder of 6,000,000 Jews, we need to think about what we say before we say it.

Mel Brooks seemed to break all of the rules with “The Producers” and “Springtime for Hitler” production number. Somehow, because it was Mel Brooks, I was not offended by it even though I told myself that I should have been. Brooks tells us here that it is okay to ridicule the Nazis but not the Jews and in fact, he was unhappy with the Academy Award winning film, “Life is Beautiful” because he feels that it is a trivialization of the Holocaust. Abraham Foxman, late of the Anti-Defamation League, salutes the Oscar winner as a classic that’s “absolutely brilliant.”

“The Last Laugh” is writer and director Renee Firestone’s look at when do we go too far? Firestone is a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor whose family was murdered in the death camps. She believes that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust deserve to have the last laugh. We know that there is no consensus on this. Elly Gross who is also a Holocaust survivor finds nothing funny about the death camps and others agree as was learned at a Holocaust survivor meeting in Las Vegas. Can we even define what are the borders of good taste? Can one joke about the fascist without making fun of the seriousness of fascism? Is it ever possible to find light within the darkness of death? Growing up there were terrible racist jokes that now enter the area of bad taste but were once considered very funny and how about jokes about sexuality, LGBT people and so on. What was funny once to some is now regarded is hate speech and I really that Mel Brooks could ever have made “Blazing Saddles” today. These are the questions that Ferne Pearlstein the director of “The Last Laugh” looks at and while the film is very entertaining it is also deeply philosophical. Can Jews, or even gentiles, tell jokes about the Holocaust without themselves creating a scandal?

Through interviews many funny people including Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried and many more, the documentary looks at that area between being disrespectful to the memory of those that suffered during the Holocaust and refusing to lose one’s humanity and humor in the fact of annihilation. Each comedian finds lines to be crossed or respected with s caveat— the joke has to be funny, first, and the rationalization can come a bit later. Silverman for example finds humor everywhere and shares it in brazen and often shocking ways. In my own opinion, I find her going overboard as I do with Kathy Griffin. Silverman has no fear of going where others dare not go. On the other hand, one of my favorite movies is “Where’s Poppa” one of the most offensive movies ever made and I still remember sitting in a movie theater in New Orleans watching people almost continually running for the doors.

This film looks at survivors of the camps and how even during the darkest times, the surrealism of their suffering caused them to find ways of laughing. The contrast between the lives of those that held onto happiness versus those who can’t forget the torment is very telling, adding a more sophisticated level to the film than we might have assumed.

Pearlstein keeps the questions coming and the conversation is a rich and fine one that gives the kind of kibitzing that has characterized Jewish comics for so long. Most professionals involved in comedy remind civilians outside the industry that there are no taboos when it comes to funny business. A comedian should have the right to go wherever their instincts lead them and that includes touching on the worst elements of life “The Last Laugh” also explores the nature of envelope-pushing and how there actually is one topic, the Holocaust, that causes most comedians to pause.

Renee Firestone who I mentioned earlier is a Holocaust survivor who’s dedicated her life to educating others on the experience. She has wild stories from her time in a concentration camp, including an encounter with Josef Mengele, who advised her to take care of an issue with her tonsils if she managed to survive the experience. “The Last Laugh” follows Renee around (often joined by her daughter), a Holocaust museum her primary base of operations. She discusses what she went through with young people, hoping to bring about an understanding of the evil the world once faced and she is worried that this system of punishment and extermination continues on around the world. Renee isn’t a judge of comedy, but she’s often used it as a barometer for hot topics. She has seen stand-ups and television clips that try to locate the lighter side of mass death but she is never terribly pleased with anything she sees.

Does this kind of comedy smash taboos? Comics are intelligent people, and they have plenty to share on the ways of gallows humor, dissecting its impact and limits, if there are any. Here comics create a distinction between poking at the extremity of Nazism and the agony of mass murder. We see the old television program “Hogan’s Heroes” as an example of how a creative endeavor managed to get away with an impossible tone of craziness despite being set inside a POW camp. We hear from comics who hold contempt for Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” and who dismiss it because of its sugared treatment of the Holocaust. Academics are kinder and respond to theme of sacrifice.

In a final segment, comedians Lenny Bruce, Dave Chapelle, Ricky Gervais, and others comment on other taboos in their field, such as 9/11, AIDS, and racism. Mel Brooks once again takes the spotlight by saying that comics are the conscience of the people “and they’re allowed a wide berth in any direction . . . even if it’s in bad taste.” I find it interesting that

Mel Brooks, the man who wrote “Springtime for Hitler” should display some revulsion when discussing distasteful content or regarding “Life is Beautiful” that he found to be so lacking and offensive. We really see a solemn side to his own rabid humor that’s incredible to witness. We see that even Mel Brooks has his limits.

“The Last Laugh” is sharply edited and researched, and it’s smart about topics, with an examination of 9/11 as a target for one-liners. We see that most of the queries posed come down to a question of personal taste, “The Last Laugh” gives us a fascinating reminder of joke evolution along with insights and examples.

“Tell Me How This Ends Well: A Novel” by David Samuel Levinson— Meet the Jacobsons

Levinson, David Samuel. “Tell Me How This Ends well” Hogarth, 2017.

Meet the Jacobsons

Amos Lassen

Set in the year 2022, “Tell Me How This Ends Well”, we see that American Jews are feeling a sense of anti-Semitism. When the Jacobson family, Julian and Roz and their three adult children Mo, Edith and Jacob comes together for the Passover Seder that year in Los Angeles, they speak of personal issues rather what is happening in America. Right away we notice that the three siblings claim that their lives were filled with mistreatment from Julian. It also seems to them that Julian is destroying their mother as well. Soon we hear resentment from every person as they argue why they all came to the Seder in the first place. We learn that the children have a plan to

end their father’s iron rule for good. The problem is they begin arguing with each other and we see that they do not really trust one another and therefore will not be able to put the plan into effect. can put their bickering, grudges, festering relationships, and distrust of one another aside long enough to act. For the reader however, we get a view through the eyes of the Jacobsons of where America is and where it is going. I am almost embarrassed to say that I saw several of my family’s Seders as I read.

Obviously this is a very troubled family and while some of what we read comes across as funny, it is actually very sad. One thing the family does have is a lot of life in it. Perhaps that is why I found it so unsettling. We see not only the intolerance of the outside threat of anti-Semitism but also the intolerance that members of the family hold for each other. It is as if we are going to watch them destroy each other. I must say that I am truly worried about the hatred for the Jews outside of the family and was reminded all too well of what happened in Germany just seventy years ago. As the novel moves forward, I realize that this threat is both possible and terrifying. When we read the dark truths that come out of the Jacobson family, we do not get a positive view of the future of the world and that is probably what writer David Samuel Levinson wants us to feel. Is it possible to bring order to the world when we can’t do so in our own families? I love dark humor and there is plenty of it here.

This is not just a book about a family and the landscape they live in—it is a book about everything. Next time you think about what the future will bring, take a look at this book. The way it is presented to us (with intelligence and humor) gives us a lot to consider.

 

 

 

 

“Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro— Marriage and Memory

Shapiro, Dani. “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage”, Knopf , 2017

Marriage and Memory

Amos Lassen

Marriage like anything else that involves living beings changes over time. It is shaped not only by the married couple but also by outside forces and even by legislation as we have seen recently. We know that not all marriages are alike. Author Dani Shapiro invites us into her marriage as well as into her life and she shares how she sees it. As we get to know her, we see how she faces her lives. Now you may wonder why the word “lives” is in the plural and you will soon understand that she shares the life she dreamed of having and the life she actually has.

Do we ever really stop to think about what really affects the bonds we form with others and even more specifically about the bonds of marriage. We live in a world of shifting identities making it difficult to commit and this is just one of the variables that we face today. Writer Shapiro looks at literature, poetry, philosophy, and theology to gain knowledge about the challenges of matrimonial life as well as the joys and she shares what she learned with us. She writes thoughtfully, precisely and elegantly as she tells us of the young woman she used to be and the woman she became. As a young woman she has dreams, aspirations and expectations. She shares about her husband and the love they have for each other as well as their daily lives together. We see that marriage is not the glamorous life that many think that they will have. They have to deal with raising a child, paying bills and other mundane parts of life. We can only wonder if what was imagined before is still there.

“Shapiro writes of her love for her husband and for her son, alluding to the almost tragedy that happened in her son’s infancy. She writes of her parents’ relationship and her in-laws’ relationship. She writes of memories of her fateful meeting of her husband and even of her past loves. This is an open look at love and relationship between two people; not perfect but yet perfect for one another”.

As if we did not already know, we learn what it means to have a life and all that goes with it including responsibility, doubt, loss, love and disappointment.

Shapiro looks back and examines her own life, giving us examples of the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, what works and what doesn’t and how these influence the present and the future. So much of what she writes is common to many and at one point I found that even though I am male and single, she was writing about me. What is really interesting is that the book seems to be composed randomly yet reads smoothly. If you have ever played “what if” with yourself, then this is a book for you. In fact it is a book for everyone who has ever had strong feelings for someone else.

It is not easy to write about an intimate relationship while still being a part of it and the tact that courage that it took to write this is amazing. Shapiro and her husband have been married for eighteen years yet there are still vulnerabilities. To expose them poetically requires skill and this is what we see here above all else.

 

 

“The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir” by Ariel Levy— Reinventing Oneself

Levy, Ariel. “The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir”, Random House, 2017.

Reinventing Oneself

Amos Lassen

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012 when she was thirty-eight years old and pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful. Just one month later, none was this was true on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true. This is the story of how Levy built a life that she watched fall apart. She had been raised to question and to resist tradition regarding love, work and being a woman. She grew up wanting what all of us want— security with a partner and a lover, independence and intimacy and so much more. She gained some of this but then decides that she wants to be free to do whatever she wants to do. This is her story of resilience and a look at how culture changes.

Growing up, Levy thought that she could have everything. She believed in reason, her own worth, and that she had the ability to make her own rules. She traveled he world in search of adventure and then writing about her experiences. She wanted to to be a respected writer, independent and wealthy. She liked to go out and drink and she decided to put off motherhood because she thought that with the advances in science and fertility, she could become a mother whenever she was ready to do so  ready. She married and found comfort there but then realized that she really had no control of anything. This caused her to break out of the regular and take bold risks. Levy has decided to share her world with us.

In this new book she writes about “marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, pregnancy, loss, adventure, and gender. We are with her as she evolves into a new person. Her memoir chronicles her literary ambitions, lusts, and the loss of a child in a Mongolian hotel and it seems to me that she is looking for some way to deal with who she is. The one theme that continually pops up is freedom and holding onto some sense of self-control. She learns to deal with grief after losing a child and she shares that the idea of us having some kind of control is an illusion at best. We have no choice in what we lose (I certainly never expected to lose everything in Hurricane Katrina). Loss counterbalances control and we have certain limitations that we cannot rise above.

This is somewhat painful to read at times because there is so much truth here. We know that we can’t always have what we want and maturity comes out of what we cannot have. Levy writes personably and this is a book about how one woman goes through life with feminist options but without a clear path. We watch Levy grow without rationalizing why she does what she does. Her memoir is one of love and loss and then finding her way. She shares those deep feelings that we all have sometimes but never want to admit to. While we read about Levy’s life as well as parts of our own lives.

 

 

 

“AUSTERLITZ”— Dachau and Sachsenhausen

“Austerlitz”

Dachau and Sachsenhausen

Amos Lassen

Germany-based Ukrainian documentary director Sergei Loznitsa takes us into the former Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. The first word we can make out is “1945”, followed by a shot of the infamous Auschwitz gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei”, work sets you free. The scene is set. You may wonder anyone would want to visit concentration camps while on vacation but this is not something new. We have had several documentaries that focus on tourism and the Holocaust and there is something here that validates who we are and that we are alive while six million others are not.

Loznitsa indirectly follows some of the “Holocaust tourists” with very long shots from fixed camera angles and the framing shots through doors and windows while looking in not out give an intriguing perspective.

I understand that Loznitsa’s preoccupation with these tourists goes beyond the many people coming to the camps. Some are uncomfortable in the face of the camera.

But despite the carefully curated images, do we really understand what happened in the camps. We see people smiling and even eating as others are lost in reverie and holding tight to someone else. Some are totally disrespectful and disinterested.

Holocaust memorials have sprung up in cities around the world and they serve their purpose as a place where we can come and think about the horrors and the indignations that our people experienced at the hands of the Nazis. So then we want to know what is the real purpose of visiting the physical camps where genocide took place.

 

Loznitsa’s enigmatic and thought-provoking piece is in dialogue and concert with many of the ideas and facets of W.G. Sebald’s book of the same name, “Austerlitz”. The book brought fact and fiction together and told about the complexity of collectively remembering the past.

When Loznitsa visited Buchenwald concentration camp and realized that he was there as a tourist, something snapped within. Fifty years ago visiting these places was an act of remembrance but that is not what we see in opening monochrome shots of the film. We see tourists taking selfies against metal gates with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ wrought into them. From that point on the film is a procession of such shots, each lasting three or four minutes and unobtrusively observing the crowds walking through the death camps. There is no commentary thus the audience is challenged to engage with the images on the screen. Some of what we see is repulsive and we wonder where is the proper decorum for visiting these camps. There is an inherent conflict inherent in the idea of a memorial becoming an exhibit and, as Loznitsa reminds us, an educational tool.

We begin with the voices of individuals that have been kept to a murmur and we hear the clicking of cameras. – the throng and the incessant clicking of cameras is the aural subject. We begin to conversations and see jovial crowds and reflective individuals, and remember that for some the only way to understand such things is to be confronted by them in some way. At the same time, there are those who continue taking pictures of evil and its banalities. What Loznitsa’s observations show us is humanity in a place that furiously and famously denied it. Questions as to why it is necessary to remember come forward.

Cinematographer Jesse Mazuch carefully set up cameras in the most effective positions around a public space and let them run, not caring if they’re noticed. One of these places was Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp. The tourists are engaged in visiting a site of horror: important things happened there, and the desire to visit such horrific places seems to be ingrained in us. Camera positions are set at a respectful distance, and are not interested in the exhibits themselves (except, in one case, some incineration ovens), but in the behavior of the people visiting. Moral complexity emerges straightaway. As dozens of people move in and out of rooms and are glimpsed disappearing into and emerging out of darkness, we cannot help but imagine the prisoners that were tortured, punished and murdered here: political prisoners, Russian soldiers and German ‘traitors’, homosexuals and Jews.

As a viewer, we are quickly tempted to sit in judgment of individual behaviors amongst the crowds. When we see a beautiful young teenage girl gets her portrait taken in front of the iron gate that bears the infamous legend Arbeit Macht Frei at its centre, we are astounded at her lack of understanding and disrespect for where she is and what happened there, but coming to this conclusion, we are also grading the worthiness of human beings. The hundreds of tourists look bored and lost and sometimes inappropriately playful do at times and they invite contempt. We see the way they are dressed and wonder why anyone would come to such a place in a t-shirt and shorts.

As we eventually and gradually get to eavesdrop on the tour guides who fill in the historical background, we can see that the place does have a somber, sobering emotional effect on many. The sequences of images themselves keeps us wondering if any were set up: especially when you get very pretty people walking into a shot that seems so beautifully backlit.

What we get by the end of the documentary is a rounded look at humanity, and of hope, despite the horror of human crimes and the need to revisit them. There is the suggestion that people are not dealing with the real purpose of the memorials; he they statues, simply plaques or former death camps.

This film is presented as ninety minutes without commentary and consists of series of long, lingering shots of tourists walking around Dachau and Sachsenhausen, a former concentration camp near Berlin. We see that most of the visitors seem as if they are walking in a shopping mall or perhaps an art museum. They look aimless, restless, tired and bored.

Despite its lack of narrative or plot, the film is oddly compelling. The disconnect between setting and character provokes a range of feelings. The sight of crowds pouring into a room is creepily reminiscent of Holocaust prisoners being shepherded into train cars or gas chambers. Footage of visitors trying to get their tour headphones to work is amusing but then it really is not. Some visitors joke around or act like they’d rather be anywhere else and this makes the viewer quite angry if not appalled.

We see that it is easy to be swallowed up by the tourist experience and to forget to engage with the significance of a place. None of the tourists captured here are blatantly disrespectful. Rather they are nonchalant and somewhat self-absorbed in the 21st-century way. There are plenty of selfies in “Austerlitz”. Loznitsa’s point is not about individual tourists — whether they choose to take a silly selfie or reflect deeply throughout their visit. The message, he has said, is that visiting a concentration camp should not be presented like any other mundane tourist experience. To me that message is brutally clear.