Sounding the Alarm: Comparing and Contrasting History in the Trump Era

Early this week Frank Navarro, a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum trained teacher who has taught at Mountain View High School in California for 40 years, was put on leave after a parent complained about the parallels he was drawing in his world studies class. He was accused of comparing Trump to Hitler, but in actuality he had only pointed out the connections between Trump’s presidential campaign and Hitler’s rise to power.

On September 1 of this year, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote in the article With gratitude toward Donald Trump, how as an educator, he was grateful to Trump for making it easier for him to explain to his students, how it was possible for the Nazis and Hitler to come to power. In my own classroom, it is my students who have made the connections, as I certainly did not have to spell it out for them.  We all agree that Trump is not Hitler, but certainly the rhetoric and unabashed racism, antisemitism and xenophobia unleashed by his campaign reminds us of the tactics used by Hitler, the Nazis and his followers.

Continue reading “Sounding the Alarm: Comparing and Contrasting History in the Trump Era”

Dressing the Fool: Silence as a Weapon in the Fight for History in “Denial”

A competent accomplished woman goes up against a populist outsider who has created a reputation built on lies.  Sound familiar? Maybe, but this is not about the 2016 US election: it is the plot of the film Denial (2016), based on the true story of the trial between Jewish Studies and Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt and British Holocaust denier David Irving.

There is no denying that Denial is a film for our times. Conceived nine years ago, and filmed in 2015, the parallels between the trial and the President election is not lost on viewers. Frustratingly, we do seem to live in a time in which history is ignored, facts seem like an inconvenience and there is a prevailing ideology – that one’s opinion is more important, regardless if you can back it up with facts or not.  What happens in this scenario is that there can be no debate between anyone because those espousing opinion, cannot rationally articulate their argument against those who cite facts.

Continue reading “Dressing the Fool: Silence as a Weapon in the Fight for History in “Denial””

Short Takes: New Films on the Holocaust

This month, Jodi Elowitz shares five selections that explore recent Holocaust fiction and documentaries from a variety of perspectives.

Now Streaming on Netflix

MV5BMjE2MjQ2MzA2MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAyMTI5NjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,687,1000_AL_What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy (2015) is a documentary based on the article My Father, the Good Nazi (2013) written by British Lawyer, Phillipe Sands in the Financial Times Magazine. The article discusses the relation of Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, Governor General of occupied Poland (General government) and Horst von Wächter, son of Otto von Wächter, District Governor of Krakow, Poland and later District Governor of Galicia during World War II. Both men were responsible for overseeing the extermination of Jews and charged with war crimes. Frank stood trial at Nuremberg and was found guilty on counts three and four (war crimes and crimes against humanity), sentenced to death, and executed on October 16, 1946. Wächter escaped prosecution and died while hiding in Rome in 1949.

Continue reading “Short Takes: New Films on the Holocaust”

The Watch: Remembrance of Elie Wiesel

unnamedElie Wiesel had a profound effect on my life. In 1997 I embarked on a journey to earn my Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota. At the time that I began my classes I had no thoughts of studying the Holocaust, but through a series of small events, I found myself thinking of nothing else. I do not remember when I read Night, nor do I recall what led me to return to Wiesel’s work while in graduate school. For some reason I turned to a little known collection of his short stories titled One Generation After, published in 1970.  How the book found its way from my mother’s bookshelf to mine is not clear, but for some reason, I picked it up and read it. The story that changed my life was “The Watch.” Over the course of six pages, Wiesel tells of his return to his home of Sighet, Romania and the clandestine mission he undertakes to recover the watch given to him by his parents on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah. It is the last gift he received prior to being transported with his family to Auschwitz. Like many Jewish families, fearing the unknown and hoping for an eventual return, he buried it in the backyard of their home. Miraculously, he finds it, and quickly begins to dream of bringing it back to life. However, in the end he decides to put it back in its resting place. He hopes that some future child will dig it up and realize that once Jewish children had lived and sadly been robbed of their lives there. For Wiesel the town is no longer another town, it is the face of that watch.

Continue reading “The Watch: Remembrance of Elie Wiesel”

Making Germany Great Again: Hitler returns, in “Look Who’s Back”

Look_Whoa_s_Back-329719366-largeThe idea of reviving a historical figure to return from the dead to our own time period is not new.  Many novels and films have dealt with this premise before though usually they focus on the return of someone likable. In the German film Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) we get Adolf Hitler in Berlin circa 2014.

Billed as a comedy, Look Who’s Back opens in the clouds, reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will. At first, Look plays like a science fiction film around the return of the deceased. It turns into a buddy-road picture, as Hitler and the recently fired, down-on-his-luck filmmaker Fabian Sawatzki (played by Fabian Busch) drive about Germany in Fabian’s mother’s floral delivery van. They film people’s reactions to Hitler in the hopes that Fabian can get the footage on the air at the TV station that fired him. (These scenes are actual reactions of unsuspecting people on the street to Hitler as played by the actor Oliver Masucci.) Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. There are laugh-out-loud moments, several moments of uncomfortable laughter, as well as a few cringe-inducing scenes.

Continue reading “Making Germany Great Again: Hitler returns, in “Look Who’s Back””

Son of Saul: A New Kind of Holocaust Film

4b07767d4cc171ce795ecfb8a1a41c3e-1.jpgSon of Saul is a film about a member of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners forced to aid in the killing process and clean up) at Auschwitz.  What sets Son of Saul apart from most films that deal with the Holocaust is that it is not presented in a traditional narrative structure. Hungarian director László Nemes upon accepting his Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film said “over the years the Holocaust has become an abstract. It deserves a face.” Certainly he does this immediately as the camera never leaves Saul; we are either looking directly at his face in close-up or over his shoulder. We experience events with Saul as he goes about his work and later his self-imposed mission, the burial of a boy. The movie is a visceral experience — there is very little dialogue, and we only see and hear what Saul sees and hears.  Nemes gives us very little to go on, we know nothing about Saul’s past, who he once was, prior to landing in Auschwitz.  Saul is introduced to us as he emerges from a combination of mist, smoke and sound. We are immersed in a world that is out of focus and filled with a cacophony of sounds, some so sharp and real one turns to look for the offending speaker in the audience.  Nemes and his sound designer Tamas Zanyi, recorded over eight different languages speaking dialogue to create aural chaos, these layers of sound combined with the close-ups and long takes are intended to disorientate, forming a psychological experience with Saul. Nemes does not use any sentiment or melodramatic devices to tell his story. We never form an emotional bond with Saul as one might to other characters in other films on the Holocaust.
Continue reading “Son of Saul: A New Kind of Holocaust Film”

What is the Holocaust? Why we need to get it right.

Over the years I have asked educators to provide me with a definition of the Holocaust. Much to my surprise no matter what state I was in, whether it was Minnesota, Tennessee or California, I have heard several different answers. Numbers of dead ranged from 6 to 12 million and several victim groups were covered under the term.

Continue reading “What is the Holocaust? Why we need to get it right.”

Aftermath: The Fragility of Holocaust Memory in Poland as depicted in film

161Standing on Polish soil is to stand upon the fertile ground of memory. Poles see themselves as a people who have struggled to maintain their national identity amidst occupation and oppression. The Polish past is negotiated on a daily basis between the generations of Poles who lived (or grew up) during World War II, those who lived during the Soviet regime, and those who have come of age after the fall of Communism. All three of these groups have grown up with the narrative of Poles as rescuers, resisters and martyrs. This idea was shaped during the Soviet years and reinforced through Polish popular culture.

Continue reading “Aftermath: The Fragility of Holocaust Memory in Poland as depicted in film”

“No one was a Saint:” The Last of the Unjust, the final words of Benjamin Murmelstein

Who was Benjamin Murmelstein? Why would Claude Lanzmann dedicate over 3 hours to him in his latest film The Last of the Unjust? Murmelstein was a rabbi and teacher from Vienna, third Jewish elder of the Thereseinstadt ghetto, and the only surviving Jewish elder of any of the Jewish Councils set up by the Nazis. Condemned by many in the Jewish Community as a traitor and a Nazi collaborator he was tried and acquitted by the Czech authorities after the war settling in exile in Rome where he lived until his death in 1989.
Continue reading ““No one was a Saint:” The Last of the Unjust, the final words of Benjamin Murmelstein”

Immigration to America: the 1948 Displaced Persons Act

The startled reaction to the news that Michael Karkoc, an alleged former Nazi is living in Northeast Minneapolis is understandable. To have a Nazi in our midst is unsettling and leads to the larger question of how it is possible for someone who (if found guilty of war crimes) could have lived in the Twin Cities for 70 years undetected.

Continue reading “Immigration to America: the 1948 Displaced Persons Act”