Teaching Holocaust Literature and Film

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But La Vita e Bella succeeded in doing something that no other movie did — it represents the Holocaust in a comic way but without being indecent; through comedy, Benigni underlines the tragedy. The importance of this movie is also given by the fact that it is an European movie, and it looks upon the Holocaust from the Italian perspective, a country that had been the faithful ally of the Nazi Germany.

Some might wonder why these movies are found in this investigation together with three other Americans movies; I think that presenting La Vita e Bella and Seven Beauties might help the reader to understand the characteristic of both film industries, but also the different perspectives, American and European, upon the Holocaust. But how could one do this? Still the amount of the material regarding the Holocaust — scholarly writings and discussions, films, television programs, musical compositions, plays, photography, and internet materials, is enormous.

Table of contents

Sixty years after the end of the war, questions continue concerning the ethnical and artistic representation of the Holocaust. Which is the best method to present the massacre of 6 million Jews? Are there words or images or sounds to describe such a disaster? They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.

This part will propose a possible historical background for the next chapters, in order to better understand the way the Holocaust is presented in the selected movies. How did Nazi policy change from the relocation of the Jews to mass murder? Why or why not is the Holocaust unique?

These questions will find their answers in this first chapter. I am making distinction between American and European movies because the American film industry has its own characteristics that make it different from the European one. Because this paper represents the final project for the American Studies Master Program, so my preoccupation for American movies is completely understandable.

Art represents, illustrates, yet it does not copy…at least not through replication. And although both have some of the same intention, a comparison of their methods and goals will highlight the variety and complexity of the ways in which Holocaust materials have been used. One might ask why such a subject? Surely the systematic killing of the European Jews has gained its place as one of the most important events in history, the attention that this event has drawn being incommensurable.

Still, for a long while, the Holocaust has been considered a very sensitive subject and the movies I will discuss are the best examples I know that can provide insight and understanding into the historical event that still attracts uncountable readers and writers who seek to know more about this dark chapter in recent human history. Historical and Artistic Holocaust.

This event is now known in history under the name of the Holocaust - the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holokaustos comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and signifies the burnt sacrificial offering dedicated exclusively to God — the idea of sacrifice or martyrdom of Jews being preferred in this reference, rather than victimizers. The first section deals with some of the historical events between and and asks a number of questions: how did Nazi policy change from the relocation of the Jews to mass murder?

Is the Holocaust Unique? And if so, why? Which is the best method to present such an atrocity? Historical Holocaust. In January [10] the Nazi regime came to power in Germany, this was the beginning of one of the darkest pages in modern history. But before a few events deserve to be mentioned that are relevant to the story, most of them related to Adolf Hitl.

Hitler and other SS members [11]. Adolf Hitler was born on 20 April as the son of an Austrian border policeman. He fought in the First World War and he succeeded to the rank of corporal and to get a decoration on the Western Front. Immediately after the war Hitler became member of the German Worker's Party. When Hitler joined the party, it was comprised of only a few members. We can not really talk about an organized party because there was no platform, but the right-wing orientation was consonant with Hitler's doctrine.

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He saw this party as a way to reach the power he had been dreaming of, and his hatred towards the Jews became part of the organization's political platform. Later, the name of the party was changed to the National Socialist German Worker's party, and the red flag with the swastika was adopted as the party symbol, all these being stated in the platform Hitler had conceived.

The Nazi party began to grow as more and more members joined it, many of them being but victims of the economic inflation who found comfort in blaming the Jews for their troubles. In November Hitler held a rally at a Munich beer hall and proclaimed a revolution. Leading about 2. The police put down this putsch; Hitler was arrested and imprisoned at Landsberg. He was sentenced to five-year in prison but he was freed after only nine months.

While in prison he wrote Mein Kampf , partly an autobiographical book full of his own detailed views on the future of the German people. Hitler felt that the German people were of the highest racial purity and it was destined to rule the world. The task of Nazism was to cure the German Volk by eliminating all sources of corruption — carried mainly by the Jews, but evident also in the feebleminded, the incurably ill, and the insane.

These ideas did not remain only theories. This is another issue many specialists have been concerned with: how come so many people followed Hitler and his diabolic plans? Historian Michael R. His growing power peaked in , when on 30 of January he was appointed chancellor and took over the political and military power of the state. The German industrial machine was built up in order to prepare for war; the reorganization of the army, navy, and aviation, were signs that the preparations for the war were underway.

In April the first boycott of Jewish shops was ordered, but still without having them closed. Step by step Jews were being eliminated from the civil service and from the educational system. At that point there were approximately Marriages nevertheless concluded are invalid, even if concluded abroad to circumvent this law, […] and Jews may not employ in their households female subjects of the state of German or related blood who are under 45 years old, […] and Jews are forbidden to fly the Reich or National flag or to display the Reich colours.

They are, on the other hand, permitted to display the Jewish colours. Taking advantages of the status the power gave him, Hitler started to extend the territory of Germany. He ordered the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in More than synagogues were destroyed and almost 7, Jewish businesses were devastated. The official German position on these events was that they were spontaneous outbursts.

In March Czechoslovakia was devastated by the Nazi troops and a few months later, on 1 September Hitler's army invaded Poland, forcing France and England to declare war on Germany. Heydrich decreed that the Jews would be rounded up and forced into urban ghettoes, the largest of which were the ghettoes of Warsaw and Lodz, and the so-called Judenrat were formed: Jewish Councils, most often composed of former community leaders, rabbis, and other influential people.

The Judenrat took on all the duties of a local government.

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The Ghettoes were infested with diseases, and the Germans kept relocating more and more Jews into them. Some were taken to slave labour camps, later they were put in cattle trucks and taken to the death camps. A captive city — state in which territorial confinement was combined with absolute subjugation to German authority.

With the creation of the ghettos, The Jewish Community of Poland was no longer an integrated whole. Each ghetto was on its own, thrown into sudden isolation, with a multiplicity of internal problems and a reliance on the outside world for basic sustenance. In December , The United States entered the war. In time, more documents like this were found, but unfortunately not even one signed by Hitler himself, a situation that has allowed deniers of the Holocaust to declare that the Fuhrer did not even know about the atrocities that were taking place in the death camps or in the occupied territories.

The Nazi considered at one point that the physical liquidation of the Jews was not efficient enough, so the idea of the chemical murdered appeared. And because most of the European Jews were living in Poland, the main death camps were established there: Auschwitz — Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmo the biggest one was Auschwitz where is estimated that 1. In May the war in the North of Africa ended with a German defeat, and in July of the same year, Italy capitulated. Meanwhile pitiless extermination went on in the death camps.

Because there was no place left to burry the corpses, in Auschwitz the Nazi built crematoriums and they burned sometimes, even 24 hours a day the bodies of those that had been killed in the gas chambers. By the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime was evident. The soviet troops were getting closer and closer to Germany, Prague, Budapest and Vienna having been liberated already. On the western front the Anglo-American troops could not be stopped anymore. On 22 of April he gathered for the last time his collaborators — he wanted to know if there was a chance to save himself and his dream.

But there was none, since the soviet troupes were too close, so on 30 of April Hitler committed suicide. Two days later, on 2 May the soviet army took Berlin. The war in Europe was over and the official date of victory was announced for 9 May. In terms of the numbers murdered the bloodbath may have surpassed even the Final Solution , although the grim distinction of Holocaust is usually reserved for the massacre of Jews alone.

From these 6 millions most of them were Jews. If we keep in mind that gypsies and homosexuals also found their death in the camps, the final number of the victims is around 6,5 millions people. Probably the exact number of the fatalities will be never known, but though we can still say with confidence that the Holocaust remains the cruellest moment in modern history. One might ask why do I give such importance to the deniers. As Levi put it, the "oppressor remains what he is, and so does the victim" [29] no matter how the art would represent them. They are united: determined by past events that will to some extent always control their existences, and further, their stories.

For Levi, it is absolutely necessary that the memory of the Holocaust to be preserved, both by the oppressors and by the victims. But, at the same time, exactly as Levi has pointed out:. A memory that is recalled too often and that is expressed in a verbal form tends to set as a stereotype—a form tested by experience, crystallized, perfected, and adorned—which settles in the place of the raw record and grows at the expense of the original memory. S o, by stereotyping their memories through representation and repetition, that is, through art, the experiences of the perpetrators and the victims become diminished of their original power and surprise.

The story must be told, although how the artist tells the story, reinvesting it with shock and power, is the challenge that remains. Primo Levi remarks:.

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A sorrowful, cruel and moving story; because so are all our stories, hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity. We tell them to each other in the evening, and they take place in Norway, Italy, Algeria, the Ukraine, and are simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible.

But are they not themselves stories of a new Bible? The Holocaust without any trace of a doubt possesses unique features, in scope, technology, duration, legal and political strategy. The American literary critic Irving Howe observes that we become speechless in front of such a cruel reality. What is the accuracy of memory for those who experienced the Holocaust and its aftermath, and, are there certain kinds of representation that should be avoided or condemned?

One thing has to be kept in mind all the time, that realistic art — literature, movies, photography, as authentic and close to reality as it might get can not possibly cover the whole Holocaust, can not reflect in an exhaustive manner the unimaginable grief and terror the Jews went through in so many places from so many backgrounds. But it is not the goal of art to be real that is only one method of trying to encompass some of the experience. Can we enjoy the Holocaust as a piece of art? Do we find pleasure in watching this kind of movies, and if so, does that make us accomplices?

Howe notices that even today there are communities that totally believe that there are things that should stay unspoken. The Holocaust representation in art destroyed in a way the barriers around this subject. We can even say that art succeeded maybe in destroying the taboos surrounding the Holocaust. If we feel for the victims, if we believe that we could never be perpetrators or bystanders, do we automatically become better persons?

I think that art is fascinating for it can judge without pointing with the finger on perpetrators and bystanders. The judgment in this case is not directly, but still a statement has been made through these movies: why could they do it and others did not? His cruel behaviour, his inhuman side force the viewer to despite him — the perpetrator is judged. They are just a few stories from the immense collection of the Holocaust narratives.

In investigation how artists have told the stories, we will be more able to understand the difficult and contentious place where history and art intersect. Our perception and understanding of the Holocaust has been influenced by the polysematic way of presenting it.

Different communities have different ways of remembering the Holocaust and the memories - controversial and fragmentary - have influenced our understanding of the symbolic meanings of the Holocaust and its victims. What I will try to present in this section is how an European event was reflected in the American movies, and even more how the understanding and the perception of the Holocaust has been changed by the American film industry.

Each of these movies is representative because each deals with the Holocaust from a different perspective, and the popular perception of the Holocaust has changed considerable because of the release of these films. How can a movie change the understanding of an historical event? In his book The Holocaust Industry. Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering, Norman G. Finkelstein, makes a clear distinction between the Nazi Holocaust as the historical event, and The Holocaust as the representation and understanding of the Holocaust in American society.

How much from the real stories has been changed for the sake of the audience? These will be the questions that will guide this part of the paper. Between the end of the war and the beginning of the s the Holocaust has hardly had any impact upon the American film industry. As in other forms of art the theme had stirred little interest. The only movies available at that time in the United States concerning the Holocaust were newsreels and documentaries made by the allied armies some using Nazi footage of the atrocity.

First published in Holland in under the title of Het Achterhuis , The Diary was edited by Anne's father, who removed certain family references and some of her highly intimate confessions. George Stevens, the one who had made the film of the liberation of Dachau, which now unrolls continually at Washington Holocaust Museum, took the task of directing this movie in Doneson writes that the film production of the Diary reflects America's ideological crisis in the s.

Holocaust Documentary Films in Leavey Library (DVDs): Books About the Holocaust and Film

She claims that the movie's stress on Anne's faith that "people are good at heart" promoted the ideal of democratic liberalism by turning the Holocaust victims into a symbol of humanistic strength. The movie version of The Diary touches upon some important questions regarding the Holocaust and its victims: was the Holocaust strictly Jewish, or we can talk about an universal Holocaust?

The Jews were the victims, but were they really weak figures? How important is the historical accuracy?

The main criticism against the movie was that the Jewish aspect of the Holocaust is universalized. Who has inflicted this upon us? Who made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now? It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when this is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be help up as an example [47].

In the movie, the idea of Jewishness is very weakly conveyed: [48]. Even so, the meaning has been changed, because the audience can now identify itself with the young girl from Amsterdam. Here, Anne the character is talking about a universal pain that could be applied to all races and ethnic groups.

Another aspect of The Diary and its later forms that was heavily criticised was the portrayal of the Jews as weak figures. But they could have sold their lives for a high price, instead of walking to their death. One might say that if a victim can so easily forgive, maybe the Holocaust was not such a big deal after all, maybe it has never even happened. Further, h ow important is in this context the historical accuracy of the film? As I have said before, art and history are two distinct areas, and the goal of art is not to be real, remaining faithful to a given reality.

It is only one method of trying to encompass and interpret some of the experience. Still, in the case of Anne Frank, the movie adaptation of The Diary made a clear distinction between Anne Frank the person and Anne Frank the character. Anne died at Bergen-Belsen, cold and hungry, shaved and looking like a skeleton, but nothing from this real Anne can be found in the play about Anne Frank. What is the connection between Afro-Americans struggling in Harlem, and Jewish people in death camps? One might say that no, there is nothing that can be compared with the Holocaust or that there is nothing to be gained from awakening the dark memories of a Holocaust survivor.

The Pawnbroker tells one of the many stories of the Holocaust — a former professor who lost his wife and children in the death camps, runs now a pawnshop in Harlem. Another interesting association is that between Harlem and the death camps, several similarities can be discovered even from the beginning of the movie.

As already shown Nazerman runs a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem. The pawnshop functions also as a money-laundering front for the crime organizations in the neighbourhood. The distant barking of a dog on the street brings back memories with another dog in the camp, a dog that is running to attack a prisoner. Back on the Harlem street Nazerman passes an abandoned area where a group of hooligans are assaulting someone. The images go back in time, revealing the concentration camp again. A Nazi guard stands in the centre, and a man in prisoner's clothes hangs on the barbed-wire fence, screaming for help as the dog bites his legs.

These are only a few examples from the many flashbacks that constitute an important part of the movie. What do we learn from them? First of all we understand that there is a parallel between contemporary brutality on Harlem streets and a Nazi concentration camp that provokes Nazerman to relive his anguish. Two things about this movie provoked critics: in the first place the association of the blacks with Jews and of Harlem with Holocaust, and secondly Christian allegory from the end of the movie. Judith Doneson argues that Jews are presented here and elsewhere as weak characters, almost feminine, people who learned nothing from the Holocaust:.

In the final scene of the movie Sol re-experiences in a way his Holocaust drama. Jesus Ortiz gets himself killed and Sol again can not do anything about the murder he is witness to. The effect upon Nazerman is devastating, his inner life is awakened and the only way to save himself, as many critics saw it, is through Christianization — symbolically Sol is piercing his hand on the spike used for the tickets. It is an obviously act of crucifixion that stands for his Christianization.

But if there is hope in the film it does not come necessary from this act of Christian salvation. Hope comes from inside: Sol re-experiences his original trauma; he has been doomed to repeat what he wanted to repress. Still, a concurrent idea that breaks out from this symbolic re-experiencing of the trauma is that Jews are the victims of the past, African Americans and Puerto Ricans embody the victims of the present.

The conclusion is one that many viewers were offended by as being both unhistorical and untruthful. With The Pawnbroker the American representation of the Holocaust moves one step further. We are now beyond the questions of responsibility that were central to the earlier representations of the Holocaust victims. Is this an accurate conclusion to draw from the Holocaust? Schindler's List tells the story of a German businessman, Oskar Schindler, who transforms himself through a series of events from a practical Nazi - capitalist into a saviour of Jews. For this Schindler trades even his long desired fortune, and ends bankrupted, all in order to protect his Jewish workers from the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The movie, which received an Oscar for the Best Film of , Schindler's List, is often shown in high schools to teach students about the Holocaust. The questions included: who has the right to tell the story of the past? Is this history or art? How Hollywood-like is this film? Many said that no matter how we would interpret the facts of the Shoah we should not have a happy-end, an end that might comfort the audience, and give them uplifting optimistic feelings, simply because this end is not realistic.

I believe that this was not a necessary scene. That a Jew was worth half from a gold Nazi emblem? Or that he could have been even a better person because he could have saved 1. Especially because a few moments later the shift into image [74] shows us the cruel reality in numbers: Schindler has saved 1. And there was nothing optimistic in their deaths.

Also the effect these numbers might have upon the audience is that of relief, relief that we were on the other side of the screen, that we were not one of the 6 million that died, that we are survivors in a way. With this end we actually have an optimistic vision as Sue Vice also points out in her book Holocaust Fiction :. The last scenes of the movie could indeed lead to some prosaic confessions as Sara R. Acknowledging that the Holocaust happened means that we suddenly became better people?

In one of his last interviews [81] Ladislau Grun, a survivor from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Kaufernig — Dachau [82] , was saying that even if he did not agree with Holocaust representations in movies [83] , he always considered that it is better to acknowledge Shoah like this rather than never finding out that it happened.

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Ladislau Grun was saying that probably no film, no novel, no piece of art can help us to understand completly how was the Holocaust possible, but as long as art can help us understand that the extermination of the Jews happened for real, its merits are enormous. Europe, Hollywood, and the Holocaust. Seven Beauties, La Vita e Bella vs.

Hollywood is aiming for the money; European film market is more interested in producing art. Hollywood is not an international industry, it belongs to Americans; Europe has its own film market, which owes nothing to Hollywood. I am interested [84] in this section of my thesis in the representation of the Holocaust in two European movies, and to compare the treatment the Holocaust receives with my assessment of selected American movies.

As such, they show the Holocaust from a totally different standpoint than the American one. This chapter will take a look at the Italian film industry, more exactly at two of its most famous productions, which deal with the Holocaust from a totally different angle than noted earlier. Can the Holocaust be funny? Can this kind of movies be valuable, convincing, morally serious or aesthetically justifiable? Should the comic reflex come into being also in such cruel moments? Seven Beauties provides a truly incomparable treatment of such a serious theme as the Holocaust is, in a satirical tragicomic manner.

Giancarlo Giannini [86] plays Pasqualino, a Napolitano dandy known as Seven Beauties, which, according to him, is because of the effect he has on women: he may not be attractive, but the ladies like him however. Seven Beauties is also the ironic name given to his seven unattractive sisters. Together with Francesco, another Italian fugitive, he witnesses Nazi soldiers executing a group of Jews in a forest and they fear that they will be killed next if caught.

This is the moment when Lina Wertmuller introduces the flashbacks technique, previously used by Sidney Lumet in The Pawnbroker. We find out that he hates killings, but recalls a time before the war when he had to do it as well; he had to take a life himself in order to save the honour of his family. This was in the time when he lived in Naples as a small time crook, living off the hard work of his mother and seven ugly sisters.

Pasqualino - faithful to the family's strict code of honour - murders the boss and in order to cover his deeds dismembers him and mails pieces of the man all over Italy. For his bad luck he is arrested and thrown into an asylum. While there he rapes an inmate and he is put to electrical shocks. His only salvation is to go to war, so he is sent to fight on the Eastern Front.

His luck though seems to have abandoned him, because after deserting he is caught by the Nazis and put in a concentration camp. Seven Beauties is a very bizarre movie, with much unpredictable and dark humour, in a way characteristic of that period for the Italian cinema. But the most controversial scenes are to come.

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As any other death camp, the unnamed one where Pasqualino ends up is a hell on Earth, coloured in shades of grey, in an apocalyptic way. The feelings the audience get is that this place is a factory of death, which is what the prisoners believe also. By submitting the above I agree to the privacy policy and terms of use of JTA. Search ToggleSearch toggle Search for:. By Sari Swig June 5, am.

Recommended from JTA. By Beth Kissileff September 19, pm. By Blair Nodelman September 18, pm. By Emily Burack September 12, pm. By Gayle Apfel September 11, pm. By Sam Sokol September 5, pm. By Jennifer Modlinger September 4, pm.