Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It is extremely difficult for the modern German to confront the role of his nation in the persecution of the holocaust and  to acknowledge the shameful truth that people just like himself stood by, and even condoned the death of millions of innocent victims. To murder an innocent human being is the worst of all crimes, therefore to accept the responsibility for the torture and death that millions of Jews experienced is too great a burden; a punishment that Germans are unwilling to accept.  Therefore, many Germans convince themselves and others that they were not responsible for the Jewish holocaust.  They prefer to consider themselves to be victims “that Hitler ‘seized’ in 1933 and ‘occupied’ for twelve dark years”. (Kramer, 48) In addition to this, another strategy is to claim ignorance of Hitler’s Final Solution. This implies that  they would have acted differently if they had not been ignorant.  While Germans prefer to include themselves among the innocent victims of the holocaust, they would much rather leave the past behind them and avoid the issue of the holocaust altogether in order to leave the “unutterable past into what they like to call history” (Kramer, 48). They do not want their crimes of the past to “interfere unduly with the business of life at hand”. (48) Their greatest desire is  not only “to be exonerated from their choices” (49), but also to be perceived as heroes.  Such attitudes of the desires to avoid the memory of the holocaust, to claim victim-hood, and to claim heroism, clearly infiltrate the modern films of the holocaust from the German perspective.

            Based on an analysis of  the two films “Europa, Europa” and “Nasty Girl”, which provide a modern perspective of the role of “ordinary” non-Jewish Germans during the holocaust, it becomes clear that non-Jewish Germans perceive themselves as victims when they are confronted with the memory of the holocaust.  Films such as these are produced out of an inherent desire to obscure the unpleasant facts of the holocaust and the Jewish victims into obscurity, in favor of “symbolic simplicities of objectification”.  The tension that is evident in these films involves the issue of handling the victims of the holocaust.  The way this issue is handled is to not  deal  directly with the German role in the holocaust, or the Jewish victims.  To achieve sympathy for the German victims it becomes necessary to omit details concerning the Jewish Persecution such as the concentration camps which tortures and murdered its victims.  These two films have handled and portrayed the memory of the holocaust  in their own terms.  There are no depictions of concentration camps, or stories from survivors. Jewish people fictional or real are not even depicted.  The danger of such films have lasting implications, especially considering the fact that for many individuals, these films may be the only encounters they have in learning about the holocaust.  These fantasized memories of heroism and victim-hood of non-Jew Germans are portrayed at the expense of the Jewish victims.  Such sterilized accounts of the holocaust are replacing the documentaries which show the cold hard facts.  These films have blurred the line between the perpetrators of the holocaust with the victims of the holocaust. The perpetrator  is now defined as a vague and distant entity distinct from the ordinary German.

            These films seek to convince themselves, and individuals of other nations that they were innocent of the crimes committed against the Jews. The Germans of today underestimate the role that their “ordinary” counterparts of the past played in the persecution and murder of over six million Jews.  Because they were only “ordinary” Germans, who were not among Hitler’s SS command, nor executioners who tortured and murdered Jews, they feel as if they were not responsible for the atrocities committed against the Jewish people.  They distinguish themselves from those individuals that they feel did play a direct role in the Jewish persecution: (Hitler and his command). Nevertheless, within their role as ordinary citizens they did allow and facilitate the extermination of  the Jews.

            The film “Europa, Europa” diminishes the distinctions between the Jew and the non-Jewish German; and the victim and perpetrator.  Its message is that the distinction whether one was Jewish or not played an insignificant role in determining one’s level of responsibility during the Jewish persecution. In this film, an innocent Jewish boy named Simon Perel went to such great lengths to survive that he gave up his Jewish identity, changed his name to Josef, and became a student in an elite Hitler youth school. Simon even participated in anti-Semitic activities which included stabbing and mutilating a doll which represented the body of a Jew, and hailing Hitler.

            Despite Simon’s betrayal and choices, the film is portrayed so that the viewer can understand and sympathize with what Simon is experiencing.  Watching the film, the viewer can not help but forgive and excuse Simon’s anti-Semitic actions.  Had they been committed by a “real” Nazi, they would be unforgivable.  If an outsider were to observe Simon, he or she would never have known that he was really a Jew. The fact that Simon went through a great deal of internal anguish over his decisions was not externally observable.  One would be unable to distinguish him from the other Nazis.  In fact this is why he deceived the Nazi’s around him. 

            The significance of this message may be interpreted in two ways. Just as Simon, who appears to be a Nazi, though it is only to protect his life, it is also possible that the other Nazi’s are only acting so that they will not be killed.  Therefore the message of this film may be that one should not be hasty in judging the deeds of the Nazi soldiers because they too may be acting only to save their lives, just as Simon had done.  The films wishes to portray the following question: Who knows how many Nazis themselves were Jews in disguise?  Even among non-Jewish Germans, any one who opposed the Nazi’s were endangering their lives. Therefore, may be argued that becoming a Nazi was the best way to insure the safety of one’s life.  The logical conclusion of this argument is that even the Nazi’s who hoarded innocent victims into the gas chambers may have  been following orders just out of fear for their lives, and therefore they should not be judged to harshly.  In fact, under this rationale they may be called victims too. Even though this is an extreme interpretation, it is a valid one.

            A second more plausible interpretation of this film is that its purpose is to exonerate or liberate Germans from the responsibility of their choices by showing that a Jew, just as easily as any ordinary non-Jewish German, could have been in the same position.   I believe that Simon’s role, as an innocent, young boy may be interpreted as  representing Germany.  Just as one could feel sympathy for the choices that Simon was forced to make, one should also feel sympathy for the difficult choices that many ordinary Germans had to make in order to preserve their lives. Nevertheless, I feel that this argument does not free the Germans from the responsibility and the consequences of their choices. Nor do I believe that Simon Perel should be excused for his actions, just as I do not believe that the ordinary non-Jewish Germans should be excused from their role in the Jewish persecution.  Even though Simon himself did not agree or condone the Nazi hatred of the Jews, his actions had real consequences.  Though it caused him anguish to curse at the dead Jewish girl hanging by the neck, and to burn down her house, Simon’s anguish did not make the act of torching the house distinguishably less evil than if a genuine anti-Semitic Nazi had done the same deed.  The consequences of the role an individual played during the Jewish persecution led to the same outcome regardless of whether the individual was a Nazis because he or she was genuinely anti-Semitic, or because he feared for his lives.  The outcome reflected itself in the persecution and mass extermination of the Jews.

            A powerful moment at the end of the film occurs when Simon tells the Russians that he is really Jewish, is condemned for his betrayal to his people who had been murdered by the Nazis.  In disbelief they can not conceive why a Jew would wear feign loyalty to the same people that millions of Jews.  As the Russian solider shows him pictures of the mass murder, Simon claims that he did not know that the Jewish people had been killed.  The viewer is left with the feeling that Simon really is innocent and that if he had known that the Jewish people were really being murdered that maybe he would not have  pretended to be a Nazi. Just as the film portrays Simon to be ignorant of Hitler’s Final Solution,  it may be concluded that it is possible that other Germans may also have been ignorant of the Final Solution, and if they had known they may have made other choices.  It is with this message the viewer of the film “Europa, Europa” is left with.  To claim  fear and ignorance are comfortable explanations for the German’s to explain their role during the Jewish persecution.  Nevertheless, I believe that fear is a more plausible argument to explain the role of the ordinary German rather than ignorance.  Yet, fear does not excuse or lessen the responsibility of the ordinary German in his role during the Holocaust

            The film “Nasty Girl” is an effort to portray the heroism of  the ordinary German.  Sonya Wegmus is portrayed as an heroic, young, German woman who risked her own life in a pursuit to uncover the role that her hometown Pfilzing played in the Jewish persecution.  It is ironic that while this film is about a woman who seeks to uncover the truth of her town’s role during the Third Reich, Jewish people are not represented in the film. The film clearly establishes Sonya, a non-Jew German, as the victim.  We see her life threatened several times by terrorists; with rocks and bombs. The viewer can sympathize with her fears and frustrations.  At the same time, the viewer does not have a sense of the suffering that the Jews went through.  The persecution of the Jews is treated superficially.  Jewish suffering is trivialized and obscured in comparison to Sonya’s persecutions whose sufferings which are vivid and real.  One of the only references to Jewish persecution involved the “pants” incident as described in a newspaper article that Sonya uncovered.  The vague Jewish victims are not given an identify, or even names. In a sense, they are dehumanized.

            Sonya’s motives for her research present some contradictions.  Because it did not appear that Sonya’s motives to uncover the truth stemmed out of a genuine concern for the Jewish victims who suffered as a result of their persecution, it seems ironic that she would risk her life and that of her children to pursue her research.  With Sonya’s history of essay writing, and her dedicated personality, it seemed as if it was only natural for her to pursue a topic to its logical conclusion.  Her quest for information  was as if it were a mystery that needed to be solved; and Sonya played the role of detective.   Sonya met with may obstacles from acquiring the needed information to complete her research.   The townspeople did not want Sonya to pursue her research.  They did not want to confront the memory of their role in the holocaust.  One widow who did not want to speak to Sonya about her husband’s role in the Jewish persecution said that she did not want to “bring up all that muck”.  The widow’s feelings are representative of most of the townspeople. In fact, at the start of her research, her mother told her to only write about the good things implying that the town’s role during the Third Reich, which involved the persecution of the Jews should be avoided or forgotten. 

            The reactions of the townspeople reflect those of  many Germans. Many were hostile to Sonya, calling her a betrayer to the German people. Others simply wanted to forget about the past; to go on with their lives.  Nevertheless, none of these individuals were villianized as the enemy.  After all, they could also claim to be victims. In addition to this, the theme of ignorance was also evident in this film as with “Europa, Europa”.  When she learned of the concentration camps, Sonya thought of them as too horrible to be true.  Sonya had been ignorant of  the mass murder of the Jews.  Just as Sonya was ignorant of the Mass murder of the Jews, this film implies that it is not impossible that non-Jewish Germans may also have been ignorant of Hitler’s final solution. Not only does this film his support the fact that “Germans want their past to have happened to them.  They want to have suffered from themselves, the way everyone else suffered from them.” Many Germans look with disbelief upon Hitler’s final solution, claiming that they and the Germans of the past are not responsible., while others desire to forget the past. It is the goal of this film, nevertheless, to exploit the holocaust, and use it to prove the heroism of ordinary Germans at an attempt to exonerate or liberate  themselves from their past decisions.

            Both of these films which I have discussed de-emphasize and undermine the painful and horrific experience of the Jewish people during the holocaust.  The Jewish victims and the holocaust have been obscured as being a part of the past. Films such as these are in a sense uplifting to the Germans,  as they do not dwell on images of concentration camps, piles of dead, skeletal victims, or the stories of holocaust survivors. In her article, “The Politics of Memory”, Kramer explains the role of the ordinary German, and  that she could understand “how ‘normal’ it must have seemed to other Germans when, in a few years’ time, Jews were forbidden to do anything but die”. One can not underestimate the discomfort felt by the German when reflecting his role in the Jewish persecution.  It is understandable that one would rather forget such an uncomfortable past, or to deny responsibility.  Nevertheless it is important not to distort or to obscure the memory of the Jewish victims of the holocaust.  To forget choices made in one’s past increases the likelihood that they may someday be repeated.  While the holocaust has been one of the most evil acts committed by mankind, to deny the holocaust’s victims or to rationalize away one’s responsibility makes the evil of the holocaust even greater. Movies such as these are an outrage- as they undermine and even excuse away crimes committed against the Jewish people.


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