In response to:
A Dissent on 'Schindler's List' from the April 21, 1994 issue
To the Editors:
I was pleased with Jason Epstein’s dissent from the chorus of praise that has greeted Schindler’s List. I agree with Epstein that the film encourages us to face the Holocaust “in a most complacent and self-serving way” and I concur also that the cause of the film’s failure is “misplaced emphasis. A dramatic representation of Hitler’s crime should leave us shaken and humiliated on behalf of our species.”
Nevertheless I dissent on two points. First, I object to Epstein’s representation of the Holocaust as Hitler’s crime. In my view, Epstein and Spielberg are equally at fault in representing historical outcomes mainly as a consequence of the actions of extraordinary people: the extraordinary Hitler murdered the Jews, the extraordinary Schindler saved them. Hitler made history; Schindler changed it. The synecdoche is not just a figure of speech; it is also a theory of history that, in both cases, attempts to absolve non-Jews generally of the taint of complicity. Of course, they have nothing in common with Hitler; indeed, in the event, they would just act like Schindler.
I have a second point of dissent. I think both Epstein and Spielberg err in letting us believe that the Holocaust is equally relevant to Jews and non-Jews. The film is explicitly motivated by this relevance; wide audience appeal is the premise of all mass entertainment. But Epstein’s characterization of the Holocaust as a “crime against humanity,” his comparisons equating it to Stalinist terror and current Chinese repression, emphasize an analogous general relevance.
I understand these attempts to re-create the Holocaust in a way that eschews the parochial. Weren’t six million Jews six million people? But the lessons of the Holocaust are parochial, relevant mainly to the history of the West and the Western diaspora. Hitler was able to succeed against the Jews only because he could rely without reservation on the collective and deeprooted anti-Semitism evident in almost every European country. This anti-Semitism, moreover, had a historical connection of long standing with Christianity, a link going back to the Gospels at least. If anti-Semitism had not been a permanent possibility in Western civilization, legitimated by Christian tradition, Hitler could not have succeeded. The Holocaust is in origin, not a Nazi crime, but a crime of non-Jews against Jews, a crime committed on the Continent by men and women of almost every nationality, a crime that Britain and the United States generally deplored but did virtually nothing to prevent.
The anti-Semitism on which Hitler relies is still alive and well. As Epstein certainly knows, anti-Semitism is rife in a Poland almost without Jews, an absence abetted by the Poles before, during, and after World War Two. Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism remains a permanent possibility within Western civilization and and Christianity. Though sometimes disavowed in words, it is often reinforced in practice.
Creating a Holocaust suitable to non-Jews is what I presume to be Spielberg’s purpose; equally I see it also as one goal of Epstein’s argument for the commonality between the Holocaust and Stalinist and current Chinese policy. (The other seems to be the vilification of Stalin’s and China’s apologists.) But Jews were murdered in Europe just because they were Jews, an indelible Jewishness they could do no more about than their skin-color. Nothing they achieved, or believed, or professed could make a difference in their fates. If conveying the Holocaust to non-Jews involves distorting its meaning as an unspeakable crime against Jews, then silence, I think, is preferable. Jews owe it to themselves not to misrepresent an event now so nearly central to their self-definition.
At the moment, in part because of the wide circulation of Schindler’s List, there is a movement to teach the Holocaust in the schools, to Jew and non-Jew alike, to make remembering it a part of the American experience. In itself, this is commendable: it cannot be a bad thing to remember this bad thing. But surely it is more important that Jews remember the Holocaust correctly, exactly as it was. Whatever I do, whatever I come to believe or disbelieve, I cannot cease to be a Jew. The Nazis believed this; by their actions, they made it true. As a Jew living in the shadow of the Holocaust (where all Jews live) I owe it to the dead to remember precisely what they endured and why they endured it. To do otherwise, I think, would be to dishonor their memory.
Alan G. Gross
Professor of Rhetoric
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota