Sunday, April 11, 2010

eye of the beholder

The United States officially commemorates the Holocaust during the Days of Remembrance, marking the anniversary of the Warsow Ghetto uprising.


I wrote the following column some years ago, just after the film ''Schindler’s List' first ran on television to criticism from then Republican Congressman, now Senator Tom Coburn, a medical doctor and ordained Southern Baptist deacon f
rom Oklahoma. I feel it remains relevant:

Filth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What a person views as lewd defines that individual’s value system.

That said, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn is one twisted mister.

Imagine watching Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” and seeing only violence, nudity and sex. Then lambasting NBC for airing the film and “polluting the minds of our children.” The story of Oskar Schindler, the Czech-born Nazi war profiteer who saved more than a thousand Polish Jews from the death camps, is such an important work its airing needs no defense.

It has been written that 6 million Jews did not die in the Holocaust. One Jew was killed. Then another Jew was killed, the another – 6 million times. That’s what Spielberg illustrates by exposing the terror in such arbitrary and casual murders.

As for the “full frontal nudity,” no man, woman or child was herded into a gas chamber clothed. Prisoners were not paraded before Nazi doctors in their undies. To find something remotely sexual here is perverse. Not to show it would have been the obscenity.

Our children are not hard-wired to TV sets. All it takes to protect the very young is to change the channel or shut off the set. Yes, some older children will be shocked and a bit traumatized. And that’s OK.

In early adolescence, I went with some friends to see “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the first big Hollywood production about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I smugly assumed I understood the reality of the time. After all, I even had a role in my school’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” So, I sat in the dark theater surrounded by friends, enjoying the courtroom drama and the first-rate performances of Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland and the like.

Without warning, the film cut to the now familiar newsreel footage: piles of rotting corpses, stacks of clothing and shoes, mounds of hair and teeth, the often nude, emaciated waking corpses of those “liberated” from the camps and the tear-stained faces of their young GI liberators.

I froze, unable to take my eyes off the screen. It was hard to breathe. I wanted to run, to scream. But I couldn’t move, make a sound or even shed a tear. The Holocaust was no longer in the third person, a tragic historical episode to be studied in school. It was no longer about them. It was about us. It was about me.

To this indulged postwar American Jewish teen, as assimilated as they come, Holocaust stories had been just that – appalling tales to which I had only a distant, incidental connection. Eastern Europe was the place from which my grandparents came, nothing more.

It finally reached me, that for an accident of time and place, those would have been my father’s shoes, my mother’s hair, my brother’s teeth. I would likely lie amid that pile of rotting flesh. The Nazis wouldn’t have cared if I observed the Sabbath, ate pork or went to temple. The fact that I was born to Jewish parents was enough.

Decades later, as a reporter on the Lakewood, NJ beat, it was my job to cover annual Holocaust memorial services. Each ceremony heightened the connection. I had my own children by then and realized they, too, would not have been spared because only one of their parents was Jewish.

What I took away from “Schindler’s List” had nothing to do with sex or violence. It was a recognition of the complex nature of goodness. Many of us assume that in order to make a difference we have to be some kind of Mother Teresa. But Oskar Schindler was a selfish, greedy manipulator. It was these very traits that put him in the position and provided the wealth to save 1,100 Jews and, indirectly, their 6,000 descendants.

Salvation can be found in the most unlikely places, even amid nudity, violence and sex.

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