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Commentary: Bickering, Sense of Betrayal Tinge Varied Reactions to ‘Schindler’s List’

There is a brief quotation from "Exodus Rabbah" on my bulletin board, in which God warns Moses and Aaron that "My children are obstinate, ill-tempered and troublesome."

Steven Spielberg is no Moses. But something like those words must go through his mind when, among the reams of nationwide acclaim for "Schindler’s List," he comes across a number of harsh reviews – some bordering on the vitriolic – precisely by critics who identify themselves as ardent Jews.

None of the critics lived through the Holocaust or were among the rescued "Schindler Jews," who have confirmed the fidelity of the film to their own experiences and to the basic fact that Oskar Schindler risked his neck and drained his fortune to shield "his" Jews.

Some of the reservations, such as long of Frank Rich of The New York Times, are appropriately within the province of a critic.

Rich, and others, object that none of the Jewish characters in the film are fully developed and "blur into abstraction, becoming another depersonalized statistic of mass death."

What is troublesome are attacks on the movie because it does not bear out the reviewer’s own vision of a proper Holocaust film and because the hero is not only a German, but a Nazi party member to boot.

(The tone of such criticism is reminiscent of the reception 45 years ago of "Gentleman’s Agreement," when some purists denounced the first Hollywood film to deal seriously with American anti-Semitism because the hero was a gentile posing as a Jew.)

Jonathan Kirsch, in his review of "Schindler’s List" in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, asks why Spielberg chose to make a Holocaust film in which the hero is a Nazi, however good-hearted.

"I wished Spielberg had found his way to, for example, tell the story of the Bielski partisans, rather than `Schindler’s List,’" he wrote.

Similarly, Rabbi Eli Hecht, writing in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, dwells at length on Schindler’s well-known womanizing, his ostentation and his use of forced Jewish labor in his factory. Hecht concludes that the German’s designation as a righteous person comes close to blasphemy.

The charge will come as a surprise to the Yad Vashem Martyrs Memorial in Jerusalem, not known for pro-Nazi proclivities, which has honored Schindler as a Righteous Gentile.

Kirsch and Hecht miss two points that more sophisticated analysts of the Holocaust and the deeds of Christian rescuers have amply noted.

Such scholars as Eva Fogelman and Nechama Tec, who have interviewed hundreds of Christians who saved Jews in Poland and France, have concluded that it was impossible to categorize rescuers by their background, politics and motivations.

Unlikely as it may seem, the researchers found numerous instances in which outspoken anti-Semites, many affiliated with Jew-baiting movements, in fact saved hundreds of Jews.

A second point goes to the objection that the horror of the Holocaust is diminished by praising the goodness of a few rather than condemning the cruelty and indifference of the many.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Los Angeles, who started the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, has noted that perhaps only through a knowledge of individual acts of Christian heroism can most Christians face the vastness of Christian guilt during the Holocaust.

Indeed, said Schulweis, "whoever hears or reads the accounts of the rescued must realize that there are no heroes without villains, that the small light in the cave reveals more vividly the dark designs of the predators."

"If anything, to experience immense evil through the eyes of the good enables those fearful of entering the cave to take the first brave steps," he said.

In fairness, both Kirsch’s and Hecht’s criticisms go well beyond the figure of Schindler, but they come at it from opposite directions.

Kirsch seems to think that the film does not show the true extent of the Holocaust’s horror and Jewish suffering. Hecht objects vehemently to any films or museums that show "Jews as victims over and over again."

Both views are defensible, but they simplify the immense complexity of the Holocaust. The Shoah retains its hold on the human and artistic imagination because it contained immense evil and remarkable goodness, incredible carnage and chance survival.

"Schindler’s List" deals with one small part of the tragedy and does so with dignity and truthfulness.

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