The Holocaust And 9/11: Universal Truths?


Perhaps it should be no surprise that some of the same criticisms that met Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about Sept. 11, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” published in 2005, are now being leveled against the new film adaptation. Like the book, the film has drawn strong, often biting rebukes from critics who feel it exploits some of Sept. 11’s most harrowing images—the picture of the falling man leaping to his death, in particular—and universalizes a unique tragedy.

Few have been more lacerating than The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who wrote in her review that the film has “no reason for being other than as another pop-culture palliative for a trauma it can’t bear to face. … Yes,” she went on, “you may cry, but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.”

Dargis was not alone in her fury. In fact, several reviews made two similar critiques over and over: one, the film universalized a unique tragedy, and two, it exploited a historical trauma. You begin to wonder, Where have I heard this before? For me, at least, the answer was in the critical reaction to movies about the Holocaust. One need only take a cursory look at the criticism of mainstream films like “Schindler’s List” and “Life Is Beautiful” to roll one’s eyes and think, I’ve heard this all before.

That’s not to say that some of the criticism of “Extremely Loud” is unjustified. I don’t buy the exploitation argument — perhaps the film and book are too sentimental, but I don’t think they’re disingenuous. I can say with certainty, however, that universalizing the Sept. 11 tragedy is a clear intention of both the film and the book.

Both begin the story with a 9-year-old boy, Oskar Schell (in the film he’s made to be 11), whose father, a jeweler played by Tom Hanks, dies in the attacks. The rest of film and book are driven by Oskar’s quest to find the lock to a mysterious key he’s found in his father’s closet, inscribed with the word “Black” on it.

Symbolism is central to the story, and even is more so in the novel. Almost every page of Foer’s book is laden with allusions, metaphors, and koan-like phrases that are meant to lead to some deeper meaning. The key is an obvious symbol, with Oskar’s quest for the lock meant to parallel his search for his father. Ultimately, what Oskar finds is not the lock, or literal answer, he hopes for. But he learns a deeper lesson about accepting the finality of death, that some tragedies have no explanations, that loss is irredeemable.

If the book, like the film, leaves you unsatisfied, as it did me, it is not because it universalizes a tragedy, but because its banal messages don’t seem to warrant the elaborate symbols and signifiers that saddle it. The symbolism, especially the key-and-lock metaphor, is itself an attempt to universalize the lessons we should learn from tragedy. And in that regard, the novel and film do indeed fall short. What the key allusion suggests is that the lesson to draw from a tragedy — be it the quotidian death of a loved one to cancer, or a loved one’s death in the twin towers—is that there is no higher reason for their passing. It is random, it is tragic and all we can do is accept that they’re gone.

To be fair, I don’t think that that was the only meaning that Foer or the filmmakers meant the key to have, even if it is the one most readily apparent. Foer and the screenwriter, Eric Roth, were probably more intent on getting away from polarizing interpretations of the Sept. 11 attacks — that is, reducing it to politics — and wanted instead to recapture the profound loss experienced on that day. By focusing on the particular tragedy of a boy who lost his father, they could get at the emotions of that day more easily. And they could also make them universal: after all, who couldn’t feel for a boy whose dad has died?

But here is something to consider: is universalizing a tragedy like Sept. 11 such a bad thing? Personally, I don’t think it has to be. Every tragedy, from the Holocaust, to Sept. 11, to the death of a parent to cancer, is tragic in its own way. But I am sure that every tragedy, to the stricken, feels in some way similar. The larger questions — Why me? Why my wife? Just plain: Why? — ultimately give way to the deeply personal and unanswerable grief of loss itself. That is what’s so painful — the loss, not the reason for it — and that is why universalizing tragedies by making them personal is so useful.

Foer seems to think so, too. Even more than the film, the novel is buttressed by subplots of other historic tragedies, as if to suggest that all tragedies share some essential elements. Oskar’s grandmother, a German émigré, lived through the bombing of Dresden. So did her husband, who has not spoken a word since it happened, seven decades ago. There is even a scene in the book where Oskar, for a school assignment, interviews a woman who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima.

Oddly, there is almost no mention of the Holocaust, aside from a very brief reference to a Jew that Oskar’s grandfather hid during the war. But Foer, a Jewish author, is no stranger to Holocaust fiction. His best-selling debut novel, “Everything Is Illuminated,” (also made into a film) told the story of a young American Jew, many of whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, searching for his family’s past.

Perhaps Foer was simply exhausted with the event when he began writing “Extremely Loud,” but few critics have failed to mention that the same larger themes explored in his later novel — how we make sense of enormous tragedy; how we cope with grief — are evident in both books. Which is to say, both novels universalize grief and suggest, by extension, that we can learn similar lessons from Sept. 11 and the Holocaust.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that many of the most memorable accounts of the Holocaust — another tragedy many say should not be universalized — are the most universal ones. Think of the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” What in part makes it so accessible is that the truths expressed in it are applicable to anyone, everywhere. “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart,” she writes. And “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Of course, these quotes, some of the diary’s most famous, are clichés; the true power of Frank’s diary cannot be found in any single sentence, but in the overall experience the work captures. And the same thing can be said of Foer’s book.

If we, the readers, expect the meaning of the Sept. 11 tragedy to be found in the ruminations of Oskar, a 9-year-old narrator, our search will be in vain. And indeed many of the explicit attempts at universal meanings, expressed in Oskar’s winsome voice, are the least moving parts of the book. Where the book and film — but especially the book — succeed is in giving expression, in supremely artful prose, to the experience of loss itself. Much like Anne Frank, Foer’s Oskar Schell does not impart any profound wisdom. Instead, he helps us feel a trauma as if we were children, experiencing it for the first time. That is enough of an achievement.