March 31, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs
Everybody in Chicago is reading it and, theoretically, everyone will soon be discussing it with the same sense of purpose with which they discussed To Kill a Mockingbird. Me, I had a hard time going with the One Book One Chicago program and getting myself to read Night, Elie Wiesel’s slim but weighty Holocaust novel.
That was partly because the subject matter stabs at my Jewish psyche and stokes the guilt I feel over distancing myself from my ethnic roots, but also because, as much of a pop culture maven as I am, my internal authentimeter resists the notion of dialing up this monstrous tragedy as a citywide entertainment event or mass homework assignment or Oprah book extravaganza.
You don’t have to read me chapter and verse about the need to keep memories of the Holocaust alive or to create memories for those in need of them. At a time when anti-Semitism is back on the front burner, not only in predictable places such as the Middle East and Germany, but also in France and Spain, and in revelations that Richard Nixon and Billy Graham traded ugly putdowns of Jews, I fully understand and appreciate the impulse to honor the victims by taking pains to remember them.
I just don’t put much stock in this kind of grand gesture any more than I put much stock in the love-in the Oscars staged last week for African-American artists. It would be nice if raising consciousnesses about Jews and Blacks led to pervasive changes in people’s attitudes and responses toward them. And of course, a certain amount of this good stuff does seep into people’s heads. But you and I know how easy it is for this culture to return to business as usual, especially where the profit margin is concerned.
Actually, I fear that far from making people’s souls shiver and minds boggle, fictional treatments of the Holocaust have come to make it easier to confront. Repeated in films and high-minded T V dramas, concentration camp images have become so familiar as to become almost toss-offable. The horrors are reduced to docu-drama formula, the outlandish becomes mundane.
For all their claims on realism, emotional and other, movies ranging from Steven Spielberg’s neatly composed “Schindler’s List” to Roberto Benigni’s Patch Adams-ish “Life is Beautiful” carefully avoid hard truth, messy truth, truth that can’t be sentimentalized or buffed to an uplifting finish. They are less interested in nuance than landing on the correct emotional keys, like Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia stepping out in “Big.”
Literature can take you to the hellish places that exist beyond the most nightmarish visuals. Though Night is not a great novel, it gets to you with its eerie calm, its refusal to dally over its unthinkable sights and sounds, its withheld screams. Told from the autobiographical viewpoint of Wiesel beginning at age 12, it absorbs the shocks to his system the way a crate of eggs can absorb a shock and leave the shells undamaged. But I have to think that when it was published in 1960, before tales of Nazism became more codified and we became more exposed to Holocaust confessions, the novel had a more powerful and profound effect.
As much as I liked it, I shook it off in a way I couldn’t shake off Leslie Epstein’s 1979 King of the Jews, a comic – yes, comic – as well as tragic take on life in a Polish ghetto under the Nazis starring a rascally Jewish power broker named Trumpelman. Here was a book that avoided the standard telling and paid the price: critics attacked it for not treating the Holocaust with proper sobriety. Epstein answered them by explaining how the jokes in King of the Jews were taken from real life – how a man in the Warsaw ghetto named Ringelbaum wrote down the jokes that the Jews were telling and buried them in milk cans.
The idea of dark or even light comedy in a story about the Holocaust might be unthinkable for Spielberg (though not to Lina Wertmuller, whose “Seven Beauties” took a deadpan absurdist look at life in a concentration camp). But laughter can be as crucial to survival in the same way that music can be. Employed by an artist, it can pull you past all the received information you’ve built up about an unspeakable chapter like the Holocaust and make you gaze upon it through fresh eyes.
My late shrink impressed upon me the usefulness of denial, how it can be a good thing for the mind not to be encumbered by shattering events, and how it’s through denial that people are able to get past grievous personal losses. “…a kind of psychic shutter closes around your heart,” Epstein said in an interview a few years ago, describing how his emotions shut down during his research for King of the Jews. For him that shutter enabled him to point a lens at the most wrenching moments, for himself as well as his readers.
I thought of my shrink and Epstein during the Oscarcast when, during a montage of documentary clips, the image of a woman getting her hair shorn for the concentration camp appeared on the screen. For that brief moment, unprepared for the jolt, my defenses gave way and the pain of history flew through me, getting to me in a way that even “Shoah” couldn’t. I knew what I was getting into when I sat before Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary about the Holocaust. I was geared up. With the Oscar moment, I was unguarded, ripe for the emotional taking.
More often than not, it’s not the extended moment, the orchestrated emotion, the manufactured event that gets to you. It’s the moment that leaps out at you when you least expect it, when life flashes before your eyes and then, in an instant, returns control of your consciousness to you.
I would never suggest that there’s such a thing as overexposure to the Holocaust via films and plays and book discussions and even that idiot exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that includes concentration camps made out of Lego sets and Calvin Klein ads juxtaposed with fascist- inspired images. But catching up to the enormity of this tragedy sometimes means slowing down, pulling back and letting the truth hit you where the sun of popular culture don’t shine.