Never Again

Culture Watch
tags: Holocaust, plays

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Last summer, my wife and I were on vacation in Hamburg, Germany, and took a tour of the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp, a Nazi slave labor facility that in World War II housed 180,000 or so Jews, Soviets and political prisoners. It was one of the saddest days of my life and worse for my wife, who is Jewish. More than 55,000 people died there. They were not exterminated; they were simply worked to death. Men and women labored all day splitting stones into bricks for construction projects throughout the Third Reich. They tried to survive on 400 calories of food a day. One third did not.

The camp, a somber tourist stop now, showcases the headquarters of the Nazis and a museum that includes the tattered, striped clothing of the imprisoned Jews and hard wooden bunk beds on which Jews threw straw to create a makeshift, sub-standard mattress. There were photo albums of those who survived and those who perished. You watched documentaries about the camp, and the Holocaust, in most rooms. The buildings are surrounded by huge square, three feet deep rectangular bins of bricks that remained when the camp was closed by the liberating Allied Forces in 1945.

The frightening part of the half day visit was the site itself. It was gorgeous. The camp sat in the middle of lovely meadows and thick, luscious forests. It was a summer day, the sky was azure blue and a gentle breeze swept over the camp. How on earth could such butchery take place in such a lovely piece of the earth?

The memory of the Holocaust is not dead, and never will be. Millions of people like me, from all countries, will continue to visit the concentration camps in Germany and other countries, listen to stories from Holocaust survivors and view documentaries (The Military Channel is full of them). What’s intriguing to me, though, is how the entertainment world, which usually stays away from sobering topics, has made the Holocaust a chilling staple in American life.

Hollywood just premiered The Book Thief, a film about a young girl who steals books and helps her foster parents hide a Jewish refugee from teams of Nazis looking for him. She is featured at one of the Nazi book burning rallies, where she casually steals yet another book.

The entertainment world is full of Holocaust stories. Just last week I went to see the one woman show Becoming Dr. Ruth, about the very funny, very tiny sex therapist who gained fame with her own television show and hundreds of appearances on other shows to teach people how to have more fun in the bedroom. Few people knew that Ruth Westheimer was a survivor of the Holocaust, forced to flee to Switzerland as a child, and that her parents died in the concentration camps.

Last month, I saw the play The Model Apartment in New York. On one level, it was a story about a dysfunctional family, but on another it was about an elderly woman who survived a concentration camp, where she claimed she met Anne Frank. Her husband was not in a camp, but spent the last years of the war hiding in a thick forest with other Jews. They never forgot the experience; it dominated the rest of their lives.

Earlier this fall, in Los Angeles, a museum in Los Angeles unveiled a new exhibit on the life of Anne Frank, whose diary of her life in hiding caused such a stir when it was released and turned into many movies and television shows. Yesterday, in a doctor’s office, I read yet another article about Anne Frank in a 2009 National Geographic Adventure magazine. Newspaper ads are proclaiming the return of the Jewish persecution play Cabaret to Broadway in the early months of 2014.

These join a long line of documentaries and movies such as Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Bent and the 1978 TV series The Holocaust. They examined the worst tragedy in world history.

Why has entertainment spent so much time on such a sad topic? Why do people, regardless of nationality, continue to watch?

This was not always the case. Until the 1970s there were few plays and films about the Holocaust (1963’s The Pawnbroker). It was treated as an international shame that had to be hidden away and not discussed openly. Then television aired The Holocaust, a four part 1978 series starring Fritz Weaver, Tovah Feldshuh and Michael Moriarty. The production team managed to create memorable human dramas from the Holocaust, concentrating on one fictional family, the Weisses, and not only put the spotlight on the horrors of the persecution and execution of the Jews, but showed their humanity, as well as the evil of their Nazi oppressors.

The ratings success of The Holocaust opened the door and dozens of more movies and television projects on the murder of the Jews followed, topped by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Why does this examination of the Holocaust continue?

It is because there are so many questions still unanswered. How did Hitler manage to come to power, elected no less? How did his government solidity its terroristic hold on Germany in just a few short years? Why kill all the Jews? Why didn’t his victims realize what was going on? Couldn’t the allied forces do more to destroy the concentration camps?

And finally, and I ask myself this every day, how could the German people keep Hitler in power, follow his maniacal dictates, cheer him endlessly and hate the Jews the way they did? What factors in Germany permitted this atrocity to happen? How deep is malevolence?

The movies, documentaries, memoirs of survivors and hundreds of books explain some of Nazi history and how Germany’s poor economy, high unemployment and Post World War I victimized psychological state contributed to the Nazi’s rise to power. Experts in behavior and media have explained some of the lure of Hitler’s magnetism, to use a poor choice of words, and how he and his henchman used the media of the day, brilliantly, to stay in power.

The movies explain the Nazi puzzle better than the documentaries, but not completely. I have never been as shaken as I was during several scenes in Schindler’s List or the moment Sophie decides which of her children to have killed in the concentration camp in Sophie’s Choice. In theater, I still remember vividly the last scene of a production of Cabaret in which the rollicking night club emcee and funmeister turns out to be Jewish and winds up in a concentration camp in his striped uniform.

Will entertainment’s fixation with the Holocaust ever end? No. Entertainment’s interest in slavery never ended, and slavery in America was eradicated nearly 150 years ago. We must never forget, as the Jews always say, but it is far more than that. People with an interest in history need to constantly exam the people of the past to understand why certain horrific events took place. We always study the triumphs of the past but we need to study the tragedies, too.

We are who we were and we desperately need to find out who we were.

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