Incorporation of the Holocaust experience into the American conceptual framework

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A Jewish Barber: I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don't hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don't fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!
Mr. Jaeckel: Hannah, did you hear that?
Hannah: Listen...

This monologue has often been compared to other “famous speeches” in the world’s history, such as Christ’s sermon (Chaplin actually quotes St. Lucas), Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”, or even John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The speech also creates a parallel to Hynkel’s rally speech within the movie. Chaplin was often criticized for being too sentimental and too optimistic in his social democratic vision of the future. It contributed to his accusations of being a communist, which had in consequence the denial of his re-entry into the U.S. in 1952. Chaplin was also criticized for stepping out of his character and not letting his Tramp character end the movie in his usual way beaten by life but still full of hope and optimism. He looks straight into the camera while delivering the speech, addressing the American audience and asking them for an active respond. Chaplin speaks not only on behalf of the Jewish victims but on behalf of anybody, who suffers any kind of oppression and discrimination. Even though Chaplin himself was not Jewish (despite often rumors about his origins), he was concerned about the Jewish fate and he himself had to endure persecution during his life. Chaplin portrays his Jewish barber as a “double victim”; he is a victim of amnesia, an illness that makes him space out, quasi safe but ignorant of what is going on in the world, and a victim of the time and place he is living. This double victimhood works both on a universal/abstract and on a contemporary/concrete level; amnesia may be a symbolic disease for the Jews, who seem to have forgotten about their eternal suffering and from which they have to wake up in order to fight against a new oppressor. But since there is nothing Jewish about the barber, except for the fact that he lives in the ghetto and has a marked ID card, he stands for all mankind that should wake up from its amnesiac apathy and stand up to the tyranny. Since its birth as a fictional figure, the Tramp character has represented an essence of humanity that always survives no matter what trouble it has to go through. In The Great Dictator the evil is (as the title says) the dictator himself; the barber, a symbol of the most ordinary man, is the ultimate victim and the hero of the absurd tyrannical politics. The barber’s innate heroism is his most visible characteristics. Victimhood thus becomes a “quality” imposed and forced on the Jews for no logical reasons (unlike in the case of the Rothschild family, guilt is definitely on the side of the oppressors), while heroism seems to be an innate characteristics of the strongest Jewish characters (barber, Hannah and Mr. Jaeckel) and the only answer and cure for the disease of tyranny. Here not the Jews but the whole society has to be cured. The barber and Hannah with their optimistic witty and courageous attitude turn into the examples par excellence for the rest of the world. Making fun of Hitler and his companions is presented as one of the forms of resistance, which hints at the Jewish ways of survival and the protean type of the Jew mentioned above, when sometimes the humor becomes the only weapon. While the others are hidden behind the mask of dictatorship or fear, their sense of justice (“live and let live) seems to be timeless and thus universal. Chaplin transformed and in a way made use of the popularity of his fictional character for the sake of communicating the audience the dangers of passivity in the face of despotism. Chaplin let the barber be his voice in the world.

3.4. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

The other “Jewish” film out of the outstanding trio from the thirties and forties was a drama based on Laura Hobson’s novel and Oscar Winner Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) directed by Elia Kazan. It was one of the first postwar movies dealing with the issue of anti-Semitism without mentioning the Jewish genocide at all. However, even though the Holocaust does not directly appear in the film, the knowledge of the event lies in the film’s warning to the American public about the dangers that can result from society that accepts and believes in anti-Semitism (Doneson 1987: 51). It was rather a controversial movie then, it is rather a preachy movie at present, not because of its theme but rather of the way it processed the theme and offered it to the audience. Unlike The House of Rothschild and The Great Dictator, it was made after the war and it takes place in a very American milieu. The main character is a journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who comes with his mother and son to New York to write an article about anti-Semitism in America. His goal is to find out how being Jewish works in reality and how it affects a person’s life. The objective of this film is to point to and to educate or rather to give a moral lecture on publicly accepted and invisible layers of social anti-Semitism. The title itself refers to an unwritten agreement that is still assumed to be understood and accepted; which in this case means publicly accepted ways of social discrimination of the American Jews of the forties and an automatically assumed prejudice. The focus of the film is on two attitudes, two approaches to anti-Semitism expressed by two gentile characters in love: Phil and Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), one of which is presented as the right one. Phil, perfect almost as the Superman and a fighter for social justice, tries to get to know the issue better from the other “inner” side. As far as the Jewish prejudice is concerned Kathy represents a symbol of hypocrisy and ignorant passivity of the average American in the forties. The gentile characters stand in the center of the story; they are supposed to go through a positive transformation (and thus create a model for a viewer). While the Jewish characters stay in the background: Phil’s secretary hides her Jewishness behind a new name and Phill’s Jewish friend and former soldier (here again we see the continuation of the wartime and postwar film tradition of depicting Jews as American patriotic soldiers) Dave Goldman (played by a Jewish actor John Garfield), who is Phil’s Jewish model or a mirror, his Jewish twin, who warns him not to proceed with his project, since he already knows what Phill tries to get to know through his own life experience. Instead of showing the anti-Semitism from the Jewish perspective, the director Kazan chose to look through the eyes of a gentile posing as a Jew. The reason was obviously to make it easier for the American audience to identify and understand. Phil Green is a representative of a new liberal democratic intellectual. As his neutral family name suggests he could be anyone, gentile or Jew; the word green also hints at certain naivety and inexperience (Doneson 1987: 52). He enters the Jewish sphere as a beginner, he is new to this world and naive in his assumption that he could fully experience what discrimination and persecution is just by posing as a Jew. By this quite easy transformation from a gentile to a Jew (a gentile analogy to the protean Jew) the film tries to deny the existence of typical physical Jewish traits (just posing and declaring his Jewishness in public makes Phil experience signs of anti-Semitism) but the effect is quite the opposite. By negating all the stereotypical perceptions of the physical image that makes a Jew different from others, the film attracts even more attention to them and reaffirms them in public mind: “The idea will work. After all, he says to himself, he has dark hair and dark eyes like his friend Dave Goldman. He has no accent, no Jewish mannerisms. Neither does Dave” (Doneson 1987: 51-52). Doneson mentions a very common stereotype that the movie makes use of, the stereotype of a wandering Jew. Phil is like a wandering Jew trying to find his place, moving from California to New York, where the largest urban concentration of Jews in the world is (Doneson 1987: 51); it is like one big ghetto. The Jews in Gentleman’s Agreement are characterized through their different religion and through their victimhood status. When Phil’s son Tommy asks him about what it means to be a Jew, Phil explains Jewishness to him via religion: it means going to another church, called a synagogue (Doneson 1987: 53). The citizenship and religion are separated from each other; being Jewish is just another defining but supplementary element only after being American. Even though Phil tries to experience what it means to be Jewish through anti-Semitism (which goes back to the theory of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, where it is the Anti-Semite, who makes the Jew “Jewish” (Doneson 1987: 53), Doneson stresses that he does not have to suffer from any severe life-threatening persecution or discrimination like the Jews in The House of Rothschild and The Great Dictator; the discrimination that he goes through is rather socially subtle, even though still very determining for his life. The play on a Jew also affects Phil’s son, who is involved into his project by being forbidden to reveal their non-Jewish identity. For Tommy being a Jew means not only to go to a different church, but also to have to endure verbal and physical attacks. The Jew is thus labeled both by religion and by being a victim. The anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement is considered to be a serious disease (Doneson 1987: 54), which can be cured only by complete assimilation – Americanization (which seems to be a very frequent cure even in real life for the American Jews in the postwar United States). To be an American means to be healthy. Event though the movie’s objective is to show the dangers of social anti-Semitism, to eliminate anti-Semitic prejudices in America, and to stress that religion is the only distinguishing mark between gentiles and Jews, it is the Jew, who is considered to be ill and is asked to transform himself/herself into an American and thus become healthy. Phil experiences the symptoms of this “Jewish illness” temporarily but he eventually recovers and goes back to his life. There is a happy ending with relief to the story, everything is the way it should be – everything is “normalized” (Jew in Cinema 38), and there is a promise of a positive transformation of the rest of the gentile society as well. Phil and especially his girlfriend Kitty change this experience into less prejudiced Americans. Omer Bartov in his book The “Jew” in Cinema stresses the fact that while for Phil his transformation is only a tool for writing a powerful magazine article, for Jews, such as Phil’s secretary, who had to change her name in order to get a job (paradoxically at the magazine that Phil is writing his liberal article for), is such a transformation necessary and inevitable in order to elude social Christian superiority system (Bartov 2005: 42). The Anti-Semitism in the film is expressed by showing the social reality of the forties, in which it was simply more convenient and easier for life to be a Christian rather than a Jew (Bartov 2005: 42).

3.5 Trio

What role if any did the time (the historical context), when these three movies were produced and released, play in the way their Jewish characters were depicted? The House of Rothschild appeared on screen in 1934 as an immediate reaction to the Nazi rise to power. Even though there were visible signs of intended Jewish persecution and discrimination at that time, news about Jewish oppression was scarce and widely ignored by public. The American society was rather anti-Semitic in the thirties; the interest in the films dealing with this issue was rather low. The European like Jews in the film can be identified as Jews just by looking at them or hearing them speak. Religion is another distinguishing factor and very crucial in the lives of Jews in the film. The Shylock type Jews are depicted as “guilty victims” (Doneson 1987: 52-53); guilty of being Jews with specific Jewish characteristics such as love for money, power and manipulation. This is going to change soon. The Jew will be denied his identity, expressed mainly through negative stereotypes, and will be given a super new one, more similar to “a real American’. The film The House of Rothschild suggests that anti-Semitism could be erased (cured) by the means of assimilation. In other words in the film the Jews receive forgiveness for their sin of being Jews and are offered medicine called “integration”. Chaplin’s movie The Great Dictator (made during the war and still released before America’s participation in the war) was ahead in time in many things: in its direct attack on the Nazi politics and its recognition of Hitler’s threat for Europe and especially for the Jews, in its use of black humor and turning Hitler into a caricature, and in its presenting Jews as the ultimate symbol of humanity without reasons for blame or guilt. The Jew in The Great Dictator stands for universalism, hope, and humanitarian vision of the world (Doneson 1987: 52) similar to Anne’s character in The Diary of Anne Frank. The humanity quality deprives the Jew of any unique Jewish characteristics, except for the fact of living in the ghetto. The Great Dictator with its ghetto and concentration camps hinted at the future reality of the Holocaust more than the postwar movies did. The Jews in The Great Dictator bear no guilt for their sufferings; the whole mankind is to blame. Gentleman’s Agreement puts its Jewish characters in the background of its story; the anti-Semitism issue creates a backdrop for showing a social climate in America of the forties. The central figure is a gentile, who is trying to solve the “Jewish problem”, which is Jewish unfitting social position. This pattern of a gentile as a healer or a rescuer becomes crucial and very popular in the movies made in later decades (Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Even though the film was made two years after the end of the Second World War, its producers did not allow the recent Holocaust event to enter its script; their focus was mainly on the social ills of American society. The Jew in Gentleman’s Agreement is a victim of a discriminatory social system; the only way how to get up the social ladder is to “cheat”, which in the context means to hide and deny own Jewishness and act as an average American. Changing one’s name seems to be a sufficient tool. Each of the three movies comes with a different type of anti-Semitism: in The House of Rothschild it is the old medieval type of fascination and hatred directed at Jewish assumed financial power and manipulation, The Great Dictator portrays anti-Semitism as timeless anti-Humanism, and Gentleman’s Agreement focuses on the invisible but still the most modern and lasting type of social discrimination. The House of Rothschild uses very common trick for criticizing contemporary situation by the means of a historical film with elements of allegory. The Great Dictator puts its characters into a fictional time and fictional land with very obvious symbolic. Gentleman’s Agreement attempts to be solely American product made for Americans about Americans by looking at the Jewish issue from a gentile American perspective in a very American (and still very Jewish) milieu at present. The European Jew heavy with stereotypes in The House of Rothschild changes into the whole mankind encompassing Jew free from any typical Jewish characteristics in The Great Dictator. This universal non Jewish Jew transforms into its future Americanized figure hiding its Jewishness behind their American mask trying to become invisible, like everybody else. The path to the fully assimilated universalized Jew of the fifties is set up.
4 Chapter Four

4.1 Sociopolitical and Cinematic Situation

The postwar baby-boom period in America was a time of great affluence and prosperity, marked with promotion of the middle-class values walking hand in hand with conformity; being different meant being un-American. The atmosphere of “sameness” was felt both on a social and political level. Everybody wanted to have an all-electric home with a TV set in order to be able to watch TV shows such as “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” and to go to a drive-in theater or a TV diner in the evening; television functioned as a major entertainment medium. The 1950s was also an era of modern jazz and Rock and Roll (Elvis Presley). It was an age of youth rebellion expressed in the movies by such stars as James Dean, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe.

On the political level the fight against communism became the major theme. The Cold War, which was portrayed as a war against totalitarianism, was promoted and perceived as a natural continuation of the Second World War; the Soviet Union became an ultimate enemy and Germany turned into a loyal ally. Germany was rapidly rehabilitated in order to become a bulwark against communism; its Nazi past became a taboo issue. The New Deal liberalism was replaced by a more conservative mood.

The 1950s will always be remembered as the age of McCarthyism and espionage trials (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Universalism and equal opportunities were the mottos of those days. The Supreme Court decided that segregating black school children from the white school system was unlawful (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954). Assimilation, which meant “Americanization” became the goal for all American minorities.

In the atmosphere of the Cold War the Holocaust talk became politically embarrassing – it didn’t fit into the new political situation. The United States were celebrating their victory over the Axis; there was no room left for the Holocaust tragedy (Mintz 2001: 5). Victims of Nazism were defined in political terms as the victims of totalitarianism, as a part of anti Soviet Union propaganda, rather than in ethnic terms. The Nazi crimes were separated from Germany and became crimes of totalitarianism. The Holocaust issue was marginalized at the cost of the war against communism. The guilt of the Nazi Germany was belittled and disguised behind American political rhetoric and its theory of totalitarianism, which said that opposition within the totalitarian state was impossible (Novick 1999: 87).

This theory offered enough justification for the American government in order to proceed with political negotiations concerning cooperation with Germany. Novick gives another supportive argument proving the postwar marginalization of the Holocaust in the postwar years. He talks about the DP program, which had began as a tool for helping the Holocaust survivors, but by the early 1950s became a political tool for Christian groups to help their coreligionists among the SS party members. The main focus of the program was on the victims of Stalin, not of Hitler (Novick 1999: 89). Hollywood reacted promptly to the new American foreign policy and instead of paying attention to Germany’s acts of persecution and genocide; it contributed to the positive portrayal of Germans. Germans in film were presented as innocent suffering victims of the totalitarian political system, unaware of the Nazi atrocities (The Dessert Fox (1951), The Young Lions (1958)) (Lipstadt 1996: 200).

William L. Shirer’s bestseller Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959) made a difference in American perception of wartime and present Germany. Shirer argued that Nazism had been a predictable outcome of German history and had had roots in German traditions (Lipstadt 1996: 203). The fact that the book appeared in 1959, after having been rejected by publishers in 1954 and 1955, serves as an evidence of a changing political and social climate in the late fifties as far as American-German relations are concerned. The American intense confrontation with Germany’s Nazi past had to wait until the Eichmann trial of 1961 (the trial will be discussed in the next chapter), which was a crucial event for American public’s willingness and awareness of the Holocaust.

Even though the American Jewish organizations felt strong opposition to Germany’s rapid rehabilitation and the American government’s ignoring and indifference to Germany’s Nazi past or rather its conciliatory attitude towards Germany, there was a great fear and hesitation to express their resentment publicly. American Jewish leaders were concerned with possible negative perception of Jews, confirmation of their popular association with communism (American anti-Semitic literature often associated the Jews with communists and depicted them frequently as communist conspirators), and them being “different” than the rest of America. Their opposition would not look good in the American minorities’ assimilation policy.

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