"We drink black milk at daybreak
We drink it at night's fall
We drink it at noon
We drink it and drink it. "
Paul Celans' "Todefuge" (Dance of Death)
Tens of millions of Americans are watching on television the story of two families caught up in the Holocaust. Despite 33 years' perspective, we still don't understand the cold slaughter of 6 million people, the European branch of a marvelous tree; the people who introduced the concept of the human conscience, which Hitler described as the crippler of the human mind just as circumcision was, to him, the crippler of the human body.
Of course, the Holocaust for those who were there was 55 minutes of suffering and five minutes of beauty that only man can create. It was a human solidarity under the pressure of such a degree that no writer can invent it. I will tell you only two of my personal stories.
When I came to Auschiwitz in the fall of '44, my father was sent to the gas chamber. The last time I saw my mother, she was marching naked through the mud and I didn't know what happened to my sister. I felt terribly alone - lost and freezing. Then, I remember, a group of older people, in their 30s told to me to get in the middle of their group, and they pressed me with their bodies to make me feel warm. I had never saw them again. It was only what some humans were able to do for another.
A second story from 1944: After six days of starving, I stole, from a German car, a piece of bread for my friend and myself. I was caught. When the German aimed his pistol to shoot me - after counting to three - I was only listening to his voice and saying goodbye to this life, as when a child goes sleep. I remember how dark was the pistol, how clam was the voice of the officer when he said: ONE, TWO, and whe he said the number three - my friend jumped in between the pistol and me, wanting to shot with me. And this was such a shock for the German officer, who didn't expect so much courage over "subhuman child" that he only cursed us and left.
In a way, I hesitate to connect my personal stories with this television series. But instead of criticizing the artistic aspects of this TV production, I would only say that in the attempt to picture the Holocust, talent is not enough without the first-hand experience and first-hand experience is not enough without talent. Also, in art, there is the iron rule that every artist can deliver only as much as is in him. Still a vast, expensive and commendable attempt has been made and it should also be considered from at least two other angles: the moral and the political.
East of the Elbe, much connected with the Holocaust is intentionally suppressed. In many places, works of art on Holocaust themes are banned, including powerful films such as "Shop on Main Street" (a 1965 Academy Award Winner) and "First after God," and the superb books such as Piotr Rawtiz's "Blood of the sky" and Ka-Zetnik's "House of Dolls," as well as the music composed in Theresienstadt, the so-called "model" concentration camp."
Indeed, the Prague sequences of "Holocaust" could not be shot in Prague.
And recently a diary, telling of an illegal school in Theresienstadt (for the inmates, learning was forbidden under the sentence of death) prepared for printing in the original Czech language, was not accepted for publishing because, as one of the publishers wrote in his letter: "Since 1967, Israeli propaganda has misused the prosecution of the Jewish population as moral justification for Israeli aggression against the neighboring Arab nations. The publishing of literature with the theme of prosecution of the Jews must therefore be judged from this point of view. As long as there exists in the Middle East the danger of war, caused by Israeli aggression, ever supported by historical arguments, it is important to approach the Jewish persecution theme with the maximum of deliberation."
A similar situation exists in the Soviet Union, where such an undertaking as this NBC-TV production would be unthinkable. In both East and West Germany, amny try hard to forget what happened. In East Germany silence prevails; in the West, some are silent, some indifferent, some feel great guilt, and some claim that Hitler couldn't have been so bad, since he liked dogs. And that nothing that is said about the Holocaust is the real truth, that only 2,000 Jews were killed, and those by American and English air raids on Germany.
The final outcome is that in many places the picture remains unclear.
In sharp contrast to all of this, America is showing the Holocaust to tens of millions of people. It is a bit reminiscent of the revelation of the Watergate affair. That was an unbelievable thing for us, who came as survivors fo the camps like Auschwitz. Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, who came from the east, where nothing is so taken for granted as the king's permission to lie.
If it is true that nations and people can survive only by ideals that brought them into existence, then this revival of interest in the Holocaust, this emotional support of those innocently killed a generation later, emphasizes the morality of America.
The Holocaust was never totally buried, but its impact has been lessened by the pressure of many other events.
Even so, in the last few years, some important books on the Holocaust have been published and some good films distributed. American universities are incorporating courses on the Holocaust, its history, literature and film, into the Humanities, Literature, Film and Jewish Studies Departments. Chicago's Spertus College of Judaica, under the leadership of Prof. Byron Sherwin, is about to publish a two-volume curriculum of the Holocaust, compiling history, literature, law, film. The work is intended for use by 3,000 American colleges and universities for teaching the Holocaust.
Why all of this interest in the Holocaust?
Perhaps because, just as mankind's morals, culture and civilization failed from 1939 to 1945, and the outcome was the death of 6 million innocent people, so can that culture and civilization fail again and this time, the number of innocently killed people could be even bigger.
Perhaps it is the instinct of self-preservation that brings the Holocaust back to out attention. Yesterday the Jews were the victims, tomorrow perhaps another group. It may be that because this insticnt for spotting danger failed, we still feel it in our bones.
The Holocaust, after 33 years, is emerging into the daylight like an iceberg, which has been floating until now, in the dark night sea of our lives. And our sense of life would be weaker without a knowledge of it.
It is in the range of the power of man, only of man, to change past errors into future achievements, a lost past into a future gained, past tragedies, into future life.
Despite how much I might wish NBC's "Holocaust" had achieved the status of high art, it doesn't matter greatly if this show is first-class or second-rate.
Because viewing, even on a television series, the Holocaust today must bring to most Americans some of the same sense of solidarity I felt that misty October day in Poland when the people crowded around me, warmed me in my sorrow, as the ashes fell about us.