To honor the Days of Remembrance for the 6 million Jews--and as many as 10 million Slavs and others--who died in the Nazi Holocaust, Channels 26 and 32 will air a variety of programs tomorrow through April 17.
All of these include to one degree or another the famous grainy black-and-white newsreel shots of the camps: the stacks of skeletal bodies, the haunted eyes, the mountains of eyeglasses and human hair and canes and baby carriages and toothbrushes, the acres of suitcases.
The most striking film has virtually none of this numbing horror. Instead it traces the history of the word "ghetto" and the modern history of the Jews. This is what has been missing from so many of those shattering documentaries: Who are these people, and why did this happen to them?
Of course, the ultimate answer is that "these people" are us, all of us, we for whom the bell tolls, we who also belong to the same human race as the Nazis. But this fact remains: While millions of others were shot in trenches, beaten, starved, worked to death, the Jews were always the first priority, the ones for whom the ovens were built, the people who were not merely to be decimated and enslaved, but literally wiped off the planet.
"Geto: the Historic Ghetto of Venice"--airing tomorrow at 10 p.m. on WETA--goes back to the day in 1515 when the doge of Venice banished all the city's Jews to the site of an abandoned cannonball foundry, or "geto" in Italian. They had 10 days to move. The outside windows were bricked up and the two entrances were guarded by Christians whose salaries the Jews had to pay. At night, boats patrolled the canals around this island within an island.
Walls were nothing new to the Jews, as this beautifully crafted hour-long film--produced, written and narrated by the famous opera soprano Regina Resnik--points out. Even before Christ, they were restricted by the Romans. Frankfurt, Cologne, London, Toledo, many cities had their Jewish quarters. The first actual wall went up in Polish Breslau in the 12th century. Not until 1860 did the last ghetto walls in Western Europe come down--to be replaced by a more direct device, the pogrom.
Venice's ghetto was destroyed on July 10, 1797, by Napoleon, when Christians and Jews together pulled down the ancient barriers and burned them. But for nearly three centuries, Venetian Jews had survived and even thrived on the only two activities allowed them, moneylending and the rag trade in secondhand clothes. Over the years they had built up a rich culture, a society of wholesale merchants, doctors, lawyers, tailors, apothecaries, printers, dyemakers, bankers, pawnbrokers to the poor (the first, the brother and sister Levy, opened shop in 1389 near the Rialto bridge).
And the film brings this world to us with great skill and style through loving shots of palazzos and crumbling walls, ancient maps, paintings of a bygone life, when Jews had to wear red hats or other signs of their status. The first tenements, seven stories high in a three-story city, were theirs because they were so crowded in their ghetto and couldn't own land anyway, but leased it from the other Venetians. Intricate and powerful bonds between the two groups grew from this intimacy of hate.
A supremely useful and elegant show. No wonder it won grand prize at the 1982 international documentary festival. It was Resnik's first film.
A more conventional view of the Holocaust is "From Dust and Ashes," Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Channel 32 and 11 p.m. on 26, an hour of scenes from last year's Holocaust conference at Kent State University with some concentration camp footage. Overproduced and filled with talking heads, it seems oddly distanced from its subject. It can't compare to another hour-long film, "To Bear Witness," airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Channel 26.
Here again is a mix: the 1981 International Liberators Conference and shots of the liberation of the camps by the Allied armies in 1945. It is a classic. Seldom-seen German films of the roundups, the people being herded onto boxcars, the battle of the Warsaw ghetto, the arrival of the terrified, exhausted victims at Birkenau's infamous railroad siding, make one wish those faces could be pulled out of the film, blown up and identified if possible, given back their names and histories.
The other side is here too: the Jewish partisans, the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who saved so many Jews and vanished into the gulags, the appalling failure of the rest of the world to stop the tragedy when it could have.
Most moving of all, perhaps because it is easier for us to relate to, is the testimony of those people of many nations who, as soldiers and nurses, first discovered the camps in '45. One by one they speak of the things they saw. One by one they stop, cover their faces, break into sobs.
The series includes six other films, and on April 16 another series of eight programs on the Holocaust begins on WETA, to run through June 11. Meanwhile, on Channel 32, the half hour "Journey to Augustow" plays tomorrow at 10 p.m. Written and directed by a Falls Church woman, Naomi Zeavin, it shows her return to her father's village in Poland and her efforts to raise a monument marking the desecrated Jewish cemetery there. Though clumsy at times, with its reenactments and traveloguey narration, the passion comes through, the determination never to forget.
"Nothing shall purge your deaths from our memories," someone says somewhere, "for our memories are your only grave."