Monthly Archives: February 2014

An Unlikely Hero: On Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Slavery is perhaps the most debasing system in human civilization. It degrades human beings to the status of property. Slaves are bought and sold like objects. They are forced to work for free or for flimsy compensation, often in grueling and inhumane conditions. Sometimes they are raped and beaten by their owners. Slaves are deprived of all human rights and of their dignity. With the exception of the Holocaust, I don’t know of any other period in human history when slavery was desired by the slaves themselves and when forced labor became a saving grace for the victims. In such a dark epoch, when everything conspired to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the Earth, enslaving over a thousand of them in an enamel factory became an act of courage and heroism.

As incredible as this topsy-turvy perspective may seem to contemporary readers, this is the story of Thomas Keneally’s great historical novel, Schindler’s List. The novel is based upon the eyewitness accounts of several of the Jewish survivors saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler. It is a biographical fiction in the strict sense of the term. In fact, Keneally states, “most exchanges and conversations, and all events, are based on the detailed recollections of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), of Schindler himself, and of other witnesses to Oskar’s acts of outrageous rescue”. (New York: Touchstone, Schindler’s List, 1982, Author’s Note, 10)

Oskar Schindler is, by the author’s own account, an unlikely hero. As Keneally acknowledges in the Prologue, Oskar Schindler “was not a virtuous man in the customary sense of the term”. (Schindler’s List, 14) We tend to think of heroes as virtuous individuals: people with extraordinary character and moral fortitude. Yet Oskar Schindler was an average man, with ordinary human foibles. He was a sensualist and an honest womanizer: if that’s not a contradiction in terms. He openly cheated on his virtuous wife, Emilie, with both long-term mistresses and countless casual lovers. He loved carousing with his friends, business partners, acquaintances and escorts. Worse yet, he was a member of the Nazi party, initially joining its ranks out of genuine political conviction, of his own free will.

Though quickly disillusioned by the Nazis, Schindler nonetheless hopes to profit financially from the new regime. An ethnic German from the Sudetenland, he moves to Krakow Poland to set up an enamelware factory that will employ the slave labor of local Jews. The large Jewish community in Krakow was isolated from the rest of the population by the Nazis in a ghetto, which was formally established in March 1941 in the Podgorze district. Schindler witnesses the incredible cruelty manifested by the SS towards the 15,000 helpless Jewish civilians as well as the random acts of violence of his sociopathic country mate, Amos Goeth, who regards the captive Jews as his personal property and prey.

This biographical novel presents a slice of history and a study of contrasts: between times of normalcy and the mass insanity of the Nazi era; between the humane  actions of Oskar Schindler and the savage inhumanity of Amon Goeth. Without the dark figure of Goeth, it would be more difficult to appreciate Schindler’s heroism and humanity.

Amos Goeth, the SS Second Lieutenant in charge of liquidating the Krakow ghetto and of overseeing the Plaszow concentration and labor camp, is a malicious sadist. He savagely beats his Jewish servant, Helen Hirsch, and kills Jewish inmates, randomly, just for sport. As the narrator states, “No one knew Amon’s precise reason for settling on that prisoner—Amon certainly did not have to document his motives. With one blast from the doorstep, the man was plucked from the group of pushing and pulling captives and hurled sideways in the road” (192).

By way of contrast to Goeth’s predatory cat and mouse games, Schindler exhibits compassion, courage and character. He uses all his connections, resourcefulness and wealth to save as many Jews as possible during the Holocaust.  Threatened by the advance of the Russian army on the Eastern front, the Nazis dismantle the Plaszow labor and concentration camp. When he finds out about their plans to send most of the prisoners to their deaths in Auschwitz, Schindler promises those who worked for him that he would save them. He sets up a small munitions factory in his hometown of Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia, where he eventually manages to bring over 1500 Jews.  In these horrific times, slavery becomes the Jews’ only salvation. “Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was already more than a mere fabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low” (277).

The Nazi regimes brought out the worst in many people throughout Germany and occupied Europe: at best, a cruel indifference to the enslavement and massacre of Jews; at worst, various degrees of collusion with the local Nazi administrations. Yet these evil times also brought out the best in some, like Oskar Schindler. His acts of courage and resourcefulness have inspired the blockbuster movie, Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. Perhaps this is why we still know of Oskar Schindler to this day. But the greatest homage to this ordinary man who did his best to protect fellow human beings from the Nazi savagery remains that he will be forever remembered and honored by generations of Jews as an extraordinary hero.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under An Unlikely Hero: On Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, Krakow Jewish ghetto, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nazi Germany, occupied Poland, Oskar Schindler, Schindler's List, Schindler's List Steven Spielberg, the Holocaust, Thomas Keneally

On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction

 

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Geli Raubal and Hitler

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

If you want to know about Hitler’s life, then read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). If you want to find out as much as possible about the history of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s role in it, then read Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock (Knopf, 1992). But if you want to get a sense of who Hitler was a human being, I encourage you to read a very well written historical novel by Ron Hansen called Hitler’s Niece (Harper Collins, 1999).

Hansen traces Hitler’s abnormal psychology from the perspective of Angela Maria (“Geli”) Raubal (1908-1931), his half niece. Geli is intelligent, beautiful, full of joie de vivre and untouched by the political obsessions and anti-Semitic hatred of her uncle and his cronies.  She maintains an ironic distance from Hitler’s fanatical followers—Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg and others—who also appear in the novel. Compared to her, however, they’re wooden characters in a farce, much as they were in real life. These vain men are fawning and obsequious, hungry for power and always ready to not merely follow, but also anticipate Hitler’s orders and wishes.

By the author’s own admission, however, the novel doesn’t adhere strictly to historical facts. It is only inspired by them, particularly by Bullock’s book Hitler and Stalin, which Hansen states provoked his fascination with Geli Raubal. (Author’s Note, 307-308) The novel describes Geli’s life, from beginning to end; from birth to tragic death. We find out that her father died at the young age of 31, leaving her mother, Angela, to take care of three kids (Geli, Leo and Elfriede) with almost no source of income. After seeing that Geli, at seventeen, had bloomed into a lovely young woman, Hitler invited her to be his housekeeper and companion. Her mother gladly accepted this unorthodox arrangement, in the hopes of making possible a better lifestyle for their family.

Becoming Hitler’s companion, caretaker, maid and eventually his mistress, Geli catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the Nazi party and its key players’ rise to power. Above all, Hitler’s Niece shows us, up close and personal, how a psychopath capable of genocide “falls in love.” Even after her death, Hitler called Geli the love of his life. Neither Eva Braun, his doting life companion, nor any other woman could compete with his obsession with Geli.

GeliRaubal

Geli Raubal spent six years either living with Hitler or being in frequent contact with him. For a period of time, she lived in his Munich apartment while she studied medicine and took music lessons. She also accompanied him to the opera, cinema, and the many other social functions he attended. The plot of the novel hinges on their sexual tension and on Geli’s psychological trauma as she becomes, increasingly against her will, his sexual partner in a sordid, sadomasochistic relationship that sickens her and intoxicates him. The more she tries to escape, the more possessive, dependent and desperate he becomes. As the narrator states, “She was his escape, his torpor, his surrender to the vacillation and passivity that were increasingly part of his nature” (220).

Need and obsessive desire, however, don’t imply love. For love to exist, the lover has to be able to consider, empathize with and fulfill the beloved’s own needs, as a separate individual. Hitler can’t do that. He “loves” his niece like a man who is incapable of real love. His idea of flirtation is bragging incessantly about himself. His idea of “affection” is engaging in perverse and demeaning sexual rituals. His idea of respect for women gives way to a fundamental misogyny and traditionalism that require them to serve him. His idea of passion is possession and control of the object of his desire.

Hitler demands to know at all times where Geli is, what she is doing and with whom. He retains the freedom to see other mistresses—including Eva Braun—but keeps a tight leash on Geli, discouraging other suitors. Once Emil Maurice, Hitler’s good-looking Corsican chauffeur begins dating Geli, Hitler finds a pretext to dismiss him. “She is with me,” Hitler snarls when another man, Schirach, asks his permission to take out Geli on a date. (244)

Caught in the vortex of her uncle’s overpowering addiction to her, Geli cannot escape the misery that dominates her life. When she expresses her distress, her friends turn their back on her and even her mother would rather, essentially, prostitute her to “Uncle Alf,” “the patriarch” of the family, rather than face poverty again. At the end, Hitler’s Niece adds an interesting but largely speculative twist to the story. Although the official version is that Geli committed suicide in 1931, in the novel, Hitler, realizing that he can no longer master his niece, beats her, breaks her nose, and then shoots her. His entourage quickly covers up the murder and presents it to the police and the press as an act of suicide. This adds an intriguing element of mystery to the plot, turning Hitler’s Niece into a detective story. But the novel’s main strength remains the psychological aspects of the drama. Hansen helps us see that there is not much difference between Hitler the public man, who could order the murder of millions of innocent people, and Hitler the private lover who could destroy the object of his desire rather than risk losing her.

Given this novel’s many strengths, it’s surprising to me that Hitler’s Niece received some scathing reviews, particularly from The New York Times. In “Springtime for Hitler, in love with his niece,” Michiko Kakutani offers a lengthy plot summary and then dismisses the novel as a poor representation of history which takes away from the gruesome reality of Hitler’s “public crimes, crimes that tragically were not speculative imaginings of a novelist, crimes that have been consigned to the margins of this inept and voyeuristic novel” (NYT, September 7, 1999).

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/09/05/daily/090799hansen-book-review.html

I completely disagree with Kakutani’s harsh assessment and standards of evaluation in this case. The role of historical fiction is not to convey history accurately or in great detail. That is what (nonfiction) history books do. In my opinion, the role of historical fiction is to do exactly what Hitler’s Niece does so well: namely, find inspiration in real historical events to imagine the mindset, emotions and desires of its key figures. Often only more marginal characters, such as Geli Raubal, or Hitler’s niece, can give us a three-dimensional picture of the monster whose acts have marred the pages of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Discourse and representation: À bout de souffle

A bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard

A bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard

Discourse and representation: A bout de souffle

by Marian Radulescu
translated from Romanian by Claudia Moscovici
A bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard

A bout de souffle, Jean-Luc Godard

We can’t speak about À bout de souffle without situating it in what was called, in the sixties, New Wave Cinema (“la nouvelle vague”). The representatives of this innovative current (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Roger Vadim, Agnès Varda) studied French Film and were particularly interested in documentaries (some of them were even made by them). They came from different social backgrounds; had different interests and styles and were trained at the school of the journal Cahiers du cinéma. Nouvelle vague cinema engages in a polemic with the cinema of the forties (“le cinéma de papa“), proposing an elliptical style which sidesteps the rules of conventional directing. Hence, the movements of the camera lose some of their elegance, becoming harsh and without finesse. Classic narrative is abandoned in favor of an unruly narrative style, full of repetition and nonsequitors, as well as abrupt changes in tone.
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Filed under cinema classics, Claudia Moscovici, film, Jean-Luc Godard, Marian Radulescu, New Wave Cinema, nouvelle vague