Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Nazis Warned of the "Non-Aryan" Conspiracy

Just when I thought I knew about all the issues of the Holocaust, a documentary movie comes along with a stunning telling of how the American film and television industries handled the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, aired on AMC last night (April 6, 2005), and a review by Kevin Crust can be found in the Los Angeles Times. The key to this film’s importance lies in the depiction of how much was known, and how little was done, by Americans, both to help the Jews in Europe and to stop the spread of Hitler’s occupation.

I was shocked to see a full page headline in the New York Daily News, from 1940—over a year before Pearl Harbor and US entry into the war—stating that Jews were being rounded up and taken to concentration camps. It may not have been widely known, or too unbelievable at the time, that with the round ups came the murder of these people. I remember my dad telling me that in the early 1940’s, when he was a teenager, he didn't think anyone was aware of the killing of civilians going on in Europe. Actually, until watching the documentary, I did not recall that 1 million Jews were executed by firing squad by 1940. I thought most died in the camps.

Germany was a great revenue source for foreign film distribution prior to World War II. Therefore, references in the documentary show the studio heads, most of whom were immigrant Jews, capitulating to the Nazi wish that Jewish workers in the distribution centers in Germany be fired; in an effort not to offend the Third Reich, the word “non-Aryan” was substituted for the word “Jew” in the 1940 film “Mortal Storm” so that the racism was watered down.

While these facts are interesting, why do we need to know these details in order to better understand the events in Europe and the domestic response to these events? Steven Spielberg speaks over the frightening images on the screen, from newsreels and Hollywood feature films of the era. Despite the views of fearful and despondent people, he says that only an actual Holocaust survivor could truly understand the real horror. This and other commentary gives substance to Crust’s conclusion about the documentary director’s point of view:

“Anker seems to suggest that while it is important ‘how you bear witness,’ it is equally valuable that the stories be told, period. In an environment in which the perceived faults of a film or series can be debated, as with ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Schindler's List,’ their flaws are outweighed by the fact that they bring the stories to a younger audience.”

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