To see or not to see

This morning on the train on my way to work, I came across an article about a new documentary called “Forbidden Films” which asks the question whether the Nazi propaganda films should be un-banned or not. This is a topic that has come up in my mind for 25 years now and I do not have the answer!

One of my first jobs was in a small library situated in my father’s office in Germany. The library focussed on religion (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) and history of religion and there was of course also a whole section on World War II.

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Part of that library section was called “Der Giftschrank” (“The poison shelf”) where  some Nazi propaganda material was kept, like for instance Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” or some copies of the notorious Nazi propaganda paper “Der Stürmer”. That section was locked and was only allowed to be opened, and the materials in it perused, by permission from the boss himself (my dad). The Giftschrank was there for study purposes.

I have always learned that censorship is bad and that freedom of speech is essential in a free world. Yet here we are, forbidding these Nazi propaganda films to be seen and the literature to be read. On the other hand (due to having been allowed to leaf through some Giftschrank materials) I know how sickening this material is and it is unthinkable that there are people out there who might want to re-use some of it for their own twisted purposes! This stuff is so toxic, it would create a stir and get attention that you maybe don’t want it to have. On the other hand, how are we to really learn from history if we keep the evil locked away? Or should everything be open, but with comments explaining what it helped do? Or should there be no explanations and should these texts and films just speak for themselves?

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Still from Nazi propaganda film “Triumph des Willens” made by Leni Riefenstahl

I have no answers to all these questions. My first reaction is that everything that is so discriminatory and racist and sets people up against each other should be forbidden. Yet – those materials offer opinions and points of view and shouldn’t we at least be open to what others think (or thought) even if we absolutely hate what they think? It’s the same with all these “Je suis Charlie” cartoons. I find many of the anti-Islamic cartoons to be extremely offensive and racist and it sets up people against each other. I realize it is also a reaction to extremist Islamic ideology (which I also absolutely hate – I hate any extremist ideology, period). But even with those cartoons I wonder: how far can we allow these opinions to be aired? Where is the line and should there be a line?

The whole recent Cybersmile brouhaha, with freedom of speech and censorship essentially at the heart of it all, has made me think about this and now the article I read this morning throws it into a larger arena – what can or can’t we say, what can or can’t we write and what may be read or watched and what should be forbidden?

I’m very curious to see this “Forbidden Films” documentary, I wonder to what conclusions I would come. I don’t expect answers because I don’t think there really are definitive answers but I am throwing this out there in the universe to ponder over…

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Ich und Du

Here in The Netherlands we have Remembrance Day on May 4th (today) where we remember those killed in war and we celebrate Liberation Day on May 5th, when The Netherlands was liberated from the Nazis in 1945. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and every year these commemorations make me stop and think.

The war in 1940-1945 has shaped my outlook on life even though I was born 25 years after World War II ended. Memories of the war have been recounted to my brothers and sisters and me ever since I can remember. My father didn’t have too many memories of the war to share but my mother’s memories are very vivid and to this day she often tells us all the stories.

My mother was the daughter of a shipowner. Her father owned fishing ships in Scheveningen, the little town at the beach of The Hague that is now a bustling resort. She has a few memories of before the war, like going to Meijendel in the dunes of The Hague and Wassenaar to watch her father ride horses. “When you’re bigger you can learn to ride as well!” he told her, but that never happened. The war came when my mother was 4.5 years old. She was the eldest of 3 children.

Her father, my grandfather, started working for the resistance. He was involved in a plan to evacuate the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to England with one of his ships but ultimately another flight path was chosen for her. My grandfather’s fishing ships were confiscated by the Nazi’s at the beginning of the war, their house near the beach in Scheveningen was declared a war zone and had to be evacuated.

Scheveningen Atlanktikwall 1944My grandmother took my mother and her sister and brother to live in Den Haag, while my grandfather went into hiding because of his activities for the underground. The 17th century bible, a family heirloom (now proudly on display in my parents’ home) was wrapped up and buried in the soil so that it would not be stolen by the Nazis. You can still see the damp in some of the pages.

The war was tough on the population. Food on rations, night time curfews, escaping into shelters during bombings and when you came out seeing dead people who hadn’t made it. There were regular round-ups and the Gestapo (the secret police) regularly came by my grandmother’s house looking for my grandfather. One day they took my grandmother with them for questioning and kept her overnight while the small children remained all alone in the house that night, not knowing whether their mother would return. Once in a while, often after dark, my grandfather would come home for a secret visit and then he would disappear again through the hatch in the floor, to the crawl spaces under the houses. My mother remembers one particular day when their house was searched by the Gestapo: her father had just left after a secret visit and she and her sister Irene were sitting on the rug covering the hatch, playing there and making sure the hatch could not be seen. Discovery of the hatch was to be avoided at all cost; their father must not be found!

And then there were the stories about school. Less and less children came to school, Jewish children went away. There was at least one girl in class who my mother knew was Jewish. Her hair was dyed blonde and she passed through life as a “Christian” girl. One time my mother pointed out to the girl that her hair roots were dark. When the girl came to school again the next day her hair was all blonde again. When my mother told her father about it he got angry with her because with that remark my mother could have endangered that girl’s life. The winter of 1944-1945 was later dubbed “the hunger winter”. Food became very scarce with often only boiled tulip bulbs for a meal. Wood in the tram rails was used for firewood and the toes were cut off the shoes so that they could still be worn by the growing children. It was a very difficult and desperate time.

Finally in May 1945, when my mother was 9, The Netherlands was liberated.Bevrijding-Den-Haag-2 Bevrijding-1945-Den Haag

Dutch collaborators were interred in a camp, ‘kraut girls’ who had dated German soldiers were accused of collaboration and were shaved publicly, their bald heads painted with red dye. My mother, as the eldest, was taken by her father to witness all this. When the German troops marched out of The Hague, my grandfather told my mother to spit on them and she did.

After the war, the family returned to their house in Scheveningen where the rats were crawling everywhere and the floors were covered in human excrement. My grandfather told my mother to do her best at best school but that she was allowed to fail German class. Hate for the Germans ran deep. If a German tourist came to visit Scheveningen and asked directions, my mother was instructed to smile, point towards the North Sea and say sweetly “Immer gerade aus” (“Go straight ahead”). My grandfather’s hate for the Germans later cost him his life. At the end of the 1950’s he went to Germany to receive compensation for his ships that had been confiscated by the Nazi’s. In Germany he got appendicitis but he refused to be treated by German doctors. By the time he returned to The Netherlands it was too late. He died.

At around this time my mother (who had not been raised in any religion) met my father, a young idealistic theologian. My father was very interested in Judaism and the murder of 6 million Jews in the war had deeply affected him. He admired the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who had fled from the Nazis and advocated dialog in his philosophies. This dialog philosophy became the basic principle in my father’s further life. He even got to meet Martin Buber once in person in 1959 and interviewed him! Buber’s “Ich und Du” (“I and You”) dialog philosophy is what guided my father in his work and became a profound influence on my mother as well as they were trying to help build a better world in the aftermath of war.

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My parents got married in 1960, the first children were born in The Netherlands, and my father was dispatched to Israel in 1967 by the Dutch Reformed Church; he was to work as an advisor and a bridge builder: help the Christians receive more insight into Judaism and understand that the roots of Christianity lie firmly implanted in Judaism (Jesus himself was a Jew after all!) and show the Jews that not all Christians hate them or want to convert or murder them. Martin Buber’s “Ich und Du” brought to life in my father’s work, a philosophy close to his and my mother’s heart. No more hatred and anti-semitism, what was needed was an understanding of the beliefs of the other, the realization of how much each has in common and the acceptance of people just as they are. My father as well as my mother had learned from the war: racism and oppression should never happen again, every person counts, it doesn’t matter where they are from, what they look like or what they believe. We live in a multicultural world – instead of being divided by difference, how about also realizing how rich this world is in all its variety? This philosophy of life was not just abstract; it became practice in our home. Next to the ‘biological’ children (of whom I was the last to be born, in Jerusalem) my parents adopted 2 Palestinian babies and 2 Ethiopian teenagers: we became multicultural ourselves and turned into a family of different faiths (or no faith) and colors. Added to that, many other children temporarily lived with us, when the need arose, for short term fostering.

When I was 10 years old we moved to Germany. My grandmother in Scheveningen found it difficult to accept that but my parents did not believe in racism and hatred: not all Germans are bad! My father continued his work on an international level, becoming General Secretary of an organization called “The International Council of Christians and Jews”. In a beautiful twist of fate the head office of the ICCJ was located in the former home of Martin Buber, my father’s philosophical hero! He worked in Buber’s House for 17 years.

Martin-Buber-Haus_Heppenheim

From my teens to the beginning of my twenties I became obsessed by the Second World War; a logical consequence of my parents’ history and work. I had been surrounded by the subject ever since I could remember, after all. When I was 19 I even went on a “Holocaust” study trip where among other places I visited Auschwitz in Poland. This left a profound impression on me and the values and lessons from history handed down to me by my parents were only strengthened in me through these experiences. To this day I try to live by them – be open to people, never judge a book by its cover, accept the other for who they are, embrace diversity and never ever lose touch with your humanity.

So, why are the 4th / 5th of May important to me? Because every year I am reminded of these lessons. Every year I hear people say in the speeches how we must learn from the lessons of the past and everyone agrees and applauds, while the next moment I see hate and intolerance towards, for instance, Muslims around me here in The Netherlands. Every year I hope that the remembrance of what happened in the war and the celebration of freedom will jerk us into behaving with respect and humanity towards the other, even though opinions and beliefs may differ. Through opening yourself up towards the other and vice versa there is a way. Ich und Du.There is always hope and to make the world better, you really only have to start with yourself.

Benedict Cumberbatch…

…. is absolutely awesome in The Imitation Game! If he wins an Oscar for this role it is totally deserved!

Went to see this film this afternoon with 2 friends of mine and my 13 year old son who is turning into a bit of a Benedict Cumberbatch fan (he’s taken a liking to Sherlock). I have known Benedict Cumberbatch for years now, first saw him about 7 or 8 years ago in a film with James McAvoy (another great actor!) called ‘Starter for 10’ which I really enjoyed. When I first saw him and McAvoy in that film I knew they were both keepers! Excellent actors to look out for. And I was right. 🙂

Cumberbatch to me has a bit of an odd face but an interesting one and the emotions and expressions that flick across his face are amazing. He is excellent as a nerdy character and has a great voice.

Anyway, back to The Imitation Game – it is the incredible story of Alan Turing who cracked the code of the German Enigma machine in World War II. He was a highly intelligent nerdy socially handicapped mathematician who was also gay and was condemned for that. The film really was excellent, it totally lived up to what I hoped it would be. The build up of the story was excellent, it time jumps between the main portion of the story during WWII, Turing’s boyhood and Turing in the 1950s when he is accused of “gross indecency”. The acting was so good, drawing you in from the first scenes, and Benedict Cumberbatch stood out for me. The man is amazing, his face and his body language are so very expressive, he becomes the character so very completely. The secrets he has to keep and live with are extremely difficult to bear and give his life it’s tragedy. I am not a huge Keira Knightley fan but for some reason I like many of the films she is in (she picks well) and she really is very good yet again. Another stand out for me is Mark Strong who proves yet again that he is under-used in movies! Give the man some more leading roles in big productions!

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I need to watch this again, to catch all the nuances and Cumberbatch, although a bit of an odd bloke, deserves every accolade for his portrayal of Alan Turing! Yes, by all means give the man an Oscar! Although, I have to say, I haven’t seen Eddie Redmayne yet in “The Theory of Everything”, which I suspect may be an acting tour-de-force as well…

The Eichmann Show

The BBC showed a TV film called “The Eichmann Show” the other night and I have just watched it. It stars Martin Freeman (as producer Milton Fruchtman) and Anthony LaPaglia (as director Leo Hurwitz) and tells the story of how the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann was brought to television screens in 1961.

Eichmann ShowMartin Freeman was a bonus attraction but the real attraction to watch this was the topic. I have a history with the topic.

I was born In Jerusalem, spent my childhood there. From the garden of our house in the village we lived in outside Jerusalem we looked out over a valley and at the other side of the valley stands Yad Vashem, the museum in Israel that shows the horrors of the Holocaust. I’m not sure if it is my later knowledge playing tricks on me or whether it was really so, but I always imagine that from my bedroom window I was able to see the reddish train car that is on display there outside the museum. Ever since I can remember, stories of the Holocaust were around. Our neighbor upstairs was a Holocaust survivor with a tattooed number on her arm (that we were never allowed to ask anything about). I remember being fascinated by this mystery of the Holocaust, I knew terrible things had happened but was sheltered from exactly what. When people said they had been to Yad Vashem and how sobering that had been, I wanted to go as well, especially as we lived quite close to it, but I was never allowed to as I was deemed too young. I finally did visit, years later, but not in my childhood when we lived there.

We then moved to Germany where at the time the Holocaust was more of a distant memory. I remember that just after we moved there, German TV showed this TV mini series called “Holocaust”. It was not the first airing but a repeat but I remember that the showing was relatively new. It had opened up a big can of worms and the Holocaust became a big point of discussion in Germany. See the “Reception” section in wikipedia’s entry about this series where the reactions in Germany are also described: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_(miniseries). For me too, it was an introduction to the Holocaust. I was allowed to watch it with my parents and I could finally see what the topic I had heard so much about really was about. I remember being devastated and upset and talking with my parents a lot. I wanted to understand how families of my friends in school could have been involved in such a thing! Or were they even involved? And what really happened? And how many Germans went along with it and how many stood up against it? The Germans I knew were nothing like the Nazis… it started a whole fascination of this topic for me. I read everything I could, about the horrific things that had happened, how it had come to pass, everything. I wasn’t taught anything about the recent German history in school so I had to figure it all out myself. At 13 I read the Diary of Anne Frank, about a girl in Holland (where my family was from!) and decided to write a diary as well.

Many years later, at the age of 19, I went on a German-US study trip with German students (and me) and American Jews. We first went to the US to study about the Holocaust and to study Judaism, we then went to Poland and visited Auschwitz and after that we went to Berlin (it was the summer before the Berlin Wall fell – I returned there 3 or 4 weeks after the Wall had fallen, which was an eery experience and is a story in itself). The trip was emotionally exhausting, relationships between the Americans and the Germans were sometimes strained and I was caught in the middle sometimes but the trip was also extremely enriching at the same time.

I was obsessed with the topic (at some times more than at other times) for many years. I remember when I was pregnant with my son that my husband forbade me to read or watch anything to do with the Holocaust as I was having nightmares about trying to hide my baby in the attic from the evil Gestapo. And yet, after all that study, I never felt I have ever really been able to wrap my mind around what happened in the Third Reich. And if I didn’t understand it well enough, how could I prevent myself from falling into such a blind hatred over something that would cause me to lose my humanity? I closed myself off from it for a while, I had to. Films like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List I have seen once, maybe twice, and although they are excellent films I cannot bring myself to watch them again. I am never going to understand it all, not really, and so I have made my peace with that and let it go for the most part.

And then sometimes, something comes on TV and I am caught again… and this is what happened with “The Eichmann Show” that I just watched. Leo Hurwitz, the director of the Eichmann trial TV registration, is fascinated by Adolf Eichmann. His one goal is to find a crack, a humanity, a morsel of guilt or remorse in Eichmann. Leo Hurwitz… I am him in a way! Trying to wrap my mind around it, trying to understand how it ever could go so far. He believes every human, in the right (well, wrong, really) circumstances, is capable of such attrocity and that at some point they will crack and show remorse. Eichmann never did, he remained icy cold and tight lipped throughout the trial and showed no feelling whatsoever. What does this tell you about humanity? What does this tell you about hatred? I am yet again confronted with these questions and I fear I will never ever understand. I wish they had not used the death penalty on these war criminals at the time, that way there was never going to be a chance to learn what made them do what they did… It’s the same regret I feel about those terrorists in France being killed – how can we ever hope to find any answers to why people do these things if they all get killed? Lock them up and keep asking them questions, over and over again during their life imprisonment, and maybe there is a hope that they will regret and we can learn to understand?

Too many thoughts twirling in my brain now. If you’re interested, here’s a good article from The Guardian about this TV film: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/11/exposing-adolf-eichmann. I’d recommend the film to anyone… but then again that may also be my bias towards the topic talking.

1.30 am in the morning! Now I have written about it, maybe I can finally let my mind rest and get some sleep (I have to be up again in 6 hours…)