Friday, April 23, 2010

Like Sheep to the Slaughter?

Roman Polanski should do time for raping a thirteen-year-old girl. The renowned Hollywood actors and directors who have defended him make me sick. That said, I admit he can make some good movies, The Pianist (2002) being one of them. I watched it again this past weekend. It’s a superb film, and Adrien Brody seemed tailor-made for the role of the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, whose real account of his experience in Warsaw during the Holocaust forms the basis of the film. Polanski and his team painstakingly replicated the Warsaw ghetto from numerous photos and film reel taken by the Nazis and rank and file German soldiers. A central event in the movie is the Warsaw ghetto uprising, a brave but ultimately futile attempt to resist deportation to death factories.

Jews didn’t go down without a fight. Taking up arms with a few rifles and Molotov cocktails at the Warsaw ghetto and Sobibor concentration camps are the most dramatic examples of such resistance.  Overall, revolts occurred in forty ghettos and numerous concentration camps.  Jews and presumably some non-Jewish inmates as well braved the vicious dogs, search lights, machine guns, and barbed-wire fences.  We could also point to makeshift militias organized in the woods for self-defense, like that of the Bielski brothers depicted in the movie Defiance (2008). We have many stories of individual and group resistance in just about every step in the process of mass murder.

Sometimes I fear that prevalent assumptions about Jewish passivity, unexamined as they are, imply, unintentionally or otherwise, that they went like sheep to the slaughter, almost as if they deserved their fate. Perish the thought! We don’t understand how a totalitarian regime works, blessed as we are living in a democracy bordered by two oceans. It’s easy for 21st-century Americans sitting in Starbucks with their iPhone and laptop at hand to pontificate about the putative failure to resist evil on the part of target groups subjected to oppressive and invasive regimes elsewhere in time and space. Besides, anyone who’s studied the so-called Third Reich knows how sneakily the SS operated their killing machine. Lastly, those Jews who didn’t ostensibly resist were done in by their own humanity. They couldn’t possibly fathom what was in store for them. Who can blame them for that? No, victims of genocide the world over do go to their slaughter willingly and we simply can’t judge them for the decisions they make or don't make in these dire circumstances.  The label Holocaust, which is the Greek translation for burnt offering in the Septuagint, doesn't help shake this mistaken image of the Jews as some kind of sacrificial lamb.  We can learn from the past, however.  Defiance and hope are strange bedfellows indeed.