Vital fragments of humanity and horror

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The Independent Online
WHEN the novel Schindler's Ark was published 12 years ago it made me uneasy. This was not because of Oskar Schindler's heroism in saving 1,100 Jewish lives from the Nazis. By any standards, the author Thomas Keneally deserved his Booker Prize for exhuming the tale and the man's reputation.

I was uneasy because, even at that time, long before the movie, I felt that the tale allowed us to seize upon one of the small portions of good news emerging from a dire episode of history which for 6 million other Jewish people was utterly catastrophic. My unease at the disproportionateness of this has recently surfaced all over again, with the publicity flood that has engulfed the release of Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List. It is also fuelled by experience, however slender.

I have no personal link with the Holocaust. Nor am I Jewish. But some 20 years ago I visited the site of a concentration camp and felt at first hand the intense evil that hovers over such places. The camp I visited was the smaller, lesser-known Mauthausen, near Linz, close to Hitler's birthplace in Austria. It was situated on the green uplands that succeed from the apricot orchards of the Danube.

The gas chambers, crude huts and compound are there as you expect. But it is what you are not prepared for which shocks. At one end of Mauthausen is a cliff, with dark emerald water lurking at its foot. People were forced over it, to their death. Even now I never look at an emerald without thinking of that water. Mauthausen is a horrible place, dedicated to mass, precision killing.

At the camp's entrance is a statue of a woman, the Motherland, with the famous, anguished inscription from Bertolt Brecht's great poem Deutschland. 'Oh Germany, pale mother, how have your sons besmirched you. That you sit amongst the nations, a thing of scorn and fear]'

I have found my concerns most perfectly expressed by Claude Lanzmann who, with far greater exposure to Nazi horrors than I, spent 11 years interviewing people on both sides of the gas chambers for his acclaimed 8-hour film, Shoah, released in 1985. Lanzmann wrote in the London Evening Standard last month: 'There is something very twisted in dealing with the Holocaust through the Schindler story. It is told from a very oblique angle, and is almost like an adventure story . . . Shoah is a film about the destruction of the Jews. And Schindler's List is a film about the saving of the Jews. If so many people wanted to save the Jews, why did so many die?'

So I went to see the film this week - on the night it was premiered in Germany - with mixed emotions, and Lanzmann's question ringing in my ears. Was it really possible that the talent of Steven Spielberg could stretch from the brilliant fantasy of Jurassic Park to Schindler?

I emerged only to find that I now hold two views simultaneously. One part of me is still with Lanzmann: Schindler's List does tell an exceptional and untypical tale. It is a fragment of a far bigger truth.

But it is also brilliant and totally worthwhile. Most crucially, Spielberg has avoided the trap of concentrating just on the fortunate survivors by showing at every point how the vast majority are faring: as a consignment of Schindler women is rescued from Auschwitz, you watch others descending into the gas chambers. This counterpoint technique pervades the whole three and a quarter hours.

As always, it is the details - like that emerald water - that catch you by the throat. For each person there are probably different triggers. One episode that brought tears to my eyes, perhaps because I am a mother of small children, shows lines of singing children cheerily getting on to trucks, while their mothers are being forced to run naked as they are selected for extermination. Most of the children think they are going on holiday. As the trucks drive off, sheer pandemonium breaks out; it is a scene from hell.

This aroused in me the same sorrow as an unforgettable passage in Primo Levi's If This is a Man, when he describes how Italian Jews in a deportation camp spent the night before being shipped to Auschwitz. 'The mothers stayed up to prepare the food for the journey with tender care and washed their children and packed the luggage: and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children's washing, hung out to dry. If you and your child were going to be killed tomorrow would you not give them to eat today?'

Few of us can take in the totality of the Holocaust, even with the best will in the world. So we cling to the fragments that we can comprehend, as they relate to us and our daily lives. A mass audience shaped by the instant pop culture of McDonald's and cartoon imagery is not going to sit through Shoah, even if it is repeated on television.

Bertolt Brecht, writing in the dark years of the war, described it as a time when 'to speak of trees is almost a crime, for it is a kind of silence about injustice'. You have to address your audience in the tone and manner it finds acceptable - and if that is in the international language of Hollywood film-making, so be it.

Better, then, that the popular talent which made Jurassic Park last year's superlative box- office hit be harnessed responsibly to the subject, assisting post-war generations to rediscover one of the world's most extraordinary and shameful episodes in a cultural format we understand.

As the survivors who have seen Schindler's List say, no film could depict the true squalor and horror of the extermination camps. But then, no contemporary audience, myself included, could stomach it, or stay around for its message. Even Spielberg's sanitised version had the student sitting next to me shaking his head. As he left the cinema with a friend I overheard him saying: 'I still find it hard to believe that the country I was born in was responsible for such a terrible thing.'

The further point is that, although so many died, individual heroism can have an impact: there are 6,000 descendants of Schindler's Jews.

The man himself, Oskar Schindler, is usually described as an enigma: certainly that is how the high-living war profiteer appears in the cold print of the book. But the really subversive message that emerges from the film is that here was a man who didn't shrug his shoulders when he was placed in an appalling moral dilemma. He did as much as he humanly could. This will be of cold comfort to the German nation now, but, at a new period of disintegration, when concentration camps have been recreated in Bosnia and unknown horrors of ethnic cleansing may yet erupt throughout the former Soviet Union, Schindler's List hits the screen with brilliant timing.

Robert Winder is away.

(Photograph omitted)