Midwest Center for Holocaust Education Presents: Jews & the Holocaust Film Series

Image courtesy Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

There’s nothing overly entertaining about the Holocaust. Dr. Fran Sternberg admits that the full-length cinematic features about the systematic and state-sponsored torture and murder of six million Jews don’t invite joyous adventures into the magic of film. However, the Midwest Center or Holocaust Education’s film series, Hollywood and the Holocaust, offers thoughts on the perceptions of this horrific period in history.

Sternberg, director of university programs and adult education at the MCHE, selected the films to demonstrate how the Holocaust in American cinema changed over five decades as the country began to internalize and digest these horrors. “It’s also our 20th anniversary,” she says. “We are looking at these films as a benefit. We have celebrated our oral histories that we collected from the metropolitan area, but I wanted the anniversary year to take a little different slant.” Sternberg also teaches Jewish history and history of the Holocaust at UMKC and KU.

The six-part series starts with the one documentary that provides the setting and context for the five narrative films. All the films start at 7 p.m. with the doors opening at 6:30 p.m. Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, plays Jan. 15 in the White Theatre (Jewish Community Campus, 5801 West 115th Street, Overland Park, Kan.). The first feature film, playing Feb.12, is the 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, directed by German-born Ernst Lubitsch. The film stars Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and Robert Stack. A raggedy acting troupe in German-occupied Warsaw, Poland, gets embroiled in some of the resistance in Poland. “Jews were already being shipped to death camps in 1942,” Sternberg says. “While the film came out in March 1942, the United States had just entered the war. No one really knew the final outcomes.”

Image courtesy Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

On March 12, Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement with Gregory Peck and John Garfield, plays. “The Holocaust had just happened. Americans saw many images as part of the weekly news reels. There were images of the camps,” Sternberg says. “While no one in the film mentions the Holocaust, the film deals with anti-Semitism as Peck’s character, a reporter, pretends to be Jewish. John Garfield plays Dave Goldman, who is Jewish, and has just returned from World War II. Anti-Semitism hangs like the elephant in the room.”

The April 23 film is The Pawnbroker, 1965, by Sidney Lumet and stars Rod Steiger as a survivor. Sternberg says the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann was on the television news from time to time during 1960 and 1961. “Survivors gave testimony and the public got to hear,” she says. “The Pawnbroker is reminiscent of Death of a Salesman for me. He is long suffering and lost all his faith.”

The May 23 film is the 1975 film, The Man in the Glass Booth. Actor Maximillian Schell plays Arthur Goldman, a rich Jewish industrialist, living in luxury in a Manhattan high-rise. However, he’s arrested by Israeli secret agents that burst in and arrest Goldman for being a Nazi war criminal. “This is more of an existential film,” she says.

The final film is Enemies: A Love Story, 1989, June 11. Sternberg came to the United States in 1949 as a young girl with her survivor parents and grew up in Brooklyn. Enemies is set in 1949 New York. “These survivors are human. They argue, laugh, love, bicker and cheat on each other. When we started looking at survivors, we need to see them as whole people.”

In 1933, the Jewish population in Europe was at least 9 million. At the end of World War II, the number was 3 million. Sternberg offers her thoughts as to context. “Statistically, your survival was not the normative condition. Two-thirds were killed. It was not living, but dying that was most familiar. A good day was a day above ground.” Sternberg acknowledges the other victims of the Holocaust as well – gays, gypsies, Catholics including many Jesuit priests and other undesirables. “These films have that redemptive quality while dealing with the issue of silence. Film, as an art form, tries and that’s why I appreciate these films.”•

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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