The Holocaust is incredibly difficult to depict in art and cinema without seeming sensationalistic or exploitative. It’s not something an artist can take on without some level of deep understanding and perhaps most importantly, restraint. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is perhaps one of the best fictional depictions of the Holocaust to date. As the survivors of the Holocaust are almost all gone in 2022, it is up to films like Schindler’s List to keep the memory the horror they experienced. In today’s political climate, particularly as it pertains to the United States, perhaps it is prudent that we revisit these stories as antisemitism and general hate has reared its ugly head once again.
A topical example would be Kanye West’s headline grabbing antisemitic comments as he continues to claim that Jewish businesspeople have been unfair to himself and other peoples of colour. This isn’t the first time in history (not even close) that Jewish businesspeople have been made targets accused of swindling or shady deals. This rhetoric can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages, but it is likely even older than that as Jewish people have faced persecution for almost their entire history, becoming slaves in their own land, Judea (modern day Israel), around 70 CE causing their dispersion further into Europe and the Middle East.
Antisemitism Throughout History
During the early Middle Ages (600 – 1000 CE), Jews were welcomed into Europe as they were outside of Feudal System meaning that they were not tied to the land and were allowed to lend money with interest, a practice banned by Christianity. Jews became valuable merchants and financiers of Europe. Despite their value, Jews were denied citizenship and the rights that go along with it, including exclusion from the government and military.
Jewish tolerance erupted into violence during the First Crusade (1096) when massacres occurred in the Holy Roman Empire towns of Worms, Trier (both in modern Germany), and Metz (modern France). The accusations thrown at the Jews at this time surrounded ritual murder and blood libel. This phrase, blood libel, was also adopted by the Nazis as antisemitic propaganda. Blood libel accused Jews of sacrificing Christian children at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread (bread made without yeast). This is a myth and one of the oldest forms of antisemitism stemming from the ancient accusation that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus (who we mustn’t forget, was also a Jew).
It was during this period that Jews were also forced to wear yellow badges, something that the Nazis also adopted. The Nazis did nothing original, everything they did was repurposed either from history or from other cultures. The Jewish ghettos present in Krakow, Poland? Once again, these practices date back to the Middle Ages.
The antisemitic belief that Jews were/are “money grubbers” or “greedy” came as a result of their economic function in premodern European society. Economic resentment amongst Christians along with traditional prejudices led to the forced expulsion of Jews from several European countries: from England in 1290, Germany in the 1350’s, Portugal in 1496, Provence in 1512, and the Papal States in 1596 to name a few. These expulsions forced many Jews to leave Western Europe and settle in places like Poland, Russia, and Turkey.
Blame has been laid at the feet of Jews for any bad thing to have happened. They were even accused of causing the Black Plague by poisoning wells, blame that should have been attributed to rats.
As a result of having to do business “with their own kind,” Jews are called “clannish.” This has gone even further in the present day to promote a global conspiracy in which Jewish clannish behaviours are proof that Jews are “elitists” who work against the interests of non-Jews to gain wealth.
None of this is new and yet we are quick to say that we have moved away from the barbarities of the Middle Ages.
The Holocaust is becoming more of a distant memory as time marches forward, but the attitudes that led to it have not been forgotten. Schindler’s List today does the same thing it did almost 30 years ago, ensuring audiences are aware of what happened to the Jews in Poland during the Holocaust, not simply by telling you, but by showing you. You can read in a textbook what it was like in the camps, that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, but those are cold and distant; academic. What was that experience really like? Showcasing that experience is where the film excels.
What kind of cold violence did the Jews face, what were their emotions? One scene in particular highlights both the evil of antisemitism and its effects on the Jews themselves. In the labour camp at Plaszow, more Jews are arriving, so the officers in charge need to find more room for them in an already crowded camp. How did they do it? By making the current resident adult Jews strip naked and do laps to separate the healthy from the sick i.e., who can work and who cannot. And while the adults are busy doing that, the Nazis loaded up all the Jewish children in the camp onto trucks and shipped them off to God knows where. That is cruelty that would be one line in a textbook, read as quickly as it is forgotten. In the film, you see the heartbreak on the mother’s faces, the desperation of the fathers trying to reach the trucks, the children simply smiling and waving in ignorance of their fate.
The girl in the red coat appears during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, she is later seen being exhumed at Auschwitz. It is not hard to guess what happened to the children loaded on those trucks. It is at this point when the titular Schindler takes deliberate action to save as many Jews as he possibly can. It wasn’t an argument about ethics or morality that spurs this on, but a child’s body being pushed on a wheelbarrow. It’s a human moment, not a heady academic discussion.
Seeing is believing. Abstraction goes out the window when you see what antisemitic rhetoric and policy leads to. 6 million Jews is a number, a number that we can barely put into reality, but the Jews in Schindler’s List are not numbers, they are people, they have names, names that are repeated throughout the film. It wasn’t just 6 million Jews that were killed, it was 6 million fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, and grandparents. Families. Families we see interacting and trying to create some semblance of regular life. The irony of the textbooks is that they once again reduce the Jews to a number, in the film, they have a face, a body, and a name. The film ensures we are aware of this in a way that the medium excels at. Providing real faces and emotion to us onscreen. It’s something that it has over the Thomas Keneally book from which it was adapted. It isn’t a recount of events, but of a people and all the diversity that provides. By being able to see with our own eyes what occurred, it no longer allows for abstraction.
The list was so often used by the Nazis to file and sort the Jewish population into “essential” and “non-essential,” effectively dehumanising the Jews. Only one list provided salvation, Schindler’s. On Schindler’s list, not only are the essential present, but the old, the sick, and the children.
Schindler’s List allows modern audiences to experience empathy for these people. The 1940s was not that long ago. Fascism and antisemitism are still prevalent around the globe. Watching the film provides insight into what the attractive allure of these beliefs often leads to. We know what can happen should history be allowed to repeat itself. We cannot claim ignorance. We must learn from our past.
Antisemitism isn’t new or brave. Modern rhetoric has simply been plagiarising past prejudices. The Nazis did the same. In the case of Kanye West, he blames the Jews for his own problems caused by his own actions. You may be able to explain it with mental health issues, but that is not an excuse. How a man who used to be a billionaire can claim that he has been cheated is laughable. However, it is eerily familiar, and people have been listening to him. Watching films like Schindler’s List helps audiences remember and come as close as they can to experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust. Though, watching a film is still not even close to truly understanding and experiencing these events, but it as close as audiences can get without facing the horrors themselves, horrors which nobody should be subject to.
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