The country of Israel is known as the homeland of those with Jewish ancestry. The creation of Israel was one of the political consequences of World War II. After suffering through the Holocaust, it was determined, going forward, that all people of Jewish ancestry needed a safe haven to return to in times of trouble. As many Jewish people experienced during the War, being Jewish in a foreign land was often a precarious position to be in. As many Jewish citizens attempted to flee in the face of German policies that placed their very lives at risk, there were many countries that refused them entry for political and religious reasons. Thus, when WWII ended, those Jewish people who had survived banded together and swore to never again be cast adrift on the world’s stage. So, the country of Israel was created to be the Jewish Homeland for ever more. ***Of course, politics and history being what they are, how the State of Israel came to be is not as black & white as I am making it out to be. Its creation is multi-hued, to say the least. But, for the sake of contextualizing today’s musical selection, the essential facts are important to know so I have presented them as such.
The Holocaust, or “Final Solution”, was a formal policy devised and implemented by members of the Nazi Party of Germany during the 1930s and into the 40s. The aim of the Holocaust was to remove all people of Jewish ancestry from Europe. The policy was carried out with tremendous efficiency. Starting in Germany, itself, and then spreading out to all countries that were conquered by the German Armed Forces during the War, the Holocaust was a cold, highly-organized administrative effort that saw laws enacted that limited the rights of Jewish people to work, attend school and to own property. They were even required to be seen in public wearing identifying yellow stars. As the lives of Jewish citizens were increasingly restricted, they were soon rounded up by military officers/police and placed in certain small, confined areas where they could be monitored. Their former homes, businesses and possessions were looted and then sold to others who were officially approved by the German government. Those Jewish citizens who were forced into these confined areas were then shipped by trains to work camps erected by the Germans. In some cases, these camps were used strictly for extermination purposes. In other cases, the Jewish people who ended up there became slave labourers who produced goods needed by the German war machine. By the time WWII ended, it was revealed that over six million people of Jewish ancestry had been killed in the Holocaust. As the scale of the atrocity was first being reported, many found the news difficult to believe. How could murder occur on such a vast scale, seemingly under the watchful eyes of the world?! Well, since that time, the stories of those who endured the horrors of the Holocaust have been told in the hope that by doing so, we may be better able to prevent such cruelty from manifesting itself again. In the words of the survivors, the world must never forget.
Amid the great cruelty, there were moments of great courage and sacrifice. One such story that seemed to stand out from the horror was the case of German industrialist Oskar Schindler. The short strokes of his story are that after the German Blitzkrieg had rolled through Poland and the “Final Solution” had begun to be implemented as official policy there, many German profiteers appeared on the scene to scoop up the spoils of war for themselves at a reduced price. One of those profiteers was a small-time industrialist known as Oskar Schindler. Schindler was no saint when he first arrived in Poland. In fact, one of the very first things he did upon arrival in Krakow, Poland was to bribe his way into Krakow and commandeer a factory for his own purposes and profit. The factory he appropriated was one that made enamel products. As Schindler moved into the factory, it came to his attention that some of the employees that he was going to need to effectively manage it were, in fact, Jewish. This was particularly true of a man named Stern, who was the bookkeeper. Using money as bribes, Schindler was able to pay off the German officers in charge of Krakow so that they would leave his Jewish employees alone. Just as all of this was happening, the new local German officer in charge of Krakow, Amon Goth, was charged with rounding up all of the Jewish citizens of Krakow and placing them in a holding area that became known as the Krakow Ghetto. From there, these citizens would be shipped to a new work camp that Goth was in charge of building. The purpose of this camp was the killing of Poland’s Jewish people. Needless to say, there was much chaos and cruelty on display during the process of rounding up the Jewish citizens of Krakow, which was a fairly large city to begin with. As panic took hold of Krakow’s Jewish community, many learned of Mr. Schindler and how he had protected his Jewish employees through bribes. Suddenly, those seeking protection began showing up at Schindler’s factory begging to be allowed in. Before too long, the list of those deemed as “essential employees for the war effort” grew and grew. Mr. Stern, the bookkeeper, managed the list. As one can imagine, that list became the difference between living and dying for over one thousand Jewish citizens of Krakow, Poland. No one knows the exact moment that caused Oskar Schindler, Nazi Party member, to change from a war profiteer to a humanitarian and saviour but that transition did happen. It even went so far that when German officer Goth built his new extermination camp, Schindler asked to move his factory nearby so as to have access to “more labour” (when, in fact, he was trying to shield Jewish people right up until the end when the camp was liberated by Russian troops in 1945. The Jewish people whose lives were spared because their names appeared on Mr. Schindler’s list became known as the Schindlerjuden or “Schindler’s Jews”.
In 1962, in the spirit of “Never Forget”, one of the Schindlerjuden decided that Oskar Schindler was a hero and that his story needed to be shared with the world. A man named Poldek Pfefferberg made it his mission to get Schindler’s story published. Finally, in 1982, a novel was written by an Australian writer named Thomas Keneally called Schindler’s Ark. It was based upon Pfefferberg’s story of his time with Oskar Schindler. A few years after that, a review of Keneally’s book was given to director Steven Spielberg to read in the hopes of turning it into a movie. At first, Spielberg, who is Jewish, felt overwhelmed by the cultural importance of such a story and was reluctant to touch it. He tried to get several other directors to take the project on (such as Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski), but each declined for a variety of personal and professional reasons. Eventually he agreed to helm the project but only if it could be filmed as more of a documentary than a feature film. The movie was shot on location in Poland and used all German and Polish actors as the extras for the film. Spielberg filmed the movie in black and white to give it a historical feel. Most scenes were filmed with hand-held cameras, too. A then relatively-unknown actor named Liam Neeson was hired to play the role of Oskar Schindler. Ben Kingsley, of Gandhi fame, was hired to play Mr. Stern, the bookkeeper. Ralph Fiennes was cast as the ruthless German officer, Amon Goth. Schindler’s List went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, for Spielberg.
Through it all, Spielberg has stated that the experience of making this movie was like no other, and that he required counseling and much emotional support in order to merely complete his task of finishing the movie. Many of those who worked as extras and as crew members relate similar tales of how devastatingly emotional it was to make this movie. One of the most important people who was asked to become involved in this project was somebody who didn’t appear on screen for a single second…it was Academy Award winning musical composer and film scorer extraordinaire, John Williams. As you may know, Williams shot to fame as the composer of the highly successful Star Wars series of films. When Spielberg first showed Williams the initial scenes that he had shot, Williams turned Spielberg down, saying that this movie required a better composer than he was. To which Spielberg replied that he agreed with Williams but that Mozart and Beethoven were already dead, so Williams was the next best choice he had. For the opening theme, Williams contacted renowned violinist and cellist, Itzhak Perlman. It is Perlman who captured the essence of this story by playing notes that appear as tears. For many, the opening theme is an excruciatingly sad piece of music. It is heartbreak as expressed in notes and chords.
One of the things that Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List that helped to make it the great film that it is, concerns how he ended it. It is easy to take a story like the Holocaust and to wallow in the tragedy of it all. Make no mistake, the Holocaust was as horrific as a story can be. However, Spielberg knew that the counterbalance of horror and loss is hope. Spielberg knew and author Keneally knew and Schindlerjuden, Pfefferberg knew that unrelenting pain is unbearable, and that to simply pound audiences over the head with gore and pain would cause them to turn away in the end, which is the opposite of the “Never Forget” philosophy. So, at the end of the movie we get to meet those who have survived. We meet the Schindlerjuden. The importance of ending Schindler’s List in this fashion is to show the extent of the good that Oskar Schindler did in protecting as many Jews as he was able to in Krakow. Each one of those people who survived went on to do something with their lives that would not have happened if not for Schindler’s intervention. Some survivors turned out to become doctors and artists and teachers…most became parents of children who would never have been born without the help of Oskar Schindler. The power of helping out in times of trouble is shown in a way that makes a narrator’s voiceover explanation unnecessary. When there is Hope, there is Life. The Schindlerjuden are the proof of that.
In the world in which we all live, each person is worthy of life. This was true back in the 1930s, and yet much of the world turned a blind eye to genocide as it played out in Europe. It remains true in the 2020s. The story of the Holocaust is an important story to keep retelling, not just because of how it affected Jewish people. It is an important reminder that our history is replete with instances of groups of people being targeted for abuse and/or extermination because it suits the political agenda of others to do so. One need look no further than to cases of Pro-Nazism being on the rise around the world, including in my own country of Canada. Anti-semitic attacks are rising in lockstep. The times appear to be approaching a danger point once again. The importance of never forgetting has never been more relevant than it is right now. As much as I admire what Oskar Schindler did for the Jewish people in Krakow, Poland, I would rather that we all live in a world where such valour is not required at all. Instead, let’s strive for a world in which we would live in societies built upon the premise that all lives are worthy, and then live our lives by treating each other accordingly. That is my Hope.
The link to the video for the composition “Opening Theme: Schindler’s List” by John Williams from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack of the film Schindler’s List can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie Schindler’s List can be found here.
The link to the Shoah Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust, can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow, Poland can be found here.
The link to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. can be found here.
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