2015-11-11 / Voice at the Shore

American attitudes shaped Hollywood’s portrayal of Holocaust, says lecturer

Voice shore correspondent

Lecturer Lawrence Baron (center), author and professor emeritus of Judaic Studies at San Diego State University, with Leo Schoffer and Susan Lang, executive committee members for the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. 
Photo by Barbara Cinger Roth Lecturer Lawrence Baron (center), author and professor emeritus of Judaic Studies at San Diego State University, with Leo Schoffer and Susan Lang, executive committee members for the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. Photo by Barbara Cinger Roth They’re two “H” words that don’t seem to belong together: “Hollywood” and “Holocaust.” While Hollywood is capable of spinning larger-than-life epics and fantasies that capture our hearts and minds, the Holocaust is a stark historical reality that practically defied comprehension— especially when the truth of what happened in Hitler’s Germany and in concentration camps first became public.

According to Dr. Lawrence Baron, a visiting professor of Holocaust Studies at Stockton University, Hollywood’s portrayal of Nazism and the Holocaust immediately before, during and after the Holocaust says a lot about America’s changing attitudes towards Jews during that time period. Simply stated, a particular film’s portrayal of the Holocaust does not reflect reality as much as society’s attitude toward reality at a given time.

“Movies are about the present. They are never about the past, even when the past is their subject,” Baron told a crowd of over 100 people attending Stockton’s annual Ida E. King Memorial Lecture at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield.

The lecture, “Hollywood’s First Wave of Holocaust Films,” was peppered with famous film clips from the 1940s and 1950s. Baron will also address the topic “Laughter through Tears: Hollywood Comedies and the Holocaust” at Temple Beth El of Hammonton on November 14, and will speak about his book, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Cinema, during the Margate JCC’s Fall Author Series on November 22.

Prior to World War II, said Baron, the movie industry saw itself as being about entertainment— period. The subject of politics was mostly avoided. At that time, the U.S. was also set on staying out of the war, so filmmakers avoided talking negatively about Germany. As a result, films showed little about the rise or threat of Nazism.

This changed with the release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, which Baron called “the first anti-Nazi movie.” Notably, the word “Jew” was never used in this film. Heads of Hollywood (many of whom were Jewish) avoided talking about the plight of Jews in Germany; filmmakers feared they would be seen as trying to push the U.S. into the war in order to help the Jews, said Baron. Also, because anti- Semitism was the norm in American society, Hollywood did not want to be perceived as being partial to Jews.

Likewise, the 1940 movie Mortal Storm, which paints a dark picture of the indoctrination of young Nazi soldiers, used the word “Non-Aryan” as an obvious replacement for the word “Jew.” “Jewishness was taken out of films on purpose,” said Baron.

After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, filmmakers showing victims of the Nazis made sure that only some of these people appeared Jewish. “The Nazis said America was fighting the war on behalf of the Jews,” explained Baron. Hollywood did not want to do anything to lend credence to that claim.

This changed when Americans began seeing photos of liberated concentration camps in Life and other magazines. “It was hard to ignore that these victims were mostly Jewish,” said Baron. At that point, Hollywood began to take on the topic of anti-Semitism. Notably, the 1944 movie None Shall Escape showed the deportation of Polish Jews, including a dramatic scene of a rabbi exhorting his people to go to their deaths fighting. “This is our last choice... let us choose to fight,” he tells them. (This scene was widely criticized for being unrealistic, Baron noted.)

Hollywood even became bold enough to shine a light on the link between Nazi persecution of Jews and American anti-Semitism, said Baron. In The House I Live In, a 1945 public service announcement (PSA), a young Frank Sinatra stops a gang of teens trying to beat up a boy they say they don’t like because of his religion. Sinatra tells them, “Religion makes no difference, except maybe to a Nazi or someone who’s stupid.”

“In the end, all of the kids embrace one another,” said Baron. The PSA went on to win a special Academy Award.

Subsequent films went on to portray the Holocaust in a more realistic manner, with Americans as the good guys. In The Search (1948), by Jewish director Fred Zinnemann, children in a displaced persons camp tell American officials of the traumas they experienced during the Holocaust. From the story, it’s clear that the children are Jewish, and the stories told are heartbreakingly realistic. “It was a very legitimate film,” said Baron.

Professor Baron will speak in two other venues this month. This Saturday evening, at 7 p.m., he will give a free lecture at Temple Beth El of Hammonton entitled “Laughter Through Tears,” about movie comedies about the Holocaust, with film clips from The Great Dictator, Seven Beauties and The Producers. The Temple is located at 642 Bellevue Avenue in Hammonton. For more information, contact (609) 561-7217 or go to www.tbenj.org.

Baron will also take part in the Katz JCC Fall Author Series on Sunday, November 22, at 3 p.m., speaking on his book, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present. His talk will trace common genres and themes in early Holocaust motion pictures and then show how films from the 1990s made the Holocaust relevant for contemporary audiences. For more information, contact (609) 822-1167 or go to www.jccatlantic.org. .

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