With 'Schindler's List,' a midlife awakening

As a result of seing the film , the writer and her daughter trained to glean the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
As a result of seing the film , the writer and her daughter trained to glean the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Posted: September 13, 2013

Twenty years ago, sitting in a suburban movie theater watching Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, I had an awakening. The kind that ignites nerve endings.

I knew that Jews, my people by birth and heritage, had been systematically killed by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish.

But there was so much I didn't know. Certainly, one missing piece was Oskar Schindler, originally a war profiteer and member of the Nazi Party who ultimately turned hero, trying desperately to put a proverbial finger in the dike by hiring Jews to work in his factories.

Ultimately, Schindler, a non-Jew, protected and saved the lives of an estimated 1,200 Jews.

It was powerful, moving, magnificent history. Yet here I was, already a college-educated, full-fledged adult, and I knew none of this. Not a bit.

The backstory:

I was probably about 10 years old when the new neighbors moved in on our street of Philadelphia rowhouses. No big deal.

But this time, my mother issued an advisory. I was allowed to say hello to the new people, and ordered to be extra polite to them. I was told that they might sound different from us. But I was not to ask them any questions about the marks on their arms.

"What marks?"

All these decades later, I remember how uncomfortable my mother was, and how, when I went to my father, he too was an artful dodger.

"They come from a different place, and those marks make them sad," said my father, a lawyer who knew his way around words.

It would be years before I pieced it all together. Our new neighbors were Holocaust survivors who had come to Arlington Street from a displaced-persons camp. Precisely how they ended up among us I will never know.

In summer, the man wore short sleeves, and his tattooed numbers were there for all to see. As I recall, the woman never exposed her arms.

There was a definite conspiracy of silence about the Holocaust among many parents of the Jewish children of my generation. There were whispers. There were closed doors. All we kids knew was that we'd won the war, gotten rid of a madman named Hitler, and that, hallelujah, there was no rationing anymore so we could get bubble gum again at Potash's candy store.

"Sha!" - the Yiddish equivalent of "Quiet!" - my Eastern European grandparents would say when I asked them questions they didn't want to answer. Terrified themselves, they couldn't deal with the kinder, the children, and our innocence.

So my insular Jewish childhood had left me bereft of a major piece of my own history. I simply stopped asking the important questions. I'm not sure I even know what those questions were.

By college and beyond, I was self-educated. But in four years at the University of Pennsylvania, I never took a course in Holocaust history because such courses didn't yet exist.

Along came the years of marriage and mothering three daughters. One day, the oldest asked me out of the blue, "Who was Hitler?" Jill was no more than 6 or 7, and I didn't have the heart to tell her the whole story.

There it was again - abridged history repeating itself in a new generation.

And that wasn't good enough.

Fast forward to 1993, and Schindler's List. I was in the middle of my own life, stunned into greater awareness, and realizing that as a Jew, I probably had an obligation to do something. I just wasn't sure what.

Sometime during that murky period, I learned that Spielberg, himself transformed by the film, was organizing a crusade to videotape the testimonies of Holocaust survivors around the world so that we could never forget them, or tolerate denial.

The scope of his vision fascinated me. By then, I'd been writing for a number of years, and foolishly thought I knew how to handle interviews, even tough ones.

So I applied for training, and our middle daughter signed on with me. Amy, who worked in television production, also felt reasonably comfortable about the challenge.

We had so much to learn. We ruthlessly critiqued each other long into the night after formal classes ended, emotionally exhausted but needing to push on. Through it, I remembered those faces from Schindler's List. How dare I complain of emotional fatigue or feeling overwhelmed?

After several long, humbling days and nights at training sessions in New York, we were accepted as interviewers. We had learned the power of silence even as we poked at the scar tissue of damaged souls, when every instinct seemed to suggest rushing in to help, to comfort. But silence brought forth memories, and answers.

After a while, we stopped feeling like shameless voyeurs as we listened to stories that made us weep - later and privately. That breathtaking ride to the past has been one of the seminal experiences of our lives.

At the end of Schindler's List, there's a scene that's seared into my memory.

The actors in the film, including Liam Neeson, who played Schindler so magnificently, gather at Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. With them are some of the now-elderly, frail surviving Jews he saved. They mourn a former Nazi who gave them their lives.

We learn in that scene, as a postscript, that despite all who were lost, there were already more than 6,000 descendants of Schindler's List Jews around the world in 1993, when the film debuted. Imagine what the number is now. Yes, one man did that.

And despite everything, it's impossible for me not to think of that number as a triumph not just for Jews, but for all mankind.

Schindler's List Benefit Film Screening

A benefit film screening for the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education, with guest appearance by Liam Neeson, is at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Preceded at 5:30 by a VIP reception and supper with Neeson. Tickets: $100 to $1,000. Information: 215-665-7208 or www.benefitscreening.org.

E-mail Sally Friedman at pinegander@aol.com

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