Heroism and shame, in Holocaust documentaries on MPT

April 06, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If you saw Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," you are probably not going to believe this: Maryland Public Television has three hours of programming on the Holocaust airing tonight that for many is going to be a more intense experience than was seeing the film.

Tonight's TV package starts with a searing new production from the American Experience series, "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" at 9 p.m. on MPT (Channels 22 and 67). It's followed at 10:30 by a fascinating 1983 British documentary on Oskar Schindler, called "Schindler."

Together they go beyond the Spielberg film to document Nazi atrocities and the surprising heroism of the German businessman. They also demand that Ameri- can viewers acknowledge the anti-Semitism here in the 1930s and '40s, and the role it played in the deaths Europe's Jews. They demand that viewers do something much harder than bearing witness to Germany's barbarism: admitting America's shame for not doing more to help its victims.

The tone of "America and the Holocaust" is set in the opening, when Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough breaks from his usually understated style to call tonight's show "one of the most powerful and disturbing to appear in this series."

After discussing how little newspapers and magazines did to report Hitler's genocide to American readers, McCullough says, "It's important to understand, too, how pervasive was anti-Semitism at the time here in America. Jews then were unacceptable to many employers, unwelcome at business and social clubs, vacation resorts. Jokes about kikes and yids were commonplace. And such supposed champions of American values as members of Congress . . . openly spewed anti-Semitic poison in the very halls of the nation's Capitol"

Documenting that anti-Semitism, and how its institutionalization within the State Department led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, is only one of the two tracks the film travels.

The other involves making it personal for viewers by focusing on life and death in one five-member family of German Jews, the Kleins. Ludwig and Alice Klein, the parents, managed to get their three children to the United States after Hitler came to power. One of the children, Kurt, now 74, is interviewed throughout the film.

The film's most powerful moment comes when viewers see a memo written in June 1940, by Breckinridge Long, assistant secretary of state.

The memo tells U.S. officials in European embassies "to put every obstacle in the way which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas" to Jews trying to flee Hitler for the United States.

The memo is followed by Kurt Klein reading a letter from his father, written from Europe in July 1940. The letter says the American embassy has suddenly decided not to grant the promised visas. As a result, he and his wife will be delayed.

Two months later, Ludwig and Alice Klein were sent to a concentration camp where they were killed.

There's more than enough blame for everyone, from President Franklin Roosevelt to even some members of the American Jewish community. And it's all documented with the usual zeal ** American Experience brings to its brand of video history. For example, Arthur Hertzberg, a leader of organized American Jewry, recounts with detail and emotion how his father was fired as rabbi of a Baltimore congregation on Yom Kippur, 1940, for criticizing Roosevelt for not doing more to help European Jews.

Watching "America and the Holocaust" is emotionally exhausting. But viewers would be wise to stay with MPT for "Schindler."

For one thing, you'll feel as if you are seeing the blueprints for the house Spielberg built in "Schindler's List." You'll see a snapshot of SS Commandant Amon Goeth standing bare-chested on his balcony holding the rifle with which he shot Jews in the prison yard below. You'll meet Helena, the Jewish maid, who seemed to arouse Goeth's most sadistic impulses. The interview with Goeth's mistress, now suffering the ravages of emphysema, is riveting.

You'll also hear a haunting soundtrack of lovely and sad tango music performed by Leo and Herman Rosner, two elderly musicians who are alive today only because of Schindler's list.

But the main reason to watch 'Schindler" is that, in the end, it celebrates life, light and decency -- just as the film did. Even though it's more critical of Schindler than the film, it shows the capacity for goodness that beats even in the heart of such an "opportunist." It's a message we need to hear after seeing the horrible hate and indifference of which we are capable.

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