This week we had a small goodbye party: Shira, a beloved niece, was returning to the US with her husband Meir and children Baruch and Tziporah, after six years in Ramat Eschol. In search of a picture for my email invitation, I turned to Google images. First I typed in ‘waving goodbye’. Up came a colourful assortment of bears, puppies and kittens, paws suggestively raised, waving cartoon characters and beaming children, and a sprinkling of real life figures: Obama, JFK and Jackie, Marilyn on a train. Nothing seemed quite right, so I added a word: ‘Jews waving goodbye’. As I typed, I had in mind a line in a poem by Yehuda Amichai:
Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity.
The Temple Mount is a huge ship, a magnificent
luxury liner. From the portholes of her Western Wall
cheerful saints look out, travelers. Hasidim on the pier
wave goodbye, shout hooray, hooray, bon voyage!
Photo credit: Diana Lipton
But ‘Jews waving goodbye’ brought forth no cheerful hasidim from Google images, although what came up was mostly black and white. The first photo showed a group of Jewish children waving goodbye to friends who were staying behind in Buchenwald DP camp.
Photo credit: National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives
And then came Jewish parents waving to their children as they left on a Kinderstransport, 1938.
Photo credit: yadvashem.org
I deleted the word ‘Jews’ from my Google search and went for a cuddly sea otter waving.
In the past couple few weeks, Mosaic has featured a series of essays about the Oscar-winning Holocaust movie, Son of Saul. I haven’t seen the movie, and probably won’t, but I read the essays. The first one, ‘That Holocaust Feeling’, likened the movie’s cinematography to video games in its capacity to make the viewer feel like a participant. The essay that seemed to me the weakest link was ‘The Necessity of the Son of Saul.Technology has robbed us of our ability to empathize. It may take a vision of a death camp to reignite it’ by Liel Liebovitz. How can I put this politely. Liel Liebovitz is a writer I read in my quest to learn how the other half thinks.
According to Liebovitz, Son of Saul‘s greatness lies in its ability to generate empathy. This, he claims, is no mean feat in the technological age:
“We gravitate to superhero epics and gross-out comedies and grisly horror movies because the act of paying attention, of being invested in a fellow human being’s difficulties and triumphs and heartbreaks, no longer comes naturally. To feel again, we need a crucible as fiery as a death camp’s crematorium.”
Reading that last sentence, I remembered the moment in Schindler’s List when I started to cry. It was the opening credits. Other than the famous red coat and a glimpse of the Promised Land, that was the film’s only use of colour. A family stands around a table in a darkening room. Candles are lit. Kiddush is chanted. The camera moves in on a young boy with shining eyes and then the candles — slowly reduced to a tiny mound of wax, an extinguished flame, and a charred wick.
I cried because I knew what the candles signified in the context of a Holocaust film: mounds of pulled teeth and eye-glasses, the incinerators; the destruction of that family, that shtetl, European Jewry. I cried because I saw the boy with shining eyes and thought about my sons and our shabbat table. And although I cried through the rest of the movie, and on and off for several days afterwards, that was the scene that most powerfully made me ‘feel’ the Shoah.
My experience at Berlin’s Holocaust Museum was similar. The exhibits designed to help visitors to ‘feel’ — the Garden of Exile, the silo — were moving. The statistics about European Jewry displayed in the exhibition halls were devastating. But all that paled into insignificance next to a small glass case containing — as I remember it — a white hand towel edged in linen with a hand-embroidered monogram. It was accompanied by an explanation along these lines: My mother gave me this hand towel as she was waving me off on the Kindertransport train to England. She told me that I should always have something to dry my hands. I never saw her again.
What made me weep was not the hand towel, of course. It was the hand towel in a Holocaust Museum. It was the short, ‘clinical’ explanation, and the long, painful history between its lines. And it was my personal associations with embroidered hand towels. My late husband’s parents — who also left Germany on trains and never saw their parents again — used them in their Upper East Side apartment. I could almost hear the museum mother’s voice; the words she said and didn’t say. I could almost see her expression, and her immaculately dressed little boy. As a mother myself, I could perhaps begin to feel her pain.
Back to Liel Liebovitz and empathy. Setting aside what affects me personally, I see a flaw in Liebovitz’s justification for Son of Saul. Let’s say that he’s correct: technology has created a world in which we need ‘a crucible as fiery as a death camp’s crematorium’ to ‘feel again’. What will we do when, inevitably, we become accustomed to cinematography like this? Will we turn to more extreme psychological and physical simulations — alienation, isolation, controlled doses of pain? Where will we draw the line when it comes to generating empathy? Upping the ante can’t be the answer.
As for myself, and I believe for many others, it’s not scenes of death camp crematoriums that are most affecting. Their horror is simply too great to comprehend as, in different ways, are the acts of horror reported on a daily basis in the news. Try as I might to engage emotionally, I feel numbed by the images of dislocation and destruction that flash before us: razed cities, burning buildings, terror attacks, mass murders, overflowing refugee camps. I’m not proud of it, but in these terrifying Gog-Magog times, there are days when what it takes to move me is the equivalent of a family lighting candles, a small cluster of displaced children waving goodbye, a hand towel.