Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

‘Woman In Gold’ movie has lessons for today

Make sure you see the current film “Woman In Gold.” It is riveting at times, well done, highly instructive and especially relevant. It is the story of the successful effort of a Jewish woman, who was born in Austria and who fled to the US, recovering paintings that the Nazis confiscated from her family during the Holocaust era. Watching it, for me, was another reminder not only of Jewish history but also of the global issues facing the Jewish people today.

The woman’s family, who was extremely prosperous and lived an upper crust Viennese life prior to the Holocaust, would not be immune from Nazi oppression and murder, or the anti-Semitism of the Austrian masses, as these dark forces began to gain traction. Nothing could save her family from the jaws of this beast and, like Jews before them, those who fled to alien lands, such as the film’s central character, survived. Those who remained behind — “But this is our home” — perished.

The film subtly highlights the cautious optimism among some Jews that Adolph Hitler would be contained through the diplomatic agreements that England and France were negotiating with the German fuehrer. Those countries sadly and naively believed that a vicious, insatiable enemy could be satisfied through diplomatic concessions; that this voracious appetite for conquest and very clear hatred of the Jews would disappear once his country was welcomed back into the fraternity of civilized nations.

As I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of Iran. I sure hope President Obama is right about our discussions with Iran — and that despite the fact that the parallels are eerie, that as a result of the current negotiations, the Jew-hating Iranian regime, which seeks to control the Middle East, destroy Israel and destabilize the West, will be defanged.

While the movie is not 3-D, the anti-Semitism that it portrays is. The film very effectively includes street scenes of Austrian citizens delighting in watching Jews being harassed and humiliated by Nazi authorities. The anti-Semitism is depicted with a subtlety and ordinariness that makes it even more believable — and thus more jarring.

The connection to today? A no-brainer. Though these scenes portrayed events and attitudes that prevailed 75-80 years ago, similar things are starting to reoccur in Europe. A toxic mix of nationalist anti-Semitism on the far right, vicious anti-Israel activity on the far left, and increasing extremism from elements within Europe’s growing Muslim population have come together to again make Europe unsafe for Jews.

Movies, I suppose, are to be getaways for taking your mind off work. However, sitting there watching this outstanding film again reminded me of the importance of the work we do at The Birmingham Jewish Federation and the work done by other Jewish organizations. The contemporary challenges framed by “Woman In Gold” are the challenges we face daily.

As I reflect back on the movie, I think the most important aspect of “Woman In Gold” may be its potential to make people think. My hunch is that many Jews who see the film will have thoughts similar to those expressed above. And for those who see it who aren’t Jewish, it can provide deeper insight into the Jewish experience of the last 100 years and, hopefully, even more insight into understanding Jews today.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.