Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a Holocaust film from 2008, is one I’d never seen before. I didn’t really want to watch it. I’ve seen enough Holocaust movies to last a lifetime, if you’ll excuse the inappropriate idiom. But like vegetables you eat for your health and not your palate, I figured I was due for a serving.

Anyway, it’s not like one can really shy away from learning about and remembering the Holocaust. Or maybe you can, if you are a non-Jew. You can just choose to stick your head in historical sand and live your life blind to the implications of so many millions of Jews hunted down, herded into gas chambers, and incinerated into ash.

But not only non-Jews become ostriches when faced with the catastrophe that is the Holocaust. Jews worldwide say, “Never again,” and then do very little when actually faced with a huge spike in antisemitic incidents and attacks as is currently the case. For this reason alone, the rest of us are tasked with the heavy responsibility of refreshing our collective memories, and continuing to educate ourselves on this subject. This work will never be over.

Watching The Boy in Striped Pajamas is a part of this work, only because it teaches a lie. Which is why it is unsurprising that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is on Netflix. After all, Michelle and Barak “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli” Obama, are hard at work destroying long-accepted societal norms. They are getting the big bucks to teach us that whites have privilege, America is not exceptional, and the Jews are nothing special:

Back in 2018, the [Obamas] first signed a groundbreaking multi-year deal with Netflix through their production company, Higher Ground Productions. "We created Higher Ground to harness the power of storytelling," President Obama told The Hollywood Reporter. "That’s why we couldn’t be more excited about these projects. Touching on issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more, we believe each of these productions won’t just entertain, but will educate, connect and inspire us all."

Of course, I wasn’t really thinking of any of this when I clicked play. Netflix had shown me the preview; I had some free time; and I realized that I had never watched this movie and thought I probably should. I steeled myself for the “lesson” I was about to absorb.

The first thing I noticed was the lush cinematography. The scenery and clothing are realistic, the colors rich. As time went on, I realized that beautiful colors and fine film work can be as deceptive as it is effective in strengthening the message a movie is intended to impart. In the case of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that message is: Not all Germans are bad and not all Jews are good.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas then, is one more in the pantheon of Holocaust movies calculated to show good Germans where few to none would have or could have existed. The movies are well made and full of pathos. The main purpose of these films, however, is not to teach the Holocaust but to suggest that there were the same number of good Germans as bad—and as many Germans who refused to serve in the Nazi army as those who served, an outlandish and shocking fiction.

Watching these movies, anyone ignorant of what really happened will be waiting for it: the moment where a good Nazi does a kindness for or saves a Jew. Because that is what filmgoers like best. That is what moves them. This is not, however, what happened in the Holocaust. For the approximately 7 million (and still counting) Jews who were murdered, there were no good Nazis, no good Germans waiting in the wings to save a Jew just so viewers could pass around that box of tissues as they delicately dab their eyes (and eat popcorn).

The Jews had no Saviors

The Jews had no saviors. They were murdered, their lives and future generations lost forever. It is as coldly horrible as that.

But inversion of truth is a theme that is evident throughout The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The roles are reversed, and a little German boy and his family are the victims. This is what students are meant to absorb as they watch this “educational” film.

This is actually no different from the message imparted by the BBC today about Jewish victims of Arab terror. The BBC works hard at skewing the truth for its audiences. Typical consumers of BBC fare have no idea that many Arabs are terrorists and that they specifically target Jews. The BBC has told them, and they believe, that the Jews have no right to any territory within the borders of the modern State of Israel. BBC viewers believe that the terrorists are victims, and the victims, evildoers, because the BBC has told them so.

Humanizing Nazis

“Humanizing Nazis echoes the trend of humanizing terrorists. It serves the purpose of diminishing the brutality of their intentions by claiming a justifiable ‘cause,’ says Dr. Elana Heideman, Holocaust scholar and Executive Director of The Israel Forever Foundation. “As a result, one who feels the humanity of the Nazi can examine the victims of that brutality with increasing callousness, disregard and, specifically for Jews, increased dehumanization.”

This kind of disregard for and even dismissal of the plight of the Jews is evident in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The movie does not teach the Holocaust—instead it whitewashes genocide for an audience so ignorant of history, it doesn’t even know it is watching a lie. Or perhaps it simply doesn’t want to know, and prefers fiction to reality.

As I watched The Boy in Striped Pajamas, I came to understand that I was not so much getting a lesson on the Holocaust, as on the futility of war. This is galling, and a misdirection. The Holocaust is about Jewish genocide. Look at it straight on, I angrily told the screen. Stop co-opting it for your flavor of the month ideology.

Not that anyone would listen. Just as they wouldn't listen in my Facebook meme group when I asked them not to use Holocaust and Nazi terminology or imagery in reference to vaccination mandates and programs, or anything and anyone they do not like. 

A Joking Reference

“Nazi, now a word used to refer to anyone who may demonstrate some version of stringency in their behavior or attitude, has become a form of a joking reference, removing the severity of the murderous truth behind the name,” says Dr. Heideman. “The potential benefit of humanizing Nazis would be if it were to teach others how easy it is for any individual to give in to their basest human tendencies for evil and cruelty when the matter of responsibility is taken away.

“Unfortunately, this is not the result as more and more become enamored with the idea of power, strength, pride that the humanized Nazi represents,” says Heideman.

Perhaps that is why we find Bruno so sympathetic. The little German boy, son of a Nazi commandant, is the main character in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. His grandmother is against Nazism and war in general. Her punishment for speaking out is that she is killed—though we are told she died in an Allied bombing. We know, however, that she was killed, because her husband, a Nazi sympathizer, was there with her and was left completely unscathed. This is one of many pointed revelations that Bruno and his mother confront as they wrestle with understanding what is actually happening.

It is a very slow reveal. And no one who really knows the history of the Holocaust would believe that everyday Germans learned only with time that evil that was all around them. Even little boys like Bruno would have known full well that the Jews were being hunted down and killed like rats. But in the context of the fiction that is this movie, Bruno remains clueless throughout the movie. Which is why *SPOILER ALERT* he blundered into a gas chamber and died.

Bruno isn’t the only character who doesn’t get it. His mother, too, seems to have little awareness of the Holocaust until it is waved under her nose. His father, of course, is a prototypical Nazi brute. There needed to be at least one. (Ralf is there to represent!)

The Real Drama Begins

It’s when Bruno’s family moves next door to a fictional Auschwitz that the real drama begins. There’s a terrible smell. We see the chimney of the crematorium belching Jewish smoke. Bruno’s mom figures it out and has a nervous breakdown. The subtle message here is that “not every German” took part in the atrocities. Some, like Bruno’s fictional mom, were either married to Nazis, making it complicated for them to leave, or were simply unaware of what was happening all around them. Which is simply not possible.

We learn that the maid and a handsome blond Nazi soldier named Kotler are probably Jews under cover. They overact the part of “Good Germans” and Nazis, in order to save their skins. One of them is unsuccessful.

Bruno, against his mother’s directive, goes to explore what he thinks is a farm next door. He comes to an electric fence where he meets Shmuel, a little Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp who is stealing a few precious minutes of leisure. After they spend a few minutes getting acquainted, Shmuel takes up a wheelbarrow and goes back to work. Which makes no sense. In a real concentration camp, he would have had no ability to take a break to play at a fence. He would have had no will of his own to resume work at his leisure.

The friendship between the two deepens on Bruno’s daily visits to the fence, sometimes with food that is subsequently wolfed down by the Jewish boy. The storyline as presented made me angry. What Jewish boy, in such a scenario, would have had the energy to play?

Equal Danger

Also: instead of worrying about Nazi brutality, the viewer spends most of the movie terrified that one of the little boys will make a mistake and be electrocuted at the fence. This is part of the lie that the producers shove down our throats: Jew or German, it matters not. Both are in equal danger, both boys are willing to sacrifice everything--their very lives--for friendship (as if the Jewish boy had a choice or anything to say in the matter).

Eventually, Bruno risks his life to go under the fence. We are made to believe this makes him brave. The little boy is not a Nazi, just a regular German hero. But in actual fact, there was no such thing.  

Hannah May Randall, writing for Holocaust Learning UK, writes:

Bruno’s characterisation perpetuates the belief that most German civilians were ignorant of what was happening around them. In fact the general public in Germany and in occupied Europe were well aware that Jewish people were being persecuted, forced to emigrate and eventually deported. There were also many who knew that Jewish people were being killed. Many Germans profited from the Holocaust as Jewish properties and belongings were ‘Aryanised’, which meant they were taken from their Jewish owners and given instead to ‘ethnic’ Germans.  A minority of German civilians resisted Nazi ideology. Nazi authorities stamped out resistance to the regime quickly and brutally . . .

As an audience we learn a lot about Bruno, so he becomes a real little boy in our imaginations. However, Shmuel is only ever depicted as a one-dimensional victim.  Shmuel has no personality or individuality, so the audience doesn’t build an emotional connection with him. This means it is harder for the reader to empathise with Shmuel and his situation. . .

Shmuel’s story is also historically inaccurate. For readers of the book it is clear that the camp is probably the Auschwitz concentration camp complex as Bruno calls it ‘Out-With’. If a young boy like Shmuel had entered Auschwitz-Birkenau then it is very likely he would have been sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival, just like the majority of children who arrived there, as the Nazis didn’t consider them useful as forced labour. A small number of children were chosen for medical experimentation but these children were kept away from the main camp. Even if Shmuel had been selected for forced labour he would not have had the opportunity to spend most of his days sitting on the outskirts of the camp.

The story’s conclusion leaves many readers upset. Bruno digs a tunnel under the wire, crawls into the camp, then he and Shmuel go looking for Shmuel’s missing father. Both boys are swept up in a group of prisoners being taken to the gas chamber, where all of them are murdered. The emotional focus of the story is on Bruno’s family and their distress as they realise what has happened to their son. The reader’s attention remains with the experience of the concentration camp commandant and his wife whose son has been killed in what is portrayed as a tragic accident.

Because the focus of the story remains on Bruno’s family, the book does not engage with the main tragedy of the Holocaust: that none of the people in the gas chamber should have been there. Due to the way in which Shmuel’s character is portrayed in the novel, his character doesn’t engage the reader’s sympathy in the way that Bruno does. Shmuel represents the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazi regime in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the death camps of occupied Europe and in the killing fields where millions of civilians were shot into mass graves, yet the reader’s sympathy is directed towards a Nazi concentration camp commandant and his family.

A British study on student reactions to Holocaust films including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, illustrates some of the main takeaways from the film:

"[The movie] made me feel more compassionate towards both sides in this kind of issue between maybe Jews and Germans, although I'm only using those kind of terms to, to categorise ... if anything, I've taken away ... a grander understanding of not just the Jewish people and the problems they faced but the German people and the problems that they faced, too, and then these things coming together" (Peter, 26, dance practitioner).

"Yeah, pretty much, erm, don't let your kids climb under fences ... I suppose, try to explain these things, like kind of bad things in the world to your children, don't keep them in a complete innocence ... He didn't know what was wrong with going ... to the other side ... if he had known, maybe he would have been a bit more standoffish but then you kind of think, well, the fence, that, that whole thing shouldn't have existed anyway, the concentration camps, so it's, it shouldn't have existed and he, like as a child, shouldn't have to know about it, shouldn't have to burdened with these kind of terrible, terrible events and emotions and stuff, so it's, it's, I don't know, it's very hard to reconcile what I think towards the movie, I think” (Sam, 19, student, when asked if he thought that the film held a "message for today").

The study author writes:

The arguably loaded question that I asked him, which presupposed that the film does indeed have a "message", did not surprise Sam. His response was immediate and detailed. It reflects what [some have] warned of in relation to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: that Bruno's death "becomes less a consequence of prejudice and more a bizarre health and safety incident. If Bruno had been properly instructed about the camp (as would have been the case in reality) he would not have gone inside.”

Sam realised that this "message" is flawed as the concentration camps "shouldn't have existed", but his concern is, nonetheless, reserved for Bruno (as the one that should not be burdened) rather than Shmuel. [Other experts have argued that "we are supposed to be somehow devastated, along with the Nazi commandant that the wrong boy died.”

Among the English pupils interviewed . . . we similarly find "a perspective of widespread German ignorance of the Holocaust" and "a marked tendency to shift their locus of concern from the victims of the Holocaust onto the bystanders and even, to some extent, to the perpetrators.”

It is an awful thing that the book on which this movie is based and the movie itself are considered Holocaust "classics" and are used as educational materials in classrooms all over the world. As more and more states mandate Holocaust education, we must have proper oversight to ensure that what is taught reflects the actual horror of the Holocaust. It is critical to ensure that children understand that there were no good people saving the Jews.

The enormity of the catastrophe deserves to be seen head on without historical embellishments or distortions. No one has the right to exploit and abscond with the Holocaust for their own purposes. No one has the right to minimize or distort the truth.

There were no good Nazis. 

And no one saved the Jews.

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