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Catch the Holocaust before it disappears

We can still go see a Broadway show or movie if we need cultural confirmation that Jews have always been the object of insatiable malice—the planet’s most enduringly persecuted people.

From left: Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur, Ari Brand and Ethan Haberfield in “Prayer for the French Republic.” Credit: Courtesy.
From left: Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur, Ari Brand and Ethan Haberfield in “Prayer for the French Republic.” Credit: Courtesy.
Thane Rosenbaum. Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech ... From Itself.”

If you’re a Jew looking for sympathy in these sucker-punch days of hyper-antisemitism, find a way to transport yourself back to the early 1990s, a time when Holocaust memory—“Schindler’s List”; the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and observances of Yom Hashoah across America—was afforded largely universal respect.

Antisemites still harbored private fantasies of Jewish genocide, but it was dormant, with few public spectacles aside from clownish neo-Nazis desperate for recruits. The Oslo Accords were underway in Israel. The First Intifada had just been put to rest. The early 1990s may have been the safest period of Jewish history since the reign of King David.

Too bad Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine was only fictional, and time-travel is not yet an app.

But we can still go see a Broadway show or movie if we need cultural confirmation that Jews have always been the object of insatiable malice—the planet’s most enduringly persecuted people.

This past week, the play “Prayer for the French Republic” opened on Broadway, and the film “One Life,” starring Anthony Hopkins, premiered at the Jewish Film Festival—an annual collaboration between the Jewish Museum and Film at Lincoln Center.

Can a double-dose of highbrow culture, on stage and screen, serve as an equalizer to all the pandemonium on the streets?

Both are stellar works of art, humorous at times, and deeply moving throughout. They also have arrived at a time when everyone could use a master class on Holocaust history, especially one imbued with contemporary relevance.

But will audiences recognize what they are seeing? And even if they do, will they care? Or will they doubt its authenticity, as so many did the nightmarishly unspeakable events on Oct. 7?

The play takes place in present-day Paris and concerns a Jewish family with a decision to make. Violence against French Jews worsens each year: the torture and death of Ilan Halimi; the Jewish day-school massacre; the murders in the kosher supermarket; two grandmothers killed in their apartments—one torched, the other thrown from her balcony.

All of those killings were preceded by the death chant in Arabic: Allahu Akbar (“God is great”).

It is for this reason that so many of France’s Jews—the largest Jewish population in Europe—have immigrated to Israel. And it is the play’s core dilemma and plotline: Should they leave the newly dangerous homeland of their birth and flee to the homeland of their people, a nation that speaks a different language and where they will have to start all over?

The matter is complicated by the fact that the family has lived in France with some prominence for generations. A few managed to survive the Holocaust—one of whom, then a boy, is now the aged grandfather. Those relatives are also on stage in their own flashback scenes, shocked and agonized by what had happened to the Jews of Vichy France.

Anthony Hopkins in the Film “One Life”
Anthony Hopkins in the film “One Life.” Credit: Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

In the film, Hopkins plays Sir Nicholas Winton, an aging former stockbroker who during the Holocaust, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, managed to rescue nearly 700 children in what became known as the Kindertransport—parents, facing impossible moral choices, saved their children by having them board trains bound for Britain where they were to be placed with foster families.

These rescue missions were repeated many times with children from Germany, Austria, France, Holland and Belgium, too. England ultimately saved 10,000 children, most of whom never saw their parents again. They were forever traumatized by the forced separation, yet they fared much better than the 1.5 million children who were gassed and cremated, or choked by overeager concentration camp guards.

What happened in southern Israel on Oct. 7 grotesquely involved children who were without a Kindertransport option. Some babies were beheaded, others burned in ovens in what has become terrorism’s latest war tactic. And those who support Hamas refer to them as freedom fighters?

“One Life” is a reminder that Jewish children have always had a difficult time staying alive—in many different nations and eras. And those who come to rescue them are few.

Can a double-dose of highbrow culture, on stage and screen, serve as an equalizer to all the pandemonium on the streets?

Both productions are actually rare cultural sightings these days. The Holocaust has been placed in an attic that would have suffocated even Anne Frank. Today’s culture demands a binary separation between oppressor and oppressed—and art must lean in favor of telling the stories of those among the oppressed. Jewish history is being erased as inconvenient truths. With their white skin and undeserved success, Jews have never been victims. Their nation is a racist, colonial enterprise. Palestinians are dispossessed Arabs with the fashionably correct skin tone. Enough of this foolishness said.

How did these productions ever get made in this cultural climate? It required some liberty-taking legerdemain, a bit of dented history and the leaving of woke fingerprints.

“Prayer for the French Republic” somehow manages to tell the story without directly mentioning that the present-day tormentors of Jews are French Muslims. Marine Le Pen is the play’s bait-and-switch straw-woman. But it is Muslims, and not fascists, who have made France inhospitable to Jews, causing them to seek refuge in Israel.

In “One Life,” the children are sometimes referred to as “refugees” rather than Jews. The initial marketing materials didn’t mention Jewish children at all—just “Central Europeans.” Some Christian children were rescued (roughly 100). But the Kindertransport was intended to rescue those at risk of being killed. The death camps were conceived to exterminate Jewish children, and no other.

It’s hard to blame anyone for believing that the Holocaust doesn’t scream box-office these days. And it might lead to tragic Jewish theater. The police presence on opening night anticipated bomb threats and mobs screaming “Intifada!” Showcasing Jews as victims has the ironic consequence of endangering Jews.

No matter how excellent and well-intentioned these productions are, cutting corners on history is the least of their problems. The play and the movie might perhaps be the last Mohicans of the Holocaust genre. The Motion Picture Academy’s new rules for Best Picture nominations require that the film feature “underrepresented groups” (minorities) in a prominent role.

Such groups include racial, gender, sexual orientation and every ethnicity, except for Jews. The Oscar for Best Picture will soon be awarded to unwatchable but inclusive movies—made not to entertain, but to placate the commissars of identity politics. Don’t bother buying popcorn. Jew-less movies portend a one-way ticket to mediocrity.

This column originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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