By RABBI LEVI WELTON
I hate Holocaust movies.
It’s not that I want to forget, God forbid, what happened to my people at the hands of the Nazis. After all, I’m a rabbi and my entire life is dedicated to keeping the stories of Jewish history alive in the hearts and minds of our children.
Rather, it’s because I hate seeing my brothers and sisters being herded like helpless sheep into the cattle-cars and massacred at the whim of pure white evil. And make no mistake about it, Hitler was a white supremacist who detested all minorities — just like the synagogue shooter in Pittsburgh who railed against Muslims, refugees and Mexican immigrants. Nazi Germany perpetrated the ultimate expression of “White Power”; the ideology that launched the entire world into a bloody war was saturated with discrimination against all minorities.
That’s why, after they targeted Jews, the 1935 Nuremberg Laws also stripped black people of their German citizenship and prohibited them from marrying “people of German blood.” Yet in 1933 there were only about 5,000 black people in Germany, most of whom were men who came from German colonies in Africa. Since their small numbers didn’t represent a threat to the Third Reich as the Jews, Romani and Slavs did, the Nazis were unsure of how to treat this “inferior race.” Only 20 black Germans were sent to concentration camps, many of them for being musicians of jazz, which was outlawed because “it was invented by black people.”
For the Asian community, it got more complicated because Hitler didn’t want to offend the Japanese, who were his allies against the Soviets. Originally, the Nazis wanted to pursue a relationship with both China and Japan — China for its large amount of natural resources and Japan for its more modernized military — and Hitler even wrote in his Political Testament that “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own.” But as the war progressed, Hitler eventually settled on allying with Japan. By the end of World War II, all the Chinese communities in Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen were completely decimated.
There were many others who were persecuted, such as homosexuals, people with disabilities, Gypsies, Communists and other “degenerates.” Yet none was targeted with such zeal as the Jews. American historian Lucy Dawidowicz explains in her book The War Against the Jews that it was only the Jewish minority that were rounded up en masse and systematically murdered in cold blood. Hitler even did things that made no sense militarily, like delaying railcars providing supplies to frontline troops in the former Soviet Union so that Jews could be deported by rail from the USSR to concentration camps.
Why this illogical hatred of the Jew?
While Dawidowicz presents her own theory in the book, I’d quote a passage from the Torah that I learned in rabbinical school. The third-century Sifrei Bamidbar states, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says, ‘It is a well-known halacha [Torah law] that Esau hates Jacob.’” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the foremost halachic authority of the past century, understood this to mean that the hatred enemies have for the Jew is not based on any historical or religious motive, but “…just as halacha never changes, so also Esau’s hatred of Jacob never changes.” In other words, hatred doesn’t need a reason. That’s why the Kabbalists say that “evil exists because it is more powerful than good,” for evil often acts in ways that defy logic.
That’s why I hate seeing Holocaust movies, or any movies for that matter that highlight the illogical evil that can lurk in the heart of my fellow human. I go to movies to be inspired and uplifted from my everyday life, not to be reminded of how much worse the human condition can get.
Yet when I was invited to the first American screening of the Holocaust film Sobibor, I went anyway. Why? Because the massacre in Pittsburgh was fresh in my mind, and I remembered how the president of the United States proclaimed after the shooting, “This is an assault on all of us; an assault on humanity….This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. This scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and it cannot be allowed to continue.”
I’ve personally always felt that Jews are the “canary in the coal mine,” and that what has happened to the Jew throughout history is an indicator of what will befall everyone if tyrants and dictators are allowed to roam freely. Since the times of Sarah and Abraham, the Jew was targeted for worshipping differently, dining differently, dressing differently — just for being the “different” kid on the block of civilization. Plus, throughout history, Jews have passionately taught the democratic teachings of the Torah, which promote freedom, equality and sanctity of all human life: Even the “hewer of your wood and the drawer of your water” is not considered inferior, but “you are all standing on this day before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9–10). We are not in a hierarchical order, but rather are united together.
So I felt going to this Holocaust film might give me some way to deal with the rising sentiment of anti-Semitism I see spreading around the world. The film’s main actor and début director, Konstantin Khabensky, seemed to have a similar feeling when he said, “The film, although set in the past, is still relevant now. Humanity hasn’t learned its lessons yet.” Khabensky, Russia’s most popular actor and a respected humanitarian, has won numerous awards as well as being a philanthropist in his spare time. Although he is best known for his roles in Russian blockbusters, he has also appeared in American films such as Black Sea, Wanted, Unfriended and World War Z. He revealed that he chose Sobibor to be his directorial début “because it was time in my professional life to make a statement.”
Phil Friedman, who is a notable U.S. philanthropist, introduced the film by talking about the anti-Semitism displayed in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, and even made some pointed comments about Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “My parents were concentration camp survivors,” Friedman said. “My mother was 16 at Auschwitz. It was too painful to talk about. But Jews have a mission: to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.” Before passing the mic to Khabensky, he lowered his voice as he looked out at the New York socialites gathered at the Manhattan National Arts Club and added, “I left the Soviet Union in 1976, and the idea that there’d ever be a Russian movie about Sobibor was unthinkable.”
Actually, this is not the first time that a movie about the successful 1943 uprising at Sobibor has been made. Escape from Sobibor was a 1987 British television film that also chronicled the revolt led by Soviet officer Alexander Pechersky. (That version of the film even has an 82 percent score on the popular movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.) However, there are a few interesting qualities that make Khabensky’s film different right off the bat:
- This is Russia’s largest-ever Holocaust film and received funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture, which is a big deal. As Professor Olga Gershenson of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in the panel discussion at the screening, “In Russian history, the moment a film raised the Jewish Holocaust, it was banned or destroyed. This film is revolutionary because the Jewish story of the Holocaust is an uncomfortable issue in Russia today.”
- The film became a box-office hit in Russia, grossing over six times its projected box-office receipts — an unprecedented success for its genre, especially for a movie that is notoriously gory. (Plus, Samuel Goldwyn Films just picked up North American rights to the film.)
- The Russian Federation has submitted this film as its official Oscar pick for this year’s Academy Awards, which is historic in its own right.
The content of the film also differs from previous renditions of the film in a couple of ways. First, the film does not shy away from portraying the internal politics in the camp between the Jewish inmates and the “Kapos,” Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police. There’s even a scene where one of the Kapos is practicing the Nazi salute. Secondly, Khabensky (who spoke in Russian when he introduced the film) said the main character of the film “is the death camp itself.”
As I watched, I was reminded of that different take on storytelling as the film flowed as a collage of vignettes loosely bound together by the story arc of the protagonist. That seemed to feed into a less-developed backstory for each character — with only hints in the dialogue as to where they came from or what they had been through before Sobibor — and instead opened up the space for Khabensky to focus on the stunning visual cinematography. The lighting and high-definition quality often gave the sky and fog in Sobibor an ethereal feel.
Truth be told, I had to walk out a few times, but that was more due to my religious sensitivities regarding the nudity in the film than to the gore. On the contrary, the Ocean’s Eleven-style planning of the revolt and then the action-packed execution of the prisoner uprising have that quality rarely seen in a Holocaust film: Jews defeating their oppressors. As Quentin Tarantino put it when he made Inglourious Basterds, “Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims.We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews.” In Sobibor, we get a similar emotionally uncomplicated, action-packed story of the Holocaust inmates’ winning — only this one is based on a true story. The fact that Holocaust survivors were in attendance during the screening only underscored how “real” this film was.
Also among the audience was the extended family of Karoline Cohn of Frankfurt, Germany, who was killed in Sobibor at age 14. The family was contacted about a year ago, when archeologists found Karoline’s pendant buried at the camp. Her closest living relative, Barry Eisemann, recounted that receiving the news in a phone call from his daughter, Mandy, left him speechless. The family cousins say the discovery has brought them together as a family, since they did not know about Karoline or about each other. One member of the family said she did not even know that she had Jewish roots.
But it wasn’t just Jews who attended the screening: The couple sitting next to me were Asian immigrants from Kyrgyzstan who were big fans of “Russia’s George Clooney,” Konstantin Khabensky. Plus, the wife had a grandfather who was a Russian minister, and so was intrigued by the story of a Red Army veteran, Soviet Jewish officer Alexander Pechersky, who freed his people from the Nazis.
In 2016, Pechersky was posthumously honored with the Order of Bravery by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The heroes of Sobibor also received official recognition, with trains and streets named after them and their story added to history books. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about Sobibor’s dual legacy during a speech in January 2018, when he appeared with Putin at a commemoration ceremony for the Sobibor Uprising at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
I think this was the message I took away from the film: Great evil challenges us to be great human beings. And the story of Sobibor is a symbol of the resilience of the human spirit for all future generations. The last few moments of the film seem to express this clearly, as Khabensky shows us the last remaining prisoner, a young teenage boy, escape Sobibor. As the music builds and the video transitions to slow motion, you can see that the boy is desperately hobbling on an injured foot. Then the music fades to almost silence; all you can hear is his deep breathing as the camera pans behind him and you see him running off into a wide, expansive meadow to freedom.
Although I would have considered it an abomination to term a Holocaust film a “feel good” movie, I couldn’t help but feel comforted as I watched that young boy escape hell on earth. While it’s true that white supremacism and anti-Semitism reigned supreme during World War II, it is those few who survived who model for us that when we are confronted with evil and horror, we too can reach deep inside our souls, fight back and break free to a better tomorrow.
Rabbi Levi Welton is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and a United States Air Force captain.