Auschwitz was about the Jews

(RNS) I might have seen Anne Frank’s body.

That was what went through my mind as I watched the new HBO documentary “Night Will Fall.” In 1945, as Allied soldiers liberated the concentration camps, combat and newsreel cameramen recorded the scenes from hell that they encountered. Several scenes showed piles of bodies in Bergen-Belsen — the footage filmed days after Anne Frank died.

The cameramen worked under the supervision of British producer Sidney Bernstein, and the footage was supposed to have become a film, “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” Its intended purpose: to show the German people what had been done in their name.

Who was supposed to have directed the film? None other than Bernstein’s friend Alfred Hitchcock. But the project was never completed. It remained in the can, though the prosecutors at Nuremberg used its images as evidence in the war crimes trials.

“Night Will Fall” is simply devastating. There is no way that the eye can “un-see” what it portrays. Nor can the mind “un-know” why Allied cameramen filmed their visual records in the first place — prophetically, to bear witness against the day when people would come to deny that it ever happened.

Except for one thing.

“Night Will Fall” spoke of “prisoners,” “inmates,” “victims.” But who were they?

It takes an hour for “Night Will Fall” to get around to uttering the word “Jew” — and when it comes, it is from the lips of a Jewish survivor.

It reminded me of another film about the Holocaust, and its title also contains the suggestive word “night.” It was the film that introduced a generation of Jewish kids to the horrors of the Holocaust. It was “Night and Fog,” made in 1955 — 10 years after the end of the Holocaust — by the famous French director Alain Resnais. Francois Truffaut said that “Night and Fog” was the greatest film ever made.

Except for one thing. “Night and Fog” pronounces the word “Jew” only once — during a list of murdered victims: “Stern, a Jewish student from Amsterdam.”

Jan. 25 was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This is only the first 70th anniversary in 2015. There will be others — other liberations, the end of World War II itself.

Some question whether American Judaism is still overly focused on the morbidity of the Holocaust, whether our programmatic and educational agenda is still too Holocaust-centric.

I have often raised that question myself, but not now.

Not when a new, groundbreaking documentary about the Holocaust can barely say the word “Jew.”

Oh, yes, we rush to say, others died in the camps as well: Poles (certainly in Auschwitz, which accounts for its centrality in Polish historical memory), Gypsies, gays, labor leaders, Jehovah’s Witnesses, dissenters. In fact, the Holocaust did not “begin” with the Jews. The Nazis auditioned their mechanisms of death on the handicapped. As in Dante’s Inferno, there were many circles of hell.

But can we please get this right? Yes, other people died in the camps. But that was because there were camps in the first place. Almost no other group carries within its soul this massive wound, a hole in our history that will never heal, a hole in our world that will always be raw and gaping.

“Night Will Fall” made me angry — not only at what I heard, but at what I didn’t hear. This was about the Jews. You might choose to be willfully ignorant about that. You might want to make the Jews less-than-central in an imagined Holocaust narrative. You might want to forget that, as historian Lucy Dawidowicz said, this was “the war against the Jews” (and against Judaism).

But Jews aren’t forgetting it. Not when a nuclear-ambitious Iran calls for a repetition of our horror. And not when European hipsters cynically compare Israel to the Nazis — as if to say that they are sick and tired of hearing what their grandparents did — or failed to do.

I implore you: Read “God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft (who appears in “Night Will Fall”), prologue by Elie Wiesel.

The volume contains the reflections of such luminaries as Yossi Klein Halevi, Thane Rosenbaum, Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi Judith Schindler — 90 teachers, spiritual leaders, authors and media personalities. They struggle with how they have found a place in the world, what it means to be Jewish after the Shoah, what it means to have faith, what it means to speak of God. Each essay is a small gem. Each author lives with ghosts — and, as Thane Rosenbaum once put it, the presence of “second hand smoke.”

It’s a smoke that belongs — not solely, but uniquely — to the Jews. 

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