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From Yoni’s Desk: Holocaust remembrance and the movies

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A still from Schindler's List (Universal Pictures photo)

Schindler’s List is back in theatres 25 years after its release. In the quarter-century since it debuted, various big-budget, award-winning films – Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, Downfall and Defiance, to name a few – have explored virtually every angle of the Holocaust. And yet, there is little question that Steven Spielberg’s opus did more, and continues to do more, for Holocaust remembrance than those other movies.

The film has aged well, perhaps because it was timeless to begin with. New for the re-release, however, is an introduction by Spielberg himself, in which he cites current affairs as providing “newfound urgency” for the film’s underlying message. That was probably unnecessary, and will no doubt irk some viewers, but it’s not as though Schindler’s List shied away from the political in the first place – just consider the film’s closing musical number, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). As for the oft-lobbed criticism that the film idolizes a non-Jewish hero and offers a “happy” ending – “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about 600 people who don’t,” Stanley Kubrick once quipped – well, that’s Hollywood for you.

Equally important was the corresponding light Spielberg shone on Holocaust survivors through the USC Shoah Foundation, which he founded in 1994. I remember the day a film crew and interviewer arrived to record my grandfather’s testimonial. He had spoken fairly openly about his experiences in Poland and the camps, but when the camera turned on, there was a different kind of energy. It was as though Spielberg’s imprint brought a new vitality to survivors’ memories.

READ: FROM YONI’S DESK: AN AWAKENING IN JERUSALEM’S OLD CITY

For me, though, Schindler’s List doesn’t rank as the most formative film about the Holocaust. That distinction belongs to The Wave, a made-for-TV movie that’s less than half as long, stars no one you’ve heard of and was virtually ignored by critics.

I first saw The Wave – released in 1981 as part of the American Broadcasting Company’s “Theatre for Young Americans” series – at Jewish summer camp. (It’s now freely available on YouTube.) Based on California high school teacher Ron Jones’ “Third Wave” experiment of the mid-1960s, the film is set in an American school where a history teacher struggles to explain to his students how ordinary people fell in line behind Hitler. “How could the Germans sit back while the Nazis slaughtered people all around them and say that they didn’t know anything about it?” a student asks one day.

Her teacher, Mr. Ross, decides the best way to answer that question is to show it in action. He starts a class club, dubbed the Wave, based on the motto “strength through discipline, strength through community,” and complete with a collective hand salute. It begins innocuously enough with a lesson on proper posture, and the students quickly experience the allure of belonging to something bigger than themselves. But soon, the Wave takes a dark turn, leading to exclusionary policies and violence. The final scene, in which Mr. Ross reveals the true intention of his project, is admittedly a bit hokey, but it effectively brings home the point: it can happen again – and fairly easily, at that.

Not bad for a movie with a reported budget amounting to roughly one per cent of the US$25 million Spielberg had to work with.