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Monthly Archives: May 2014

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Source: Jack Schwartz, The Daily Beast, May 12, 2014

Both Ida and The German Doctor take place long after World War II, but the rancid legacy of the Nazis continues to stain the lives of  survivors good and bad.

Although the horrors of the Holocaust are never depicted in two movies currently showing in New York, their reverberations are all the more chilling for the spectral presence that haunts both works. On the surface Ida and The German Doctor have little in common except that they spring from the aftermath of the destruction of Europe’s Jews and take place in the early ’60s. Ida is a mystery of sorts, tethered to a road journey in a bleak postwar Poland. By contrast, The German Doctor is a thriller that becomes a horror story amid the breathtaking beauty of the Andes foothills.

In fact, they are linked by a taut common thread: innocence encountering the face of evil. In Ida, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a devout novice about to take her vows as a nun in the Polish convent where she has spent her life. Obliged to visit the aunt who has never been to see her, Anna learns she is a Jew, Ida Lebenstein, and that her parents were probably killed during the German occupation. Together with her aunt, Wanda—a hardened Communist Party apparatchik fallen into a self-lacerating life of men and alcohol—Anna / Ida sets off on a quest to learn her parents’ fate. She will unearth more than their remains in a quest that becomes a journey of baleful discovery and painful self-discovery.

Lilith (Florencia Bado), the protagonist of The German Doctor, is a 12-year-old girl on the cusp of pubescence who appears to live an idyllic existence in an Alpine-style hotel renovated by her parents in Bariloche, Argentina. Although sprightly, Lilith is unusually small for her age, and thereby the butt of ridicule from her classmates. But this is no ordinary school. Rather, it is an academy indoctrinating the children of a local German colony, an outpost of unreconstructed Nazis serving as a haven for escaped war criminals. Enter the title character, who takes an unusual interest in Lilith’s growth with special hormone injections that he dispenses through her vulnerable mother Eva (Natalia  Oreiro) behind the back of her father, Enzo (Diego Peretti), a decent man who catches the whiff of brimstone. Herr Doktor, of course, is the notorious Josef Mengele of Auschwitz, on the run from justice. After he insinuates himself into the lives of Lilith’s family as a house guest, his seeming benevolence devolves into a vortex of menace.

Both movies have a fairy tale quality to them, or rather the nightmare aspects of a children’s story. Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl), who meets Lilith’s family at a desolate gas station in Patagonia on their way to refurbish their inn, appears at first as an almost magical benefactor, dispensing medical advice to Lilith’s pregnant mother, offering a cure for the girl’s diminutive size as well as a lucrative business proposition to her father, transforming his hobby of crafting mechanical dolls into a thriving enterprise.

Ida also uses the conventions of a dark fairy tale: discovering one’s true identity, negotiating a hostile kingdom, overcoming the snares of the wicked. The denouement itself appropriates the theme of the huntsman who spares the child he is obliged to kill. Anna / Ida traverses a realm over which a spell has been cast. The landscape has been bleached of existence. It is a vast, vacant space, emptied of life, of hope and, implicitly, of its Jews. The silence is palpable. The convent that Anna leaves as she embarks for the city and her aunt could just as well be Kafka’s castle. The road leading out and the view from the bus evokes a no-man’s land of nothingness, a vale that’s been cleansed in acid.

Anna’s aunt Wanda, (Agata Kulesza) embittered by her travails during the war, has served the Communist regime as a hanging judge, taking grim solace in meting out justice to her former persecutors. But the pleasures of vengeance and hedonism prove a dead end for Wanda. However, touched by the simple faith and purity of Ida, who bears a spiritual resemblance to her mother, Wanda agrees to take the young woman on a journey to the rural village where the Lebensteins lived.

Thus begins an odyssey though a sterile expanse, with Wanda serving as a caustic Virgil to Ida’s Dante as they descend into a netherworld not only shriven of its Jews, but in denial that they ever existed. The roads are forlorn, the landscape barren, the forests menacing. The family now living in the ramshackle house that Ida’s parents had owned deny that Jews ever lived there. Undeterred, Wanda and Ida press on along a road of hostility and dissimulation that will lead to the harrowing end of their quest.

Each scene in this riveting film is a postcard from hell. In dialogue as sparse as the countryside, the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, reminds us of the paradox that some of the very Poles who saved Jews may also have been their murderers. And what came after—pogroms such as the postwar massacre in Kielce—was prompted as much by fear of returning property to the survivors as inherent Jew hatred. It is this mindless atrocity, driven by both avarice and animosity, that is at play in the film. The irony that Anna must come to terms with is the realization that the message of the loving Jesus she embraces has been distorted by church ideologues to lay the groundwork for the killing fields. Anna’s veil of innocence has been lifted, leading to a crisis of faith. But her decision will now be an informed one.

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There is no such complexity about The German Doctor. Lilith and her family are in the hands of radical evil. Mengele has neither doubts about his hideous purpose or scruples about his heinous past. His only regret is that defeat forced him to flee in the midst of his labors. But he is determined that his work should continue. What is so compelling about this film is director Lucia Puenzo’s ability to evoke the horrors of the death camps through suggestion, turning the mundane into the ominous.

In measuring Lilith, ostensibly for the purposes of growth, Mengele utilizes the cranial devices used by the Nazis in their pseudoscience of phrenology to distinguish undermenschen from Aryans. The anatomical sketches in his notebooks evoke the human beings upon whom he performed his grisly experiments, and indeed, Lilith’s family serves as nothing more than specimens for his own lab work. Most frightening are the mechanical dolls whose production Mengele fosters. With their torn limbs, disembodied parts and vacant faces they evoke the dead of the Nazi genocide and the special horrors that Mengele inflicted on his victims. The ovens in which the porcelain figures are baked invoke their own meaning, as do the hair added to the dolls, applied by women eerily reminiscent of the Jewish slave laborers in SS factories. But even this is surpassed when Eva delivers two infants, affording Mengele the opportunity to resume his horrendous research on twins at Auschwitz.

Yet the real moral horror is that Mengele is not alone, but rather venerated by the German colony at Bariloche, who go to great lengths to protect him from his Israeli pursuers. Their vista of the snow-capped Andes suggests the Bavarian alps and the view from Berchtesgaden. The Fuhrer may have fallen but his ideology persists in this redoubt of Nazism, untroubled by a sympathetic Argentine regime. Probably the most troubling thing about these two movies is that the animosity and denial that become characters themselves are still with us after 50 years. -Jack Schwartz

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Source: David Lewis and Emad Naseraldin, BBC News, April 29, 2014

Who is too young to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust? A new law in Israel means kindergarten children will be taught about the Nazi genocide for the first time, triggering an acerbic response on social media.

On Monday at 10am sirens blared out across Israel, as they do every year, marking the start of remembrance for those who perished in the holocaust. Each Holocaust Memorial Day, for two solemn minutes, businesses grind to a halt and motorists stop their cars on normally busy streets to silently stand by their vehicles and remember the dead. The day is undoubtedly sacrosanct but the way the holocaust is explained to Israeli children is changing. And the change is controversial. On Thursday the Ministry of Education announced that the holocaust, for the first time, would now be taught to five year olds at kindergarten.

In response, the hashtag “teaching Holocaust in kindergarten” began trending on Twitter. Most of the tweets opposed the new policy, often with pointed and black humour. One shocking tweet features a picture of a lego model from Polish artist Zbigniew Libera of what looks like skeletal figures marching towards some grey barracks. The caption reads: “Who likes Lego? Today we will be building a concentration camp”. Another speaks of a bleak imagined dialogue in the classroom. “Teacher: Danny, what did you build using the cubes? Danny: It’s a neighbourhood. Teacher: From now on it’s a ghetto”.

Beyond Twitter, Israeli parents are divided about the best way to teach children about the horrors of the past. Rona Avissar, a mother of two young children from Jerusalem, told BBC Trending that by the time they start school, children already have an idea of the horrors of World War Two. “Kids hear the memorial sirens like everyone else so it is no problem to explain,” she says. “I told my son about it before he started school. It is not such a huge problem.” But Rona’s husband Rafi disagrees: “I think it will be better if it is taught at an older age,” he says. “We can talk generally about the war but they are too young to hear about gas chambers!”

It is undoubtedly a sensitive subject but Dr Gila Matzliah Liberman at the Israeli Ministry of Education told BBC Trending that the policy was enacted in part because many children question their teachers about it. Israelis have nothing to fear, she says. “We are going to teach children the broad concepts of the holocaust, not, what we in Israel call the Nazi ‘Industry of Death’. Mothers and father have no reason to be anxious about this new ruling.”

 

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Source: Alex Bozikovic, National Holocaust Monument design unveiled, The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2014

The design of Canada’s National Holocaust Monument will be led by the architect associated with New York’s Ground Zero and Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

Daniel Libeskind has won a design competition for the Ottawa project, in combination with photographer Edward Burtynsky, landscape architect Claude Cormier and museum planners Lord Cultural Resources.

The decision was announced Monday in Ottawa by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover at the site of the monument – a field across from the Canadian War Museum, on the LeBreton Flats about a kilometre from Parliament Hill.

The federal government announced the monument in April, 2013, as a permanent place to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and honour Canadian survivors; Canada currently has no such site. It will be overseen by the National Capital Commission. A fundraising council is aiming to raise $4.5-million for the construction of the project, with matching funds from the government of up to $4-million.

The plans for the project combine architecture, landscape and art. Visitors will take a “journey through a star” – a concrete structure that, viewed from above, resembles a six-pointed star, the symbol of Jewish identity. It consists of several triangular spaces; according to a statement from the design team, these are meant to evoke the triangular badges used to classify prisoners in concentration camps, including Jews, Roma, gay people, and mentally and physically disabled people.

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“It’s very much designed as an experience – it’s not a monument that you just look at from afar, but it draws you in as a visitor,” explains Dov Goldstein, a principal consultant at Lord and the project’s coordinator.

Within the monument, original photographs by Burtynsky of Holocaust sites, death camps, killing fields and forests, will be embedded into concrete. And a landscape surrounding the monument, designed by Cormier, will include a forest of coniferous trees growing out of rocky ground, a nod to the forests of eastern Europe and a living symbol of how survivors and their children have changed Canada.

The project will be a significant piece of architecture and urban design in Ottawa, and notable because of the international reputations of all four players – especially Libeskind (who was born in Poland but lives in the U.S.) and the Canadian Burtynsky. They were brought together by Lord Cultural Resources, which organized what Goldstein calls “a multidisciplinary and multicultural team” for an integrated process including historian Doris Bergen.

Goldstein praises Libeskind’s “brilliant architecture and his sensitivity to the subject matter.” (Libeskind’s parents both survived the Holocaust and each lost most of their extended families.) His aesthetic touch is clear. The proposal’s complex structure employs Libeskind’s trademark crystalline forms, which first appeared on his Jewish Museum in Berlin, completed in 1999. That museum building is a zigzagging and jagged form that is notoriously difficult to program. It employed architectural symbolism for the fate of Europe’s Jews and other victims of the Holocaust: It is a series of shards, pierced by voids, and visitors end up in a “Garden of Exile.”

Libeskind is also closely associated with the most significant memorial project of the past 20 years – Ground Zero in Manhattan, where he designed a master plan for the site of the 9/11 attacks that was capped with a 1776-foot-tall “Freedom Tower.” Libeskind saw these ideas embraced by the public in New York, but his role in the redevelopment project was reduced dramatically.

Libeskind’s main project in Canada so far has been the Royal Ontario Museum’s Lee-Chin Crystal in Toronto, which employs similar forms – there, according to Libeskind, meant to evoke the museum’s collection of geological crystals.

The Ottawa monument is largely designed now, and will start construction this summer and with a planned opening in the fall of 2015. “It’s an important monument for all Canadians to understand about tolerance about human rights, racial hatred, bigotry, and anti-Semitism, and I think it’s an important signifier to remind Canadians of all that,” Goldstein says. “But it’s also a monument to the survivors – and it’s important for Jews and for all Canadians for that reason, to commemorate, remember and to recognize human dignity.”