In the last month, I have had three experiences with Holocaust-based stories (a movie, a book and a play) that have deeply affected me. In all three cases, it was serendipitous that I came upon these stories. I did not seek them out; they found me. The fact that I was presented with three different stories within a few weeks, all dealing on a very personal level with the Holocaust, is beyond coincidence for me. Whatever the psychic cause, it gave me, someone who was born after World War II, and is not Jewish, the chance to understand better one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
I was on a cruise last month, and one evening, rather than attend the on-board entertainment in the ship’s theater, my wife and I just relaxed in our cabin and turned on the television. The ship had only a couple of English-language entertainment channels. But one of them was playing the 1997 film, “Life in Beautiful,” starring Roberto Benigni. It’s a touching story about a Jewish man who shields his son from the horrors of Nazi oppression, even when he and the child are sent to a concentration camp. I had not seen the film when it first came out more than a decade ago, and I was moved by its simple themes of love and survival in perilous times.
Later in the cruise, I was looking for a book to read, and I opened my Kindle app and found Jodi Picoult’s, “The Storyteller.” When I started reading it, I had no idea about its content. I bought it simply on the basis of the fact that I love Picoult’s books and have read them all. I soon found out that the book was about a young woman who has a grandmother who is a Holocaust survivor. The young woman is a baker, and one of her customers is an old man who used to teach German in the local high school. The man reveals to the young woman that he was a Nazi during World War II. It turns out that the man was an officer in the very camp where the young woman’s grandmother was a prisoner. The old man asks the young woman to kill him because he can no longer live with the guilt and wants to be killed by a Jew (even though the young woman is an atheist). The book explores the ethical dilemma the young woman faces. It does that by spending most of the book telling the grandmother’s story of life under Nazi domination. Picoult also tells the story of the old Nazi, and in doing so, makes us understand how good people can do terrible deeds. The book made the Holocaust more real and understandable to me than anything I have ever read.
Finally, just a week after we returned home from our cruise, we went to see a play called, “A Shayna Maidel,” performed by the Bergen County Players in Oradell, New Jersey. We have season tickets, and so again, I went to the play with no knowledge of what the subject matter was going to be. I knew it probably had a Jewish theme, but I had no idea what that might be.
It turned out that this play written by Barbara Lebow tells the story of a Jewish family in 1946 in New York. The family, living in Poland, was split up before the war with the father and younger daughter coming to America while the mother and older daughter stayed behind because the older daughter had scarlet fever at the time and could not travel. By the time arrangements could be made for the mother and older daughter to come to America, the Nazis had invaded Poland and they could not get out.
The play revolves around what happens when the older daughter finally comes to America in 1946 after having survived the Holocaust. I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists, but suffice it to say that this is a very emotional play that brought me to tears several times. I recommend seeking out, “A Shayna Maidel,” particularly if you are not Jewish, because it shows how Jewish families living in the United States were affected in the aftermath of the Nazi horror.