Hanukkah continues this week, a celebration of religious freedom that recalls a victory by Jewish people, preserving authentic Jewish tradition, thousands of years ago. (Without Hanukkah, Christians are reminded, there would have been no historical context for the later arrival of the rabbi named Jesus.)
There is an urgency to Hanukkah—a real, razor-edged drama to the ancient story—that all too often tends to get softened in American culture. It’s easy to forget the life-and-death importance of defending religious freedom if, as non-Jews, we think of the season as merely a beautiful “festival of lights.”
I’ve even heard the season referred to as “a triumph of spirituality over materialism,” which may be true in a general sense, I suppose—but ignores the sharp teeth within the Hanukkah remembrance.
That is why it seems so appropriate that Menemsha Films is bringing out a new DVD edition of “As Seen Through These Eyes” right now. If you follow these issues, you may have heard of this documentary film, which has been touring film festivals from Warsaw to Winnipeg.
The film explores artistic expressions—sketches, paintings and music—made by daring Jewish prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. In a few cases, Jewish slave laborers were forced to produce art by their Nazi captors. Generally, though, the arts featured in this film were made at the risk of death.
As Maya Angelou begins the film’s narration with, “I know why the caged bird sings,” we see the famous photograph of the railroad tracks heading into the gates of Auschwitz.
Then, the screen morphs into the black and white sketch (shown at the top today) made by Simon Wiesenthal himself in 1945 of this monstrous, industrial-scale crime against humanity.
Still, you may be asking: Why another Holocaust film?
Both the New York Times and the Village Voice already have criticized this film essentially for trying to do too much in less than an hour and a half. Mainly, those reviewers criticized the film for opening with brief references in Maya Angelou’s narration to Hitler’s own frustrated career as an artist. I agree with those reviewers’ criticism of those opening lines, even though I understand the point the filmmakers are attempting to make. The documentary is trying to say: The Jewish artistic efforts in these camps represents a brave defiance of the chief architect of the Holocaust. Their art endures, while Hitler’s second-rate art spiraled into destructive ashes.
That’s an unfortunate attempt at drawing a redeeming moral to this story. I agree with Holocaust historians who begin any consideration of the Shoah by insisting: No good came out of the Holocaust. Don’t try to draw redeeming lessons. The only response is to remember, so that it will never happen again. All I can say about the controversial opening lines is: They’re over very quickly and then we’re into the heart of the film.
Overall, I recommend this 90-minute plea to remember the sharp teeth of the Holocaust—as seen through the sketches and paintings made by prisoners themselves.
The film clips of Simon Wiesenthal explaining the 30 to 40 sketches he made in the camps are indelible. In my decades as a journalist, often writing about the Holocaust, I can’t recall ever having seen these clips of Wiesenthal—or the full range of sketches he made.
If you’re Jewish, I certainly don’t need to tell you anything about Hanukkah or the Holocaust.
But if you’re among the more than 90 percent of Americans who aren’t Jewish, it’s worth remembering that the little sparks of candlelight we see dancing in the windows of Jewish neighbors make a far more urgent affirmation about religious freedom than we may realize while enjoying the beauty.
Having watched this film several times, I keep thinking about a concluding remark by painter Samuel Bak (a detail of his self portrait is at right). He says:
“My art has been very, very profoundly marked by the Shoah, by having experienced not only survival of the Shoah, but having experienced living among survivors of the Shoah for so many years now. That boy in my self portrait is the million Jewish children who were killed. That boy is a sort of self portrait in as far as I carry in me today, as a survivor, the memory of all those million children who did not survive.”
If you see the Hanukkah lights in a neighbor’s window, stop and ponder that thousands of years ago, men and women were engaged in a life-and-death struggle to preserve traditions of the Jewish people. Their survival and victory is the memory preserved in those lights.
Religious freedom is more than a beautiful feeling at the holidays. It’s a vital commitment to memory and freedom—to this day.
TO READ MORE: Here is a link to the film’s Web site, which provides a lot more background on the film and includes news about various theatrical showings, as well. (If you live in the Miami area, a showing is coming on Friday December 18 in a theater at the University of Miami, for example.)
TO BUY A COPY OF THE DVD: CLICK HERE to order a copy of “As Seen Through These Eyes” via Amazon.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)