The Charles Marsh interview on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ‘Strange Glory’

From Left to Right and all around the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is everybody’s hero. This courageous young pastor stood up to the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler and finally was hanged in a prison camp before the war ended. Nelson Mandela talked about the inspiration he drew from Bonhoeffer’s example. But Bonhoeffer supporters cross the entire political spectrum. In American right-wing politics, Glenn Beck considers Bonhoeffer such a hero that his online store sells wall-size posters of the bespectacled pastor’s face over Bonhoeffer’s famous lines:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Glenn Beck tells his listeners: “This is a guy you should teach your children about!” And then Beck engages in what commentators from Left and Right like to do when they speak, write or preach about Bonhoeffer: hold him up as a mirror for each side’s approach to courageous defiance of authorities.

Within several years of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, his books began appearing in English. However, according to Google tracking of trends in American publishing, Bonhoeffer did not become hugely popular in American culture until the mid 1960s. His most widely read book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937 in German, struck a chord 30 years later among young Americans working for change in the turbulent 1960s. In the book, Bonhoeffer tells readers: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

When Glenn Beck talks about his hero, Beck scoffs at activists who claim that Bonhoeffer was “a social justice guy.” Beck says: Not so! Beck recommends a different biography of his hero: the 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, written by the journalist Eric Mataxas and published the conservative Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson. That book does the best job of emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s evangelical purity, Beck argues.

Today, ReadTheSpirit online magazine recommends Charles Marsh’s new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Knopf. Marsh compellingly tells the story of Bonhoeffer’s deep Christian faith, but he also more clearly describes Bonhoeffer’s life-changing experiences while studying for a year in the U.S. Most crucial to his transformation was his regular attendance at worship in a famous black church in Harlem—and a road trip Bonhoeffer took through the American South around the time of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trial.

Once Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after his year in the U.S., Mataxas’s book makes it seem obvious that any Christian leader with a spine would oppose Hitler from the beginning. From the first page of his biography, Mataxas describes Hitler and his “legion of demons” as ushering in an “evilly contorted and frightening” era in Europe. Marsh’s book, in contrast, explains how very difficult it was for religious leaders to understand the extreme danger during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, Bonhoeffer comes across as a much more remarkable prophet in Marsh’s book for clearly seeing the danger in the Nazis’ first tentative steps that would lead to the Final Solution.

ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …


DAVID: Most Americans recognize Bonhoeffer’s name, but most of us don’t know a lot about him. Recently, when I’ve visited various groups, I’ve asked people what they know about him. Usually people say: He defied Hitler and the Nazis killed him. Some of them know that he could have moved away from Germany, but made a conscious decision to stay. In general, people don’t know much more than that. I think lots of our readers will find your book absolutely fascinating.

CHARLES: Well, those details you just mentioned are true. That’s what makes Bonhoeffer’s life so compelling, but it’s also true that the facts of his life create misunderstandings. He was a theologian on a restless journey.

DAVID: In reading about his childhood, I was reminded of other famous religious figures who began life with great privilege—St. Francis, the Buddha and others—but later gave that up to follow their vocations. Your book describes Bonhoeffer’s childhood as living in the lap of luxury and opportunity. His family lived in Berlin’s well-to-do Grunewald district, since the late 1800s an area known for its big homes and elite families.

CHARLES: He was a golden child, raised in privilege and yet, as an adult, very early in the 1930s he was able to see with great clarity and prescience that the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany constituted the emergence of what Bonhoeffer would call the great masquerade of evil.

He was restless in his studies, his travels and his conversations. At one point, his long journey led him to reach out to Gandhi in correspondence to see what Gandhi advised about creating intentional communities for peacemaking.

He was a pacifist, but later he also was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler as he served as a pastor and theologian to the resistance. He was clear, at that point, that killing the madman was a responsible course of action, his principled pacifism notwithstanding.

Just as you’re describing it, I am fascinated to find so many people interested in Bonhoeffer: evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, believers, nonbelievers, humanists, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all find inspiration in aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In this book, what I’ve tried to do is invite readers along on this journey of Bonhoeffer’s life, trying to show how vivid and complex a person he was.

DAVID: Some of the other books on the market portray him as a pure saint from start to finish, almost glowing on every page.

CHARLES: In my book, I wanted to move beyond that kind of hagiography to respectfully probe his character, which had so many complex dimensions.


DAVID: My advice to readers is to enjoy the opening chapters about Bonhoeffer’s youth—then, I think most of our readers will really start turning pages in the middle section of this biography. I read your section on Bonhoeffer’s year in America twice. He shows up in New York City to study at Union seminary in 1930 under the great Reinhold Niebuhr, who had just arrived from Detroit two years earlier. Niebuhr was teaching “practical theology,” based on his experiences in the urban crucible that was the city of Detroit. Niebuhr’s church had been in what is today called Detroit’s New Center area.

They collided in New York—Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer. As a hot young German scholar, Bonhoeffer thought Niebuhr was a theological lightweight, compared with the world of German academia.

CHARLES: That’s true. He arrived as a straight arrow academic with no sense at all that America had lessons he might want to learn. Initially, he was quite taken aback by the way theology and ethics were taught at Union Theological Seminary. He once asked Reinhold Niebuhr after one of his lectures, “Is this a seminary or a training center for social activists?”

DAVID: But your book shows that Niebuhr and Union and New York City had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s life. Among other things, Bonhoeffer began attending the church led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who boasted the largest Protestant congregation in the U.S. with 10,000 members: the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

He became angry over the infamous Scottsboro case in which a group of young black men were framed on charges of raping white women on a train. Bonhoeffer called it a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” He got back to Germany and summarized what he had seen of white Americans’ treatment of black citizens as so fundamentally unjust that it was “darker than a thousand midnights.” As Bonhoeffer described this evil system, he mentioned American policies on “blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations and land seizures.”

CHARLES: His travels abroad gave him a different sense of his own country’s problems. I also point out that Bonhoeffer met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in New York. Remember that the ACLU formed partly over concerns with deportations and abuses heaped on resident aliens in this country. Bonhoeffer wrote to his older brother to say, “We will need an ACLU in Germany.”

When I was reading Bonhoeffer’s papers in the archives, I was amazed at how thick his files were from his year in America and how attentive he was to groups like the ACLU that focused on human rights and social dislocation. Bonhoeffer read news reports on lynching, on homelessness. He looked into the whole constellation of human rights organizations while he was there at Union.

DAVID: He didn’t spend much time in the South, but he did make an epic road trip into Mexico and, as you point out, he did pass through the South on his return to New York. So, in addition to reading news reports about conditions there in New York City, he did see conditions in the South for himself.

CHARLES: Bonhoeffer always had a distrust of authority and his experience in the United States showed him some of the dangers that could arise when authority over minority groups was abused.


DAVID: This is the point in your book when I couldn’t stop reading. Bonhoeffer goes back to Germany in 1931 and he begins studying under the famous theologian Karl Barth. He’s right back in the center of the world’s most elite theological circle of scholars—people far more concerned about academia than about the real lives of ordinary people.

Then, in early 1933, Hitler is rising in power and places the “Aryan paragraph” into Germany’s civil service laws. Very soon, this limited ban on Jewish employees is extended to schools. By June 1933, it’s extended to ban intermarriage. But, this is two years before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws appear and, suddenly, everybody is seeing these frightening posters about racial purity. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, wouldn’t happen until late 1938.

Here’s what I found fascinating: Immediately in early 1933, Bonhoeffer saw the danger and knew how to respond. You document in your book that his great hero, Karl Barth, was willing to simply ignore the Nazis as a bunch of brutes and idiots. But not Bonhoeffer. You argue that his year in America and his passionate faith let him see what was going to happen years before others in Germany could guess at the danger that lay ahead. In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer was helping to draft a manifesto, the Bethel Confession, that warned of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

CHARLES: It is true that there were dramatic differences between the two men. Bonhoeffer was part of the original drafting of the Bethel Confession. (It went through several versions and Bonhoeffer had left for England by the time the final version was published.)

DAVID: Your book points out that Barth refused to openly defy Hitler until 1934, a year later, and when Barth did issue his declaration it was all about the rights of the churches to be free of Nazi control. Barth was mainly concerned about confronting Hitler’s God-like status and Hitler’s authority over Germany’s churches. Bonhoeffer’s early work in 1933 made statements about the Christian defense of Jewish communities that the world wouldn’t see again until Vatican II passed Nostra Aetate in 1965. Talk about a visionary prophet!

CHARLES: That’s right and that’s such an interesting part of this story. Everyone who knows about this era wants to celebrate Barth’s declaration in 1934, but in many ways Bonhoeffer’s earlier work on the Bethel Confession was the more important document.

DAVID: I keep asking myself how he was able to see the larger issue—the Christian need to oppose the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews—so much earlier than Barth or other leaders.

CHARLES: Remember that Bonhoeffer had grown up in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin that was also populated with Jewish families. His family socialized with prominent Jewish families, so this awareness was part of his upbringing.

Later, after several versions of the Bethel Confession had been revised already and Bonhoeffer was no longer in Germany, the final draft was worked on by two theologians who would become pillars of the Nazi church. They deleted references to the significance of the “Aryan paragraph.”

But you are right in mentioning Nostra Aetate. Bonhoeffer in 1933 was wanting the statement to clearly say that Jesus, who Christians follow, was a Jew. And he wanted to point out all that should follow from that.

DAVID: As I read that section, I thought: The world wouldn’t see this kind of affirmation for another 30 years and, in between, Hitler would carry out the Final Solution. So tragic that other Christian leaders didn’t listen to Bonhoeffer in 1933.


CHARLES: Ultimately, just as you have been describing this, I hope that readers will find this book a compelling narrative of an amazing life. I hope that I can bring readers into this beautiful and yet heartbreaking world—Bonhoeffer’s world. And, I hope that readers will come away with a different way of understanding the life of faith among those we consider our saints today.

I hope that Bonhoeffer emerges not just as a hero from another century, but as a Christian for our time, as well. The power of his life crosses so many boundaries, bridges so many divides and illuminates so many conflicts and passions—that I believe his life story becomes an extraordinary gift to us today.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by point out that this kind of connection between faith and action is an ongoing part of your professional life at the University of Viriginia. You are part of the Lived Theology project. You’re also part of the really remarkable archive called the Civil Rights Digital Archive, which contains lots of stories about largely unknown figures in the American civil rights era, including links to original documents.

CHARLES: The Project on Lived Theology began as a way to put bricks and mortar on Bonhoeffer’s own response to what he found in America in 1930 and 1931. These were his concerns. When he arrived at Union seminary, Bonhoeffer was shocked to see his professors leading student out of the classroom to take part in lived theology in the throes of the Great Depression. He was amazed to hear students asking: What are faith’s social obligations? And, how can we use our skills as pastors and theologians to make a difference and to relieve human suffering?

Later, Bonhoeffer said that these experiences helped him to turn from the “phraseological to the real.” What was poignant about Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin is that he tried to find space at the university for this kind of transformative approach to theology and he was not able to do that for many reasons. That’s the vision of our Project on Lived Theology. It’s to create spaces within a major research university where scholars and theologians can work alongside each other and can turn the phraseological into the real.

ALSO NEW TODAY—Award-winning journalist William Tammeus writes a personal column about why he dedicated the time to report a book about Holocaust rescuers in Poland. Tammeus and his Jewish co-author are traveling to spread awareness of their book, as well.

Care to read more?

GET THE BOOK: Click on the book cover, above, to visit the book’s Amazon page.

READ MORE INSPIRING STORIES: ReadTheSpirit also hosts Interfaith Peacemakers, a growing archive of inspiring stories of men and women who often risked their lives on behalf of world peace.

MORE INTERFAITH HEROES: ReadTheSpirit Books publishes books by international peacemaker Daniel Buttry.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Bill Tammeus: Holocaust remembrance takes each of us

FROM ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM—We must not forget. We must act to prevent future genocide. We are, right now, the people called to these goals.

More than 50 years ago, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial opened in Israel and Raul Hilberg published his 1,400-page history, The Destruction of the European Jews. But, decades passed before Holocaust education became a standard part of history lessons in American public school and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993 in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, witnesses were vanishing by the thousands, which is why Claude Lanzmann spent a decade creating his vast documentary, Shoah, and Steven Spielberg followed with his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Many historians, journalists and other researchers also have contributed to this effort. Award-winning journalist Bill Tammeus and his co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a descendant of Polish rabbis, both call Kansas City, Missouri, their hometown. They decided to contribute to this important body of documentation with their book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

As these co-authors continue to share these stories across the U.S., ReadTheSpirit online magazine invited Bill Tammeus to write about their travels and their ongoing work.


In 2004, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I began work on, They Were Just People, we knew that in some ways the book would be timeless.

It proved to be exactly that from the time the University of Missouri Press published it in late 2009. Why? Because unlike books about—say, theological trends or how Pope Francis is affecting the Catholic Church—our book contains stories of what individuals went through to survive the Holocaust, and what each person went through is by now as complete a story as any can be.

The book, in essence, shines a light on a small part of the whole bitter Holocaust experience and, in doing that, seeks to honor both those who survived and those who helped them avoid Hitler’s machinery of murder.

So Jacques and I continue to give talks about the book, and we suspect we will do that for years to come.

One of our talks will happen the evening of Tuesday, August 5, 2014, at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. And we will dedicate that evening to Zygie Allweiss and his family. Zygie is a Detroit-area resident who survived with his brother Sol, now deceased, thanks to help from the Dudzik family, who provided places for the boys to hide on their Polish farm.

Eventually Zygie and Sol came to Detroit and ran service stations there for years.

We are at or near the final years of life for the last of the Holocaust survivors, even many of those who were just children at the time. Indeed, Zygie has had several health issues since I last visited him in 2011, when I came to Detroit for a conference. And several of the 20-some survivors whose stories we tell in our book have died since the book was published. So it was important that we started when we did to spend several years on research, interviewing (in the U.S. and in Poland) and writing. Had we waited much longer some of the stories would have been lost.

It is both an honor and a burden to have become in some ways the voice of the Holocaust survivors in our book—and others as the people in our book in turn represent many other survivors who made it through—because of people whom Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, names as “Righteous Among the Nations” or more informally: righteous gentiles.

If the post-Holocaust phrase “never again” is to have meaning, we must not forget the reality of the German regime’s plan to destroy Europe’s 9 million Jews (more than three million of whom lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II). Hitler’s “Final Solution” resulted in 6 million Jewish deaths, many of them in the six extermination camps that the Germans built in Poland.

And so it falls to people like Jacques and me, who are by trade simply story tellers—me as a journalist, Jacques as a rabbi who tells sacred stories—to make sure the world remembers.

And this is not simply an act of nostalgia. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, notes in his 2013 book, Resurgent Antisemitism, hatred of Jews around the globe is dangerously rising again for many reasons. Anti-Judaism (a theological position) and modern antisemitism (more a racial stance full of character stereotyping) have deep roots in world history. In fact, David Nirenberg, in his 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, traces this bigotry back to ancient Egypt.

In our book, we tell stories of people who for many reasons—a few of them seemingly irrational—stood against that deep tradition of antisemitism and anti-Judaism and risked their lives to save Jews in Poland.

There is, of course, no silver lining to the Holocaust, which at base is a story of death and death and death. But here and there people who found themselves in the midst of it spoke life and life and life into the face of that death. And part of Jacques’ and my responsibility today is to tell the story of such brave people and of the difference they made in the lives not just of individual Jews but also the history of flawed (but sometimes glorious) humanity.

ALSO NEW TODAY—If you appreciated this column, you’ll also want to read a new, in-depth interview with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biographer Charles Marsh about how Bonhoeffer so clearly saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before other European Christian leaders.


Order a copy of his book, They Were Just People, now through Amazon.

Bill Tammeus spent most of his career as a columnist for The Kansas City Star and he continues to write columns in his own website, now, called “Faith Matters.” To learn more about his long career in journalism, starting with his boyhood and spanning his career with The Star from 1970 to 2008, you will enjoy his new book-length memoir, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.

Bill also writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and The National Catholic Reporter. Contact him at [email protected].

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, author of Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City and founder of Brit Braja Worldwide Jewish Outreach, the world’s first virtual synagogue in Spanish. Contact him at [email protected].

This column is jointly published by Faith Matters and, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.

Review of Margarethe von Trotta’s ‘Hannah Arendt’


If you care about peacemaking and global justice, then you must be fascinated to find the fury rising once again around Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The impassioned voices either defending or denouncing Arendt are, once again, nearly as impassioned as when The New Yorker magazine first published her five-part series as “A Reporter at Large”  in 1963. Then, Viking collected the series into a book. Now published by Penguin, hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold.

A new film defending Arendt and casting her as a brilliant crusader—as a new kind of sophisticated, feminist thinker for a new era in world history—is making the rounds, now in a DVD edition by Zeitgeist. It’s called simply Hannah Arendt. The convergence of the 50th anniversary of her landmark, incendiary work of news-analysis—and this very compelling new film about her life—now places Arendt squarely in the cross hairs of people who were not even alive during the Holocaust. In reviewing this new film, I must point out that, at age 58, I was not alive during World War II, either.

These days, most Americans don’t even know her name. In preparing to review this film, I asked a number of well-read writers what they thought of Hannah Arendt and, generally, the response was: “Oh, the Eichmann writer.” While her book flooded the world, few people living today have actually read it. I’m one of her readers, because I make a brief reference to Arendt’s classic phrase, “the banality of evil,” in my own book, Our Lent: Things We Carry. I briefly discuss her argument in my own chapter on Pontius Pilate trying to wash his hands after condemning Jesus.

4 Things to Understand about Hannah Arendt

She came of age in a circle of brilliant thinkers: Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1906, Arendt’s life is a Zelig-like tale of connections with a wealth of towering intellectual figures emerging in that era before World War II. She became a philosopher and political theorist in a long series of books, dominated by Eichmann in Jerusalem. Until her death in 1975, her life revolved around the issues raised in that 1963 work. Her circle of friends is crucial to understanding the explosive worldwide debate that stormed—and continues to storm—around her work. Critics later argued that some of her friends may have been dark collaborators in her work; some of her friends came to her vigorous defense; some of her friends were transformed into relentless enemies by her work.

In the film: Of course, Margarette von Trotta’s film is a vigorous defense of Arendt’s life and work. The film does explore many of these complex friendships, generally depicting each relationship in ways that are sympathetic to Arendt’s memory. If you are reading this review and, already, you are realizing that this era of history is way beyond your own background—then you definitely will want to explore a bit of Arendt’s Wikipedia page before seeing the movie.

She was touched by the Holocaust: She fled the Nazis twice and was imprisoned for a time in a camp, although she was able to flee to America thanks to special visa. To this day, the question is hotly debated: How well did she understand the nature of the Shoah?

In the film: These two escapes are mentioned at several points in the film, but are not well explained for newcomers to this story. Again, read a bit of background on Arendt before you see it.

She went to Jerusalem to “cover” the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine: She attended some, but not all, of Eichmann’s trial. She was stunned by her first encounter with this major architect of the Holocaust (who had fled to Argentina, but was kidnapped by Israeli forces and was put on trial in Jerusalem). Watching him speak from his glass-walled corner of the courtroom, Arendt formulated her most important conclusion: In the 20th century industrial age, vast crimes against humanity could be organized into a series of actions fit for bureaucrats to maintain as a matter of ordinary business. Her “banality of evil” phrase was not excusing or defending Eichmann, but was pointing at a far deeper truth: In a technologically advanced world, huge crimes could be conceived and broken down into steps fit for bureaucrats. This remains her most important insight—and the point I briefly discuss in my own book.

In the film: We are given the impression that Arendt covered nearly all of the trial in person, either in the courtroom or in the journalists’ newsroom via closed-circuit TV into the courtroom. We also are shown how extensively she studied transcripts and other records. The film does not deal with the more recent criticism by historians that her attendance at the trial was just a handful of days she spent sampling the real action in the courtroom. In the film, she seems steeped in all of the trial records.

She seemed to be attacking the courage of the Jewish people, collectively: It is almost impossible to imagine the impact of her reporting on Jewish survivors little more than a decade after the Holocaust’s end—and on Israelis in a tiny, besieged nation still trying to establish itself. A key section in her reporting criticized officials in European Jewish councils during the Holocaust for cooperating with Nazi transports to the death camps. To this day, scholars continue to study this question and to rebuke Arendt’s implication that these Jewish leaders did not do enough to try to save their people.

In the film: This is one of the strong points in the movie. We come away from the film, on balance, thinking that Arendt was indeed far too arrogant in the section of her reporting that seemed to attack Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. In a number of scenes, we see how—by sheer force of her considerable personality—she convinced The New Yorker editors to publish that incendiary section (about 10 pages out of 300 pages). In the film, Arendt is allowed to defend herself on this point but we do come away regarding this point as part of the tragedy of her life. She truly was out of her depth in making some of these charges and she paid for that over-reaching in her book with death threats and criticism that haunted her final decade.

OUR RECOMMENDATION: If you care about the course of peacemaking and global justice, since World War II, you must know something about Hannah Arendt. This film is absolutely compelling: For a docu-drama about a sophisticated intellectual, you certainly won’t want to stir until it’s over. Critics who have slammed this film—and there are some—see it as a shameful defense of a woman they still regard as an evil figure on the world stage. Critics who praise this film—and I am among them—see it as a fascinating cinematic introduction into the most important point Arendt was trying to make: that the nature of evil in the world is changing dramatically in our modern era. In her view, we may need to look for the bureaucrats in ordinary-looking offices to unearth the true monsters in this new age.

As The Paris Review pointed out earlier this year, this point should not be missed or overshadowed in the midst of the related controversies about Arendt. Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.”

The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made the same point in his review, which praises the film for raising awareness of her life: “We may need her example more than ever. It’s probably too much to hope that Ms. von Trotta and her star, Barbara Sukowa, will do for Arendt what Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep did for Julia Child, but surely a fellow can dream.”

I urge you to see this film yourself; I urge you to see it with friends; I urge you to acquaint yourself with the life and work of Hannah Arendt. You will be a better peacemaker for the effort.


The New York Times Review of Books just published two commentaries on Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Watch filmmaker Claude Lanzmann: First, if you have read this far in the review, then you will want to know that Lanzmann’s most famous documentary on the Holocaust is now on sale for American viewers in Blu-ray as: Shoah (Criterion Collection). If you follow Holocaust studies, then you know his epic film has been hard to find for American viewing for many years. It’s expensive, but—again, if you are fascinated by this era or your work involves reflecting on the Holocaust for students or for readers—buy a copy of the Criterion Collection set right now. It may go out of print; other Criterion titles have. Then, continue to watch for news on Lanzmann, because he already is showing his latest production, The Last of the Unjust, a documentary that focuses on Theresienstadt and already is being described as a rebuke of Hannah Arendt.

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Review: Free Men, a Holocaust story you’ve never seen

Free Men

By ReadTheSpirit Editor
David Crumm

As a journalist covering religion and diversity, I’ve reported for many years on the rise of Holocaust awareness in popular media. The event that set off this wave was the debut of the 1978 TV melodrama The Holocaust with Meryl Streep. The subsequent explosion of public interest in capturing Holocaust memories on video eventually was championed by Steven Spielberg. Now there are more hours of Holocaust video, counting Spielberg’s vast library of Shoah Foundation videos, than a single person could watch in a lifetime.


At ReadTheSpirit, we’re always looking for that exceptional, unusual Holocaust resource that you’d likely miss without our help. We’re looking for accuracy. We’re looking for top-quality production. And we’re looking for compelling films and books that will hold an audience. All of those things are true of Ismael Ferroukhi’s gripping drama, Free Men, now available on DVD from Amazon thanks to the folks at Film Movement.


Since the release of Free Men last year, the film’s storyline has been controversial. For the most part, Muslim and Arab leaders across Africa and the Middle East during World War II were not helpful to Jews trying to avoid the Holocaust. Visit Yad Vashem in Israel and this point is driven home in the historical galleries about the Shoah. However, there were indeed some notable cases of Muslims risking their lives to save Jews—and one of the most poignant stories happened in the heart of Paris at the historic central mosque involving a world-class musician, Salim Halali.

Salim Halali, a one-man beacon of diversity

FROM THE MOVIE, FREE MEN: The film’s fictional main character, at left, talks with the singer Salim Halali to warn him about a new Nazi crackdown.If you’ve never heard of Salim Halali, you’re certainly not alone! Try to find him on Wikipedia or in any standard Holocaust history book and you’ll come away scratching your head. I know, because I tried after watching this impressive drama—and was on the verge of concluding that Halali was some kind of fictional figure. Then, I found quite a number of French-language websites and magazines that have profiled the famous musician. After using Google-Translate on these compiled clippings and comparing the facts—this true story emerges:

In 1920, Salim Halali was born into a Jewish family, originally from Souk Ahras, Algeria. In the 1930s, he was working mainly in France as a successful Arabic-language flamenco singer in Parisian nightclubs. He also toured Europe and North Africa, until the German occupation. As a Jew, he was at risk in Nazi sweeps of Paris, but the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, decided to save his life. The rector managed the mosque, but he also was a musician and scholar and loved Halali’s genre of Arab-Andalusian music. Under the rector’s direction, Halali was given forged papers and protected through an elaborate charade that included the creation of a headstone etched with the name of his father that was placed in the Muslim cemetery in Paris.

CLICK THE CD COVER TO VISIT ITS AMAZON PAGE.After the war, Halali founded the Oriental Folies Ismailia, a club that was the toast of Paris in the late 1940s. Later, he moved to Morocco and opened a club in Casablanca that drew rich and famous guests in the 1950s. Halali toured the world performing his distinctive genre for his fans. He retired in the 1990s and died in 2005.

Both the Halali character in the movie and the rector of the mosque look remarkably like the original historical figures. Vintage photos on some French-language websites confirm the visual accuracy of both men. What’s more? As it turns out—you still can order a CD collection of Halali’s melodies via Amazon and, among the offerings, I recommend the collection called: Jewish-Arab Song Treasures.

Verdict on accuracy in Free Men

First and foremost, the basic story about Halali, the rector of the Paris mosque and the elaborate deception is accurate. Beyond that, the film’s handsome young hero, shown on the cover of the DVD, is a fictional composite of Muslims who must have interacted with Halali and the rector during the Nazi crackdowns in Paris. That’s how filmmaker Ismael Ferroukhi describes the creation of his fictional “main character” and it makes sense—this is a suspenseful drama and this young French “everyman” can connect the dots between historical events. In addition, the filmmakers say that they have historical documentation about two little Jewish girls who the Muslim characters also try to save. Overall? This movie is far closer to the accurate history than a lot of movies supposedly “based on a true story,” these days. This verdict matches the conclusions of a lengthy story analyzing the movie in the Jewish Daily Forward by Benjamin Ivry.

Care to read more about this true story? It’s a chapter in the book Interfaith Heroes 2, which is available to read online.

Support culturally diverse cinema!

In the cut-throat competition to provide home access to feature films, major media companies are slashing their way to the cheapest forms of distribution. This also means that countless films with valuable stories are being lost to American viewers. Fewer and fewer feature-length DVDs are being released and sold, especially foreign-language films. We want to encourage distributors like Film Movement to keep doing what they do so well. Earlier this year, we recommended the superb Film Movement feature, Foreign Letters, about an Israeli girl and her Asian friend. You also may want to learn about Film Movement’s monthly DVD series for home viewing. Or, if you are a librarian or are interested in a group showing of Film Movement movies in your part of the country, click here to learn about Film Movements various options for “Non-theatrical Screenings.”

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Review: Permanent Revolution shows power of prints

FRF Film on Protest Printmaking
Has Deep Religious Roots


Click the DVD cover to visit its Amazon page.“Has a work of art ever stopped a bullet?” we are asked in the opening scenes of the fascinating documentary Art is… The Permanent Revolution, newly released on DVD by FRF (First Fun Features). Then, printmaker Sigmund Abeles poses his question another way: “Guernica is an incredible painting but did it stop a single bullet? I’m not sure.” In fact, this thought-provoking film isn’t about the entire range of the fine arts as the title suggests. Manfred Kirchheimer’s documentary focuses specifically on the last 500 years of print making as protest. While that may sound like a very narrow topic, the 82-minute film branches off into religious and spiritual themes at every turn.


Were you in the crowds who flocked to see the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition that has been touring the U.S. over the past year? The printmakers we meet in The Permanent Revolution open up new perspectives on Rembrandt’s vocation by paying more attention to his prints than to his finished paintings. It’s in the prints, these artists argue, that we see Rembrandt’s most dramatic attempts to turn other-wordly religious figures, such as Jesus and his mother Mary, into real human beings.


Are you part of the Protestant branch of Christianity? The film points out that the roots of contemporary protest prints extend all the way back to early Anabaptist religious propaganda about the tragic torture of their brothers and sisters by the powerful leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches. (Yes, early Protestants also went after the Anabaptists in a lethal way.) The image above is a typical 16th-century image of an Anabaptist being burned for her “heretical” beliefs as a witch. To this day, these centuries-old images are preserved and shared in Amish and Hutterite communities—among the contemporary descendants of the early Anabaptists.


Were you part of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement? One of the central figures in the film is Sigmund Abeles, still working many decades after he created the electrifying prints that were widely seen in anti-war protests in the late 1960s. His “Gifts of America” series of posters, which includes dark American helicopters raining death on Vietnamese villagers is one of the images discussed in the documentary.


Are you Jewish? Then you probably are well aware that protesting printmakers were in the thick of the turbulent social movements that culminated in the Nazi conquest in Europe. Among print-making artists, all lines seem to run through the Holocaust. Several examples of this are shown in the documentary. In our own ReadTheSpirit Book, Interfaith Heroes, Volume 1, readers find an inspiring profile of wood engraver Fritz Eichenberg, a Jewish artist who fled Nazi Germany and later became a major figure in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement in the U.S. In fact, I would argue that even this new documentary was born of the Holocaust. Producer-Director is Manfred Kirchheimer was born in 1931 in Germany and became a transplanted American as a child, when his family fled from the Nazis to safety in the U.S.

If you’re among the millions of Americans who now see the world through digital media—mainly through video these days—this documentary also works on a subversive level. The Permanent Revolution uses our favorite medium of video to turn our attention back to one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communication. Spend a little over an hour with the men and women in The Permanent Revolution, and I guarantee you’ll walk away with a fresh appreciation of black and white prints.

The film also is terrific for sparking small group discussion. But watch out, because this is potent material. The movie is as potent as the prints were when they first were pulled from the presses many decades—and in some cases centuries—ago.

Art is… The Permanent Revolution is available from Amazon.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Remembering Vidal Sassoon’s Jewish identity

Vidal Sasson was a “Hairdresser and Trendsetter,” the New York Times proclaimed. More than 1,500 news articles spread across the Web since his death on May 9 at age 84 of leukemia.

The Times reported, in part: For Mr. Sassoon, the cut was the thing—just about the only thing—and he fashioned his clients’ hair into geometric shapes and sharp angles to complement their facial bone structure. … (His hair designs) helped propel the youthful revolution in fashion—and just about everything else—that gripped London and then America and the rest of the world in the 1960s. “He changed the way everyone looked at hair,” Grace Coddington, the creative director of American Vogue, said in an interview. “Before Sassoon, it was all back-combing and lacquer; the whole thing was to make it high and artificial. Suddenly you could put your fingers through your hair!”

Here is all the Times had to say about his Judaism: As a youth, he joined a Jewish organization that battled in the streets with the Mosley-ites, anti-Semitic British fascists who were followers of Oswald Mosley. In 1948, he traveled to Israel and fought in the war for its independence.

Click the cover to visit Jewish Lights.THANKS TO THE PUBLISHERS AT JEWISH LIGHTS for sending us Sassoon’s personal note that appears in the book-length collection, I Am Jewish. In fact, his commitment to Judaism and to combatting anti-Semitism was consderable. He founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For the I Am Jewish book, Sassoon wrote:

I am Jewish, humble yet proud of a heritage that has dignified me even as others have tried to destroy my race. I was twenty years old in 1948 when the Palmach/Haganah accepted me as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. The experience changed the course of my life. I am a Jew who believes that, though small in numbers, we have a powerful moral influence on the world, and in the words of Hillel, “If not now, when?” Daniel knew when. It is imperative that we nurture a fidelity of commitment to purpose. What is that purpose? Not just to exist, but to continue to bring to this world actions noble in thought and deed, always in courage, remembering, we are our own final solution.

The excerpt is from I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2005 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. You can find out more about the book by visiting Jewish Lights.

This story published at, a journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Two new DVDs on tragic (and not so tragic) childhood

Actors portray Hana and George Brady, living in Czechoslovakia, as their family was caught up in the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. Image courtesy of Menemsha Films.HOLOCAUST LESSONS FOR AND ABOUT CHILDREN

Menemsha Films, which earlier brought us the delightful Nora’s Will, has released a remarkable DVD that is both a celebration of the endurance of Jewish hope for religious freedom—and a stirring reminder of fresh connections we can make even 70 years after WWII.

What makes Hana Brady’s story so remarkable in its reach is that this true story circles the globe: Hana’s life story—nearly extinguished in the gas and flames of Auschwitz—winds up connecting children at a Holocaust educational center in Japan with the lives of the Brady family, who were devastated in the Shoah and later scattered to North America.

Most importantly, this is a pitch-perfect choice to use with children in educational programs about World War II, the Holocaust—or in classes with general themes on war, peace, remembrance and reconciliation.

In fact, the core of this story involves a diverse circle of school children who narrate much of the movie. The Japanese group that began this global quest is dubbed The Small Wings. These were children who wanted to find a project that they and their teacher could undertake to help the world remember the Holocaust and the horrors of World War II. Along the way, a woman who is a Hiroshima survivor comes and helps at the educational center. Anyone familiar with educational efforts on these complex issues will be pleased to hear that the Hiroshima survivor also gives a pitch-perfect description to the children of the major differences between the horrors of nuclear bombing and the Shoah. Clearly, someone with great experience in teaching these lessons had a strong hand behind the writing and final editing of this documentary.

THE BASIC STORY: A real-life Japanese school teacher, who appears throughout the film, sparked this entire story by gathering artifacts for a Holocaust educational center she was developing along with a group of girls and boys called The Small Wings. After applying to receive Holocaust artifacts, a large box arrives with a handful of artifacts, including a battered brown suitcase labeled with Hana Brady’s name. The teacher and her students begin searching for the story behind the suitcase. What they discover will surprise you. They wind up unlocking—and showing us in the film—a whole series of deeply moving memories and other related artifacts and photos. Finally, Hana’s surviving brother George travels to Japan to meet the Japanese students. Eventually, books about Hana—and now this documentary—circle the world to help children learn the real cost of unchecked horrors against humanity like the Shoah.

PURCHASE THE DVD FROM AMAZON: Inside Hana’s Suitcase: The Remarkable True Story Comes to Life is available for ordering now from Amazon.

VISIT MENEMSHA WEBSITE: There’s a Study Guide under the Downloads link in the left margin. Plus, more information on the documentary and Hana’s brother.


Now for something quite different, but also concerning the ironies, wounds, adventures and potentially inspiring memories flowing from childhood: Daddy Longlegs, released on Dec. 13 by Zeitgeist KimStim, is based on the true childhood experiences of independent filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie.

The best way to envision this movie is to imagine Cosmo Kramer from the hit comedy series Seinfeld suddenly finding that he will become the full-time caretaker of his two small sons for a two-week period each year. Of course, Kramer never was married and never had children in the Seinfeld series, but Ronald Bronstein (who plays the father in Daddy Longlegs) could easily be Kramer’s long-lost brother. Like Kramer, Bronstein’s “Lenny” is tall with a long, funny, deeply lined face and an uncontrollable shock of hair on top. Like Kramer, Lenny is full of wild schemes that should produce a happy life—and often backfire in the gritty streets and high rises of New York City.

For anyone who is a fan of Seinfeld, and “gets” that style of wild-and-inventive urban humor, then Daddy Longlegs is a sometimes-amusing and sometimes-moving look at what a real-life Seinfeld world would do to children. You’ll laugh. You’ll worry. You’ll cry. Lenny is far less funny than Kramer when two “real” kids’ lives hang in the balance!

Nevertheless, for anyone who went through a traumatic childhood with a truly out-of-control parent, this can be a healing film. Especially watching the “extras” with the adult Safdie brothers working on the production of this movie, one realizes that—for all the weirdness their father showered down around them—they loved this always-down-on-his-luck Dad. Even in the film’s final scenes, you won’t know whether to be angry, to shed a tear or to smile in delight. Perhaps all three responses are appropriate as the final credits roll—and that’s the mark of great filmmaking.

PURCHASE THE DVD FROM AMAZON: Daddy Longlegs will be released on Dec. 13 by Zeitgeist KimStim, but is available for pre-order now.


We just published reviews of 3 new-to-DVD and Blu-ray movies that are perfect for holiday gift giving.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.