Black Book: A Review
This past Wednesday at Holy Blossom Temple, one of the best of the Holocaust historians, Michael Marrus, gave a superb lecture as part of Holocaust Education Week. His thesis was straightforward. The evidence was overwhelming to support the proposition that the Holocaust did not end with the conclusion of WWII. The sources of evidence he offered were quite varied and often complex.
Michael did not put forth the thesis that anti-Semitism, which had such a vicious expression in the Nazi murder of six million Jews, gradually morphed into a new alleged form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism and the disproportionate attacks against the Jewish State of Israel. Rather, Michael took up the historian’s argument that the Holocaust continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. As he began his lecture, there could be no focus on the Holocaust immediately after the end of WWII itself because neither the international community, nor the lands where those Jews were slaughtered, nor the Jews themselves, had any way to specifically identify what had happened to the Jews. The word “Holocaust” took a much longer time to settle into our language.
As Michael documented, for the USSR, the Jews who died sacrificed themselves in the fight against fascism. French Jews died for the greater glory of de Gaulle’s mythological re-creation and vision of France. There was then no discussion of the degree of collaboration, though many collaborators and alleged collaborators were dealt with swiftly and cruelly after the war. Nor did those creating the new myth of a France reborn from the resistance ever pay much attention to the fact that an estimated 15% of Frenchmen on average over the years were active or ideological collaborators, that almost 85% percent were standbys, that is, servile, reluctant collaborationists, who stayed out of the fray. Only perhaps .1% actually participated in the resistance. All of these figures fluctuated over the course of the war and shifted with its fortunes.
In Holland (a long time supporter of Israel), it is worthy of note, and of great relevance to the movie I will be reviewing, that one of the highest if not the highest proportion of the 140-150,000 native-born Dutch Jews and approximately 35,000 former German Jews were sent to concentration camps from Holland than from any other country in Europe. An estimated 75% died in the Holocaust. At the same time, Holland had fewer rescuers recognized as righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem than Poland, in spite of the number of killings and even pogroms in Poland in the immediate aftermath of the war. This discrepancy could be explained because the population of Poland was much larger than that of the Netherlands. [I expect Michael Marrus to correct me if these estimates are way off the mark.] More importantly, for the purpose of Michael’s lecture, the death of the millions of Jews was almost always made part of a larger story of valour and sacrifice. In the popular imagination, Jews were not killed because they were Jews. They were killed and were martyrs for a variety of different mythologies.
The overall numbers of Jews killed constituted a significant number, but still only a small number of the overall death toll from the war. In terms of survivors, the surviving Jews, the 200,000, were an even much smaller percentage. Besides, in a devastated Europe after the war, few had time to think about the death of the Jews, including the Jews themselves. Virtually everyone was focused on survival.
After the talk, a survivor came up to me and discussed her experience after the war, effectively confirming Michael’s thesis. Though she tended to stress the disinterest of the gentiles in what had happened to the Jews, I reminded her that I myself was preoccupied with other matters and had not paid much attention to the Holocaust from 1945 to 1960. In university as an undergraduate, the plight and flight of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Suez War, the fear of strontium 90 and the atomic arms race, were at the forefront of my mind. It was not until the Eichmann trial in the early sixties that the Holocaust come to the forefront of my concerns.
In 1960, my family with a newborn baby (Jeremy, now a renowned historian at Princeton University), took possession of a rented house at 586 Spadina Avenue; we rented the upper two floors to effectively reduce our rent while I was a graduate student. The landlord was moving to Montreal. It turned out he was a Holocaust survivor. He belonged to the small minority of Jews who survived the Holocaust when it reached Hungary in the final year of the war, though tens of thousands of Jews had died in Horthy’s forced labour camps before the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. Only then did the wholesale deportation of most of Hungary’s 800,000 remaining Jews begin.
Our landlord was not just a survivor. He had compiled a book documenting what happened to memorialize the Hungarian Jews who had died in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It was called The Black Book. It had been self-published. As a condition of the rental of the house, I had agreed to make an effort to find libraries and individuals to purchase the over thousand copies he had stored in his basement. Though I am sure I did not try nearly as hard as he did, to the extent that I did, I found very few takers for the books, though I took a copy and read it. Was I appalled at what I read? Not really. It certainly made me weep, but my main reaction is that he could have used a good editor.
I only make this point to reinforce Michael’s thesis that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WW II. It continued, not only with the physical persecution of returnees, with the resistance to giving up property to those few survivors, but in the second visitation of the Holocaust, the initial disappearance of the slaughtered Jews from memory and from history in the immediate aftermath of the war.
This is important. For in restoring the Holocaust to memory, and doing so in such a pronounced way, unfortunately a new heroic mythology replaced the previous repression. One dominant theme was that the gentile nations helped bring Israel into existence because of their guilt over the Holocaust, or, at least, over their guilt about the death of the six million whose slaughter still had no-name. Michael cited the Harrison Commission Report after the war. Harrison and his team visited devastated Europe and looked at the situation of the Jewish survivors after the war. In Michael’s recounting, as a result of the Harrison Report, the Jewish survivors were brought together into one camp under the auspices of the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), treated much better and given a great deal of self-government within the camps.
I recalled another side of the Harrison Report. The reason the Jews were still in camps after the war is that no one wanted the remnants of the Jews of Europe. By 1947, the 200,000 Jewish refugees soon became a bone of contention between the United States, a country that wanted to settle them in Palestine, and Britain which did not. When I read the Report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP), the minutes of its meetings and the diaries and memoirs of its members who participated in the Committee that would recommend the partition of Palestine, what stood out for me was that there was not one mention of the Holocaust or of the six million who died. The focus was on what to do with the 200,000 refugees that countries were still unwilling to resettle.
The belief that Israel was created because of guilt and as a recompense for the Holocaust, a myth shared by many if not most Jews, is just that – a myth. It is has no basis in historical fact. It is a myth perpetuated in many Holocaust films, perhaps most notably in the most famous one of them all, Schindler’s List. The film ends with the refugees leaving Europe as the wretched of the earth and reappearing coming over a hillside, healthy and alive in a reborn Israel that has arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
Last night we watched a movie on Netflix that by chance was called Black Book, Zwartboek, not The Black Book. I had not caught the title of the movie before we began to watch it, though I noticed it had been co-authored (with Gerard Soeteman) and directed by the Dutch-Hollywood filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven on 2006. I recognized his name, but my shrinking brain could not at that time recall the names of the films he had directed. (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) Further, it did not help that the selection of the film to watch yesterday evening was a matter of complete happenstance and was totally unrelated to Michael’s lecture earlier in the week and my discussion after the lecture. It was only after we finished watching the film that I learned that the title was Black Book.
As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven is my age, actually six months younger. He lived in The Hague during the war while I lived safely in Toronto. But though shaped by very different experiences, we have a number of personal historical factors in common. For example, we both switched careers at an early age – he went from a PhD in mathematics to filmmaking while I went from medical school into philosophy. He is mesmerized by religion, particularly Jesus. He even flirted for a short time with evangelical Christianity. But we are very different in our tastes – like my youngest children, but unlike me, he thinks Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the greatest thing since the invention of the bagel. Ignoring these differences, and some other coincidental similarities, quite aside from the radical differences in our experiences and expressions, I truly believe I can get inside Verhoeven’s head and see what he wanted to portray in the movie.
The movie is a classic Hollywood film in that the narrative pushes and, indeed, rushes the film forward, even though the mechanics of the plot are quite complex. But it is also a movie about character, about virtue and vice and the difficulty in distinguishing the two. Unlike a typical Hollywood narrative film, this one is rich in irony. Further, the film was inspired by real historical characters.
A kibbutz in Israel provides the frame of the film. It begins when a busload of tourists to a kibbutz in Israel disgorges a redhead and her Canadian pastor husband. Suddenly the visiting tourist recognizes the teacher in the kibbutz, Rachel Rosenthal, née Stein. As a spy for the Dutch Resistance, she infiltrated Nazi headquarters, under the assumed name, Ellis de Vries. The two women had been together in occupied Holland at the end of the war. We learn during the film that both had become intimate with the Nazis, but for very different reasons.
At the end of the film, we see the other half of the frame, which I will not give away. But one part I will describe. The movie ends, not only in revealing a key piece of information about the kibbutz that had been withheld from viewers, but it is clear that we are suddenly at the beginning of the start of a new war, the Suez War, and the message of eternal recurrence rather than a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the old is unequivocally broadcast.
The movie is at once a war action flic, a spy movie, a film about magic and deception and a detective whodunnit to discover who was behind one trap after another for the Resistance, even discovering that each disaster had been a trap. The movie is even akin to the serials we saw in Saturday matinees as children, often about a damsel in distress rescued by a hero when the heroine is tied down on the tracks as a locomotive approaches, along the lines of The Perils of Pauline from the silent film era. And the situation keeps recurring in different guises. After all, this film is not just a fictional narrative, it is pulp fiction, but a pulp fictional representation of reality with a very serious theme. The movie offers a profound exploration of morals and atrocities in Holland in the final year of the war and its immediate aftermath. As it happens, the most horrific scenes in the movie take place after Holland has been liberated by the Canadians. And the most painful moments come just before those scatological scenes, before liberation, when the anti-Semitism on the part of the Resistance is portrayed.
The final scenes are adumbrated when a farmer is hiding the main heroine, the Jewish Rachel Stein girl, alias Ellis de Vries, played brilliantly by Carice van Houten (to my grandson, Eitan, in Israel – yes, this is the same actress who plays Melisandre of Asshai in your favourite series, Game of Thrones). The farmer asks Rachel to say the Christian benediction for the dinner they are about to eat which she had just memorized. Rachel says it flawlessly and, in my mind, I commended the farmer for helping her develop her gentile disguise as a hidden Jew. But suddenly the farmer remonstrates her and insists that the Jews would not be in such trouble if they had followed their saviour, Jesus.
This coming Friday, I believe I will be writing about Rachel as I wrote about Rebekah this past Friday. Rachel married Jacob to become the mother of Israel. I believe the naming in the film is no coincidence. At the same time, Rachel is a universal character, echoing those lines in The Merchant of Venice. But instead of her eyes and her mouth being in common with non-Jewish women, it is her breast and her hips.
That scene, and the scene of the Resistance just before Liberation, reminded me of the role of Dr. N. S. Blom, the Dutch delegate on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Holland is generally lauded by Israel for its strong support of Israel after the war. Except Blom was one of two delegates on the Commission required to follow the dictates of the Dutch foreign office. (The other was the Australian delegate, John Hood.) Blom had strict instructions to abstain or vote against partition lest his vote alienate the Arab vote which Holland needed to support its colonial position in Indonesia. (Blom was an ex-senior Dutch foreign service officer who had served in Indonesia.)
By luck, only weeks after, the peace negotiations between the Dutch government and the Indonesian rebels seeking independence led by Sukarno broke down in July of 1947, Subsequently, there was an impasse between the Dutch and the Indonesians over independence. The Arab High Committee voted to lend its support to Sukarno for independence. Only then, just two weeks before the partition recommendation, was Blom freed up from the instruction to abstain and allowed to cast a vote supporting partition. The Dutch, as it turned out, had another, a darker side to their heroic support for Israel.
That is one of the best elements in the film, the upturning of myths about the Resistance, including the one in his own 1977 heroic war epic, Soldier of Orange. Unlike that movie, The Black Book thrives on ambiguities and displacement, the magical inversions in which the best are revealed as among the worst and the worst emerge as virtuous souls, the cerebral underpinning made all the richer by the pulp realistic portrayal of death, of bodily functions and of the body itself. The film is not so ambiguous that it frees itself from the stereotypical vulgar Nazi war murderer, portrayed as Günther Franken as the deputy Gestapo chief, the Obergruppenführer, and a stereotypical villain in spite of Verhoeven’s insistence that all his characters are neither just good or bad. In fact, the ambiguity about Franken is that he is not just a crazy killer and a loutish pursuer of the female flesh, but that he is a thief and a crook to finance his life and planned escape after the end of the war, incidentally a far worse evil for Hitler’s regime than the cold-blooded killing of Jews and resistance fighters.
The film was justifiably voted as the best Dutch film ever and won numerous awards and three Golden Calves from the Dutch Film Academy. Many critics are bothered by the numerous coincidences that propel the plot – such as Rachel Stein as Ellis de Vries who first meets the head of the Gestapo, commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), accidentally on a train, a meeting which saves her from her Nazi pursuers. Coincidences do not bother me, any more than the coincidence of my discussing The Black Book on Hungarian Jewry lost in the Holocaust and then watching Black Book unintentionally three evenings later. Coincidences are only a problem when they are improbable. And it was not improbable that Rachel would seek a haven and flash her smile at a German officer sitting alone in a train compartment in the search for an escape. Further, the series of coincidences are congruent with one dominant theme in the movie, the issue of moral contingency.
I have not really said much about the plot – it is such a plot-driven film that I do not want to spoil it, or the musical score and the cinematography and editing, but they all mesh together beautifully.
So don’t let anyone tell you that this is just a soapy melodrama. Watch the film if you have not already seen it.