Sunday, April 7, marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. This solemn day is commemorated annually by Jews around the world, recalling that from June 1941 until the end of the Second World War in Europe in May 1945, one-third of the world’s Jewish population perished in a systematic campaign of annihilation. But instead of acknowledging the impact of this mammoth horror on why most Jews support Israel as a Jewish state, many critics and opponents of Israel today denigrate this connection, with some even denying or downplaying the reality or magnitude of the Holocaust.
Surprisingly, much about this history remains to be learned. A recent NY Times article tells us that researchers have discovered evidence of “42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe,” rather than 7,000 sites thought previously to comprise this world of enslavement and genocide.
In another few years there will be virtually no living witnesses. “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Schindler’s List” are iconic portrayals, but many more dramas transpired as well. It shouldn’t surprise us that literary and cinematic remembrances still proliferate.
The life and death of a 26 year-old artist, Charlotte Salomon, reminds us of Anne Frank. Although not a diarist, Salomon documented her family background in Germany and her life as a refugee in vivid color paintings (known as gouaches), framed with bits of narration akin to a graphic novel, presented as if an illustrated script for an opera representing her life, replete with stage directions and musical suggestions. (Her stepmother had been an opera singer.) Real-life characters are given different names, and some plot elements may have been invented, but the basic narrative of “Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music“ encapsulates Salomon’s life. Opinions differ as to whether she had a romance with her stepmother’s voice coach, as her work suggests, or if an infatuated young woman let her imagination take flight.
And just as there are by now thousands of survivors and descendants of people saved by Oskar Schindler, there are a similarly large number of Jews who owe their lives to the ingenuity and heroism of Walter Suskind. But this Jewish Schindler, his wife and young daughter all perished.
I’ve encountered Salomon’s story before, but Suskind was entirely new to me. I was moved to write about both after seeing films about them in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival. After viewing the Dutch-language feature movie, “Süskind,” I looked online to check on its historical accuracy and came upon the American documentary produced in 2005, “Secret Courage – The Walter Suskind Story,” which I watched at home as a DVD. I gained additional insight via email and phone contact with one of its co-directors, Tim Morse. At the Jewish Film Festival in January, I also saw the Dutch documentary on Salomon, “Life? Or Theatre?“
Salomon and Suskind both fled Germany in the 1930s. Like Anne Frank, Suskind was at home in Amsterdam.
On the eve of World War II, Salomon joined her elderly grandparents in the south of France, where — as with Suskind and Frank in the Netherlands — she found only a temporary refuge before Nazi aggression engulfed them. Since Salomon’s father and stepmother managed to survive the war in hiding in Holland, where both lived out their long lives, the Dutch laid claim to her legacy much as they had with Anne Frank. The Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam became the repository of Salomon’s considerable oeuvre as an artist (1300 works).
It’s not by accident that Dutch filmmakers would portray both Suskind and Salomon onscreen, although none of these works seem to be catching on commercially in this country. But I’m wondering if — 68 years on — “Holocaust fatigue” is setting in, perhaps reinforced by a certain weariness regarding “Jewish dramas” in general, because of the seemingly endless succession of world crises directly or indirectly related to Israel.
Click here to read a more complete piece that I’ve just written on these fascinating lives, tragically cut short by the greatest mass crime in modern history.